The conversion of a Supreme Court-ordained law day into an executive-ordered Constitution Day was a masterstroke, enhanced by subjoining it in Parliament with B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birthday celebrations. Despite some conversational acrimony, the winter session of Parliament began well, with a follow-up debate on “intolerance”.
Much ground was covered, including the need to move towards a comprehensive uniform civil code, systemic corruption, legislative reservations for women, social security and justice in development. Inevitably, political brownie points were also scored on all sides. Some truly harsh words were uttered; memorably, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu defined politics as a “mission”, not a “commission”, and CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said that the ruling party was seeking to “worm its way” into the freedom struggle and the Constitution through the debate. Yet, despite words that wounded, the words that bind were more pervasive: All parties renewed their constitutional faith.
In a sense, the debates were pedagogic — they aimed to address and educate the present generation, presumed innocent about Ambedkar and the Constitution-making generation. How far the present generation needs these lessons remains controversial, and the question of whether they learnt anything from their elders in Parliament remains.
The legislative debates were also political in a partisan way. Each side sought to appropriate Ambedkar as a shining light in its own pantheon. The political appropriation of an icon is scarcely a new happening; what is remarkable is the amnesia it suggests. Many aspects of what Babasaheb had said are now unforgivably forgotten. He said: “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” How do we avoid this degradation caused to national life by acts of routine political sycophancy?
We ought also to remember with him that people, “including our own, are being moved by new ideologies” and are “prepared to have governments for the people and are indifferent whether it is government of the people and by the people”. Ambedkar urged that should we “wish to preserve the Constitution. Let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path”. Do we need yet another national debate on the radical evils that pave our paths, both political and social?
More particular amnesia concerns Articles 17, 23, 24 of our Constitution, which are truly the great gifts of Babasaheb. Article 17, an aspect of the fundamental right to equality, liberty and fraternity forbids “untouchability” and declares any practice on the ground of untouchability an offence, and Articles 23 and 24 forbid and declare as offences practices of trafficking in persons, agrestic serfdom and child labour. These provisions are explicitly entitled as rights against exploitation.
Ours probably is the only constitution that declares as an aspect of fundamental rights certain social practices as an offence, which are to be redressed by parliamentary legislation and oversight under Article 35. Parliament has the power coupled with the duty, regardless of federal design and detail, to make and enforce laws with respect to these provisions. And it has made laws, the last being the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But these laws are not implemented with any firmness. Atrocities against “untouchables” continue, and these notably include arson, rape and gangrape, mass and individual murder, stripping and parading, pursuit of “obnoxious” occupations as well as thousands of unspeakable daily horrors. This is not to say that no change has occurred in the past six decades — it has, but at a glacial pace. It now needs to be accelerated, indeed to a point and scale of war against untouchability in all its forms; only then will a celebration of Constitution Day be more apt.
Similarly, Census 2001 figures revealed 1.26 crore working children in the age group of 5-14, as compared to the total child population of 25.2 crore; approximately 12 lakh children work in hazardous occupations/ processes. Progress seems to have been made, if we take on board the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2004-05 data, which estimates the number of working children at 90.75 lakh, and Census 2011, which places the number of working children in the age group of 5-14 years at 43.53 lakh.
Significantly, though these aspects were almost missing in the debate, no Constitution Day celebrations can be complete without a detailed recall of the communities of rights-less peoples. These call for greater attention, alongside the varied groups of new rights-less people now created by the forces of globalisation, of which the constantly revictimised people of the Bhopal catastrophe are, till today, the first grim reminders. The traditionally impoverished groups also include communities of misfortune, such as people living with disabilities, people of different sexual orientation and conduct, people declared guilty and incarcerated long before trial — and, unfortunately, this list
is not exhaustive.
Last but not the least, the plight of India’s impoverished must always be recalled. We were told in 2010 the good news that India’s poverty rate was set to decline from 51 per cent of the population in 1990 to 24 per cent over the next five years. But this analysis by the London-based Overseas Development Institute and the UN Millennium Campaign did not prove accurate. Anyhow, new global impoverishment measures and new intersectional inequality truths underscore that impoverishment is multidimensional. But even to achieve this bare minimum, plenty of hard governance and non-government organisation work lies ahead.
This overall picture would be a little less depressing if Parliament were to demonstrate the collective political will to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti by declaring war on these unconstitutional evils and developing a timeline for eliminating them. Making social peace with unconstitutional and unjust ways and means is neither an appropriate nor sustainable developmental response.