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The ground rules of ‘the one land of many’

A golden color plate describing The constitution of India. Preamble declares India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic.
Shashi TharoorJanuary 22, 2022 00:02 IST
Updated: January 23, 2022 07:23 IST

Today, some in positions of power in India seem to be questioning those rules — which makes it crucial to reaffirm them

This month we celebrate another Republic Day, the 72nd anniversary of the entry into force of our Constitution . In so doing we reaffirm the essence of Indian nationalism, reified in a constitution adopted after almost three years of debate, and in the process implicitly salute the ‘idea of India’ that emerged from both the nationalist movement and its institutionalisation 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 backed by due process of law, and equality before law, is a gift of the Constitution. Earlier conceptions of India drew their inspiration from mythology and theology. The modern idea of India, despite the mystical influence of Tagore, and the spiritual and moral influences of Gandhiji, is a robustly secular and legal construct based upon 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 its description of the defining traits of the Indian republic, and its conception of justice, of liberty, of equality and fraternity, it firmly proclaims that the law will be the bedrock of the national project.

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To my mind, the role of liberal constitutionalism in shaping and undergirding the civic nationalism of India is the dominant strand in the broader story of the evolution and modernisation of Indian society over the last century. The principal task of any Constitution is to constitute: that is, to define the rules, the shared norms, values and systems under which the state will function and the nation will evolve. The way in which the ideals embedded in that document were implemented and evolved, in a spirit of civic nationalism, through the first seven and a half decades of India’s independence, have determined the kind of country we are.

To shape a new citizen

Every society has an interdependent relationship with the legal systems that govern it, which is both complex and, especially in our turbulent times, continuously and vociferously contested. It is through this interplay that communities become societies, societies become civilisations, and civilisations acquire a sense of national and historical character. The Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, not only understood this but explicitly hoped the Constitution would help shape a new kind of citizen. ‘I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty,’ said the great constitutionalist, ‘whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians.’

This was a greater challenge than it might have been in another country than India. It was not just the elements he mentioned — religion, culture and language — that divided Indians and seemed to fly in the face of 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 be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?’ Ambedkar famously asked.

 

Incorporating the underclass

Ambedkar’s eloquent assault on discrimination and untouchability for the first time cogently expanded the reach of the Indian idea to incorporate the nation’s vast, neglected underclass. Ambedkar — a product of Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and principal of the prestigious Government Law College in Bombay — was deeply troubled by the iniquities of the caste system and the fear of many Dalits that national independence would merely lead to the social and political dominance of the upper castes. As an opponent of caste tyranny, and a nationalist, he believed that Dalits must support India’s freedom from British rule but that they must pursue their struggle for equal rights within the framework of the new constitution that he had a major hand in drafting.

Despite his own pessimism, Ambedkar’s solution has worked. As I had pointed out in this space, the most important contribution of the Constitution to Indian civic nationalism was that of representation centred on individuals. The establishment of a constitutional democracy in post-colonial India involved an attempt to free Indians from prevailing types of categorisation, and to place each citizen in a realm of individual agency that went beyond the immutable identity conferred by birth. In the process the Constitution transcended all those identities that both defined and divided Indians.

 

The Constitution provided a legal structure to an implicit idea of India as of one land embracing many. It reflected the idea that a nation may incorporate differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, conviction, consonant, costume, and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that in a democracy under the rule of law, you do not really need to agree all the time — except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The reason India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for three quarters of a century (and that led so many in the 1950s and 1960s to predict its imminent disintegration), is that it maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus. Today, some in positions of power in India seem to be questioning those ground rules, and that, sadly, is why it is all the more essential to reaffirm them now.

The rule of law

Indian nationalism is thus the nationalism of an idea, the idea of what I have dubbed an ever-ever land — emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy under the rule of law. What knits this entire concept of Indian nationhood together is, of course, the rule of law, enshrined in our Constitution.

 

The struggle for Indian independence was, after all, not simply a struggle for freedom from alien rule. It was a shift away from an administration of law and order centred on imperial despotism. It is from this that the idea of ‘constitutional morality’ was born, meaning a national commitment to pursuing desirable ends through constitutional means, to upholding and respecting the Constitution’s processes and structures, and to doing so in a spirit of transparency and accountability, free speech, public scrutiny of government actions and legal limitations on the exercise of power. This was how freedom was intended to flourish in India.

The Constitution’s spirit

Of course, Ambedkar realised it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of the administration to make it inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution. Ambedkar argued that constitutional morality ‘is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic’. He insisted that the Directive Principles — an unusual feature of the Indian Constitution not found elsewhere — were necessary because although the rules of democracy mandated that the people must elect those who will hold power, the principles confirmed that ‘whoever captures power will not be free to do what he likes with it’.

 

To recall these basic principles today is to recognise how far we are currently straying from them, and the dangers inherent in the present government’s practice of paying lip-service to the Constitution while trampling on its spirit. This Republic Day, as we gear up to commemorate the 75th anniversary of our Independence a little over six months later, we must remind ourselves of, and rededicate ourselves to, the ideals that lie behind the Constitution whose entry into force we all celebrate on January 26.

Shashi Tharoor is Lok Sabha MP for Thiruvananthapuram and the author of 23 books, most recently Pride, Prejudice and Punditry

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