Why Is Our Government Insistent on Changing the Constitution?


Why Is Our Government Insistent on Changing the Constitution?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The Constitution of India turns 69 years old today, which, in Indian politics, is positively youthful. In fact, our Constitution is only a few months older than our Prime Minister, and yet, it has been alleged that he feels like it needs to change with the times. Narendra Modi’s celebration of the legacy of Hindutva ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay provides a window into his opinion of the Constitution. In his writings, Upadhyay said the Constituent Assembly, which authored the Constitution, could “think only on the lines of the west”, and that “an un-Indian element” had crept into the Constitution, which should have been drafted in Hindi, according to him.

This flippant attitude toward the very document that gave shape to modern India comes through when Modi directly questions why the Kerala state government complied with the Supreme Court verdict that allowed women entry to Sabarimala Temple. According to the Constitution, no government, at the Centre or state level, can refuse to implement an order from the Supreme Court, but the ruling party either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

In 2017, BJP Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde spoke at an event in Karnataka, where he proudly announced, “The Constitution has been changed many times before. We are here and we have come to change the Constitution. We will change it.” He later went on to add, “If someone says, ‘I am secular,’ I get suspicious. I hope there are no secularists here.” While he’s correct that the Constitution has been amended in the past, his views on secularism are alarming, and indicate what is foremost on his agenda when it comes time to actually “change” the Constitution.

Hegde is not alone in his suspicion toward a secular society. Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath has stated, “I believe the biggest lie in India after independence is the word secularism. The people who introduced this word and people who still use this word, should apologise to the country and its citizens.” Both Adityanath and Hegde occupy senior positions in the BJP, and both of them have expressed intentions toward striking down one of the principles enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution.

While critics of the Constitution continue to grind their teeth over secularism, they would do well to look to the historic hearings that saw Section 377 struck down.

It’s enough to lend credence to claims made by Shashi Tharoor, who has stated in interviews that he believes the BJP is planning a “major assault on the Constitution”. The way BJP leaders have explicitly stated their desire to scrub secularism from India has rubbed off on the public as well. In August last year, reports emerged of a group of activists burning a copy of the Constitution in Delhi while raising anti-Ambedkar slogans.

What’s ironic is that even though most people know are Bhimrao Ambedkar was the chief author of the Indian Constitution, the words “socialist” and “secular”, possibly the most divisive words in the Preamble, were not penned down by him. In fact, Ambedkar along with Nehru were wary to include the word “secular” in the Preamble. The terms were added in 1976, as part of the 42nd Amendment. Passed by the Indira Gandhi-led government, it was the most controversial Amendment of the Constitution in Indian history, as it clamped down on certain powers of the judiciary and state governments, transferring them to the Centre instead.

Funnily enough, this unitary model of statehood was exactly what the present BJP’s ideological lodestone Deen Dayal Upadhyay preferred over the union of states model. After Indira Gandhi’s government was defeated in the next election by the Janata Party (which merged with BJP in 2013), many of the measures of the 42nd Amendment were rolled back, but the terms “socialist” and “secular” remained.

Clearly, this has become a pet peeve of the BJP, and they’re intent on getting rid of those words. So far, the most significant changes to the Constitution during the party’s current term are ones they didn’t have much to do with. Foremost among those would have been the striking down of Section 377, which criminalised homosexuality – not exactly the kind of hill on which the present crop of BJP lawmakers would choose to die. But while critics of the Constitution continue to grind their teeth over secularism, they would do well to look to the historic hearings that saw Section 377 struck down. After the law was struck down, Menaka Guruswamy, the lawyer who argued against it said in an interview, “The beauty of the Constitution is it compels us to unlearn the prejudices that we hold true.”

Maybe instead of viewing secular principles as a threat to their vision for India, the BJP ministers could unlearn some of their prejudices instead. The Republic Day is as good as any to start.