Simone Signoret titled her autobiography Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be, drawing upon the original quote by Peter de Vries. Under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s onslaught on every existing article of faith, from dietary habits to the right to life of minorities, some Indians have located their political faith in nostalgia. The cosmopolitanism of Jawaharlal Nehru, the asceticism of Mohandas Gandhi, the pragmatism of Indira Gandhi, and even the romanticism of the 1960s Hindi movies have been summoned. Ironically, even the BJP appears nostalgic when it harks back to ideas of state-led development, scientific temper and the space programme, and of austerity in the face of schemes such as demonetisation. Indians in the first flush of Independence were willing to tighten their belts and listen to what they were told to do in the national interest. We are now called upon to be patriotic, nationalist, obedient, decent, and Hindu.

However, amidst this general warm nostalgia for times past and the good days of yore, presented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the good days to come, any historian worth their salt has to ask whether the past indeed was a different country. Did the rot set in somewhere down the line, or did we start with our feet mired in a swamp? Given the communal riots of 1946 and the carnage of the Partition that attended the birth of the nation, did we like Macbeth just say, “I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

It is said that as people grow older, the run-up to their birthday causes them greater anxiety. We stand on the 70th birthday of the Indian republic, and the government is suggesting rock shows in parks and tanks in universities, and other diverting measures. As a liberal historian, with the disquiet building up in my heart, I thought of the bedrock of our democracy, the Constitution. As debate rages over the reach of Aadhaar, the biometric-based 12-digit unique identification number, the government is insisting on an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, that is, the founders never envisaged the right to privacy.

The Constitution appears both protean and procrustean, depending on where you stand, and what you think is worth saving. So, I turned to the Constitution, as some turn to their rosaries, and flipped the pages, I must admit, with nostalgia. This was the illustrated edition with ivory white pages, edged with decorative curlicues, in copperplate calligraphy done in gold, with each chapter headed by an illustration. A document much suited to epiphany.

Rights of man

The Constituent Assembly met for the first time in Delhi on December 9, 1946, and its last session was held on January 24, 1950. Nehru demanded much of the document in the making: “The first task of this Assembly is to free India through a new constitution, to feed the starving people, and to clothe the naked masses, and to give every Indian the fullest opportunity to develop himself according to his capacity.”

When it was finally adopted in 1950, Nandalal Bose and his students and colleagues at Santiniketan were commissioned to provide illustrations to the Constitution, condensing in images, the spirit of freedom, equality and fraternity. The images were to be drawn from history, reflecting the discovery (and at times, invention) of India. The list of illustrations is diverse, from the Mohenjodaro seal to Vedic ashrams, scenes from Buddha and Mahavira’s life to portraits of Akbar, Shivaji and Tipu Sultan – 24 illustrations in all. The chronology ran from Mohenjodaro through Vedic, Epic, Mahajanapada, Maurya, Gupta, Muslim and British eras to the freedom struggle and the revolutionary movement (Subhas Chandra Bose, not Bhagat Singh).

The Constitution's chapter on Fundamental Rights is headed by a scene from the Ramayana depicting the conquest of Lanka and Sita's 'recovery' by Rama.
The Constitution's chapter on Fundamental Rights is headed by a scene from the Ramayana depicting the conquest of Lanka and Sita's 'recovery' by Rama.

The chapter on Fundamental Rights is headed by a “Scene from the Ramayana (Conquest of Lanka and recovery of Sita by Rama)”. This is, to say the least, curious. Who is exercising their fundamental right here, certainly not the hapless citizens of Lanka or the headless, and dead, monarch of that island? Could it be Sita? But what right could she be possibly asserting as she is repossessed? In the quote, the agency is that of Rama who has recovered Sita, who rightfully belongs to him, though he is going to see this as a dubious privilege down the line. The word “recovery” is resonant here and brings in a particular history that cast its shadow over the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly as much as the birth of the nation. In 1948, Rameshwari Nehru wrote an article on the “important question of recovery of abducted girls” from the Dominions of India and Pakistan and ended with the disheartened assessment that only 14,094 women had been recovered.

In the turmoil of the Partition and the mass migration and forced removal of people between the two nascent nations, women had borne the brunt of violence related to honour, revenge and lust. Urvashi Butalia and Veena Das have written poignantly about how women came to be seen as the repositories of honour within the community, and of how men killed their sisters, daughters and wives rather than having them fall into the hands of hordes from another religion. Those that survived one vicious patriarchy fell victim to another, as they were abducted and carried across borders, converted and, in many cases, entered into familial arrangements with their abductors. For the Indian nation in the making, Hindu women had to be brought back, to be recovered from the New Lanka, willingly or otherwise. As Das writes, the woman’s body became proxy for territory. The Constituent Assembly, the popular press and nationalist men argued themselves hoarse over the fundamental right of the Hindu man over the Hindu woman so wrongly abducted by the Muslim tyrant. What rang through these discussions was the outrage of a Hindu mind that dared speak its name.

“In my beginning is my end,” the poet TS Eliot once said. Nostalgia cannot be what it used to be.