The basic rules of “the only land among many others”
Today, some in positions of power in India appear to be questioning these rules – making it crucial to reaffirm them.
This month we celebrate another Republic Day, the 72nd anniversary of the entry into force of our Constitution. In doing so, we reaffirm the essence of Indian nationalism, reified in a constitution adopted after nearly three years of debate, and in doing so, we implicitly salute the “idea of India” that emerged both from the nationalist movement and its institutionalization in the Republic.
A gift and a vision
The idea of India as a modern nation based on a certain conception of human rights and citizenship, vigorously supported by due process and equality before the law, is a gift of the Constitution. Earlier conceptions of India were inspired by mythology and theology. The modern idea of India, despite the mystical influence of Tagore and the spiritual and moral influences of Gandhi, is a solidly secular and legal construction based on the vision and intellect of our founding fathers, notably (in alphabetical order ) Ambedkar, Nehru, and Patel. The Preamble of the Constitution itself is the most eloquent enumeration of this vision. In his description of the characteristic features of the Indian republic, and his conception of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, he firmly proclaims that the law will be the bedrock of the national project.
In my view, the role of liberal constitutionalism in shaping and strengthening India’s civic nationalism is the common thread in the larger story of the evolution and modernization of Indian society over the past century. The main task of any Constitution is to constitute, that is, to define the rules, norms, values and shared systems according to which the State will function and the nation will evolve. How the ideals enshrined in this document were implemented and evolved, in the spirit of civic nationalism, during the first seven and a half decades of India’s independence, determined the kind of country we are.
Train a new citizen
Every society has an interdependent relationship with the legal systems that govern it that is both complex and, especially in our turbulent times, continually and vehemently contested. It is through this interaction that communities become societies, societies become civilizations, and civilizations acquire a sense of national and historical character. The Chairman of the Constituent Assembly Drafting Committee, Dr. BR Ambedkar, not only understood this, but explicitly hoped that the Constitution would help shape a new type of citizen. “I don’t want our loyalty as Indians to be affected in the least by any competitive loyalty,” said the great constitutional scholar, “whether that loyalty stems from our religion, our culture or our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing but Indians.
It was a bigger challenge than it could have been in any country other than India. It’s not just the things he mentioned – religion, culture and language – that divide Indians and seem to run counter to an idea of shared citizenship. There was, as Ambedkar knew all too well, the dark shadow of caste and social hierarchy. “In politics, we will recognize the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value”. In our social and economic life, we will continue, because of our social and economic structure, to deny the principle of one man one value. How long will we continue to live this life of contradictions? Ambedkar famously asked.
Ambedkar’s eloquent attack on discrimination and untouchability for the first time convincingly broadened the scope of the Indian idea of incorporating the nation’s vast neglected underclass. Ambedkar – a product of Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and director of the prestigious Government Law College in Bombay – was deeply troubled by the inequities of the caste system and the fear of many Dalits that national independence would not leads only to social and political domination of the upper castes. As an opponent of caste tyranny and a nationalist, he believed that Dalits should support the liberation of India from British rule, but should continue their struggle for equal rights within the framework of the new constitution that he had played a major role in drafting.
Despite his own pessimism, Ambedkar’s solution worked. As I have pointed out in this space, the most important contribution of the Constitution to Indian civic nationalism was that of people-centered representation. The establishment of constitutional democracy in postcolonial India involved an attempt to free Indians from dominant types of categorization and place each citizen within a realm of individual agency that went beyond the immutable identity conferred by birth. In the process, the Constitution transcended all those identities that defined and divided Indians.
The Constitution provided legal structure to an implicit idea of India as one land encompassing many. It reflected the idea that a nation can incorporate differences in caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, belief, consonant, costume and custom, while rallying around a democratic consensus . This consensus revolves around the simple principle that in a democracy governed by the rule of law, you don’t really have to agree all the time – except on the basic rules of how you will disagree. The reason India survived all the stresses and strains that beset her for three-quarters of a century (and which led so many in the 1950s and 1960s to predict her impending disintegration) is that ‘she maintained a consensus on how to manage without consensus. Today, some people in positions of power in India seem to question these ground rules, and that is unfortunately why it is all the more essential to reaffirm them now.
The rule of law
Indian nationalism, therefore, is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of what I have called an eternal land – born of an ancient civilization, united by a common history, supported by a pluralist democracy under the rule of law . What ties this whole concept of an Indian nation together is, of course, the rule of law, enshrined in our Constitution.
India’s struggle for independence was, after all, not simply a struggle to free itself from foreign domination. It was a shift away from an administration of law and order centered on imperial despotism. From this arose the idea of ”constitutional morality”, that is, a national commitment to pursue desirable ends by constitutional means, to uphold and respect the processes and structures of Constitution, and to do so in a spirit of transparency and accountability, free freedom of expression, public scrutiny of government actions and legal limitations on the exercise of power. This is how freedom was to flourish in India.
The Spirit of the Constitution
Of course, Ambedkar realized that it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by simply changing the form of administration to make it incompatible with the spirit of the Constitution. Ambedkar argued that constitutional morality “is not a natural feeling. It has to be cultivated. We have to realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is but a garnish on Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”. He insisted that the guiding principles – an unusual feature of the Indian Constitution not found anywhere else – were necessary because, although the rules of democracy require the people to elect those who hold power, the principles confirm that “he who takes power will not be free”. do what he wants with it.”
To recall these basic principles today is to recognize how far we are currently deviating from them and the dangers inherent in the current government’s practice of pretending to respect the Constitution while trampling on its spirit. On this Republic Day, as we prepare to commemorate the 75th anniversary of our independence just over six months later, we must remember and rededicate ourselves to the ideals that underpin the Constitution we all celebrate. entry into force on January 26.
Shashi Tharoor is Lok Sabha MP for Thiruvananthapuram and author of 23 books including the most recent Pride, prejudice and puditry