(Published in Business Standard on January 26, 2013)
Every Republic Day is an opportunity for us to contemplate, amid the frankly show-offy roar of our newest fighter aircraft, some of the foundational beliefs of this country. Like that Republic Day must be a dry day. The founders of our great nation reasoned that if they could find a way to take the joy out of a day off, they had no excuse not to. So, while America celebrates the Fourth of July with as much beer as it is humanly possible to consume, India celebrates Republic Day (and Independence Day and Gandhi Jayanti and all the other good one-off holidays) with as much beer as it is humanly possible to consume, bought the day before, because we are not idiots.
Another foundational belief is that while we all love the motorcycle-borne daredevils, we must not ask too very much of the endless procession of floats that crawl along the grand avenues of the beating heart of the Republic. They aren’t supposed to be creative and exciting. Their only task is to nourish the soul of India with patriotic goodness. Each of those floats might be boring as oatmeal, but it’s loaded with moral fibre. Watch and learn, kids!
Of course I’m joking. (Except about the dry day stuff. I’m serious about that.)
Here’s my point: I’d have thought that Republic Day would be all about the fact that we are a Republic—a grouping of equals, investing power in our elected representatives. You know those post-election swearing-in scenes at Rashtrapati Bhawan? They’re swearing allegiance to the Constitution. Their whole purpose is to uphold and protect it. We have an eye-poppingly, dazzlingly, mind-bogglingly excellent Constitution. The writers of it were democratic, erudite, compassionate, and remarkably literate, if you forgive them all the legalese. It’s not perfect—particularly with regard to the role of anyone who isn’t a straight man—but it’s very good, and constantly being improved. It’s the most important book in the country. Patriotism is, in fact, loyalty to the Constitution.
Yet, the puzzling thing is that there’s no sign of the blessed thing at the Republic Day parade in Delhi. This must be one of the most spectacular parades in the world, and I love the camel-mounted force, I do, and I have a weakness for uniforms, I do, and I’m all for honouring our soldiers and their families, I am, but wouldn’t it be useful to remind ourselves what they keep dying for? Shouldn’t Republic Day be all about the foundational ideas that make up India?
Forget January 26, the Constitution is supposed to be the oatmeal of daily life. Most of us haven’t read it, aren’t aware of our rights and responsibilities, and have only the faintest sense of what its contents are. When every year, around the time of the Jaipur Literature Festival, various interest groups turn viciously upon the Festival, threatening unspecified grief if so-and-so writer or reader isn’t silenced or run out of town, and the government and the police cave in, they are effectively throwing the Constitution into the toilet, and thereby being unpatriotic. How about suing them on that score?
So here’s my idea for this Republic Day: let’s all make it our business to read the Constitution. I don’t mean ‘get a lawyer friend to give us the highlights’—I mean read the whole thing. Ourselves. And then maybe get explanations if we need them. It’s online, you know, right next to Facebook. Yes, it’s long, and yes, it’s complex.
But hey, we have the whole day off. And lots of beer.