top of page

Constitutionalism – Our Only Path?

By Abishek Jebaraj

As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of the adoption of our Constitution, we find ourselves torn between hope and despair. Hope, from steps taken towards making the Constitution a living reality.  Despair, when confronted by our stark failures in reaching its ideals.

Our miracle democracy, as many have called it[1], has remained relatively peaceful in spite of it being a nation birthed out of many.  On one hand, millions have been lifted out of poverty, our Supreme Court has made itself accessible to the most oppressed and our elections are the world’s largest democratic exercise.  On the other hand, even after 70 years, glaring questions remain. How is it that millions of us still grapple with abject poverty? Do any other constitutional democracies co-exist with female infanticide? Why do many in the valley still find their basic rights suspended? Why does the political machinery place itself above the people?

Seventy years is young in the life of a republic – an assumption that stands only if the death of the republic is not imminent.  While that may sound alarmist, the gap between the death and the life of a republic lies in how far it strays from its vision.  Precisely why Dr Sachchidananda Sinha, in the constituent assembly’s inaugural address, quoted this biblical proverb- “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.[2]  When the Constituent Assembly concluded its arduous task of framing the Constitution, the people of India had given to themselves and every future generation a grand vision of a sovereign democratic republic. One that secured justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for its citizens.

But as we look forward to the future, we must revisit why we chose the path of Constitutionalism.  Why did we give ourselves a Constitutional Democracy when even the British pursued a model where elected representatives to Parliament have the final say in the nation’s affairs?

There are three reasons why.  The first was that we needed a Constitution to birth a nation. It was not that a nation birthed the Constitution, as Dr B.R Ambedkar argued during the constituent assembly debates:

I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us. For then only we shall realize the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realising the goal.

The realization of this goal is going to be very difficult – far more difficult than it has been in the United States. The United States has no caste problem. In India there are castes…But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.[3]

While our nation’s foundation stands on fraternity, at no point in our history has fraternity been more fragile than today. If politicians believe they can gain votes by referring to a minority community as a “virus”,[4] it shows that, rather than fostering fraternity, we cheer its massacre. If children as young as 10 can be exploited to work as bonded labourers and carry bricks, barefoot in the scorching sun, because they are born as ‘low caste Dalits’, equality and liberty are found shallower than a coat of paint.  Religious divides; North-South Divides; language divides; caste divides; we ought to see that our disregard of fraternity is far more consequential than being merely a ‘majority versus minority’ or ‘religious’ issue.  Sadly, our compliant short-sightedness over fraternity allows power-hungry politicians to divide and rule while sacrificing our nation’s future on the altar of fraternity. Our constitutional commitment to fraternity lies forgotten.

The second reason why we chose constitutionalism was because it was the best means to limit absolute power in the hands of the government. The framers of the Constitution knew that even when the British withdrew their reign of tyranny over Indians, a new kind of tyranny could emerge from within if left unchecked. It is these anxieties that Dr B.R. Ambedkar presciently expressed when he said:

not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people.  Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is deepened by the realization of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indian place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? “[5]

According to Ambedkar, this danger was only exacerbated by our culture’s vulnerability to hero-worship. He argued that in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world”. [6]

The Constitution of India was enacted as a bulwark between the government and absolute power. Neither our Parliament nor our Prime Minister is Supreme. Our Constitution is. Even our Supreme Court exists to interpret the Constitution, nothing less and nothing more. Yet, the constitutional ideal of limited government continues to elude us. Recent events borne out in public view raise concerns over political defections being motivated by money over conscience. Is our right to information being diluted? Did we just see over 17 money bills denude the power of the Rajya Sabha? Will Aadhar become an enabler of future state-sponsored surveillance?  These questions seem to indicate that the sovereignty of the people expressed through a supreme constitution is now a threatened species. And sadly, like Ambedkar worried, our hero worshippers galore with a tendency to neither speak nor question. One by one the “several thousands of castes” play a game of thrones, and should we not heed to Ambedkar’s anxious plea, we may never attain to our constitutional vision.

Finally, constitutionalism cast a positive obligation upon the state to lift us out of our struggles rather than leave us to them. It guaranteed to us our fundamental rights to equality and freedom of expression, to live where we want, eat what we want and to work and live with dignity. Yet, it also does so much more. It also embodied our aspirations and cast an obligation on the state to do everything in its power to make equality and social justice a living reality for us all.  If there was one thing that united us, it was our vision to see the state serve in lifting all of us forward. This defence for constitutionalism was well articulated by Dr S. Radhakrishnan when he said:

Again, the people-Whether they are Hindus or Muslims, Princes or peasants,-belong to this one country…It is essential for any constitution which is drawn up to make all the citizens realise that their basic privileges–education, social and economic are afforded to them; that there will be cultural autonomy; that nobody will be suppressed; that it will be a constitution which will be democratic in the true sense of the term, where, from political freedom we will march on to economic freedom and equity”[7]

Today, India’s top 1%  owns 73% of the country’s wealth, making us one of the most unequal nations on earth.[8] Our public healthcare and education systems are broken; crime rates are increasing; our police force is understaffed and underpaid; unemployment is on the rise and so many of our children go to bed hungry, not knowing if they have enough in them to wake up the next day.[9]

The sorry state of our nation does not arise because constitutionalism was the wrong path for us to tread. Rather, it’s simply because so much of India’s life and function are still completely outside the Constitution’s reach.  As governors and the governed, we’ve not cherished it enough. In our continued pursuit of tribalism, we have left our nation fully naked to the “destructive forces” of the future that our founders warned against.  The straying has not been overnight. It has been over several decades, sometimes course-correcting but never course-correcting enough.

When India was born, constitutionalism was not one among many paths. It was the only path. For the rich and the poor; the political and the apolitical; the black and the brown; the Kashmiri and the Dravidian; the Muslim and the Hindu; For the Dalit and the Brahmin, constitutionalism was and is the only path to fraternity. Dr Radhakrishnan’s words must therefore urgently and loudly reverberate across this country: “We have been kept apart. It is our duty now to find each other”.[10] For when we begin to believe in our constitutional vision and come together to change things, we will realize that as Ambedkar prophesied the winds of change blow in the direction of fraternity. That the sum of our hopes is far greater than our narrow self-interest.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.




bottom of page