Updated: January 26, 2022 10:30:09 pm
A republic is made robust and kept alive by its people. In its current form, the Indian republic marks 73 years of maintaining a dynamic balance. This is often strained by the pushes and pulls of forces reflecting the plurality and diversity that India is known for. It is to the credit of our people that today we have a pyramidal three-layered elected representative system that governs us. With its warts and all, this system today has over 3 million elected representatives (a million of them women), over 4,000 elected to the state legislatures and over 500 in the Parliament. The Preamble envisaged the republic to be governed by the people through their freely-elected representatives. This scale of directly elected representation, perhaps, can be seen nowhere else in the world. It can be accused of being argumentative, noisy, a bit too much at times, but it continues to be full of life.
Before 1950, January 26 was celebrated as Independence Day, following the resolution for complete independence (Purna Swaraj) adopted at the Lahore Congress in 1929. Once independence from the imperial ruler was obtained and the Constitution was adopted, the day was marked as our Republic Day.
In Pilgrimage to Freedom, K M Munshi writes, “The Constitution is not merely a legal document, nor is it a political document either. True, it was drafted by lawyers with the help of the political leaders who had won the battle of freedom. Theirs was a historical role: That of building a framework within which our national unity and democratic way of life might flourish. Essentially, our Constitution has a moral background — to secure justice for every section of our society; as also a spiritual basis — to preserve and protect all religions in the exercise of their functions… The leaders of my generation have left in the Constitution a legacy of freedom, of the Rule of Law, freedom of speech and religion and above all integrity and stability which the country has never enjoyed for over 500 years.”
There is no doubt that during the last seven decades, our Constitution has provided the integrity and stability that are critical for our republic. The challenges continue in securing justice for every section of our society. The Backward Classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and the poor across all categories clamour for better opportunities and affordable justice. Denial of constitutional rights over all these decades of our republic to SCs, STs and women in one region of India was corrected when Article 370 was abrogated.
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What Munshi calls the spiritual basis of our Constitution in having to preserve and protect all religions is also seen under stress. Perversion in practising the principle of secularism (introduced subsequently during the Emergency) through minority appeasement for electoral considerations had left women belonging to the minority community being denied their legitimate rights. The resistance to the Act making triple talaq null and void showed how the right given to women in many Islamic countries was being denied to Muslim women in India mainly for electoral considerations. Minority appeasement plays out again when the religious rights of some are upheld by denying similar rights of others. The issue of religious rights, in its intensity, may vary from state to state, but when the usual suspects paint it as a nationwide uprising, they are not being objective or fair. When the right to practise one’s religion is denied or threatened, the silence of the thinking public or the media weakens that constitutionally embedded protection. The strength of the republic is undermined by hypocritical values and the selective silence of the watchdogs.
There is no doubt that communication technologies strengthen modern republics. Technology has brought down costs of information sharing among people and of awareness building. It is a powerful tool, now well democratised. An unforeseen fall-out of this democratisation is the generation and sharing of unverified news or even false news. Through the power of technology and its capacity to broadcast at mass scale, an otherwise useful tool, social media, has become a challenge and sometimes a threat to one or several of the rights enshrined in our Constitution. Curtailing them to protect the rights of citizens is seen as trampling upon the right to free speech. Without any action, the damage caused to social harmony by such rampant false news can result in people losing faith in the Constitution itself.
Subhash C Kashyap observes, “Our Constitution is a living, dynamic process, always evolving, constantly in the making through amendments, judicial interpretations, and its actual working.” Our Constitution is the most amended of all constitutions in the world. Rightly, successive governments have ensured that the Constitution keeps abreast of the times and the aspirations of our people. If there are more than 100 amendments made to the Constitution, there are more than 1,500 laws that have been repealed because they have outlived their times. These deadwood laws, by remaining on paper, occasionally became a weapon in the hands of rent-seekers. Their removal, as a part of administrative reform, has kept the role of the executive transparent and accountable. It is imperative that every change to the Constitution is done mindful of the objective that the original intent of the framers of the Constitution is not lost.
That the Constitution is always evolving is best exemplified by the 101st amendment which rolled out the Goods and Services Tax. This amendment brought in a unified indirect tax regime by subsuming most of the indirect taxes of the Centre and the states. The GST Council was set up. It has the power to decide on issues related to GST and importantly the rates applicable to each item covered under it. Yet to complete five full years, the GST Council has stood the test of challenging times even in its initial years. It augurs well for cooperative federalism.
Our Constitution has served us well in these seven decades. Several republics in the post-imperial era have rejected their earlier constitutions and tested new ones. Babasaheb Ambedkar felt, “The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics.” So, it is the people who can keep the republic robust and alive.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 26, 2022 under the title ‘The strength of our republic’. The writer is the Union finance minister.
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