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Preserving ‘fraternity’ — the key to holding together the nation’s rich diversity

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In the intricate mosaic that is India, fraternity stands as the linchpin holding together the nation’s rich diversity. This isn’t just a constitutional buzzword, it’s the pulse of our collective identity, binding us despite our myriad differences. From languages to religions, our unity in diversity finds its anchor in the concept of fraternity embedded in the Constitution.

Over the years, as India has navigated her journey post Independence, this shared sense of brotherhood has been the adhesive that has weathered societal storms. However, contemporary times see a challenging narrative emerge, with strong voices questioning the very essence of fraternity. It is with this in mind that Rajmohan Gandhi’s book Fraternity: Constitutional Norm and Human Need takes us through the history of a broken, rampage-stricken India who slowly built herself on the foundations of equality and togetherness. And it is this very fabric that now seems to be slipping away. This book aims to lay bare ‘in simple accessible language’ the values of the Indian Constitution and all that it stands for. As the author says, “Whether expressed openly or not, the urge to coerce, diminish or even demonise some sections of the population is now palpable within India and beyond. Hence this little book.”

My Kolkata shares an extract from the book:

Each time we look at it, the Preamble to our Constitution seems to say something fresh to us:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;

And to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do

HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION.

As far as fraternity is concerned, we may mark right away that the Preamble highlights its connection first to the citizen’s dignity, and next, immediately thereafter in fact, to the nation’s unity and integrity. In the precise words of a short half-sentence, the Preamble underscores fraternity’s significance to us and our fellow citizens as independent, self- respecting individuals—and, simultaneously, as interdependent citizens who respect one another, strengthen one another, and fortify the nation.

This half sentence is a powerful illumination, in fact a brilliant and unforgettable illumination, of fraternity. The pages that follow will dwell further on fraternity’s meaning to us as Indians, on why and how it entered our Preamble, on how it entered the world’s politics and laws, and on other aspects of fraternity. But at this outset it is necessary to recognise the world’s limitations.

The biggest weakness has to do with the word’s maleness. If fraternity is to be privileged, isn’t half of humanity being excluded right away? Doesn’t fraternity assault equality? This is not just a twenty-first-century question. Even in the eighteenth century, when liberte, egalite et fraternite first resounded in their country, French women protested at their seeming exclusion.

To this question there are two answers, neither of them entirely satisfactory. One is that the apparent maleness here is merely superficial. What the word summons, and what it has broadly been understood to summon, in India and elsewhere, is the regard that human beings without exception deserve from one another. Thus, a common chant of India’s freedom movement, Hindu–Muslim Bhai-Bhai, was widely assumed to include Behen-Behen and Behen- Bhai.

The other answer is that alternative single-word expressions for the intended warmth are yet to acquire widespread acceptance.

Goodwill, friendship, empathy, solidarity, harmony, compassion, respect and bonding are wonderful words each of them, each in a different way, and there are other similar expressions, but perhaps none will be widely accepted today as a superior substitute for fraternity. The Hindi/ Hindustani words bandhuta, maitri and dosti also possess profound strength, but not all in India speak Hindi.

Moreover, whatever word we use in conversation with fellow citizens as an alternative to fraternity, the fact remains that the Preamble has chiselled that particular word into our minds, including the minds of Supreme Court judges. Thus, rejecting a petition for a commission for renaming all roads and places bearing the names of ‘foreign invaders’, Justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna pronounced as follows on 27 February 2023:

‘The golden principle of fraternity is of the greatest importance and rightfully finds its place in the Preamble. It means that harmony alone will lead to the togetherness of the country.’

While conceding freely that fraternity is an imperfect word, we can also recognise, apart from its wide usage, that what it connotes is an essential quality. When using the word, and recognising that the Preamble uses it, we can focus not on its alphabet, but on its historical and widely accepted broader meaning—in the world and especially in India.

Irrespective of gender, caste, religion, language, ethnicity, blood, region or whatever else, all Indians belong to one another. Or should. We are kin to one another, related to one another. We feel, or ought to feel, one another’s joys and one another’s pain. That’s a fraternity.

As was revealed by the two stories with which we began, imbibing and preserving fraternity will remain a challenge. On 25 November 1949, the day before our Constitution was finally and formally passed, here is what Dr Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly:

What does fraternity mean? Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians — of Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life… Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.

To read more, pre-order the book here!