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A short story about the Indian Constitution

On the centenary of his birth, Oishik Sircar recalls Saadat Hasan Manto's famous story about Ustad Mangu's faith in a new constitution. Does it offer us today a reality check on the gap between our Constitution's promise of emancipation and the reality of violence that it performs?

Saadat Hasan Manto

The fiction of constitutionalism

This is an opportune time to remember Saadat Hasan Manto -- that inimitably brilliant and incorrigibly delightful Urdu short story writer (born in India) who, before his death in Pakistan in 1955, wrote an epitaph for himself which read: 'Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short story writing. Under tonnes of earth he lies, wondering if he is a greater short story writer than god.' For me, remembering Manto at times such as these is not just to commemorate his 100th birthday, which fell on May 11, or to keep alive the horrors of Partition that he masterfully chronicled, but also to recognise the prophetic power of his writings that might indeed put to shame the religious bunkum of all gods in one stroke.

I had intermittently read Manto (in English translation) over several years since my high school days. His writings on Partition (Toba Tek Singh/Thanda Gosht/Mishtake) and on sexuality (Bu) have been my most favourite. He was prophetic, provocative and political. However, it was two years ago that he made a 'with-a-bang' re-entry into my ethical consciousness.

This happened soon after the alleged extrajudicial killing of CPI (Maoist) spokesperson Cherukuri Rajkumar, also known as Comrade Azad, on July 1, 2010, less than two months after Manto's 98th birthday. Journalist Hemchadra Pandey was 'encountered' at the same spot with Azad in Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh. In January 2011, the Supreme Court of India made a surprisingly sensitive assertion. "We cannot allow the republic killing its own children", said a bench of Justices Aftab Alam and R M Lodha, while issuing notices to the Centre and the Andhra Pradesh government on a petition filed by social activist Swami Agnivesh and Pandey's wife Babita seeking a judicial probe into the killings. The bench added: "We hope there will be an answer. There will be a good and convincing answer." The answer came on May 2, 2012, two weeks before Manto's 100th birthday.

On July 19, 2010, around three weeks after his killing, Outlook magazine, posthumously published Azad's so-called last work, written in response to an article by veteran journalist B G Verghese. In this piece, Azad rubbishes Verghese's celebratory belief in India's constitutional democracy -- a belief that I also try to hold on to, albeit contentiously. Verghese wrote: "The Maoists will fade away, democratic India and the Constitution will prevail, despite the time it takes and the pain involved." In response Azad wrote: "In which part of India is the Constitution prevailing, Mr Verghese? In Dantewada, Bijapur, Kanker, Narayanpur, Rajnandgaon? In Jharkhand, Orissa? In Lalgarh, Jangalmahal? In the Kashmir valley? Manipur? Where was your Constitution hiding for 25 long years after thousands of Sikhs where massacred? When thousands of Muslims were decimated? When lakhs of peasants are compelled to commit suicide? When thousands of people are murdered by state-sponsored Salwa Judum gangs? When adivasi women are gangraped? When people are simply abducted by uniformed goons? Your Constitution is a piece of paper that does not even have the value of toilet paper for the vast majority of the Indian people."

Those were subversive words and a direct indictment of the Constitution as a document that only serves the greed of the privileged. In just one paragraph, Azad angrily captured the pathetic sham that the Constitution might just be for most of India's poor and disenfranchised people. Along with the seething anger that is so apparent in Azad's piece, what was screaming at me through those words was a reminder of Manto's chilling humour. It is this contradictory finesse of Manto's work that took me back to a short story by him called Naya Qanoon (in translation, either 'The New Law' or 'The New Constitution'). The tickling humour in this piece is profoundly disturbing, yet brings an uncomfortable smile to your face. Its texture is very different from Azad's piece and is marked by a naïveté that is very unsettling for our manicured urban, modernised sensibilities. Simply put, the short story makes a fool out of each of us, and holds up a mirror to our apathy as a polity; an apathy which itself might have turned our Constitution into a paper one.

Ustad Mangu's faith and fate

Mangu the tongawala is the protagonist in Manto's short story Naya Qanoon (1). The story is set in 1935, in Lahore.

Because of his ability to wax eloquent on anything under the sun, Mangu was endearingly given the salutary title of 'Ustad'by his fellow tongawalas. Ustad Mangu hated the British. Once after getting into an argument with a drunken gora ('white man') who was abusing him, he told one of his friends:

"I am sick and tired of these offshoots of monkeys… Every time I look at their blighted faces, my blood begins to boil in my veins. We need a new law to get rid of these people. Only that can revive us…"

Ustad Mangu's faith in the imaginary power of the law to end colonial oppression found strength when he heard two of his passengers talking about the Government of India Act, 1935(precursor to the Constitution of India) to be passed on April 1, which was only a few days away. The news about the new Constitution sent Ustad Mangu to seventh heaven -- he just could not control his excitement and wanted to get back to his tonga stand as soon as possible and share it with his friends:

He was very happy. A delightful cool settled over his heart when he thought of how the new Constitution would send these white mice (he always called them by that name) scurrying back into their holes for all times to come.

As April 1 approached, he overheard good and bad things about the new Constitution from his passengers, but his belief in its transformative potential remained unshaken:

The new Constitution… appeared to him to be something bright and full of promise. The only thing he could compare the new Constitution with was the splendid brass and gilt fittings he had purchased after careful examination a couple of years ago… When the fittings were new, the nickel-headed nails would shimmer and where brass had been worked into the fittings it shone like gold. On the basis of that analogy… it was essential that the new Constitution should shine and glow.

On April 1, Ustad Mangu woke up early and took his tonga out for business with a thrill. He decorated his horse's head with a new plume to celebrate the birth of the new Constitution. He tried to spot newness in everything he saw. However, except for the new plume made of colourful feathers, everything looked old. He was not disappointed and told himself that as the day progressed things would look different.

Sometime later, he heard someone call out to him. He turned around to find that it was the same gora he had once had an argument with. A feeling of intense hatred grew in his heart, and he wanted to go away without responding to the call. But he controlled his anger and turned his tonga around -- he did not want to miss the fare, and he had no reason to fear the British on April 1. He stopped the tonga, gave the gora a defiant look, and quoted five rupees for the trip. The sharp tone of his voice was strengthened by the promise of liberation that the new Constitution would usher in. Without intending to get into a confrontation with Ustad Mangu, the gora raised his cane and instructed him to move so that he could board the tonga. In this gesture, the cane touched Mangu's thigh a few times. In response, Mangu landed a powerful blow on the gora's chin. The gora was taken by utter surprise but could not do anything to save himself. Mangu kept at his blows and screamed:
"The same cockiness even on April 1! Well, sonny boy, it is our Raj now!" A crowd gathered and he declared to them: "Those days are gone, friends, when they ruled the roost. There is a new Constitution now, fellows, a new Constitution."

Two policemen emerged from the crowd, rescued the gora, and took Ustad Mangu away to the police station. The closing lines of the story are telling:

All along the way, and even inside the station, he kept screaming, "New Constitution, new Constitution!" but nobody paid any attention to him. "New Constitution, new constitution! What rubbish are you talking? It's the same old Constitution." And he was locked up.

Ustad Mangu's faith and fate is, in short, the story of our Constitution. It's a spectacular document that creates a blind spot between the imagination of emancipation that the Constitution promises and the reality of violence that it performs. Faith in the Constitution emerges from two sources: one is the lived experience of knowing that the Constitution delivers justice; the other is the perception of the Constitution as justice. It's foolish to disparage the Constitution. That would be both an exercise in futility, given the hope that people's struggles rest in the Constitution, and intellectually dishonest, given my own contingent belief in the ability of the Constitution to at least deliver a semblance of justice. However, what Manto sets up is a pithy challenge to the spectacularisation of constitutionalism -- rule of law, development, democracy -- as the panacea not only for injustice, but also for an end to the so-called unreasonable demands of 'unruly' populations like the Maoists, the non-violent protestors at Koondankulam, or at Nonadanga. It powerfully keeps alive the state's monopoly over violence -- one that is now buttressed by a sophisticated state/market/military nexus.

A violent Constitution?

The Emergency was justified by the Supreme Court using the spectacular power of the Constitution through a majority judgment in the landmark case ADM Jabalpur vs Shivkant Shukla that allowed the state to suspend fundamental rights, including the right to life, at will. To recognise this scandal, in 2009, former Chief Justice of India M N Venkatachalliah said at a public lecture that the majority decision in ADM Jabalpur should be consigned to the "dustbin of history". So much so that in January 2011, a bench of Justices Aftab Alam and A K Ganguly said that the ADM Jabalpur decision was "erroneous".

Even though the judiciary tried to undo this historical blunder by introducing the marvels of judicial activism and public interest litigation -- the Supreme Court has time and again upheld the constitutionality of draconian special security statutes like the Terrorist Activities and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and has found no substantive due process anomaly with these laws. The illustrious history of human rights jurisprudence coming out of our Constitution did not stop former Supreme Court judge Arijit Pasayat from saying at a public event in 2009 that terrorists are animals and thus not deserving of human rights -- in effect lending legitimacy to the extrajudicial killings and torture permitted under these laws to ostensibly protect national security. Similarly, the celebratory spectacle of Article 21 (right to life and liberty) and its creative interpretations takes our attention away from mounting a critique of Article 22, which, as Upendra Baxi says, legitimises "preventive detention based on a jurisdiction of suspicion… as a just order of exception to the precious fundamental rights to life and liberty".

Ustad Mangu's comparison of the new Constitution to the glittering nickel and brass fittings on his tonga that would shine and glow was the spectacularised image of what the new law promised to deliver. His unshakeable belief was the anaesthetisation of any understanding that the Government of India Act, 1935 was actually a colonial ploy. Without a bill of rights that guaranteed rights to colonised subjects or that provided limited self-government to Indians at the local and provincial levels, the new Constitution allowed the British government to take back total control if the need arose. But the impact of anaesthesia did not last long, and bolstered by the imagined strength of the new law, Ustad Mangu exercised a corporeal act of rebellion. The consequence was incarceration and a banal reminder that, despite the new Constitution, nothing had changed.

Same old Constitution

How do we resurrect the remnants of any revolutionary potential with which the Constitution was framed? The near impossibility of this is apparent in the following poem called Right by Naxal poet Cherabandaraju:

I will not stop cutting down trees
though there's life in them.
I will not stop plucking out leaves
though they make nature beautiful.
I will not stop hacking off branches
though they are the hands of a tree.
Because --
I need a hut.

Our constitutional rights vocabulary is woefully inadequate in responding to this deeply unsettling paradox. I, for one, would unflinchingly support Cherabandaraju's claim over the claim of a mining company which can orate this poem with far greater amplification by just changing the last line ("…because -- we need a factory") and then going on to wax eloquent about how that factory will help people build concrete houses, hospitals, and schools. Huts -- they are primitive! Prototypes of them can adorn exotic resorts that are built by cutting down trees in forests, destroying beaches, defacing hills, and displacing people. 'Real' huts, and the real people who inhabit them, should become extinct.

That nothing has changed despite a 63-year-old Constitution -- the world's longest written document -- is a sobering reality. The Constitution's spectacularity is kept alive contingently by moments of hilarious hope -- much like Ustad Mangu's narrative -- that the Supreme Court spouts. Following up on its demand that there should be a good and convincing answer from the state to the alleged extrajudicial killing of Azad and Pandey, on May 3, 2012, the court dismissed the petition seeking a judicial probe into the killings, stating that there was no reason to disbelieve the CBI's investigation. We all know too well the CBI's investigative neutrality. Post this order, Azad and Pandey have not been 'encountered', or so we should believe.

Another moment of hope was the Supreme Court's July 2011 judgment that ordered that the vigilante civilian group Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh be disbanded, and declared that it was unconstitutional on the part of the state of Chhattisgarh to carry out, in the name of fighting Maoism, armed operations that resulted in grave violations of human rights of poor adivasis.

Most of us on the left end of the ideological spectrum hailed the judgment, and we celebrated the achievement of those who fought the legal battle and of those who have bravely resisted the state's violence in Chhattisgarh and other places in India where the mining industry has devastated the lives and livelihoods of poor indigenous populations. This was a classic instance of the Constitution's triumph. In November 2011, the Chhattisgarh government declared that it had complied with the Supreme Court judgment and disbanded the Salwa Judum.

On January 26, 2012, India's Republic Day was celebrated, marking the anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of India. On the same day, the President honoured Ankit Garg, a police officer from Chhattisgarh, with a gallantry medal for his relentless fight against left-wing extremism in the state. Ankit Garg has been accused of torturing and sexually abusing in custody Soni Sori, a tribal schoolteacher from Dantewada, for allegedly having Maoist links. Sori has alleged that Garg watched as junior police personnel stripped her naked, administered electric shocks, and assaulted her. According to her lawyers, a medical examination found two stones in Sori's genital tract and another in her rectum. On May 9, 2012, despite a Supreme Court directive, Sori was denied admission to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, for treatment, and was taken away by the police to an undisclosed location.

New Constitution, new Constitution… What are we talking about? It is the same old Constitution. Thank you Manto, for the reality check -- you are a soothsayer extraordinaire, definitely better than god.

(Oishik Sircar is a human rights lawyer and independent researcher)

1 All references to Manto's 'The New Constitution' is from Saadat Hasan Manto, Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto (Khalid Hasan, ed and tr), New Delhi: Penguin (2008), p 206

Infochange News & Features, May 2012