India / The Republic at 70: Celebrating the Constitution

Hindustan Times : Jan 26, 2020, 09:43 AM
Sunday marks the 70th year of the adoption of the Constitution of India. This is a moment to celebrate the country’s rich legacy as a Republic, to pay tribute to all those who helped it evolve as a constitutional democracy and nurtured its traditions, and also to reiterate the commitment to preserve constitutional values, which have been so precious, and have shaped the Indian State as well as the Indian society.

When, on January 26, 1950, India became a Republic, few gave the polity a chance. After all, this was a society divided by caste and religion; it was deeply unequal and hierarchical; poverty and illiteracy were rampant; it had just gone through a violent Partition. Yet, the audaciousness of the drafters of the Constitution was that in this seemingly inhospitable landscape, they invested in creating a democracy — with periodic elections and universal adult franchise; fundamental rights for citizens; an independent judiciary; a complex federal structure; a deep commitment to equality and non-discrimination, especially on lines of identity. Sceptics had history on their side. No other country of this size, diversity and socioeconomic indicators had become a full-fledged democracy. But India’s founders had idealism, commitment and pragmatism on their side. Their vision prevailed.

There have been challenges, of course. Indian constitutional democracy faced its most severe test in 1975 — when the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, proclaimed an Emergency and suspended fundamental rights. Fortunately, this period lasted for only two years. While growth has brought millions out of poverty, the persistence of poverty is a betrayal of the vision of the founders. While caste hierarchies are less entrenched today than the past, the persistence of structural discrimination, unequal opportunities, and untouchability is a black mark on India’s record. While the country has remained secular, the persistence of religious divisions and the increasing use of religion in electoral mobilisation threatens to deepen the cleavages in society. While citizens have continued to enjoy rights, and seek justice from judiciary when denied these rights, the concentration of power in the executive’s hands and the weakening of the instruments of checks and balances on State power is a matter of concern. While India continues to remain united, the continued challenge to the integrity of the State, from Kashmir, parts of Northeast and the Maoist belt in central India poses a security threat. While democracy has only become stronger and more rooted, the temptation by citizens to adopt extra constitutional methods, or resort to the “grammar of anarchy”, in making a political point, or by the State to use excessive force, or resort to authoritarian measures, to quell the voices of citizens remains a concern.

Still, 70 years later, despite the challenges, the big picture that emerges is that of success. India’s founders dreamed big by giving the country a remarkable Constitution. India’s politicians, public servants, civil society and citizens built the structures provided by the Constitution, and broadly have played by the rules of the game. What is needed now is a renewed pledge to abide by the values of the Constitution — of sovereignty resting with the people of India; of democracy; of justice, liberty, fraternity and equality; of secularism, coexistence and tolerance; and of the dignity of the individual.