The audacity of democratic hope

The diversity referred to the unmistakable extant social and economic conditions; the unity and democracy were challenges and aspirations.
A view of the Constituent Assembly on December 10, 1946.(HT archive)
A view of the Constituent Assembly on December 10, 1946.(HT archive)
Published on Jan 20, 2020 01:18 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByUday S Mehta

The Indian Constitution had various guiding ideals but the ideal of forging a political society that was democratic, that had diversity and unity was its central glue.

The diversity referred to the unmistakable extant social and economic conditions; the unity and democracy were challenges and aspirations. All of these were, in fact, audacities, because of the particular vision of India’s future that they embodied. They furnished the palette for subsequent idealism; but also, for dubious political extravagances.

In December 1946, when the Constituent Assembly met to draw up the Indian Constitution, the Muslim League members were not in attendance. There were numerous “empty seats” in the chamber.

Various members, including Jawaharlal Nehru, lamented the empty seats, and expressed the hope that those who were absent would soon join the deliberations of the assembly. This was an indication that many members wanted the Constitution that they were designing to have broad and diverse representation and legitimacy.

Most importantly, they did not want it to have a religious tilt. Even the currently much contested Article 370 only became a part of the Constitution in 1954. Despite the special provisions it made for some citizens, the provision referred only to Jammu and Kashmir. It had an exclusively geographical remit, and did not challenge the Constitution’s self-conscious injunction against having a religious base or orientation.

This concern with unity, within the extant context of religious and other forms of diversity, was the defining normative foundation of the Indian Constitution. It anchored the vision of a society, which from its very inception, aspired to a republican form of governance, and was forged around the guiding principles of equality, fundamental rights and universal adult franchise.

These were utterly audacious aspirations because they had a vexed relationship to the conditions on the ground, namely: mass poverty, gross inequality, widespread illiteracy, and a social system built around the stigmatising hierarchies and inequities of the caste system. A third of the country was still under princely rule with their various and arcane intricacies and “special” relationships with “the British Crown”, another third lived under direct British rule, there were a dizzying array of languages, and a plethora of minorities with their distinct religious beliefs and practices.

India was a mess. It was not clear what the grounds were for it to be country, let alone a democratic one. It appeared to have few, if any, of the requisite conditions for being a country or a democracy – other than a long history of shared boundaries, comingling, commerce and modes of communicating.

But these aspects of sharing were as much the integuments of a civilisational ethos and practice. Nations, as (German philosopher) Hegel mentioned, have separateness as their essential feature, which require distinct boundaries and a singular and ultimate font of power, i.e. a state.

Many scholars have pointed out that empires were more adept at managing the challenges posed by diversities and minorities, than nation-states. After all, empires were not burdened by the need for uniformity, which has restricted the room for manoeuvre of the modern nation state. The imperatives underlying empires were prestige, which typically came down to size and expansion, and perhaps, economic interests. These were often warped in the language of a civilising moral project; at any rate, identity was not central to their modus vivendi.

This absence of a reliable and distinctive identity was one reason why so many commentators, both Indian and foreign, ended their reflections on India with some version of the question “ will India survive?” — to which they typically had deeply sceptical or explicitly negative answer.

The early idealism of India can be appreciated by comparing it with European nation states. All the countries of Europe, including what are now known as the northern
European social democratic states, when
they first laid out their republican and
constitutional framework, had restricted franchises, based on religion, property ownership, gender and ethnicity, or they were anchored on racially discriminating ideas to which they gave constitutional legitimacy. They, too, did not have the advantage of shared religion, ethnicity, and historical experience. All of these were constructions. Nationalism is, and always was, as much a nostalgia for a home — typically imaginary, and one that is constructed through acts of collective forgetting.

The theorist of nationalism, Ernst Renan, once asked, “Who in France today recalls the massacre at St. Bartholomew in 1572?” Yet as an event, it was crucial to the forging of the national identity of France. His point was that the collective forgetting was itself crucial to France’s future identity.

Most countries in Europe faced a similar predicament, that is, they did not have nationalism or republicanism given to them on a platter. How did they navigate these challenges? In the main, it was not a pretty picture. It included war and genocide, mandated programs of cultural and national assimilation, the imposed uniformities of the educational systems, openness towards and but also a fear of immigrants, the generosities and the retractions of public subsidies. That is to say, through a mix of constitutional politics and electoral representational politics, which tend to reflect the eddies of public opinion.

In contrast, the unique features of the Indian constitutional moment, which gave it its distinctive energy, opportunities and imposed its own burdens, was that it had so little it could presume on.

Its foundations from the very beginning were bound to be weak, because both the nation and its guiding normative constitutional structure were fragile. This gave latitude and importance to both the politics of principle, and to the politics of public opinion. Certain features in fact were neither, such as the unity that stemmed from geography: the Himalayan arch on the north, the southern peninsula, the two river systems on the east and west. Following partition, this argument was in bad odour, because it was associated with the breaking up of India, driven by the logic of numbers. (This is a deep tension in democratic politics and theory, because it embraces two ideas, representation and unity, which pull in different directions.)

The other feature which worked to the advantage of the nationalist cause was the shared experience of the struggle against imperial subjection. The collective consciousness, about this relatively new thing called a nation, which these movements produced, and which were led by impressive leaders such as MK Gandhi, Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, produced a national consolidation and unity. This consciousness is linked to iconic events that helped forge the sense of nation: such as the Satyagraha movement in 1920s, the Dandi march in 1930, the Non-Cooperation movement in 1920 and the mass outpouring of grief following the assassination of Gandhi in 1948.

But finally, there was another distinctive feature of the Indian Constitution, which gave its progressive orientation and idealism. That was its crucial commitment to a liberal constitutional and democratic framework.

It enshrines and gives expression to a particular kind of energy, which is a braid of the political, democratic and diverse. It is in the main, a nationalism that is constructed, almost pure, and almost without foundations; but not quite, because it does have foundations that are of sand; sand which can, at least, occasionally, support and nurture large trees, under whose canopy various life forms can survive, indeed, sometime flourish.

India is an ongoing experiment in the audacity of hope. We, as citizens, must do everything in our power to protect and venerate it, without ever deifying it, because that is a religious category, or leaving it to the whims of popular opinion.

(Mehta is a distinguished professor of political science at Graduate Center, City University of New York)
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