The Constitution of India as adopted in 1950 had envisaged independent India as a federal, socialist and secular democracy based on the doctrines of equality and liberty. The ideals of equality, liberty, socialism and secularism underlay its provisions from the very beginning but the last two of these were made more conspicuous in 1976, when the preamble to the Constitution was amended to formally declare India a socialist and secular country. Our understanding of equality, liberty, socialism and secularism has, however, always been different from how the rest of the world understands these ideals. The Constitution itself made them somewhat special.
Provisions mandating the state to protect the cow for the majority community and the kirpan for the Sikh minority were included in its initial version. For the purposes of protective discrimination and affirmative action to eliminate backwardness, the Constitution specified Scheduled Castes, which, to begin with, were restricted to the majority community. But gradually, the classification was opened up to include two particular minorities, in response to their protests against exclusion. The established traditions of the erstwhile princely states of Travancore and Cochin to maintain temples out of the state exchequer were protected at the time of their assimilation into the Indian Union — a special provision to that effect was inserted in the Constitution.
The Congress party, over about half a century of ruling the country, made our concepts of socialism, secularism, equality and liberty more special thanks to its policies and performance. In 1968, its government convinced the Supreme Court that the Aligarh Muslim University had not been established by Muslims and hence was not entitled to the benefits accorded by the Constitution to minority educational institutions. In 1976, after proclaiming the Emergency to save its government, it succeeded in making the majority of a Supreme Court bench agree that depriving political detenus of their constitutional remedies against arbitrary arrest was fine. In 1991, it enacted a Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act to protect the shrines of all communities from communal vandalism but felt constrained to keep the 500-year-old Ayodhya mosque out of its ambit. In 1993, it set up, under foreign pressure, a National Human Rights Commission but could not care less about its decisions and recommendations.
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After remaining out of power for eight years, when the Congress bounced back in 2004, it ruled in the name of an absolutely honest and sincere head of government but he was allegedly constantly excluded from decision-making exercises. During this decade, the Congress extended to the largest minority in the country the olive branch of the Sachar committee, and made minorities dream of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions by appointing the Ranganath Mishra commission. But when these commissions submitted their recommendations, the government shied away from implementing them. Having failed to contain the corruption growing right under its nose or control the unprecedented price rise, the government kept making promises to do better if given another chance.
People’s patience, however, cannot be limitless. At the end of the unduly long elections, the simmering discontent over the sorry state of affairs in society became clear in the astonishing results. What had to happen has happened. Those who have suffered a crushing defeat are now saying janta ka faisla hamein sweekar hai (the people’s decision is acceptable to us) — as if they have any other choice. And those who have won are projecting their landslide victory as the dawn of “good days”. The past policies and performance of the victors are, justifiably, scaring the two largest minority communities of the country. To rid the nation of the long dynastic rule that was brimming with all manner of anti-people activities was the need of the hour. Seen from that angle, the change of guard is a change for the better. But if the new rulers are to let the apprehensions of minorities come true, the nation would have paid a heavy price for achieving this goal.
The fact is that the outgoing regime wasn’t a bed of roses for the minorities and the incoming government isn’t likely to unleash a reign of terror on them either. In these days of globalisation, with the international community watching, no government can afford to play out the proverbial tableau of andher nagri chaupat raja. The Father of the Nation had once said that the parameter by which to gauge the extent to which a country may be called civilised is how it treats its minorities. Let us hope that the new government heeds this advice. Let us hope that the concepts of state secularism and people’s equality and liberty, which have been rather special to us from the very beginning and have been made even more special by the rulers of the past, will not become even more “special” in the hands of our new rulers.
The writer is former chair of the National Minorities Commission and former member, Law Commission