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E-Mail this column to a friend 50 years is no cause for celebration

Arvind Lavakare on 50 Years of the Republic.

January 26, 2000 marks the golden jubilee of the Constitution of India. But it is one milestone in the nation's life that hardly calls for celebration. Indeed, the decision, whoever's it was, not to have a special Parliamentary session to mark the occasion was a wise one, for it would have been a farce of uninformed back slapping and back biting entailing waste of a lot of time and millions of rupees.

On the other hand, one must welcome the couple of initiatives undertaken to seriously introspect, to review our Constitution in the light of experience and wisdom derived from its working in the past half century.

However, the move for such a review being a BJP idea, various Opposition politicians are against it, fearing that the Hindutva brigade has some hidden agenda --- what else? ---in attempting that exercise. And quick to jump on to any anti-BJP track, Star TV the other night brought in a firangi who has, it seems, just released a book of his which, he gave the impression, propounds the view that while the Constitution of India has all along been a hunky dory document, it is the politicians who have let it down.

A rebuttal of that old, familiar argument was made by Subhash Kashyap some eight years ago. He observed that 'the type of politicians who have more and more come to the fore after 1950 are very largely the products of the system established by the Constitution, its demands, constraints and compulsions. Also, whether the Constitution has proved unworthy of the people or the people have proved unworthy of the Constitution, the inference would be the same --- need for reforms.'

Those words of Kashyap, with hands-on experience as secretary-general of our Lok Sabha from 1984 to 1990; distil his expertise in constitutional law as well as parliamentary affairs that brought him many distinctions and honours in India and abroad. It was he who edited the erudite omnibus book called Reforming The Constitution published in 1992 --- eight full years before Star TV's firangi did so. It is a pity therefore that Star's familiar facetious look at affairs of the state once again took thousands of our urban viewers for a ride --- all in two minutes.

This column today is a faint and filtered echo of Kashyap's views expressed in the above-referred book. They are being replayed here only because they are so studied and solemn. They need to projected anew because, as a recent All India Radio discussion in Mumbai brought home to me, there must be millions like that (a) ex-ambassador of ours who expressed his inadequacy in debating 50 years of our Constitution (b) retired chief secretary of Maharashtra government who did not know that the Constituent Assembly of India which framed our Constitution was not representative of free India but, instead, was elected on a franchise covering merely 11 per cent of British India and the surrogates of some 500-odd princely states, and (c) even those citizen activists of ours who flit between the USA and India are not aware that our existing Constitution had necessarily to be fitted into the framework enjoined by our colonial masters.

What then is the track record of our Constitution? Jawaharlal Nehru had told the Constituent Assembly that a constitution which was not able to solve the problem of the poor and the starving was merely a paper constitution --- useless and purposeless. By that criterion, the 40 per cent of our population living below the poverty line today, 50 years after the Constitution came into effect, are a testimony that our Constitution has failed us, failed us miserably.

The fact that our Constitution has been amended 78 times in the last 50 years -- making it the most amended constitution in the world -- is another indicator that there were just too many facets that were not foreseen by our founding fathers. A few years ago, this constant tinkering resulted in a cartoon in which a bookseller, when asked for copy of the Constitution of India, tells the customer, "Sorry, we don't sell periodicals here."

Take a look at the meat of the matter, so to say. The supreme values of our Constitution have been recognised as (i) Socialism (ii) Secularism (iii) Parliamentary democracy (iv) Justice (v) Liberty (vi) Equality (vii) Fraternity (viii) Individual dignity and (ix) Unity and integrity of the nation.

Excepting "Liberty" -- the concept that has allowed each of us to do almost anything that one wants without much fear of whatever laws that have been created -- the record on all the above "sacred" values in our "sacred" document can be rated as being anywhere between "E" to "-A" As regards "national unity and integration", time was when a war provided the chemistry to bind the whole country into a magical one. After Kargil, war too is no more a sure bet. And the only single issue that has always united literally all the politicians has been the periodic demands for an increase in pay and perks of legislators.

It would take pages to debate how exactly the Constitution of India has delivered on the above nine areas in the last 50 years. Hence, it seems best to restrict this column to examine three ingredients that have created a fair amount of heat, heart burning and harm.

Let's begin with the word 'socialist' which our Republic was supposed to be as per the Constitution's Preamble amended in 1976 during the period of the Emergency.

Even before that formal inclusion in the cornerstone of our nation, the idea of socialism was very much there in our Constitution makers' minds. It was contained in what are known as 'Directive Principles of State Policy' that are spelt out from Articles 38 to 51 in the Constitution.

Those Principles specifically speak of the State securing a social order in which "justice, social, economic and political" shall inform all institutions of the national life, striving to minimise inequalities in income, ensuring distribution of ownership and control of material resources, preventing concentration of wealth and means of production, providing equal wages for equal work, providing for right to work and education etc. etc. ---all that blah blah from any standard treatise on socialism.

Fifty years down the line, the stark ground reality is just the opposite of what the Constitution idealised as a goal. And the refrain of economic liberalisation from 1991 has only rubbed in the salt of a festering wound. Clearly, our Constitution was just a paper document for socialism. The fault lay in the fact that its directive principles to legislators have always been non-enforceable in any court of law. A court has never ever been empowered all these fifty years to issue an order to the government to fulfil a directive principle of the Constitution.

The alternative then is either to make those directive principles legally enforceable or drop the colossal hypocrisy by eliminating those principles from the Constitution along with the word 'Socialist' from its Preamble.

Similar is the sordid story of the word 'Secular' appearing in our Constitution's Preamble. An agonising aside here is that many of our political leaders have, in their monumental ignorance, held forth about our founding fathers giving us a 'secular' Constitution that is now being sought to be raped by the Hindu 'communalists.' The reality is altogether different.

Thus, speaking in Parliament on the Hindu Code Bill --- enacted into law in the mid-fifties --- Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, an intellectual giant and an architect of our Constitution, made it amply clear that he did not believe that our Constitution was secular. His argument in support was elementary: the Constitution allowed different treatment to various communities and the legislators could frame separate laws for different communities.

That situation has not changed a wee bit even after the Constitution's Preamble was amended in 1976 to include 'Secular' as another facet of the Indian Republic.

The truth today is that we have separate laws for different communities, administration of places of worship is permitted to be entrusted to government officers, financial assistance is allowed to religious institutions, certain religious practices are permitted to be changed by the State, distinctions based on caste and community are legitimised for the purpose of employment in government, religious figures are publicly honoured by the State, the tallest political leaders make it a point to be to publicly attend religious feasts and functions at the public exchequer's cost, appointment of ambassadors, ministers and even the President of India is based on shameless but serious consideration of caste and community --- all this and much more have exploded the myth that the Indian State has been 'secular,' aloof and distant from matters of religion and communities.

The tragic, despicable truth is that any talk of India's secularism has been as much a cruel joke after the 42nd constitutional amendment in 1976 as it was half a century ago.

The options are, once again, crystal clear. We must either drop the hypocritical 'Secular' from our Constitution's Preamble or begin to implement the word's true meaning with deadly earnestness. A good beginning would be to issue a government ordinance banning any application or admission form that solicits the applicant's religion or community or caste. Does any national leader today have the spine and the spunk to do this?

Let's go on to parliamentary democracy. Perhaps because they were familiar with the British political system, our Constitution makers gave us the parliamentary system based on universal adult franchise. The underlying belief was that our largely illiterate population was politically wise and mature enough to exercise its right intelligently, freely and with a sense of responsibility.

That belief was translated into our sacred document despite the views of some members of our Constituent Assembly. These members had expressed fears that the Constitution they had framed might give rise to a new class of professional politicians which could be its undoing as these people tend to become parasites on society and begin to live on their ministerships, memberships of legislatures etc. with nothing else to fall back upon. They feared that adult suffrage might prove to be a monstrous experiment if it unleashes forces which work in favour of sectional interests instead of working for national good.

How prophetic those fears have turned out to be! When voters cannot understand the value of their votes and cannot appreciate national problems, representation naturally goes to various vested interests, group leaders and gang leaders. Hence, it is that we today have the breed of professional politicians for whom national interest is only a matter of lip sympathy.

Power for its own sake or for personal ends has become the supreme value. They are more concerned with somehow getting to power and retaining it by hook or by crook. Those in government remain so occupied in the struggle for sheer survival that they have little time for serving the people. Populism has acquired respectability, while hypocrisy and sycophancy have attained the status of national characteristics.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself had lurking doubts about the suitability of parliamentary democracy as a system of governance. Speaking at the national seminars held on the subject in 1956 and 1957, he had said. 'The business of government and the business of Parliament becomes more and more complicated and it becomes a little doubtful how far parliamentary democracy can carry on its work and solve such problems. Some kind of a division of authority may become necessary; otherwise problems might remain unsolved, unsolved problems are dangerous…'

There then seems no escape from admitting that parliamentary democracy based on adult franchise in an environment of the largest number of illiterates in the world has failed to deliver for the Indian nation. And we therefore need an alternative model, whatever the likes of Star TV, its firangi guest and the bunch of pseudo-secularist politicians might say.

Overall, the conclusion is irresistible that the great jurists, patriots and freedom fighters who framed our Constitution fifty years ago misread the times and generations that were to succeed them. A major contributory factor for that may have been that they, the founding fathers, were largely foreign-educated and belonging to landed aristocracy or propertied classes.

Though he himself belonged to that class, credit must be given to Jawaharlal Nehru for harbouring an inkling fear of what could well happen. Speaking at the All India Congress Committee meeting on July 7, 1946, Nehru had said, 'I do think that some time or other in the future, we may have to summon our revolutionary Constituent Assembly.'

That time seems to have finally arrived. Our leaders --- Sonia Gandhi and that entire lot who simply abhor the BJP's thinking cap --- must be willing to see beyond today and beyond their sordid self-interests. If they don't, the Constitution of India will remain little more than a piece of registered paper which booksellers don't keep on their shelf.

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