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Updated: February 24, 2014 22:02 IST

A limited introduction to constitutional issues in South Asia

N. Sathiya Moorthy
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Constitutionalism and Democracy in South Asia — Political Developments in India’s Neighbourhood: Edited by Maneesha Tikekar; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 675.
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Constitutionalism and Democracy in South Asia — Political Developments in India’s Neighbourhood: Edited by Maneesha Tikekar; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 675.

“It can be said that most of the South Asian states have lacked a sufficient socio-political base for the growth of constitutionalism and the sustenance of democracy. The Constitution has not been viewed as a vehicle for the institutionalisation of democracy; instead it has been used for seeking and legitimising political authority…” The observation by B C Upreti in a chapter on ‘Constitutional Development in Nepal: Patterns, Issues and Emerging Trends’ in what is essentially a collection of essays drawn from a seminar on “Constitutionalism, Democracy and Secularism in South Asia”, organised by the Nehru Centre at Delhi in February 2012, broadly outlines the content of the book, which otherwise can be a good introduction to individual South Asian nations, as the still-evolving situation had permitted at the time of their writing.

The limitations though do not stop there. Despite the broad brush used also by book editor Maneesha Tikekar in the Introduction and a few other authors in different chapters, there is little in the book to directly link India to the neighbourhood in terms of lessons in constitutionalism and democracy in South Asia, either in the form of India inspiring them, or having to inspire them, or India having to learn from one or more of them, in turn. Secondly, in a dynamic democracy situation as existing and still evolving in individual nations of South Asia, the collection of essays is a good source and recommended encapsulated reading material for a quick recap of the events of the past, particularly the immediate past. Considering that democracy in South Asia is still an unfinished job and may remain so for years, if not decades, to come, if there is mutual democratic experience that they can share collectively or otherwise, it has been left to the practitioners to pick up pointers. The concept of the seminar, and hence that of the book, does not provide for the same.

It is not the authors’ failure that events in South Asia keep overtaking any writing on contemporary developments, political, economic or whatever. Be it as it may, none of them has attempted to subscribe to any particular view on specifics other than as a narrative, or prescribe any course of action for the future, near or medium, even leaving out the long term. Given their scholarly skills at evaluating and re-evaluating the emerging situation from the ring-side as they all are placed, it would have served the players out there, if the authors as paper-presenters at the seminar first and reviewers of their own work for publication later, had done a post mortem examination of the past, even if it did not involve any prescription for the future.

The one exception however could be V. Suryanarayan, who in what seems to be an afterthought of a chapter (placed at the end of the book for no justifiable reason) and titled “War is over but ethnic reconciliation eludes Sri Lanka”, makes a generalised prescription of some kind. Other authors are mostly satisfied with outlining developments from the distant past to the immediate. The more contemporary an event, more generalised are the comments and observations. Or, so they read.

The list includes Smruti Pattanaik (Bangladesh), Ganganath Jha (Myanmar), Maneesha Tikekar (Pakistan), Rajesh Kharat (Bhutan), Anand Kumar (Maldives), Vishal Chandra (Afghanistan) and Neera Chandhoke (India). While Chandhoke has provided a seminal interpretation of contemporary India’s political plight, none has made out any case for ‘democracy deficiency’. If anything, the authors’ seem to indicate the existence/emergence of ‘democracy dividend’ in most cases — and rightly so.

It has become the norm these days in Indian scholarly and policy-making circles, to consider Myanmar as an extension of South Asia, particularly in the context of India’s neighbourhood. This book is no exception. Even India is discussed in a chapter as a stand-alone democracy issue unrelated to democratisation and constitutionalism in the neighbourhood. This approach contrasts with the purported scheme of the seminar, and hence the publication, which seem aimed at thinking collectively about and for South Asia and India’s neighbourhood otherwise.

The absence of collective engagement and consequent vision that the seminar and the book could have provided for South Asia is thus missing. So is the underlying and undeniable need for looking at constitutionalism and democracy in individual nations and South Asia as a whole in the regional context, based on history, political culture, social behaviour, among others, so that the best global practices are retained even as adjustments are made to accommodate specifics that are valid individually or collectively as a whole.

What has instead been attempted in most cases is to measure constitutionalism and democracy as an extension of the better-known ‘western concept’, without providing for the inherent changes that individual national psyche and philosophy entail. It is in the absence of such re-evaluation and re-validation that publications such as this one end up hinting at the conclusion that democracy has not yet taken off in full form in South Asia, if not it never ever will be. If democracy is a political tool for individuals to aspire and/or usurp power, it has been so elsewhere, too.

The truth is that ‘western democracy’ may have peaked out in historical terms in individual South Asian nations, even while they willingly or not-so-willingly end up adopting/adapting some of the evolving western concepts and concerns that they latter too did not have at inception. Human rights, women rights and ecological concerns, for instance, were not a part of the western concept of democracy and constitutionalism at inception. As a third or fourth-generation entrant to democracy, South Asian nations have readily accepted or adapted these concepts as part of constitutional governance.

It is on basics that South Asian nations have a problem re-inventing democracy and ‘constitutionalism’ (defined as an extension only of democratic governance) to suit their social structures and cultural values, some of them archaic as they may be and thus needing change all the same. Otherwise, most South Asian societies/nations, mutually influenced by each other, have taken to democracy and constitutionalism in ways that have suited their impressive history (the pride over which they are unwilling to compromise) and immediate circumstances. The book does not make out a case for either.

CONSTITUTIONALISM AND DEMOCRACY IN SOUTH ASIA — Political Developments in India’s Neighbourhood: Edited by Maneesha Tikekar; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 675.

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