Their greatest work: How Indians made Constitution a success
Parliament sessions usually begin with remembrances of recently departed eminent personalities. But this Winter session of parliament, beginning November 26, did something refreshingly different. It remembered BR Ambedkar because the Constitution, in the drafting of which he had played the key role, was accepted on this day in 1949, less than a month before some Ramlala idols were surreptitiously put in the Babri Masjid, the first leap in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The two events, though absolutely unconnected then, posed somewhat of a challenge to each other in later years. The Constitution has survived the onslaught of those who brought down the Masjid 43 years later. And much else.
To refer to the Constitution has always been an effort at lending an element of sobriety to a discussion. Time was when people were asked to pronounce ‘British Constitution’ in order to prove that they were not slurring after a heavy bout of drinking. In this year’s sober Parliamentary discussion, home minister Rajnath Singh noted that Ambedkar did not think fit to have the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ in the Preamble. True enough. Secularism was the bedrock of the new India that emerged after 1947. Not having a state religion was enough declaration that India was a secular state. Indeed, India was secular before the word ‘secular’ was added to the Preamble of the Constitution and it will remain so even if this word is removed. One needs to understand that it’s about the constitutional scheme and not the semantics in which politicians often indulge.
The same goes for ‘socialist’. To say the state was socialist was not to deny the existence of private capital (let’s make it clear: socialism means nothing but state ownership of the means of production). Exist it did, though a feeling emerged that India had been a completely socialist country before 1991. It was just that the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ were left in the hands of the State. Why? Simply because private industry was not strong enough to move in. Both the principles were the cornerstones of Congress policy at least since 1938, when the National Planning Committee was set up. To that extent Congress president Sonia Gandhi was not wrong in saying the genesis of the Constitution went hand in hand with the history of the party she heads. The bitterness about the two words is partly because they were introduced when the Emergency was on (through the 42nd amendment) and the fundamental rights, so germane to democracy, were under suspension, something to which the Supreme Court had acceded. This point, if anyone brought it up, would have some merit. The answer to that is: No Emergency again.
In the din of ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’, one thing has just been forgotten. It was a ‘socialistic’ act bigger than the one the 42nd amendment had attempted. The ‘right to property’, which from 1950 had remained a fundamental right, had been struck off (as a fundamental right) through the 44th amendment in 1978, after the Emergency.
Wasn’t this a bolder step in the path towards the socialisation of the means of production? Wasn’t this done when the Janata Party, which was certainly more towards the Right than the previous government, was in power?
Did the Constitution makers have a premonition of the future? They certainly had a notion of the flow of events once submerged nationalities and communities asserted themselves. Hence the provision for the administration of tribal areas. Were the Constitution makers aware of the demand for greater and greater reservation in government jobs in the coming days? They were enlightened enough not to make any specific comment on it. Given the extent of diversity that has been woven into it, a deletion of the word ‘secular’ from the Preamble (should it happen) cannot suddenly bring about a sea change in the way the Indian State is run. Pluralism is there dug in the woodwork. Granville Austin, one of the most authoritative commentators on the Indian Constitution, said in a private conversation the best thing Jawaharlal Nehru did in his 17 years of premiership was “to keep nudging the nation ... telling people how they should behave”. So he did in the December of 1949, asking the local administrator, KKK Nair, to at once remove the Ramlala idols from the Babri Masjid. Action could have been taken against Nair, but what else worked in his favour but the Constitution, which gives a lot of protection to officialdom against political interference. Nair, an ICS officer, later left the job and became a Lok Sabha member on the Jan Sangh ticket in 1967. What was all this but a triumph of the Constitution and democracy?
We could use the preamble to the Constitution to measure how we have done as a sovereign nation. The preamble sets out objectives of securing to all citizens social, economic and political justice; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity, and aims to promote fraternity and ensure the unity and integrity of the Nation.
Proving western sceptics wrong, democracy has survived and thrived in India. The success of the Indian Constitution lies in the fact that the institutions it created — Parliament, Supreme Court, Election Commission or the Comptroller and Auditor General of India — have broadly functioned well. True, the entire electoral system is crying out for reforms and unfortunately, it’s coming from the Supreme Court and not the political class.
The attempt to achieve social justice for the backward and the downtrodden through reservation in government jobs and education has yielded only limited results. Many of the constitutional goals were made part of directive principles of state policy simply because the Indian State wasn’t in a position to make them enforceable at that point in time. But they still remain fundamental in the governance of the country, such as the uniform civil code. The Constitution abolished untouchability. But unfortunately in many parts of the country this obnoxious practice is still in existence — much in contradiction to the constitutional goal of promoting fraternity among citizens and assuring dignity of the individual. The Constitution envisages a fine balance between various organs of the State. But the legislature and the executive often complain about the judiciary encroaching upon their territory. The country needs to debate it.
It has often been said the Indian Constitution has been imposed from above. It was true for 1949, but the instrument of its evolution has been the Indian people, who have made it work through their elected representatives. It is for this reason that the Constitution deserves the place it has in people’s imagination, and more.