The Narendra Modi regime started observing Constitution Day every year on November 26 from 2015. Paradoxically, however, it has been contravening the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Take the announcement by PM Modi on November 19 that the government will repeal the three farm laws against which farmers have protested non-violently for over a year. More than 700 farmers have died and disparaging remarks were made against them by the PM, his cabinet colleagues and members of his party. Was it constitutional for the PM to ridicule the farmers by calling them “andolan jeevis,” when they were exercising their constitutional right to protest? The PM has even talked of a “foreign destructive ideology” and his colleagues have dubbed the farmers as Khalistanis, Maoists and anti-nationals.
At every step, the government made things difficult for farmers. Trenches were dug to prevent them from moving freely. Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s son has been arrested after the Supreme Court expressed its dissatisfaction at the UP government’s handling of the Lakhimpur Kheri episode, in which protesters were run over by vehicles, one of which was allegedly driven by Mishra’s son.
What does Constitution Day mean in the context of this ghastly murder and the continuance of the minister in office?
In his speech, the PM issued a shallow apology. The announcement could well have been motivated by the BJP’s electoral calculus. The PM’s objective could well be to salvage his party’s image so that it can win the state elections next year in Punjab, UP, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa. It is undeniable, however, that the farmers’ protest, based on B R Ambedkar’s electrifying slogan “Educate, Agitate and Organise”, has weakened the electoral prospects of those who scoffed at the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In exercising their rights, the farmers have shown that those ensconced in powerful positions can be humbled. In their victory lies the significance of Constitution Day.
PM Modi’s televised speech lacked sincerity. He did not seek forgiveness for the anti-farmer legislations. Instead, he sought an apology for not being able to convince the farmers of the usefulness of the laws. It seems that this was an apology directed at his corporate friends. Nowhere in his speech did he refer to guaranteed MSP for crops. PM Modi did promise to form a committee, comprising experts and farmer representatives, to recommend ways to improve agriculture. There is a possibility that the government-appointed experts may insist on pro-corporate reforms and come into conflict with farmer union representatives. The standoff is likely to continue as the government is bent on implementation of neo-liberal policies in agriculture dictated by international institutions such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank.
When we are celebrating the 75th year of India’s independence, it would be worthwhile to recall one of the important dimensions of Swaraj outlined by Mahatma Gandhi. In Young India, on January 29, 1925, he wrote, “Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by education of the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.” This idea of Swaraj got expression in the Constitution. Parliamentary democracy, part of the basic structure of the Constitution, mandates that the government is accountable to the legislature which represents the sovereign will of the people. India, being a Union of states, is best governed in the spirit of federalism. The Modi government has, however, not adhered to federal principles and attempted to centralise power.
This unidimensional exercise of power led several state assemblies to pass resolutions against the farm laws. The non-violent farmers’ movement has emerged as a shining example of peoples’ capacity to temper the Modi government’s majoritarian arrogance.
The farmers’ movement emerged unitedly across the country with the support of trade unions, agricultural labourers, women, youth, students, civil society organisations and political parties. The country witnessed the unity of peasantry and working classes from both the formal and informal sectors. The recent remark of National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval that civil society is the “new frontier of war” says much about the perceptions of those occupying high posts sanctioned by the Constitution. The NSA’s pronouncement goes against the phrase, “We the People who adopted, enacted and gave to ourselves the Constitution”.
The attack on civil society is a war on people. When protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act erupted in UP, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath made a shocking statement that he and his government would take revenge. Doesn’t this mean challenging the Constitution that provides the right to protest?
The protesting farmers represented not only their interests but also the larger cause of defending the Constitution, democracy and secularism. They have called the bluff of the Modi government’s polarised politics. Their victory is as much a victory Ambedkar’s vision anchored in his slogan, “Educate, Agitate and Organise”, as for the Constitution itself, its basic structure and constitutional morality. While celebrating Constitution Day, we should remember this victory.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 26, 2021 under the title ‘A victory for the Constitution’. The writer is General Secretary, Communist Party of India