As long as even one Indian holds aloft Ambedkar’s portrait and recites the Preamble, the Republic remains alive, says Mihir S Sharma.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
A couple of Sundays ago, the Samvidhan Bachao Andolan met in Ajmer’s Dargah Bazaar and hoisted the Tricolour.
The Preamble was read in unison, and then a group of legal experts addressed the crowd on their Fundamental Rights and Duties.
According to The Times of India, the group’s leader, Mohammed Alimuddin, says it is intended to be ‘a movement to know our rights and duties’.
Seventy years after We The People gave to ourselves a Constitution, India celebrated a very special Republic Day.
On few previous Republic Days have we seen large groups of people across the country, without any government or State backing, organise to rededicate themselves to the Constitution, to familiarise themselves with its magnificient Preamble, all while holding aloft the photograph of its iconic drafter, B R Ambedkar.
Far from being distant, wordy and inaccessible, the Constitution today is becoming a popular document for large sections of India, just as it always was for Dalits.
It should be obvious that the further that India’s mainstream politics drifts from Constitutional principles, the more radical a document it becomes.
No Constitution is perfect, and India’s is no exception.
Its protections for free speech and property are too weak.
Its implementation of federalism is a flawed colonial legacy, reflecting the distrust for native-run provincial governments in the Government of India Act, 1935.
But the fact is that it is based on liberal, inclusive principles — consequent, no doubt, to the years of debate in the Constituent Assembly between people of widely different political persuasions.
India is not merely a democracy, but a liberal democracy.
It provides rights and protections for those who disagree, dissent, or constitute permanent or temporary minorities.
It is liberal democracies that need written constitutions — democracies could get by just with elections.
The whole point of constitutions is to constrain the executive and the legislature, to moderate the ‘will of the people’, which can be unclear, volatile, or intemperate.
In this majoritarian moment in our history, it is well to remember that the reason that Republic Day exists is precisely to minimise the danger that majoritarianism poses to our society and our state.
On multiple fronts, Constitutional principles are under threat.
Secularism has few proud adherents left in the political sphere, given that the poisonous lie of ‘appeasement’ has been attached by the stupid and the malicious to any act that seeks to protect India’s natural diversity.
The separation of powers lies in tatters, with Parliament a cipher — its members rendered powerless by the anti-defection law, its powers of supervision minimal in comparison to other democracies, and its long-standing rules ignored or abused by the current dispensation.
(The less said about the judiciary, the better.)
And we face a crisis of federalism, with an unbalanced geographical coalition in power now for six-and-a-half years, with states’s tax powers reduced, with their fiscal independence under threat, and the Government of India now claiming the power to unilaterally turn states into Union Territories.
Meanwhile, new challenges have arisen.
More and more Indians live and work online.
Their right to access the Internet privately and consistently is not assured; this country saw more shutdowns than any other last year.
Citizenship itself, the very bedrock of any liberal republic, is under threat.
No state should impose the burden of proof on the accused; but, today, there is a real possibility that every Indian will stand accused of being an ‘outsider’, and forced to prove their innocence.
This is the most gross and grotesque violation of Constitutional principles imaginable.
Edmund Burke, the original conservative orator, once said of the American constitution that it is ‘all sail and no anchor’ — that it had too little to hold it in place as the tides of time buffeted it.
The centuries have proved Burke wrong, as they have discredited Thomas Jefferson’s argument that ‘the earth belongs always to the living generation… The constitution and laws of their predecessors [are] extinguished’.
The truth lies in between these facts: That the interpretation of constitutions must indeed change over time, while their basic principles must be respected.
This is why the second most important part of any constitution is how it must be amended — second only to that part that tells us how it may be protected.
And who must republics be protected from? Why, we have known the answer to that for as long as we have had republics — from Caesars.
From those who, powered by the adulation of the mob and a transitory majority, believe they themselves embody the ‘will of the people’ and the trappings of a republic are unfair and unjust restrictions on their actions.
Constitutions protect the people from each other, and from themselves.
We have every reason to believe that these vast groups of people gathering in support of the Constitution and its basic principles do not yet compose the sort of majority that wins general elections.
But that does not matter.
It is to protect them and their right to speak that the Constitution was written.
As long as even one Indian holds aloft Ambedkar’s portrait and recites the Preamble, the Republic remains alive.
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