Opinion| How the Constitution moulded citizens
Today is no ordinary Republic Day. 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of our Constitution. In 1950, many questioned how long it would last. So to have completed the biblical span of three-score-years-and-ten is no mean achievement. There are only a few constitutions — and certainly in the third world there is no other — that have lasted so long. Why that’s happened is an important question, but I want to start by delving into the depths of our Constitution. The challenge of survival can be raised after that.
A recent study of the Constitution by Madhav Khosla, a professor at Columbia and Ashoka universities, reveals its truly unique quality. It’s something many of us may not have earlier appreciated. Called India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy, its most striking thought concerns the relationship between the Constitution and the Indian people.
Khosla argues that it’s a critical two-way relationship. It’s not just that the Constitution has been created by the Indian people, working through their representatives in the Constituent Assembly, but the Constitution is also a deliberate attempt to mould the Indian people and, in that sense, create them. In other words, 70 years later, we’re the sort of people we’ve become because of our Constitution and the way it has shaped us.
As Khosla explains, the constitution-makers “believed in the possibility of creating democratic citizens through democratic politics”. This becomes apparent when you focus on the marked difference between constitution-making in India and the West. Of the West, he writes: “Universal suffrage came after a reasonable average level of income had been secured and state administrative systems were relatively established.” In India, it was conferred at one go even though the country was “poor and illiterate, divided by caste, religion and language, and burdened by centuries of tradition.”
So our constitution-makers dispensed with the prevailing belief of the time — which had held for centuries — that people had to be educated and economically lifted to a point where they were deemed suitable for universal suffrage. It was a major breakthrough in constitution-making.
Not surprisingly, this leads Khosla to regard the Indian Constitution in a particularly special light. As he puts it: “This is what makes the experience of Indian democracy not just the experience of one nation but the experience of democracy itself.” He believes India is “the new paradigm for what it means to create a democracy in the modern world.”
Now, today, as we reflect on our Republic and reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution and the democracy it guarantees us, it might also be worth asking two other questions. First, why has our Constitution survived and loyalty to it grown when, across the border in Pakistan, theirs suffered a very different fate? Khosla’s answer is stark and simple: Jawaharlal Nehru. As he explained to me in a recent interview, even when Nehru had problems with the Constitution, he chose to amend it by constitutional means. He did not circumvent or overthrow it.
The second question is a more contemporaneous one. What are the two recent constitutional controversies telling us about our commitment to the Constitution? I’m referring to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the de-operationalisation of Article 370 as well as the division and demotion of Jammu and Kashmir. Are these signs that the hold of the Constitution and its principles is weakening and we’re in danger of becoming undemocratic or, conversely, are the popular protests against these measures a sign that our commitment to the Constitution is as strong as it ever was?
Khosla says you can equally forcefully answer either way. I guess that means it depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. For what it counts, my own view is crystal clear. The protests we’re seeing — and which show little sign of slackening — are the most positive reaffirmation of our commitment to the Constitution. That’s another reason why this Republic Day is special.