On Republic Day each year, as India celebrates the anniversary on which its Constitution came into effect in 1950, newspapers invariably carry articles about the artwork created for the document by Nandalal Bose and his students at Santiniketan.

In recent years, there have been attempts to establish “a link between the text, values and spirit of the Constitution and the themes of the border artwork in the original copies of the document”, legal researcher Shreyas Narla noted. “The themes of the paintings, especially the mythological ones, are claimed as historical fact, simply because they were drawn in the Constitution.”

That is something that Ghazala Jamil, who is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, warns against.

In this interview with Shatavisha Mustafi, Jamil, the author of Accumulation by Segregation, Muslim Women Speak, discusses the Constitution, the follies of reading unintended meaning into the border illustrations and how constitutionalism should be the only state policy for nation-building in a country as diverse as India.

Culture policies in India have evolved with time. Does the shift in the attitude of the state towards culture reflect what kind of society we aim to be?

It is debatable whether a shift in the state culture policy necessarily indicates the direction towards which the citizens wish to move as far as their cultural development or expression is concerned. In a democracy, it can be argued that the state policy is a reflection of the will of the majority. Defined by a first-past-the-post electoral contest as India’s democracy is, the “majority” in power may not be a true majority in absolute numbers. I am repeating a cliché, but it bears repeating because of its truth.

In a diverse country like India there will always be a diversity of opinion on a culture policy that is a best-fit. While the political formation in power at a time may change, there are also some continuities. The foremost, in my opinion, has been a tacit recognition in culture policy in post-colonial India that it is far more efficient and easier to manufacture consent than to coerce it. So, our culture policy has always been tinged with tokenism or benign neglect, which has clouded representation, preservation and promotion of the cultures of the marginalised.

A tolerant majoritarianism, with its attendant claims or demands of cultural superiority, primordial belonging and paternalistic assimilations, has prevailed. The current dismay over the shift in policy neglects to recognise that it is this delicate balance of cunning and accommodation that has been shaken.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation buildings lit up in the colours of the national flag on the eve of Republic Day in Mumbai. Credit: PTI

Culture and politics play a significant role in the formation and functioning of a nation. In that context, how do you interpret the act of commissioning an illustrated Constitution of India?

While reading the Constituent Assembly debates, it is clear that the members were keenly aware of the historical importance of the task they were engaged in. The technical enormity and complexity of the task was heightened by the cultural anxieties of members who were striving to represent sectional interests but also wanted a Constitution that they could own as much as any other interest group.

Eventually, this need or compulsion to fully own the document must have smoothened the process of making compromises reluctantly or sacrificing their own interests willingly. It is this document that not only made them free individually, but the act of giving themselves a state meant giving consent to becoming one nation – a cultural community.

The text of the document delineated what this national culture might look like. The main architects of this nation-formation were all too aware of the flaws of the edifice, but the post-colonial state as the territorial and political entity was already born and there was nothing else to do but to go forward.

This document, it appears to me, was not really conceptualised as an artefact. Its importance lay in what it could do for the citizens of free India and what these citizens, in turn, could do with it. The text was debated and deliberated upon by the members of the Constituent Assembly and the drafting committee. It was read by the Constituent Assembly and fine-tuned three times before it was considered final.

Throughout this process, the consideration was the performative quality of the text – what it said and what it could do. It, therefore, seems odd that the so-called illustrated Constitution of India was commissioned. I am using “so-called” because what was commissioned was an illumination of the document and not an illustration.

In my opinion, it is of utmost importance to maintain this distinction to underline the true intent of those who commissioned the artwork. In art, “illuminating a manuscript” clearly indicates a particular form. Here, we must take it to mean that the commissioned artwork was always meant only as embellishment and decoration, and not as a visual representation of the meaning of the text.

This should partially allay the anxieties that historians who have attempted to read some connection between the possible meanings of the artwork with the Constitutional text. Their enterprise has, at best, been just a political manoeuvre to read liberal, progressive constitutional values behind the illustrations to counter majoritarian claims. Art historians have made similar attempts but have accepted that such a reading may be squeezed out from some panels but it does not go too far.

As a social scientist, rather than piece together some connection between the artwork and the constitutional text, what is more interesting for me more is to understand the story of how the original document of the Constitution of India was produced as an artefact and what happened to it subsequently.

So far, as I have been able to gather from secondary sources, it is not entirely established whose idea it was to produce the Constitution of India as an illuminated manuscript and why. There is reason to believe that [Jawaharlal] Nehru himself asked [artist] Nandalal Bose to take up this commission. A source indicates that it was [Speaker of the Constituent Assembly] GV Mavalankar’s idea, which is also plausible since he was the driving force behind commissioning the murals and statues for decorating the Parliament building.

Considering that the Nehru government did not do much to popularise or mass produce the illuminated version can mean two things: either that the final product perhaps did not match the expectation of Nehru or whoever had commissioned it, or that it had always been a whimsical idea and no one had thought about putting the embellished artefact to any further purpose except as a keepsake.

The Survey of India published only 1,000 copies from the original (English) version in its first print run of which only a few hundred are known to survive. Some have turned up at international auctions fetching high value because they have become rare collector’s artefacts. My institution, the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, has a copy from a later print run. The Hindi translation of the Constitution was also illuminated by Nandlal Bose and the team but not much is known about it.

The history of India can boast of several noted women whose contribution elevated the society at large. But when we talk of representation, the presence of only two women in the illustration comes as a shock and absolutely unjustified.

There are several women welcoming and bowing down to Gandhi in the Noakhali panel [relating to the communal riots of 1946]. But the judgment that fewer women is “unjustified” is a reaction to the work of art of another time when this was the norm. If I were to draw your attention to women’s representation in the Constituent Assembly, you would see how the visual representation pans out.

Jawaharlal Nehru signing the Constitution of India on January 24, 1950, in New Delhi. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If I were to go further and tell you about the ideas these same women members of the Constituent Assembly had about women’s reservation in Parliament and public employment, it would be even more shocking for the sensibilities of the later generations of women. For that generation of women, their rejection of the special protection for women was meant to be an act of sacrifice for the project of nation-building and a lesson for those groups who wanted reservations to safeguard the interests of their communities.

In this light, I would caution against reading too many hidden messages in the illumination of the constitutional manuscript as lessons for our present times. Even reading the visual depiction as a factual documentation of the dominant or prevailing narratives of the time can give rise to problems.

For someone who cannot read, these images represent the Constitution. Therefore, the purpose of these illustrations is not just ornamental. When discussing the illustrations, the stark contrast in representation is noticed where one particular community is prioritised over the other.

Whether a citizen is literate or not, the Constitution of India is experienced not as a long document but in engagement – in fulfilment of its promises for welfare and rights, or in its inefficiencies resulting in the denial of protection from the excesses or violence. [Lawyer and historian] Rohit De’s work shows this brilliantly but this experience is palpable for most people in India.

As I said earlier, I would not read too much into the visual representation. A majoritarian reading of the visuals is certainly possible. It has been offered by ministers in the government and, at least in one important instance, by lawyers in court. In this instance, it was argued and accepted that these artworks render the Hindu pantheon a historical fact, and this in turn allows the religious belief of the petitioners to be used as a rationale to deprive the defendant of their statutory rights. But we must resist a blatant majoritarian reading of the artwork.

Chairman of the drafting committee BR Ambedkar presenting the final draft of the Indian Constitution to Dr Rajendra Prasad on November 25, 1949. Credit: CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I have to say that my own reaction to the artwork was that it was rather unremarkable aesthetically and fails badly at being ornamental. The entire production process and its end result is not impressive aesthetically to someone who has seen other Indian manuscripts illuminated with vibrant colours and gold, intricate miniatures and exquisite, ornate borders.

In connection with the point I made at the beginning about tokenism, I must confess that I thought Mughal emperor Akbar appears, as expected, but Tipu Sultan was a surprise to me in that scheme of things. That apart, I would also like to qualify or nuance the critique that the visual representation leans towards privileging the majority community.

Why do you think that this particular manuscript with illustrations never gained as much popularity when compared to the text?

Even among the Dalit communities, where there is reverential iconisation of the figure of [BR] Ambedkar and the Constitution of India together, the document itself is not fetishised but engaged with. Whether illuminated or not has not even been a question. It has to be noted that the attempts to perform majoritarian readings of the images and using them to replace or invert the constitutional values by the present dispensation has partially brought more attention to the artwork.

I have already proposed a theory of why they did not gain popularity until now – because the images have nothing to do with the constitutional text in the first place.

Going forward, I would say that the Constitution of India has, in the last 60 years, given rise to a constitutional culture that is marked by contestations, compromises, even contradictions. It has worked, by and large, because engagement was a possibility. It allows for the dignity of the last person, even if always only as a prospect. The struggle for dignity in the constitutional framework gives the oppressed and marginalised a pretence of dignity.

If at all we read some deeper meaning into the visuals, it should be that any nation is a narrative of complex contestations. Aggressive, cultural nationalism cannot provide resources for a conducive constitutionalism, which might be the only culture around which any state policy can hope to undertake nation-building in such diverse and deeply divided societies as in India.

This interview was carried out as part of UNESCO-Sahapedia fellowship to the author.