Some time back a friend of Teesta Setalvad,one of the most courageous and outstanding Human Rights workers in the country,asked me to write a brief piece on what the Constitution of India mean to me.At that time,what with my involvement in various protest movements and my writing engagements,I could not find time to comply.Then it also occurred to me that until then I had not collected my thoughts on the subject.I have now done so for whatever they are worth.
This is getting particularly urgent in view of raucous challenges on its worth and its alleged defects in the light of ancient wisdom from circles that want either to scrap it or amend it beyond recognition.The very principles that undergaurd its provisions like secularism and socialism, liberty and equality,are under grave threat.Time for serious reflection and scrutiny is here and now. Its supposedly Western origins and defects in the eyes of vintage native wisdom call for both such reviews and renewed commitments from citizens.
First,certain hard facts.Though the Constituent Assembly had as its members some leading patriots and freedom fighters,and outstanding legal minds,and representatives of different interests and strands of thoughts,including 15 important women leaders,it had been elected by a very limited electorate amounting to just 2 percent of the population.Then such a body was called upon to draft a document that could serve as a Blueprint for transforming an extremely diverse,complex society still steeped in feudal mores and institutions and culture into a modern democratic state. Time was short as independence had come amidst cataclysmic conflict and confusion,gathering chaos, simmering rebellion and imperialistic intrigues,which might put paid to the very idea of a united,progressive and democratic India.
Tough and longstanding resistance could be anticipated from entrenched vested interests some of which have become politically dominant today.The tendency was to empower the state with powers to face and if necessary put down such challenges.In its turn that could boomerang by reducing the citizen to a cypher.Likewise the Centre versus the State which is now being played out in the contested role of Governors as agents of the Central government rather than of the Constitution.
At this point we may compare the views of Nehru and Dr Ambedkar on the character and role of the State.Both agreed that it would proceed legally and shun violence to carry out its duties in rebuilding an obsolete social order.But Ambedkar with his vast legal knowledge and his brief stint in the Viceroy’s Council of Ministers thought that State would have sufficient strength to overcome social resistance. Nehru had sufficient experience to realize it would not be so easy and was ready to compromise. But Ambedkar would not as he had more inhaled more than enough poisoned fumes to stand for any concessions.His dour objection to resile obliged him to resign and left him embittered for life.Nehru survived and built up the truncated democracy into something worth fighting for.
The power of the Centre has become an ambiguous legacy.It has seriously compromised the core idea of the sovereignty of the people/constitution.The outcome has been the cavalier manner in which a staggering number of amendments has been rushed through at the convenience of various governments and has compelled the Supreme Court to put in place the doctrine of Basic Structure as a barrier to irresponsible amendments.
The fraught Centre- state relations,Article 356-7 and practical traffic snarls like the police of one state blithely marching in and arresting supposed offenders against the law in a different state,or the Delhi Police acting as sole agent of the Centre doing duty as state agency too.The casual elimination of the country’s patent rights and trade restrictions to suit the needs of foreign capital had had a less than benign influence on lives of citizens.The equally casual joint exercise of Indian Army with American forces on the country’s Northern borders in disregard of the country’s long-term security benefits also reveals the glaring loopholes in the concept of sovereignty as practiced.
It goes without saying that PRC’s belligerent postures under constant US provocation have a dangerous potential.But its leaders are canny enough not to risk a war.Their economy so far is dependent on free trade and peaceful international conditions. Our leaders have shown some sense in the conflict.But too close a link with an America that seems more inclined to raise tensions all over the globe might trigger unexpected consequences.
While various institutions to ensure proper functioning of democracy and limitation of State power have been created, there is little scope in Constitution to ensure their independence and freedom from executive pressure. Like parliamentary oversight as in America,which at one time succeeded in clipping the wings of the formidable CIA.Given an opportunity these gaps must be filled.
What seems to be a looming and fatal threat is the Central government’s clear intention to curtail the independence of the Supreme Court, encouraged as it is by the abject surrender of some past judges and CJIs.While the Collegium system has its defects it is today almost the last standing bastion for defense of the Constitution.And the government’s sudden enthusiasm for constitutional proprieties is not fooling anybody.Besides it has been an effective mechanism for curbing irresponsible and rampant amendments.To ensure a solid backing by the people in this tug of war the honorable judges also need to convince them that they are standing for liberty and equality unequivocally. Already the elitism favored by the EWS addition to reserved categories has chipped away some of the elements in the concept.Liberty too is imperiled as a rampaging police force is mounting a reckless attack on civil rights activists,votaries of public interest and critical media virtually unchecked. The signs might look unnerving. The Elgar Parishad case has shown the police concocting a fantastic story,as most sensible people have come to realize. Of late the SC too has smelt a rat.But the precious civil rights of incarcerated individuals continue to languish and the case lingers on in the most outrageous manner.
But we have one testament of the founding fathers of the Constitution that serves as a solid foundation of governing principles of our democracy.It is the Preamble which inscribed in ringing words the vision that was collectively held by the makers of the Constitution.The rest of the Constitution only spells out its premises.Not for nothing did the elderly ladies at Shaheen Bagh hold it up before the whole world.
As the keen legal mind of Fali Nariman has perceived, both secularism and socialism are implicit in it beyond a shadow of doubt.It is no pious wish-list,but the embodiment of the very spirit of our Constitution.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator