Mumbai: The culture of people converging at a ‘katta’ for a casual catch-up, often leading to a deeper discourse, has been a part of Maharashtra’s social ethos way before ‘hanging out’ and ‘chilling’ became de rigueur. It is similar in form to the north Indian ‘chaupal’ – where people gather at a public space to chat – and in spirit the ‘adda’ from West Bengal – where they come together to engage in heated debates over many cups of tea.
Closer home, today this tradition has received an ambitious spin, with an increasing number of socially conscious citizens using the premise in encouraging others to engage with the Constitution of India.
At Panvel’s Khanda Colony, 42-year-old IT professional Pravin Jathar has been organising the Samvidhan Katta since August 15 last year, with the help of local anti-caste campaigners, who are organised under Babasaheb Ambedkar Samajik aur Sanskrutik Mandal.
The katta, conducted in Marathi and inaugurated on the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence, has drawn in over 450 participants. At least half are regulars, and about a third so far have been women, Jathar said.
Under the banyan tree
Participants converge under a large banyan tree in Khanda at 7 pm every Sunday to engage in conversations about the Constitution. “It is not meant to be serious or an intellectual exercise. You don’t have to do any homework to join us, although we recite the Preamble together before we start,” said Jathar, who volunteers with a loosely organised group of citizens working to increase constitutional literacy in and around Maharashtra, called Samvidhan Pracharak Samiti. The group has around 20 volunteers working in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, organising camps and lecture series on Constitutional values.
For a couple of hours, the group of 30 to 35 largely middle-aged to senior citizens discusses various aspects of the Constitution – its function in law and governance, or the Directive Principles of State Policy, or a specific Article and how it relates to a big news story of the day. As is customary at a katta, sometimes someone younger also joins in; like a group of college students last year who were on route to the cinema, but quickly found themselves engrossed in a conversation on the Maharashtra political crisis.
“The clash between Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shinde comes up a lot. So, we have looked at this from the perspective of what the Constitution says about free and fair elections, involvement of courts in electoral matters and allied topics,” said Jathar, emphasising that no one is here to preach.
The genesis of Jathar’s enterprise was an incident from 2018, in which two men were arrested for burning the Constitution in Delhi, in protest of amendments to the SC/ST Act. “That’s when I thought, ‘Ok, this is the situation in the country today. The Constitution is under threat. What can I do about it?’ So, I started following some groups like Samvidhan Saksharta Abhiyan and Samvidhan Jagruti. I have been volunteering with Samvidhan Pracharak for more than two years, and decided to start the katta last year as a more accessible approach because camps and lectures tend to be a bit intimidating,” he said.
The subject for discussion this month is the history of the Constitution, starting from the Nehru Report and the eventual formation of the Constituent Assembly. “We will discuss what the condition of India was when the document was drafted. For example, why are there caste-based reservations? How did history necessitate them? People don’t know much about this. That’s the cost of modern life. While trying to fend for ourselves and our families, we become less active politically and constitutionally,” he said.
Jathar and his team represent one arm of a much larger effort to build constitutional literacy in Maharashtra, pointed out Rajesh Ranjan, a law researcher who has been tracking such movements in the state. A similar katta is also run by Pune-based activist Subash Ware at the SM Joshi Socialist Foundation in Navi Peth. It takes place once a fortnight, on Sundays.
Pune gets them young
The Pune katta was launched on November 26, 2021 (celebrated as Constitution Day), and is attended by about 30 people at a time, most of whom are in their late-20s to early-30s. Ware’s initial intent was to inculcate in participants a 96-hour long syllabus on Constitutional literacy, which he had designed.
“The conversations have since become quite free-flowing, because we have a slightly younger audience than the Panvel katta. Naturally then, the discussions are also different, reflecting concerns of the youth like employment and their right of self-determination. A lot of students living in the area are preparing for competitive exams, and they learn a lot through our work,” said Ware.
Ranjan, who is the co-author of a recent paper, ‘Constitutional Ownership in India: A Case Study from Maharashtra and Rajasthan,’ published in December 2022, by the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Law and Administrative Law at National Law University, Jodhpur, explained, “The idea of a katta itself reflects the values of the Constitution, which needs an empowered citizenry to stand up for it. The document has wide-ranging implications for our daily lives, but discourse on it tends to exclude people and focus on institutions. So such kattas are a way to bring the focus back on people, in a way that relates to their own identities in their own language.”
Ranjan highlighted the case of Jaya Srikurni from Kolhapur, a 57-year-old Dalit woman and former head of the district administration, whose Savitri Abhiyan initiative began holding discussions with women on constitutional values, in context of the right to a clean environment and right to education.
In the initial days, she witnessed a split in the Self Help Group (SHG) meetings. Women turned up when issues of women’s empowerment were discussed but not when the Constitution and its principles were up for discussion. But eventually, they managed to broaden their scope of interest. “With consistent engagement and discussions on constitutional principles, things have changed. Her efforts culminated in increasing awareness among women on their constitutional rights,” Ranjan wrote in a December 2022 paper — Constitutional Ownership in India: A Case Study from Maharashtra and Rajasthan — published by the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Law and Administrative Law at National Law University, Jodhpur.
Speeding up momentum
In the heart of the city, a former public school teacher, Suresh Sawant, runs a constitutional awareness programme, in the slums of Chembur, Govandi, Deonar, Shivaji Nagar and Malad. “Whenever there is an atmosphere of social unrest in the country, we go to the settlements and create awareness. We also organise the Constitution Jagar Yatra on November 26, the Constitution Day,” said Sawant, who in 2014 quit his job as a teacher to become a full-time Constitution activist under the aegis of the Constitution Training Workshop in Varanasi. “Based on the constitutional values, we encourage people to engage with their socio-political issues and live as conscious citizens,” he added.
Similarly, Nurkhan Pathan, a teacher at Goregaon Zilla Parishad School, Raigad district, has been spreading awareness about the Constitution for four years under the banner of Samividhan Gun Gaurav Samiti. Two years ago, while fighting a bout of Covid-19, Pathan rewrote a chapter of the Constitution in simple language and shared it on social media. It garnered a huge response, which led to him interacting with them and asking questions on the Constitution.
He ended up organising a state-wide exam – both online and offline — on the subject on November 26, last year. “It drew 6,500 participants and the results will be declared on January 25 this year,” he said.
Pathan, who also published a book in Marathi called ‘Aaple Samvidhan Rajyapadhati Navhe Jeevanpadhati’, which translates to ‘Our constitution is a way of life, not only a state system’ has sold 3,500 copies already.
Mohammad Hussain, a maulana from Deonar who completed his religious education from Uloom Madrasa, has been raising public awareness about the Constitution in and around the M-East ward, with a particular focus on fundamental rights, including the right to choose one’s religion.
“I am working to promote the idea of ‘fraternity’ as ordained in our Constitution. I specifically chose the slums in Mumbai where young men and women attend mosques and madrasas, and the ulemas instruct them. I speak to them in Urdu. Every religion teaches people to live with love, but miscreants cause disharmony. In these times, I believe the Constitution can bring us together again,” Hussain said.