Constitutions can be changed if they prove wanting. But there must be good reasons for doing so
Though the phrase “history is written by the victors” is attributed to Winston Churchill, the origins of the catchphrase are lost in the mists of time. Professional historians scoff at the idea, for they wish to write for, and on behalf of, the subaltern. But political parties, which come to power with a majority, take the axiom very seriously indeed. Take the members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and their ideological backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Though it engages in double-speak, clearly the right wing intends to rewrite the history of India and of the Constitution, if not today, then tomorrow.
Union Minister Anantkumar Hegde apologised to Parliament for his remark last December that the BJP had come to power to change the Constitution, but he did state as much. The chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the right-winger, Ram Bahadur Rai, said so to a news magazine in June 2016. There is no indication that they and other leaders have changed their mind. The RSS did not participate at all in the history of our freedom struggle which culminated in the making of a Constitution. Therefore, the erasure of history is a must. The right wing is tiresomely predictable, and anyone can foresee that the first casualty of the exercise will be secularism. The second will be democracy.
The proposal for change appears quite senseless. The Indian Constitution is large and unwieldy but it is considered to be one of the finest in the world. The authors of the constitutional draft, especially B.N Rau and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, were known for their mastery of comparative law, history, politics, sociology and the literary idiom. More importantly, the Constitution was the outcome of two major movements in Indian history that shaped each other. One was the series of colonial laws enacted to govern India; notably the Government of India Act, 1935. The second was the freedom struggle that brought together large numbers of Indians in a spectacular anti-imperialist and nationalist project. The historical struggle generated imaginations, aspirations and ideals that were indisputably democratic.
Why we need a Constitution
As early as 1928, an All-Parties Conference established on May 19 a committee chaired by Motilal Nehru to consider and determine a future constitution for India. Among noteworthy recommendations of the committee was an integrated list of social, economic and political rights, minority rights, and universal adult franchise. The Motilal Nehru Report dismissed the idea that non-literacy could pose a problem for universal adult franchise. “Political experience can only be acquired by active participation in political institutions and does not entirely depend on literacy.” The report deeply inspired the Constituent Assembly, which met in the wake of momentous movements for Independence in the 1940s. Introducing the resolution on the aims and objectives of the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly on December 13, 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged that the strength of the people was behind the Assembly. He committed that ‘we’ shall go as far as the people, not any party or group, but the people as a whole shall wish us to go.
The Assembly also met in the shadow of tremendous violence sparked off by Partition. Despite major destruction of lives and property, the makers of the Constitution continued to hold fast to the values of the freedom struggle: democracy, fundamental rights, minority rights, limited government, rule of law, and an independent judiciary. That is why the Indian Constitution has held a fractious body politic together, when country after country in the post-colonial world has fallen prey to authoritarianism. It has enthused us; it has enabled us to make the transition from subject to citizen. There is cause for celebration.
Not on the same page
Not all Indians rejoiced. The Constitution was finalised on November 26, 1949. On November 30, 1949, the mouthpiece of the RSS, the Organiser, lamented that the Constitution does not mention unique constitutional developments in ancient Bharat: Manu’s laws written much before the laws of Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia (sic). The organisation disdained the national flag and berated the Constitution. It articulated intense desire to chart a new constitution when in power. Today the organisation and its party are in power, and we hear open threats that the Constitution of India, which gives us our identity, and that acts as a focal point for loyalties and democracy, shall be written over.
Of course, constitutions can be changed if they prove wanting. But there must be good reasons for doing so. Rewriting a Constitution to obliterate a history that records the non-participation of the religious right in the making of democratic constitutionalism, is hardly reason enough. In any case what would a constitution that reflects ancient Indian culture look like? Dr. Ambedkar had warned in 1948 that no democratic constitution can be modelled on the Hindu tradition of state and village panchayats. What is the village he asked, but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? Before it begins to speak of constitutionalising the soul of India, the religious right should recollect that this soul is deeply fractured by the indelible tracks of caste and gender.
Setting universal values
The Indian Constitution also gave voice to democratic aspirations in the Preamble. The Constitution is a normative document, but the values it espouses are universal and ‘thin’. They do not reflect the belief system of one section of the population even if it is in a majority. Nor do these values dismiss the value systems of minority groups. The religious right, however, intends to move to a thick conception of the good: this is what we should believe, this is what we should do.
Dr. Ambedkar had cautioned against precisely this when he spoke in the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948. Citing Grote, the historian of Greece, Dr. Ambedkar talked of constitutional morality. This is best realised when citizens do not worship but revere the Constitution. It is realised when citizens possess freedom and rights. And it can be realised because the Constitution provides a framework to accommodate rival points of view as well as mechanisms for reconciliation. Only then will the Constitution be as sacred to our opponents as to ourselves. Only a thin conception of the good in the Constitution can hold a plural and diverse people together.
But constitutional morality, warned Dr. Ambedkar, has to be cultivated. Our people have yet to learn it, for democracy is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic. His words proved prescient. It is the institutionalisation of constitutional democracy that has changed the way Indians think of themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to the state. The Constitution has managed to inculcate democratic sensibilities and spark yearnings for more democracy, not less.
Those who would change the Constitution should reflect on Dr. Ambedkar’s words in the Constituent Assembly. On December 17, 1946, he reminded the Assembly that power is one thing, wisdom is quite another thing. When deciding the destiny of nations, dignities of people, dignities of leaders and dignities of parties ought to count for nothing. The destiny of the country should count for everything.
Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University
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