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How The Constitution Saved Us From The Holy Books

26/01/2016 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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An Indian man prepares to fold an Indian flag being made at a factory ahead of Independence Day in Ahmadabad, India, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. India celebrates its Independence Day on August 15. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

While I am not fond of the concept of religion (despite being a "believer"), I don't underrate its importance to society: millions of people owe an intimate sense of purpose and peace to the religions they follow. Indeed some of the places which have given me the most inspiration or provided me the profoundest of "inner pleasures" have been places of worship. But then religion, much like a welfare scheme of the government -- conceived wisely at the top with fairly laudatory intentions -- gets messed up by the time it reaches the masses. What ought to be a personal relationship between an individual and their god is gleefully hijacked by unscrupulous mediators, with the "holy book" being a common instrument of such exploitative mediation.

I shudder to think of living in a nation where the government follows inflexible holy books and the highly flexible whims and fancies of their interpreters.

Whenever I think of holy books, I am reminded of the Harry Potter line that warns us not to "trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain." This is all the more important for holy books as they actually "think for others" (their followers). Besides, apart from mythological and miracle-related claims, we cannot point to the exact "brain" which conceived them (except that it was most certainly male). People have great faith in their sacred books and indeed that faith must be respected -- but only as long as the books, which might very well dictate voluntary individual conduct, are not forced upon an entire nation of millions of different individuals.

The makers of our Constitution were doubtless convinced of the importance of staying away from any form or type of religion. It is tragic that many of us have lately resorted to deriding this concept of secularism, which is also not helped by the fact that political parties and organisations habitually twist it for noxious purposes.

Nevertheless, despite these hiccoughs, despite the tumultuous decades after 26 January 1950, despite our neighbouring countries getting more and more theocratic, and despite the occasional violent calls for theocracy from within India itself, we have never let go of our Constitution (we regularly let it down, but that's a different story).

Republic Day is all about celebrating this steadfast commitment of ours, as the world's most diverse nation, to a common Constitution. It is about honouring and appreciating how we have constantly, and successfully, repelled all external and internal pressures to make India a nation that follows the dogmas of a religion.

Religious books claim superiority and perfection and strive for a kind of frozen permanence; the Constitution... claims to be imperfect and strives for dynamism...

One huge reason we should be happy about it is that the Constitution, as against religious scriptures, does not run the risk of being interpreted in hugely different ways by different individuals. If we consider India's major religions, Hinduism and Islam, there exist several examples of certain followers justifying violence as "duty" using random verses from scriptures, and others countering that these are "misinterpretations". While parts of the Constitution too are interpreted differently by experts, those differences are never so gigantic. More importantly, words like "kill" and "destroy", so common in most holy books, are conspicuously absent from our Constitution: never does the Constitution ask citizens to get violent.

While no principle applies as perfectly to human society as "change is the only constant", religions and holy books are notoriously rigid: it takes hundreds of years to reform some aspect of a religion, as history has shown us. I shudder to think of living in a nation where the government follows inflexible holy books and the highly flexible whims and fancies of their interpreters. Religious books by default claim superiority and perfection and strive for a kind of frozen permanence; the Constitution, on the other hand, claims to be imperfect and strives for dynamism (a "living document" as many like to call it). More importantly, no religion inherently encourages modifying its tenets however unjust or violent they are. The Constitution of India, on the other hand, has been amended about 100 times in the last 66 years. The makers were fully aware of the changing needs of a changing society and world order, which is why they allowed (even encouraged) people to criticise the Constitution and request modifications. You cannot do that with any religion, at least in India, without getting hurt or killed.

Just like the air, [the Constitution] is very susceptible to getting polluted... This Republic Day let us take a solemn vow never to let that happen.

The most significant (and least appreciated) way in which the Constitution affects our lives positively, almost every day, is through the guarantees of equality and freedom it has gifted us all. A woman driving a car, a girl dancing in a movie, young men and women going abroad for study or work, lovers hugging each other at a station -- these are just some snippets of a good, ordinary Indian life which might never have existed if religion had dominated our civic and criminal systems. India is the poster child of the "ban culture", and it is a harrowing mental exercise to think of all the mindless prohibitions that would crop up if our lawmakers and administrators were given a holy book, not the Constitution, to get inspiration from (something they of course still often do). Interestingly the Constitution, because it upholds secularism, gives all citizens extensive rights under "freedom of religion"; a religious state would, to think of it, put random restrictions even on people belonging to the "sanctioned" religion (especially women and disadvantaged communities), let alone those of other faiths or atheists.

As kids we are taught about a unique quality of air: how despite being invisible and impalpable, it completely sustains our existence. Similarly, the Constitution pervades every aspect of our life even if we don't realise it: it totally sustains our civic existence. And just like the air, it too is very susceptible to getting polluted (through the seeping in of toxic words and phrases). This Republic Day -- and on the ones after this -- let us take a solemn vow never to let that happen. Let us work together to keep the Constitution of India clean, at all times.

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