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Thursday, Oct 17, 2019

Republic Day 2019: 69 years ago, India decided how it would be governed

If Independence Day is about the past, Republic Day is about the present and the future. We take a look at the values that underpin the Constitution and why they are just as relevant today, as they were nearly seven decades ago.

india Updated: Jan 26, 2019 07:08 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times
A view of an illuminated Rashtrapati Bhavan ahead of Republic Day celebrations, at Vijay chowk in New Delhi on January 25.
A view of an illuminated Rashtrapati Bhavan ahead of Republic Day celebrations, at Vijay chowk in New Delhi on January 25.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

There is no doubt that Independence Day is a landmark in India’s annual calendar. After all, the nation liberated itself from the tyranny of the past on August 15, and remembering all those who laid their lives for our freedom is India’s duty. And if there was no freedom, there would be no republic.

But there is a case to be made that if Independence Day is about the past, Republic Day is about the present and the future. January 26, 1950, is the day when after careful deliberations in the Constituent Assembly, India decided how it would be governed, what values would underpin its political system, what the objectives of the state would be, how state-society relations would be navigated, and how individual rights and group rights would coexist.

Each of these questions remain as relevant today as they were 69 years ago. What stands out however in India’s constitutional story is its acceptability and resilience on one hand and adaptability and dynamism on the other.

There is today the widest possible acceptance of India’s constitutional order. Remember this was not always a given. When it was promulgated, both the Left — the Communist Party of India — as well as the Right — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — rejected the Constitution. But today, these very groups swear by the constitutional order, and seek protection from it. India’s political actors, social organisations, private sector and citizens live and work according to this Constitution.

This also shows the Indian Constitution has proved enormously resilient. As countries across the post-colonial world tumbled into dictatorships of various hues, Indian democracy held.

Today, periodic elections and transfer of power is a matter of routine. Parliamentary system is well entrenched.

But as is normal for any noisy, chaotic and large democracy of India’s complexity, the Constitution also remains a matter of fierce debate.

A key area remains the tension between individual and group rights. The founders recognised that in India, discrimination often happened on the basis of group identity — and therefore protection had to be offered on the basis of membership of these identities to create a more just order. This is what led to special provisions for the marginalised, particularly Dalits and tribals. And while the founders may have hoped these group identities would cease to matter, they appear to have solidified even more. The recent constitutional amendment to grant reservations to economically weaker sections — with an eye on ‘general castes’ — is a prime example.

But the fact that the Indian Constitution is flexible has proved to be a major safety valve too. Just turn to neighbouring states. Nepal, for instance, had a rigid constitution in 1990. Its monarchy and leaders refused to make any changes even as demands sprung up from various new political formations and marginalised groups. Eventually, the constitution and political order collapsed.

In India, by contrast, from the boundaries of states to reservations to economic and social policy, everything can be negotiated. What cannot be negotiated is the ‘basic structure’ — which ensures that the fundamentals remain strong.

As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has become the dominant actor in Indian politics, its critics have questioned it on its commitment to the values that underpin the Constitution. This is what has led to opposition parties framing the 2019 election as a battle to preserve the Constitution. The BJP, in turn, has claimed that PM Narendra Modi has repeatedly called the constitution a ‘holy book’. The party, its leaders suggest, may have a different interpretation of secularism but it has mot done anything to change the state’s formal character. To frame elections as a battle over the Constitution, in this view, is just a political ploy.

What should bring cheer to all those who respect and cherish the constitutional order is that despite the intense political acrimony, the coming elections will be held under the same Constitution that all sides respect. January 26 is when the rules of the game were laid out. And even today, those rules remain in force.

First Published: Jan 26, 2019 07:05 IST

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