At the core of the Constitution is respect for mass aspirations
The Constitution of India emerged from the integrated will of the people of India as sensed by thoughtful members of the Constituent Assembly. They had not been elected directly by the people they thought about and spoke for. Commentators have remarked on their ‘elite’ character and their being at one or more than one remove from ‘the masses’. This misgiving is not out of place. And yet, there was little lost. To their knowledge and appreciation of other Constitutions and of the thinking of political philosophers, these men and women brought an innate understanding of the pulse of the people in all their great diversity.
The Chairman of the Drafting Committee, Dr BR Ambedkar, in particular, with seamless ease fluxed his understanding of the aspirations of the emerging nation with his formidable learning and knowledge of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, James Bryce and George Grote. He could not but, given his knowledge from its ‘within’, of the travails of what were at that point of time called the Depressed Classes.
But apart from the impact of great texts or of ‘learning’ on the one hand and of innate understanding of mass aspirations on the other, there was a third influence at work in the working of the Constituent Assembly.
The edicts of Emperor Asoka over-arch the Constitution of India. They permeate its provisions, actuate its directives.
Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar, one can be sure, knew of the edicts. Did they consciously braid them into the text? One will never know. But the connection is clear, unmistakable.
It is discernible from the Constitution’s very atrium — its Preamble, with this difference that while Asoka speaks in the first person singular of himself and his intention, the Preamble goes further, in the style of some other Constitutions, and in a leap of political imagination speaks in the collective voice of ‘We the people’. The import is identical.
In his Rock Edict V, Asoka pledges in Magadhi Prakrit to, “…promote the welfare (hidasukhaye) and Dharma among followers of all religions ; to promote the welfare and happiness of the virtuous, the Yavanas, the Kambhojas, the Gandharas and others on the borders ; to promote the welfare and happiness as among servant and master, Brahmanas and the rich, the protectorless and the aged ; to promote the welfare and remove troubles of those engaged in Dharma ; to prevent (unjust) imprisonment and loss of life, and for safety and deliverance…”
The collectivity that he describes in terms of the followers of all religions, those on the borders of his realm, in different and indeed at the opposite ends of the social order — servant and master,the privileged and the vulnerable, pool into a single body social whose welfare he undertakes to protect. These are “We the people”, his people. “I must,” he says in his Rock Edict VI, “ work for the welfare of all people (kataviyamute he me savalokahite)”.
The “We” in that inaugural proclamation of our Constitution is a modern testamentary version of Asoka’s savaloka or, ‘sarva-loka’. The leavening of “all people” and their integrated wellbeing into the word savalokahite or sarva-loka-hite — the welfare of all people as one — lies at the heart of the Preamble.
The unique interposing of ‘Justice’ in our Constitution before the universally hallowed invocation of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, gives to each of those three attributes of a redemptive citizenship, the living touch of an interventionally alert state. And in so doing echoes Asoka’s Rock Edict III where the Mauryan says : Devanamapriya desires that all beings should…have equal (impartial) treatment and should lead happy lives. (…savabhutanam…sayama samachaliyam madava ti).
But it is Asoka’s Kalinga Edict I which has a palpable presence in our Constitution’s pre-eminent and protective stress on Fundamental Rights.
“All people are my children (save manuse paja mama),” says Asoka in this Edict, adding, “ Just as I desire on behalf of my own children that they should be fully provided with all kinds of comfort and enjoyment in this as well as the other world, I desire the same (happiness and enjoyment in this world and the next) on behalf of all people.”
The importance of “all … are my children…” cannot be over-emphasised. In this omnibus statement lies the conferment of parental protection and care to his subjects without any discrimination, qualification or withholding. Asoka confers in his Kalinga Edict I inalienable rights upon the people of his realm, rights which none may withdraw.
There is behind his Kalinga Edict a sense of remorse for his gory and imperial excess in the Kalinga war though his specific apology — anusaya — for it occurs in his Rock Edict XIII.
Dr Ambedkar was appealing in his own distinct way to the Constituent Assembly’s inchoate and latent sense of accountability to the different peoples of India for generations of wrongs done, rights denied. In speaking about “Constitutional morality”, he was kindling its remorse.
Today, as we mark 70 years of our Constitution we need to ask the legatees of that Assembly, in the persona of our legislators, to keep their pulse of remorse alive, their accountability awake.
The Republic of India has a responsibility towards all its citizens, equally and simultaneously. Any selectivity or discrimination, any variation in the immediacy of its care would offend the Constitution and the spirit of the Emperor whose wheel turns at the centre of our flag.