Rediff Logo News Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index


The Rediff Special/Lal Kishinchand Advani

Why we need to change our Constitution

On April 26, when Home Minister L K Advani spoke about the need for a constitutional review in the course of a lecture in Patna, he ushered the debate out of the pages of the BJP-led government's National Agenda into the hurly-burly of Indian socio-political life. With editorials, television encounters, interviews, the debate, focusing on a Presidential form of governance, was already gathering momentum when by the by came May 11.

Five underground nuclear explosions in Pokhran and the debate stood silenced by domestic euphoria and the consequent international outcry. India's nuclear capability hogged the headlines and a constitutional debate was the last thing on the minds of an exultant government and a patriotically charged people. Now that the dust from those explosions is settling down, the BJP is sure to resurrect its focus on a constitutional review. This time in right earnest.

Does the 48-year-old Constitution require modification? Should India abandon the Westminster model and opt for a Presidential system? Rediff On The NeT begins a debate on whether the Constitution needs change and if the Indian people are ready for it.

E-Mail this feature to a friend

No other issue of long-range consequence to India's polity and society has so stirred the national mind in recent times as the proposal for a comprehensive review of the Constitution mooted by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. The National Agenda for Governance adopted by the constituents of the ruling BJP-led alliance says: "We will appoint a commission to review the Constitution of India in the light of the experience of the past 50 years and to make suitable recommendations."

Disinformation is being spread in some quarters as to what this promise implies. It is said that this government wishes to scrap the Ambedkar Constitution and adopt an entirely different Constitution. In specific terms, it is being alleged, mainly by spokesmen of the Communist parties, that the government harbours a desire to throws secularism overboard and also to scrap the policy of reservations.

Both these allegations are utterly baseless and politically motivated.

I would like at the very outset to affirm with all the emphasis at my command that the Commission for Constitutional Review contemplated by the present government will be required not to tinker with the essential ingredients of the present Constitution. Further, I would like to categorically aver that both secularism as well as the scheme of reservations for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and backward classes are such essential ingredients, which cannot be, and will not be, tampered with in any way.

On both issues, my party and government have a principled approach. In the context of secularism, the BJP would like the country to ponder why India has a secular Constitution in the first place. India became Independent in 1947. But its freedom was accompanied by Partition. And the basis of Partition was religion. The Muslim-majority areas became Pakistan and the Hindu-majority areas became India. The princely states were allowed to make their own choice.

The architects of Pakistan's constitution opted for theocracy and declared their country and Islamic state. If our Constituent Assembly had done something similar, perhaps the world could not have blamed us. If, nevertheless, the Constituent Assembly drew up a secular Constitution under which all citizens, irrespective of their faith, are equal, it is essentially because theocracy is alien to India's history, tradition, and culture. The concept of Sarva Panth Samabhaav (equal respect for all faiths) has always been regarded as an essential attribute of the state and statecraft in our country.

So ingrained is the Indian concept of the secularism in our national culture that it did not even occur to the architects of the Constitution that they should specially mention it as one of its perambulator principles. It is only during the anti-democratic Emergency rule imposed by Shrimati Indira Gandhi (1975-77) that this secularism found a place in the Constitution through the route of amendment.

Article 368 of the Constitution is the provision which lays down how the Indian Constitution can be amended. The history of the enactment of this provision, and of its varying interpretations from time to time, is really fascinating.

Commending this provision to the Constituent Assembly. Dr B R Ambedkar quoted at some length Thomas Jefferson, the great American statesman who had played a key role in the framing of the American Constitution. Ambedkar cited two quotations from Jefferson:

"We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of the majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country."

"The idea that institutions established for the use of the nation cannot be touched or modified, even to make them answer their end, because of rights gratuitously supposed in those employed to manage them in the trust for the public, may perhaps be a salutary provision against the abuses of monarch, but is most absurd against the nation itself. Yet our lawyers and priests generally inculcate this doctrine and suppose that preceding generations held the earth more freely than we do: had a right to impose laws on us, unalterable by ourselves, and that we, in the like manner, can make laws and impose burdens on future generations, which they will have no right to alter: in fine, that the earth belongs to the dead and not the living."

L K Advani, continued