Will Constitution Day become something to celebrate or to rue?
Today is Constitution Day, so I post here the article which will be published in my Guptara Garmagaram column in the next issue of The International Indian magazine (Dubai):
The Government of India has recently announced that November 26 would from now on be marked as “Constitution Day”.
The question is of course: how come this government, which has done less than any other government in our history to uphold the Constitution, has seen fit to make this move?
Is the move entirely cynical – to provide opportunities to raise questions about the Constitution, and thus subvert it?
Or does it show Modiji, perhaps as a result of the defeat in Bihar, finally moving in the direction of the Constitution?
Time will tell.
Meanwhile, it is worth considering that the Indian Constitution is a counter-cultural document – it was created by our Western-educated elites who were seeking to meld together into one nation what had been diverse and even opposed groups of people.
Not only were there hundreds of independent kingdoms to persuade, bribe, cajole and even blundgeon into joining the new nation of India, there was the enormous challenge of reforming our culture.
Throughout history, Indians had owed primary loyalty to their own family, kinship-group, or caste. How to move them into identifying primarily with the alien notion of a nation?
In our third generation of being an independent nation, it is clear that the project of creating a nation has made huge progress.
Bollywood has played its role, and educational and administrative institutions have played their role. More important, ordinary citizens have played their role, in treating fairly (e.g. in relation to jobs and even marriages) those belonging to other people groups.
But, as all of us know, not all Bollywood films have supported Constitutional norms. Not all educational and administrative institutions have been scrupulous about maintaining fairness and equality. Not everyone has upheld liberty, equality and fraternity.
Some individuals and groups have surreptitiously or openly subverted our Constitutional values. Indeed, some have fought with violence and openly false propaganda against the consequences of the Constitution’s drive to weaken and abolish the prevalence of caste and gender disadvantage, and the restriction of behaviour, thought and other liberties which were so firmly established in our traditions.
In view of all that, it is also worth remembering that the Indian elite which was most involved in the debates in our Constitutional Assembly had considerable differences of opinion. That is clearly evidenced by the records of these debates from December 1946 to January 1950 – fortunately the records can all be easily consulted at http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/debates.htm.
But, if you don’t want to wrestle with all those debates, just consider that the “father of the Constituion”, Dr B. R. Ambedkar resigned from the cabinet in 1951, when parliament stalled his draft of the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to enshrine gender equality in our laws of inheritance and marriage.
He was merely taking forward the principles and values of the Constitution, but was opposed by the same sorts of conservative forces as had violently opposed, a century earlier, the introduction of English as a language of instruction.
No wonder the Constitution has been described as 'first and foremost a social document. ... The majority of India's constitutional provisions either directly … further the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement” (Granville Austin, historian and authority on the Indian Constitution).
How was this so? Because Ambedkar’s text provided, in the Constitution, guarantees and protections for citizens’ liberties, including the abolition of untouchability, freedom of religion, and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination. The system of reservations for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Other Backward Classes was directly embedded in the Constitution by Ambedkar as a way of eradicating or at lessening the socio-economic inequalities and lack of opportunities for India's oppressed peoples.
The strife, tension and chaos we see in Indian politics today is the result of a clash between three things:
first, the civilising momentum of the Constitution;
second, the reaction of traditionally privileged groups upset at losing their privileges, and so fighting with tooth and claw to try to maintain their privileges for as long as possible; and,
third, the assertiveness of those who had been conquered, subdued and suppressed, and who find in the Constitution a promise that is rarely fully delivered but which they now have the liberty and the means to try to insist is in fact delivered.
The government’s move to create a Constitution Day will play a momentous part in either ensuring that the Constitution does deliver liberty, equality, fraternity and well being to all Indians, or in finally killing off our historically unprecedented experiment of creating a nation.
So far, our Constitution has served us well.
Even though there have no doubt been abuses here and there, we would do well to support it, not merely somehow marginally acknowledging it’s existence, but also supporting it fully by our words and our deeds.