A Republic Day Reminder: The Constitution is our Greatest Liberal Point of Reference

Social Commentary

A Republic Day Reminder: The Constitution is our Greatest Liberal Point of Reference

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

Last May in Gujarat, four different Dalit marriage processions were pelted with stones by their upper-caste neighbours. According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2019, there were close to 44,000 Dalit-related atrocities across the country, in 2017 alone. These were only the ones that were reported. Though Article 15 of the Constitution and the SC/ST atrocities act attempts to locate India’s laws in the realm of equality, the difference between a liberal document and its cultural influence is glaring. 

As we step into our 71st year as republic, what does the Constitution mean to us today? Will the renewed focus on the values enshrined in the document continue to mean something in this century?

According to Granville Austin, a prominent historian of the Indian Constitution, the document is “first and foremost a social document”. Austin believed the Indian Constitutional project was “revolutionary”, especially in the ways that it married aspiration to both the government and the governed. The Preamble to the Constitution, for example, fraternises ideals borrowed from documents like the American and the Irish Constitution. So ambitious and varied was the cultural influence on the initial drafts that it was at one point even accused of being “un-Indian”. 

Regardless, the Constitution, which came into effect 70 years ago today, has become more of a relic compared to the gloriously wide-eyed opportunity it once presented. As we witness the elaborate Republic Day parade, one must question whether the grandness of this celebration matches with the unrealised ideals and promises this document once boasted of.

As a wave of anti-CAA demonstrations and gatherings ebbs and flows across the country today, the popularity of the Preamble to the Constitution as a tool of protest has revived.

A drafting committee of eight, chaired by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, put in three years to produce the entire document, which was eventually enacted in full on 26 January, 1950. As a wave of anti-CAA demonstrations and gatherings ebbs and flows across the country today, the popularity of the Preamble to the Constitution as a tool of protest has revived. Largely, because while in its shadow we remain illiberal, the Constitution continues to be our greatest liberal point of reference. Not religion, not ritual, not faith, but the Constitution.

That said, even the Constitution has had to evolve to address persistent social frictions. The word “secular”, for example, was added to the Preamble only in 1976. Several decades later, the word’s essence is under threat from several quarters.

On a more academic level, the document is also the second-longest in the world and is to the layman, unreadable, and therefore unread. All popular readings of the document are thus limited to the Preamble that in itself is as unrealised as it is auspicious.

Consider other examples. Articles 14 to 18 of the Constitution promise “equality”, whereas certain articles even talk specifically about the distribution of wealth. A recent Forbes report says that the wealth of the 116 billionaires of the country is greater than wealth of half of the nation put together. According to an Oxfam report India’s 1 per cent got richer by 39 per cent in 2018, while the wealth of the bottom half grew by a mere two per cent. All of that amidst overwhelmingly poor numbers for the economy and massive unemployment set to hurt the poor far more than it would ever hurt the rich.

The Constitution ought to be imbibed like a cultural anthem, an endless era of equality, community, peace and justice that everyone gives and draws strength from.

When it comes to “social equality”, certain castes and religions enjoy more freedom to practice faith and religion than others. Liberty is enshrined in this document, but various governments have used oppressive Colonial-era sedition laws to prevent dissent, which is constitutionally provided for by a democracy. From Bengal to Madhya Pradesh, regardless of ideologies or mandates, governments have weaponised the Constitution to blatantly oppress its subjects. In April, 2018 Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla was booked under the Sedition Law for posting cartoons critical of the government and judiciary. In Manipur in the same year, a TV journalist was booked for criticising the Chief Minister of the state. None of these cases led to convictions, but they helped in curbing criticism or deflecting attention to a point.

Education and healthcare are rights that elections ought to pivot around, but somehow, both citizens and polity have knotted themselves in a carnal embrace of the inconsequential and impertinent – religion, caste, class. Ambedkar once said that he would burn the Constitution were it ever misused. Cumulatively, that may eventually become the document’s leading applications.

The near absence of fair Constitutional implementation on the ground is not entirely the fault of the document. Equality is as much a right as it is a function of individual grace and gratitude. For a social system built on “othering”, citizens are quick to claim rights but disinclined to allow any. Muslim communities are increasingly struggling to find land to bury their dead, while in certain states, people from lower-castes do not enjoy the same access to public places as those of the upper castes. The concept of justice remains vague, with people swift to demand but slow to help deliver it. Religious and caste minorities rely on the Constitution for empathy because everywhere else they are disqualified by design.

This is, however, just the Preamble, the skin that has wrinkled into a papery mass of inconsequence. That it is largely up to our political masters to uphold the values and virtues of this sacred document is perhaps its greatest tragedy.

None of this is to say that should it ever be realised and practiced to the full, the Constitution is useless. It exhibits rare social compassion, structural virtue and foremost, that elusive form of patriotism which demands the country to become an extension of the document. The Constitution may have become a shy museum artefact that one can no longer measure proximity to, it remains that elegant destination we assumed we were headed towards after Independence.

The Constitution ought to be imbibed like a cultural anthem, an endless era of equality, community, peace and justice that everyone gives and draws strength from. It’s all there, in those pages, the brightest morning this country has been waiting to wake up to.

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