Exactly 65 years ago, the world’s greatest treatise on nation building – The Constitution of India came into force. We feel proud and so should you. In this post, we intend to make you feel so.
India – the political and sociological anomaly
“to abandon India to the rule of Brahmins (referring to the Congress Party) would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence. India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages”
- Winston Churchill, 1931 speaking on “Our Duty to India”
A number of brilliant academicians, statesmen, journalists, writers predicted the demise of India if ever the British were to leave the country. The first chapter of Ramchandra Guha’s magnum opus “India After Gandhi” refers to India as an “Unnatural Nation”. Not just lay people, even political scientists made similar arguments. Their reasoning was that the fault lines in Indian society were far too many to sustain a single nation – 3000 and more castes, 22 scheduled languages, a number of religions, wide economic disparities and a history of gender inequality. Historical evidence and expert opinion thus would have us believe that this huge political experiment – the experiment of India was doomed.
Yet, it has been more than 67 years after Independence and India lives. Despite various calamities, natural as well as man-made – droughts, floods, communal riots, secessionist movements and insurgency, we have a healthy and vibrant democracy. There have been no coups like some of our neighbours, we have an intense and largely fair election process, effective and autonomous public institutions like the CAG, Election Commission, and an independent and assertive judiciary. What is it that gives India this uncanny resilience? What is about the Indian Spirit that has proved all these forecasts wrong?
While the reasons for it are many and varied, we focus on the biggest of them all – a strong and democratic constitution written by some of the greatest men of the modern world. We are fortunate to have had freedom fighters of such calibre – the likes of Nehru, Patel, Maulana Azad, Bhima Rao Ambedkar and at the helm, a half-naked fakir who took on the mighty British Empire armed with nothing but the principle of non-violence and the tool of Satyagraha – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
The Indian constitution has 395 articles and 12 schedules. It was written over a period of three years and its drafts were discussed clause by clause.
The constituent assembly finished its task on 26th November, 1949. Many criticised the assembly for being too slow and indecisive. But look at the outcome. The Indian constitution has stood the test of time. It has seen periods of extreme volatility – several wars, the emergency, internal conflict, power struggles between the judiciary and the executive – but never did it fall to an authoritarian dictator or a communist rebellion. Its ‘basic structure’, so elegantly devised by the Supreme Court in the landmark Keshavananda Bharti case stays intact and with that judgement, the Court ensured that it remains intact for the foreseeable future. To understand how severely harmful vested political interests inside a constituent assembly can be, we need to look no further than our own neighbours – Nepal and Pakistan. The 2nd Constituent Assembly of Nepal has once again breached its deadline for enacting a constitution and Pakistan has time and again seen military rule.
One must also remember the backdrop in which it was written – partition and its associated violence, food scarcity, refugee resettlement and a Maoist movement that was fast gathering pace. In the words of Granville Austin, “Fundamental Rights were to be framed amidst the carnage of Fundamental Wrongs”.
Unity in Diversity
The Indian constitution has effectively taken all the factors that produce conflict – religion, language, caste, class and gender – and converted them into factors that unite us. India truly is the epitome of “unity in diversity” at work.
The leaders ensured that the constitution contained all the necessary provisions to maintain a secular state at least on our side of the border. When there was demand for the retention of separate electorates for Muslims, Sardar Patel retorted, “Those who want that kind of thing have a place in Pakistan, not here. Here, we are building a nation and we are laying the foundations of One Nation, and those who choose to divide again and sow the seeds of disruption will have no place, no quarter, here, and I must say that plainly enough.” A popular example of India’s secular traditions is the government profile just a few years ago – a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President and an Italian Catholic head of the ruling party.
Language was another hotly contested topic in the Constituent Assembly. While a large section of the assembly wanted Hindi or Hindustani to be adopted as the official language, others especially people from the South wanted English to continue. Careful balancing and compromise led to Hindi getting status of ‘official language of the union’ but with the attached rider that English would continue to be used for all official purposes of the union for which it was being used before the commencement of the constitution. In addition, certain regional languages were included in the 8th Schedule to the Constitution to recognise their significance and take measures for their development. On the other side of the border, Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the national language on an unwilling Bengali citizenry and the country broke apart.
Another principle that has sustained the Indian democracy is the tradition of free and fair elections with universal adult franchise. It was not common for a newly formed nation, especially one with widespread illiteracy to jump into universal suffrage. However, there was almost unanimous agreement to universal suffrage within the constituent assembly and it was the only provision passed virtually without any debate. Elections in India are a quasi-festival, a sacred ritual of democracy celebrated with the same pomp and show as all our other festivals.
So when Robert Vadra says, that we are mango people in a banana republic, he’s partly right. We are mango people indeed. But this is definitely not a banana republic. It is a republic that has surprised the world with its resilience, spirit and resurgence.
India After Gandhi, Ramchandra Guha
Constitution of India
Indian Constitution at Work, NCERT