By Swapan Dasgupta
There are individuals in history whose true worth is acknowledged posthumously. Bhim Rao Ambedkar was such a man. Despite his varied contributions, he was overshadowed in his lifetime, first by Mahatma Gandhi and subsequently by Jawaharlal Nehru. But the country has made amends and the parliamentary debate commemorating Constitution Day seems an inspired way of celebrating his rich contribution to national life.
Of course, the Constitution is much more than Ambedkar. Whether we view it as just a rulebook that defines the bounds within which India conducts its public life or see it, as Nehru did, as a statement of the country’s “national philosophy” is a matter of inclination. What is important is that after 65 years and some 100 amendments, it is accepted as a ready reckoner of the dos and don’ts of national conduct. Yet, the Constitution carved in stone. The Constituent Assembly recognised that modifications would be necessary and specified the demanding processes that would both facilitate change and guard against succumbing to knee-jerk impulses.
The Constitution may have begun life as the property of a legislature dominated both at the Centre and the states by one political party and, by implication, its leader. Yet, over decades, there have been three significant changes.
First, Indian politics has become fiercely competitive and reflect a diversity that was unimaginable in 1950. It is highly unlikely the circumstances that enabled Indira Gandhi to introduce ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ into the Preamble of the Constitution at the height of the Emergency in 1976 will prevail in the foreseeable future. Political fractiousness may well have its down side, but at least it is a guarantee against fashion prevailing over considered judgment. Indeed, it is worth asking whether the injection of these two terms into the Constitution has enhanced the quality of our public life. ‘Socialism’ certainly seems a needless prescriptive principle of economic management, observed more in its violation than adherence. As for ‘secular’, has its codification injected conceptual clarity or added bitterness to the preoccupations over national identity? Would India have been a less wholesome place had we persisted with the 1950 Preamble? In trying to codify attitudes and approaches, the country may have unwittingly injected an extra note of divisiveness in the political arena.
Secondly, over the decades it has been shown that the judiciary has assumed for itself the role of the Constitution’s oracle. Legislative authority has been tempered by judicial pre-eminence. Whether this was intended by the Constitution-makers or was a subsequent act of invasion is a matter of debate—and a very legitimate one at that. What it does suggest, however, is that the idea of the Constitution is constantly evolving. Those who feel improvisation should be countered with “blood on the streets” are somewhat unthinking in their fundamentalism.
Finally, in her intervention last Thursday, Sonia Gandhi taunted those who have “no faith in the Constitution (and) who have not contributed to its making.” The strictures against those lacking “faith” were, alas, not directed at either the secessionists or the Maoists waging a civil war. But it is the second theme—that the Constitution is the private property of the party at the helm during its making—that is far more worrying. In 1950, there were forces in India that were unreconciled to the new Republic. These included separatists group in the North-east, the Dravidian movement and even the Communists who undertook an insurrection at the behest of Moscow. It is one of the successes of India that most of the early sceptics have now committed themselves to the Constitution. There are others who, while adhering to the Constitution, harbour misgivings over certain provisions—such as Article 370. To therefore exclude India’s non-Congress inheritance from common ownership of the Constitution smacks of perverse entitlement.
India’s achievement of freedom was a result of many divergent struggles. The one led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress was only one—perhaps the most important—of them. To now reduce the richness of that experience to a family inheritance is a pointer that the wayward rewriting that took place during the Emergency is a danger that hasn’t entirely gone away. If you imagine that nationhood equals the Constitution, the temptation to legislate the national mind proves irresistible.
Sunday Times of India, November 29, 2015