It is difficult to end this year on a celebratory note. If this year has taught us anything, it is to be conscious of our mutual vulnerability. The COVID-19 pandemic has been primarily seen as a public health crisis. However, it is an opportune moment to reflect upon the forgotten constitutional ideal of fraternity which is enshrined in the Preamble. Fraternity may well be the only treatment for the multitude of challenges that this pandemic has brought with itself.
The still-developing emergency has resulted in the death of more than 1.7 million people the world over and has pushed the global economy in a downward spiral. So far, the policy response to the pandemic entails standard measures such as strengthening the public health system and targeted economic support to the vulnerable sections. Given the scale and severity of the unfolding crisis, these measures are not nearly enough. Ironically, but fortunately, the pandemic has offered an opportunity to rediscover our political and constitutional order by invoking the forgotten principle of fraternity.
The four fundamental goals of the Indian Constitution, as described in the preamble, are Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly, Bhimrao Ambedkar underlined the specific purpose of inserting “fraternity” in the constitutional text saying: “Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity… Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.” Unwittingly, Ambedkar may have also predicted the fate of the fraternity as a principle. If we take the first Republic day as our historical starting point, there is little doubt that Indian republic has made significant progress in its struggle for more liberty and equality, but that progress towards more fraternity has been, to put it mildly, disappointing.
As is evident, the principle of fraternity enjoys an exalted status in the constitutional text but it has been denied a self-standing legal meaning and normative force in the actions of state. Its mainstream understanding in the public discourse is often limited to a notion rooted in political theory, which in a way neglects the potential utility of the principle. While liberty and equality have remained at the forefront both as constitutional principles and political ideals, the principle of fraternity did not have such a fate. Even in the academic world, rights-based claims relating to equality and liberty have continued to be a fertile ground for legal and political enquiry.
The coronavirus crisis has compelled governments around the world to take extraordinary measures to arrest the spread of the virus. Many countries, including India, saw prolonged lockdowns for months. With the news of the second strain of the virus, measures like lockdowns are also seeing a comeback. Enforcement of such norms is possible only by way appealing to fraternal ties amongst people. A crisis of this scale tends to strengthen a sentiment of fraternity in people. It goes without saying that political leaders ought not to take advantage of this impulse for narrow political ends. Rather, this sentiment must be translated into an act of sacrifice and service for those who are the worst affected due to the pandemic.
Humanitarian work in any part of the world is seldom divorced from politics. However, in current times, we need to realise that both the pandemic itself and the consequent economic collapse are national problems. They can be addressed effectively only through a concerted effort towards collective action. Going forward, we need to make a choice between a do-it-alone mindset and a collectivistic mindset. While the former is a recipe for disaster, the latter requires a political response and will.
During this crisis, ancient Indian traditions such as seva (service) have acquired a new potency and are filled with new meanings as the pandemic demands something bigger from all of us. The role played by political leadership during such times is extremely crucial as it can instil compassion for loss of those who are less privileged than others. In Political Emotions, Martha Nussbaum points out that, “all political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time, and all decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love.” Drawing from Nussbaum’s work, strengthening the fraternal spirit in people is critical to stimulate and sustain the current efforts that require effort and sacrifice. More recently, Samantha Power also highlighted Nussbaum’s idea when she said that this crisis will not end for anyone until it ends for everyone. So far, the messaging from political leaders while seeking cooperation from people has been prefaced with warnings of a crisis. Once the pandemic recedes, it is imperative that the ethos of mutual caring and support becomes a permanent feature in public life relevant for all times.
Developing a culture of fraternity requires cultivation of appropriate emotions and civic behaviour. In this pandemic, we all have been visited by our own mortality. It is an apt moment to embark on developing citizenship values and to cultivate fraternity which was once termed as the “unfinished tasks of our constitution” by L M Singhvi.
The writer is an advocate, Supreme Court of India