The Constitution of India, whose chief architect was Babasaheb Ambedkar, was adopted on November 26, 1949. It was not conceived merely as a document of codified laws and regulations but was an embodiment of the values inherited from our freedom struggle. The leaders of many streams of our struggle for national liberation deliberated for nearly three years to draw a roadmap for the objectives and governance structure of India. This gave our Constitution an inclusive orientation, which could cater to the country’s cultural, spatial and social diversity. The ideas of republicanism, rule of law, democracy and secularism formed the bedrock of the independent nation state.
Unfortunately, this dynamic and lively document, the supreme law of our land and its principles, is under attack from majoritarian, patriarchal and fascistic tendencies of the BJP-RSS combine.
Article 1 of the Constitution describes India as a “Union of States”. This is much more than an expression of mere political unity between different geographical units. The Union of States was envisioned to become a Union of People from different geographical and cultural regions. It united them under a secular, democratic republic while protecting diversities — cultural, linguistic, religious and regional. However, the recent assault on the autonomy of Kashmir, the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the territory into two separate Union Territories — with the total disregard of the Kashmiri opinion — was an act of aggression against this unity of the people of India, and the principles of federalism as envisioned by the Constituent Assembly.
The Constitution came into effect completely on January 26, 1950. But some important provisions relating to citizenship and elections came into force on November 26, 1949. These provisions, considered most important by the Constitution makers, are under attack from the ruling regime. The NRC exercise in Assam and threats to Muslims issued by some BJP leaders in the state has tainted the Indian state’s secular credentials.
Article 5 of the Constitution, which deals with citizenship, came into effect to deal with the refugee crisis in Punjab and Bengal. The Constitution makers did not allow religion to be a basis of citizenship. The proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act will invert the secular character of citizenship as envisioned by the constitution makers and replace it with the majoritarian designs of the BJP-RSS. The recently-announced plans to impose the NRC nationwide will only stoke animosity between communities.
The rule of law is the cornerstone of any constitutional scheme. The Oxford Dictionary defines Rule of Law as “the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes”. This basic political equality, constraints on individual and institutional behaviour and respect for individual rights are being threatened by majoritarian forces.
Numerous instances of lynching and violent attacks on minorities and Dalits are taking place with seeming impunity for the perpetrators. The principles of rule of law and equality before law seem burdened with majoritarianism.
The Constitution makers wanted to create a non-hierarchical society but the current regime has undone much of their labour. The idea of Hindu Rashtra is based on strict hierarchies of caste, varna, gender and religion, and has no place for Dalits or minorities. This hierarchical division questions political democracy and equality, much emphasised by Ambedkar.
By repeatedly bypassing the legislative bodies, including Parliament, the current government is also undermining the principle of separation of powers between different organs of the state. The recent Ayodhya verdict has raised questions about justice delivery. The invocation and then revocation of President’s Rule in Maharashtra have raised several constitutional questions.
The use of the ordinance route to pass laws, lack of debate and accountability of the executive to the legislature are putting India on the path to become a totalitarian state. At the same time, the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to question and criticise the government are being challenged in the name of nationalism.
The progressively lowering of levels of state spending on education is making the right to education ineffective. The right to information was regarded as a fundamental right as part of the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (a) by the Supreme Court for over two decades. To give effect to this, the Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted but it has been weakened recently by taking away the accountability mechanism.
The Constitution’s Preamble provided a simple but effective design for the functioning of the Indian state. The promises made in the Preamble are under threat today. We have not achieved a non-hierarchical and egalitarian society and multiple hierarchies are challenging the spirit of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity in India.
On November 4, 1948, B R Ambedkar spoke of constitutional morality. He cautioned that “it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution without changing its form by merely changing the form of the administration and to make it inconsistent with and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution”. He went on to explain that “constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic”.
The BJP-RSS combine does not believe in constitutional morality. It wants to impose an undemocratic, monolithic, illiberal socio-political order. In this challenging period it is the responsibility of all citizens of the country to come together to protect the values we have inherited from the freedom struggle, and the Constitution.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 26 under the title ‘For Constitution’s sake’. The writer is General Secretary, CPI.
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