The Constitution and its upholders

November 26 is celebrated as Constitution Day for the past five years. Earlier it was recognised as National Law Day since 1979. It is the anniversary of the formal adoption of our Constitution by the Constituent Assembly in 1949. The final draft was signed by 284 members who can be said to be our founders. Exactly two months after that momentous adoption, India became a Republic. It is said that on August 15 1947 we got freedom and on January 26 we got responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin called democracy. The Constitution is basically a set of rules by which we agreed to conduct ourselves. They start with some basics, or fundamental rights. These include right to life, to free speech, right to pursue a livelihood, to practice one’s religion, and so on.

If America has had only 33 amendments in two and a half centuries, India’s constitution has been amended 103 times in the past seventy years. Does that mean that the founders did not think things through?  No, as said above, their debates and discussions were exhaustive. Yet they did not want to bind future generations to their own thinking. This was incredibly broad minded.

Are these rights absolute? Do we have a right to private property? Can the State overrule right to free speech in exceptional times?  All these questions and many more were thoroughly discussed by our founders. The debates of the Constituent Assembly which lasted for almost three years are of the highest quality, and is a must read for any student of India’s democracy and society. It’s amazing that most of the burning issues of today were either current even then, or anticipated, and discussed threadbare.

We are a democracy in which it’s not the Parliament, but our constitution which is supreme. That’s why in-built in our design are the checks and balances of power sharing between the legislature, executive and the judiciary. The Constitution is something that we the people have granted ourselves, so in that sense the people are supreme. But if the Constitution was codified by our founders seventy years ago, have they imposed unalterable rules on all future generations? Of course not. In the words of Dr. Ambedkar, our Constitution is among the most flexible and malleable in the world. If America has had only 33 amendments in two and a half centuries, India’s constitution has been amended 103 times in the past seventy years. Does that mean that the founders did not think things through?  No, as said above, their debates and discussions were exhaustive. Yet they did not want to bind future generations to their own thinking. This was incredibly broad minded. Ambedkar said it is possible that in future even the concept of parliamentary democracy may be questioned. Or the sanctity of fundamental rights may be diluted. Yet there is something in the very core, or the idea of constitutional democracy that should remain unchanged, or that needs to be preserved.  

The dangers to India’s democracy were well articulated by Dr. Ambedkar in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly, on the eve of the formal adoption of the constitution. That speech is worth recollecting in today’s context, as we witness the jockeying for power in State formation.

Ambedkar said that he was filled with anxiety, because in addition to the divisions of caste and creed we are also going to have many political parties with their own creed. He famously asked, “Will Indians place country over creed, or creed over country?” He said that hero worship in politics was a real danger in India. He said, “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” Such prescient words.

Ambedkar said that he was filled with anxiety, because in addition to the divisions of caste and creed we are also going to have many political parties with their own creed. He famously asked, “Will Indians place country over creed, or creed over country?” In addition, he mentioned three major dangers to the functioning of our democracy. The first was adherence to constitutional methods. Here there is simply no room for civil disobedience, non-cooperation or satyagraha, all of which may have worked well to overthrow the British Raj. Ambedkar was perhaps referring indirectly to Gandhi’s methods, and boldly pointing out that these had no place in a constitutional democracy. The second danger was the politics of pedestal. For the maintenance of democracy, he said that Indians cannot “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions.”

He said that hero worship in politics was a real danger in India. He said, “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” Such prescient words. As a small apocryphal anecdote one might add the following. Prime Minister Nehru asked his party men to scour the countryside and convey the message, that were now free and the Britishers had left. Apparently one common refrain from the rural folk was, “Oh the Britishers have left? Who is going to rule us now?” This illustrates the latent desire for a messiah or monarch that people seem to have. Of course, democracy existed in India in ancient times, but had to be rediscovered and reborn in modern times. The concept that “people are supreme” and lawmakers or elected representatives are there to serve them, is yet to seep in firmly.

As we witness the unfolding drama and dilemmas in the formation of State governments we must ponder on Ambedkar’s prescient words, and how strong is our fidelity to constitutional principles. He said ultimately the working of a Constitution depends on the people and political parties. A good Constitution such as India’s can be undermined by those who are its guardians and responsible for its working. And a bad Constitution can turn out to be good if the people who are called to make it work, are good.

Ambedkar’s third warning was the inconsistency between political equality on one hand (one person one vote), and extreme social and economic inequality on the other hand.  If this contradiction was not addressed urgently, those who suffer from inequality will blow up the edifice of democracy, he warned. This was twenty years before the first insurgency in Naxalbari. Again, very prescient indeed.  Ambedkar also added that caste is ultimately anti-national because it brings separation in social life. Quoting Lincoln, he said that a House divided against itself cannot stand for long.

As we witness the unfolding drama and dilemmas in the formation of State governments we must ponder on Ambedkar’s prescient words, and how strong is our fidelity to constitutional principles. Here too his words are a great guide. He said ultimately the working of a Constitution depends on the people and political parties. A good Constitution such as India’s can be undermined by those who are its guardians and responsible for its working. And a bad Constitution can turn out to be good if the people who are called to make it work, are good. The Constitution itself is a dynamic, living, changing and nourishing document, or social contract. But its working and benefits to society depends on we the people upholding it. Do we measure up? Time to introspect. Happy Constitution Day!

(Dr. Ajit Ranade is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution)