Nation-building is a process beyond partisan reinterpretations or reimaginations. It involves, above all, pursuing the timeless idea of the nation. In democracies, that idea is formally embedded in the Constitution. Amendments are effected only to further the underlying aspirations.

This process is nurtured by all political dispensations, even though they have varied beliefs. They engage in a healthy fight among themselves about who can deliver that idea most effectively.

All political parties broadly agree on the nation’s evolutionary journey and its imagined history. The past is constant. The dark or unsavoury bits of history (which are inherent in any nation’s history) are played down to retain a nobler sovereign narrative. For example, the curriculum of Great Britain has minimal talk of the excesses of colonialism while the United States downplays its racist past.

It is not that these countries deny their complicated pasts. Instead, they chose to foreground the positive elements of history – for example, traditions of democracy, free speech, liberality and secularity.

In insecure or sliding democracies, however, all elements of such permanency can be challenged to rewrite history that essentially supports a partisan narrative. This is done by peddling the darker corners of history or through sheer falsehoods – either way, reflecting a smallness of spirit. This approach undermines the lofty spirit espoused by the consequential constitution.

India’s Constitution is the conscience definer of the nation and its lodestar for governance. It is amended only to improve that hallowed spirit. The succinct 63-word Preamble is the backbone of the Constitution, selectively embellished with some words and – importantly – not with some others.

There is a wholesome sense of collectivity at the start of the text itself: “We, the people of India….” It does not allude to any ideology, markers of personal identity or elements of religiosity. Instead, it has constructed with words that amplify its democratic spirit: as equality, liberty, justice and fraternity.

The telling addition in 1976 of the words “secular”, “socialist” and “integrity of the nation” only strengthened its foundational idea of India as just, equitable and egalitarian, without questioning or diminishing its fundamental moorings.

Government of India, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How have other mature democracies agreed on their imagined narratives?

In the United States of America, irrespective of the changing Republican and Democrat dispensations, the “American Dream” is predicated on maximising human freedom, human dignity and human potential. Five specific elements of the sovereign aspiration are encapsulated in the First Amendment: freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, religious liberty and right to redress grievances.

In Great Britain, hallowed British values such as fair play, tolerance and decency are emphasised and are held up by the country’s political parties, be they the Conservatives or Labour. British multi-culturalism is manifest in the chance to succeed in life, immaterial of postcode, gender or skin colour. The consensus on understanding the British Dream (though not as sharply defined as the American Dream) is still seamless – though tensions abound on the preferred method of achieving it .

Similarly, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen de 1789) embodies the values and conceptions of individual liberty and democracy beyond partisan claims of Left or Right. Some French intellectuals even bemoan consensual and indistinguishable aspirations (for example, neoliberal pensée unique, which means “single thought”) that are ideologically less different, and only concerned with how they intend to handle the future.

In mature democracies, with the foundational narrative and aspirations more or less agreed upon, the means of delivering these is all that matters and is passionately argued about.

The burial of the past public discourse (out of a combination of guilt, convenience or even towards facilitating the healing of society by moving on) is an important choice. As legal theorist Thomas Macaulay noted, “Is it not perfectly clear that, if antiquated claims are to be set up against recent treaties and long possession, the world can never be at peace for a day? The laws of all nations have wisely established a time of limitation, after which titles, however illegitimate in their origin, cannot be questioned.”

As he notes, it is essential to avoid getting caught up in the traps of the dark past’ and therefore to attempt to “correct” history. It is more important to draw the right lessons and move forward while focusing about the present and the future. This does not justify “appeasement”? Instead, it involves ensuring equality for all in an environment where faith is a personal matter, not a sovereign one.

Germany is a fine example of reckoning, responsibly owning and internalising its unpleasant past, but still choosing not to be defined, consumed, or fixated by it to such an extent that it could jeopardise the German future. In the last national elections in 2021 before the Ukraine war, the main electoral issues were the roadmap to greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045, the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, debt management and the country’s position on the European Union. The past was the past – not disowned, not forgotten, but just not relived unnecessarily.

Remembering vs reimagining

It is a sign of danger for a nation when the past is vigorously reimagined and actively reconstructed –not in the corrective way of remembering someone who had undeservingly been left out in popular imagination, but by the petty act of dishonouring and vilifying those who until now had been glorified.

It is a slippery slope, marked by places and programmes being renamed. It comes alive in subtle dogwhistling, providing succor to extremists. It thrives with the act of daily “othering”. In such times everyone from the revered “father of the nation” to the Constitution itself, is raucously questioned.

But the surest sign of backsliding is when the challenges of the past galvanise, enthrall and blind a nation’s people to the more serious concerns of the future. Is India facing signs of revisionism or is the popular discourse essentially about the future? Are we proudly asserting our constitutional instincts of inclusivity and secularity, or are we showing signs of majoritarianism by indulging in “othering”? Is the dominant language demonstrating the constitutional spirit of “We, the people of India….” or is it increasingly in the template of “us-versus-them”?

These are hard questions that the citizens must introspect about. Are we being overwhelmed by sophists who say one thing but act completely to the detriment of their declarations?

India must honestly and maturely own its ancient past of glories and indignity, in equal measure, but then choose wisely with those that aid and bind the “Idea of India”. It cannot allow the cherry-picked parts of the dark “past” to become the rallying cry for the future.

A 5,000-year-old civilisation that prides itself as being the “world’s largest democracy” certainly deserves better – and that means, making better choices for the future, and even better choices about remembering the past.

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.