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‘India’s Founding Moment – The Constitution of a Most Surprising Country’ review: How India came to be one

In replacing the colonial system of governance with a democratic model predicated on a written Constitution, the Indian Republic sought freedom from the shackles of the past

For long, the best analytical account of the Indian Constitution was Granville Austin’s classic The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation. Now Austin’s tome has found a worthy partner, in Madhav Khosla’s aptly titled book, India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Country.

Most scholars in the West, with the exception of Austin and a few others, have been largely sceptical of India’s constitutional experiment. Some of them like Perry Anderson, a professor of history at UCLA, have also either been condescending or derisive or both. In his book, The Indian Ideology, Anderson writes, “The body that created Indian democracy was itself not an expression of it.” He adds that “the constitution to which it gave birth moreover owed the majority of its provisions to the Westminster: some 250 out of its 395 Articles were taken word for word from the Government of India Act passed by the Baldwin cabinet in 1935.”

Break from democracy

Khosla is conscious of this criticism. In a convincing introduction to his book, he writes: “Regardless of the number of words that were taken from the 1935 Act, democratisation signified a major break from the past.” That is a point Anderson misses. By no stretch of imagination can one refer to colonial rule as having anything more than a semblance of democracy. In replacing the colonial system of governance with a democratic model predicated on a written Constitution, the Indian Republic, as Khosla writes, took a leap of faith, through which it sought to break itself free from the shackles of the past.

The methodology at the heart of this leap no doubt brought with it tension between different, and at times competing, lines of vision. Khosla brings out this tension admirably. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of this book is the author’s ability to merge into one coherent whole constitutional theory with the history of India’s political struggle.

Nehru, for example, Khosla writes, while not opposed to the idea of a written Constitution still saw a long document as one that might deny “constitutional elasticity.” “So far as the nature of the Constitution is concerned,” he notably said, “it must deal with fundamental aspects of the political, the social, the economic and other spheres, and not with the details which are matters of legislation.” Ambedkar, on the other hand, was keen to fill the Constitution with details. He accepted that the document’s length and content was atypical, but, to him, given that India was unused to constitutional democracy, the only way to build “constitutional morality” was through maintenance of fidelity to matters of form and procedure. The ease and frequency with which the Indian Constitution has since been amended tells us that Ambedkar’s fears were well founded.

Asymmetrical federalism

Khosla covers plenty more ground. He builds a narrative that shows what went into the founding of the republic, the various choices that the framers ultimately wrote into the Constitution. For instance, he tells us how and why the Indian Constitution came to adopt an asymmetrical model of federalism with a strong centre. On this, the Nehruvian conviction that a strong centralised state was necessary to hold India together came through. Nehru feared that fissiparous tendencies would balkanise the country. The text of India’s Constitution reflects this belief.

He also discusses in some depth how the framers’ quest to bring about parity between popular rule and substantive justice resulted in the drafting of a set of ‘Directive Principles of State Policy.’

These principles are non-justiciable but they have still come to occupy an important space. What Khosla doesn’t tell us though is how these principles have since proved controversial. In some instances, their inclusion has given a handle to extremist Hindu sentiments, as we have seen with the rise of ‘cow vigilantism’ while in other instances they have led, for example, to the hasty rollout of a flawed Panchayati Raj system that has worked well only in a few States.

What is more, some of the provisions that ought to have been made inalienable nonetheless found themselves in the Directive Principles for many decades, such as the one directing the state to provide free and compulsory education for all children until 14.

But this is a mere quibble. India’s Constitution is a revolutionary document. It seeks to transform our society, and our polity. It serves as a marker between colonialism and self-governance. Coming as it does on the 70th anniversary of the republic, Khosla’s book will remind readers for years to come of the truly radical vision that the Constitution enshrines.

India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Country; Madhav Khosla, Harvard University Press/ HarperCollins, ₹599.

The writer teaches governance at IISc, Bengaluru.

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