A retelling of the history of how India’s Constitution, the longest in the world, came into being
India is a sovereign, democratic, republic,” we read in our social studies school textbooks when we were in grade five or six, if I remember right, way back in the 1960s when my generation of Indians, born after independence but growing up in a still new, raw, aspiring, independent country were being taught to understand the nature of the society they lived in and of their rights, duties, and obligations. It is doubtful that children, age ten or eleven, would have understood much of the difference in the terms of reference. “What is it to be sovereign, or a republic, or a democracy?” we discussed once again, later, both in high school, and in the first year of undergraduate studies in political science, and when in 1975 Indira Gandhi, through the Forty-second Amendment had the words “socialist” and “secular” added. It is doubtful that many in India, even adults, can define the terms fully and correctly though, come this January 26, when India and Indians celebrate the seventy-first Republic Day. India adopted in 1950 the constitution drafted by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and his colleagues in 1948, and which was deliberated by the full Constituent Assembly over a period of nearly three years. The India of the 1950s has changed much, and now at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century Indians will have to reconsider carefully the nature of the Indian state in the era of globalization and in the context of the varieties of “globalism” promoted by activists and scholars around the world.
We will come to the matter of India being a republic in a moment, but that Indian lawmakers and Indian citizens did not bother to follow up on matters of sovereignty, even as late into the year 2016, should be disconcerting. For example, it was pointed out by the BJP Rajya Sabha Member, Tarun Vijay, that the “VT” painted on all Indian aircraft stood for “Viceroy Territory,” and that India had retained the VT code despite other countries, soon after they gained independence, had asked for and got the changes they asked for in their international codes from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Four years later, and at the cusp of celebrating the seventy-first anniversary of the adoption of the Indian Constitution, the VT code for Indian aircraft remains, which, at least symbolically, means that India is still a colony, and not sovereign.
India is a republic, which means that it has a government where power resides in its citizens, who vote to elect their representatives, and who in turn make laws as per the constitutional guidelines, and within the constitutional framework. It also means that India’s head of state is not a monarch. How all this came to be took three years of vigorous and contentious debates, with the constituent assembly members at loggerheads on a variety of matters. If Indian citizens are to understand the nature of the state they live in, and the Constitution that guides debates, they must pay closer attention to what is both in the Constitution and what the framers deliberated on. We are told that in the Indian high school textbooks these days students do get to read excerpts from the Constituent Assembly debates, and while the Lok Sabha website offers readers access to the full text of the debates, there is not much we know about how many who access it and how good Indian citizens’ understanding of their Constitution is.
The Indian Constitution, still the bulkiest/most lengthy in the world, runs to 448 articles (originally 395), whereas the American Constitution is made up of seven, the Australian 128, and the Canadian 147, for comparison purposes. The Brits don’t have a written constitution. The Constituent Assembly members had a lot to choose from, and they considered what other countries had deliberated on and adopted, and they were also framing the rules for the states, unlike the framers of the American Constitution who left it to the states to frame their own constitutions. Thus, it came to be that they tried plugging every conceivable loophole, offer clauses to support the articles, and frame the chapter on fundamental rights modeling the American Constitution. Knowing a lot about their British colonial background, they adopted the British parliamentary system of government, and took the idea of Directive Principles of State Policy from the Constitution of Ireland. For good measure, they added provisions relating to emergency based on the Constitution of the German Reich and the Government of India Act 1935.
There have been 103 amendments to the Indian constitution so far, with the forty-second amendment, known as “The Constitution (Forty-second amendment) Act, 1976,” the one that enabled Indira Gandhi to impose internal emergency, and sought to curb the powers of the Supreme Court and the High Courts to pronounce on the validity of laws. Mockingly called the “Constitution of Indira,” the Janata Party Government, immediately after it won the elections, post Emergency, promulgated the forty-third and forty-fourth amendments which restored some but not all provisions of the pre-1976 Constitution. Strangely though, the change from “sovereign democratic republic” to “sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic” brought through the Forty-second Amendment remains!
Since the past six years when cow protection and cow vigilantism have made much headlines not just in India but, taking the cue from India’s elite English language media, also in the West, it would be interesting to see how the members of the Constituent Assembly considered the issue. Cow protection was included in the Directive Principles of State Policy, which do not confer justiciable rights. The framers incorporated them in the Constitution to have them serve as a reminder to future legislators that these are goals that they should try to achieve in pursuit of the welfare state as envisaged in the Preamble of the Constitution. Under Article 48, we read that the “…State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”. Some members argued for the protection of cows on economic grounds and others on religious ones. Gandhi himself, known for his advocacy of non-violence, and keenly aware of the divide between Hindus and Muslims especially in matters of diet and religious beliefs, focused more on taking care of cows than protecting them, if we can so interpret his comment in 1921, when he said: “I would not kill a human being for protecting a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious.” In 1946, learning from the political and religious turmoil of the previous twenty-five years, he said that, “Cow slaughter can never be stopped by law. Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her alone can put an end to it”. Those provoking Hindus and seeking to keep the political pot boiling by organizing “beef festivals” should therefore understand that the Indian welfare state is not merely concerned with the welfare of human beings, but all life, and that while legislation on these matters is not mandated it was surely encouraged.
Similarly, in the matter of protections guaranteed to the minorities, and denied to the majority Hindus, some have argued that Articles 25-30 should be amended to “…make majority community members and institutions eligible to the same autonomy that minority institutions get”. Nowhere in the world, except in countries where the minority was in control, like in Apartheid South Africa, was it deemed right to deny the majority what the minority enjoyed. However, in India that is Bharat, the Hindu majority suffers from this anomaly because a combination of groups and interests have been able to maneuver parliament to ensure that while minorities can control their places of worship, Hindus have theirs under state control, including the finances of the places of worship, sale of properties belonging to the temples, and use the income from the temples for other uses. Similarly, under these articles, educational institutions run by minority religious organizations do not come under government ambit whereas Hindu religious groups that run educational institutions have to ensure that the government writ rules in matters of admission, curriculum, hiring of teachers and staff, etc.
On this Republic Day, it would be indeed pertinent to discuss the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The act seeks to allow illegal migrants from certain minority communities who are facing religious persecution or fear of religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship by amending the Citizenship Act of 1955, and has drawn the ire of political opponents who have made a variety of misrepresentations about the nature of the CAA and how it undermines Article 14 of the Constitution. Sai Deepak, the young Supreme Court advocate who impressed the Supreme Court justices in the hearing of the Sabarimala Temple case, argues that those who are against the CAA are globalists who seek, in a variety of ways, to undermine the sovereign state, and those who are opposed to the CAA on grounds of the alleged violation of Article 14 are barking up the wrong tree. He points out that the CAA does not automatically grant citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but merely facilitates the expeditious grant of citizenship, and that the opponents of the CAA read not only Article 14 incorrectly but they ignore the Foreigners Act which allows the Indian state to control entry and egress of foreign nationals.
Given that the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is going to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26, there will be a few who will connect the anti-CAA protests, Jair Bolsonaro’s politics, and other matters to weave their chosen tales. Narratives should be based on facts, even cherry-picked ones, for these constitutional matters are of concern to all citizens, whatever their political bent of mind. In this context, Indians would do well to revisit and learn from the Constituent Assembly debates. The Indian Constitution is a living document, and the 103 amendments to the Constitution are living proof of that. So, as the tri-color is hoisted from different venues in India and around the world, it may be time once more to consider what it means for India that is Bharat to be a “sovereign democratic republic” and whether “socialist” and “secular” has any meaning in the context of what the framers of the constitution debated and considered.
Ramesh N Rao is a professor of communication studies
at Columbus State University, Columbus, GA.