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Review: Fraternity - Constitutional Norm and Human Need


We live in an epoch when the words “secular” and “socialist” were deleted from the preamble in copies of the Indian constitution presented to parliamentarians upon the opening of the new parliament. Editor of the Ideas of the Indian Constitution series, activist, writer and former civil servant, Harsh Mander, and publisher Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger have embarked upon a vital project to make accessible the key ideas of India’s remarkable constitution in readable, crisp, and critically-insightful volumes authored by some of our leading intellectuals. At a time when “one nation, one language, one religion” is the clarion call from many corridors, historian and former member of the Rajya Sabha, Rajmohan Gandhi, also the grandson of the father of the nation, MK Gandhi, and the country’s last governor general, C Rajagopalachari, has presented us with a lucid companion on the rarely emphasised virtue and concept of fraternity enshrined by the preamble of our constitution. The volume is not a simple elucidation of fraternity but a questioning narrative that outlines the limits and scopes of this “brotherhood”, which was and can be a prime glue to weld our unity in diversity.

In his introduction, Mander illuminates the gains in translation made by Hindi translators of the constitution with regards to the word “fraternity”. Fraternity has been a contested concept since its first French Revolution formulation. The use of the Sanskrit-derived “bandhuta”, Mander tells us, incorporates both the sense of being bound to the other as well as an ideology of friendship, with bandhu meaning friend. This can be compared to the recent evocation of the Bantu word Ubuntu by the South African republic at the International Court of Justice, “I exist because you are”. The fact that the Indian republic, from the start, gave the same voting and citizenship rights to all its (adult) citizens irrespective of caste, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender already expanded on a narrow fraternity.

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Rajmohan Gandhi’s expertise, long experience, and insight are evident over six succinct chapters, where, in a precise manner, he gives us the history, positive values, and also a critique of fraternity. He shows its evolution through the French Revolution, which enshrined the motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, the birth of the American constitution and past slavery through the American civil war. In India, he gives us a historic account of fraternity across religion and in democracy. He then interrogates the place of fraternity in the Indian constitution by specifically focussing on BR Ambedkar and MK Gandhi and their dialectic efforts to expand the fold of fraternity to include people of India across all castes. The gains as well as the limits of fraternity are laid bare and debated. Gandhi saw all Indians, (even all humans) as his blood brothers, transcending untouchability. Ambedkar advocated for fraternity, and later friendship or maitri as the means to end caste. In chapter five, Rajmohan Gandhi postulates the value in fraternising with neighbours, at home as well as on our international borders. The recent deterioration of neighbourly relations is lamented and critiqued.

The final chapter asks its eponymous question, “Will that day come?” He quotes from Harsh Mander to point to two similar yet

different train incidents from 2017 in India and America. In the US, two men lost their lives while trying to ward off a white racist’s knife attack on two black girls. In India, a Muslim boy Junaid was killed on a train and his companions grievously hurt during a prolonged Islamophobic encounter when no one came to their rescue. In fact, in another gruesome incident in 2023, the CRPF officer, Chetan Singh, after killing his senior officer, sought out and killed three Muslims in a hate crime. R Gandhi points to the increasing loss of “neighbourliness”, of fellowship and fraternity with fellow Indians here, but also gives examples of “the power of radical, fearless love” such as Hindu upper caste Mohan Dixit apologising to a group of Muslims harassed by a policeman for simply being Muslim. R Gandhi seems to suggest that, despite its recent exclusions, there is hope yet for our society to be more inclusive.

He reminds us that Ambedkar said: “Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.” We must begin with fraternity to move past exclusions to an equal society with liberty for its individuals. This short companion to fraternity is the perfect place to begin to strive to make equality and liberty the personal and political reality of Indian society.

Maaz Bin Bilal is an author and translator and teaches at Jindal Global University.