On this blog, I have mentioned that there is a general lack of constitutional awareness among India’s middle classes. One rarely hears urban middle class Indians say words like ‘unconstitutional’ or quote a fundamental right or any amendments. I myself have a basic familiarity with the Constitution based on vague pronouncements in the media and the sporadic mention of it in our ill-designed school civics texts. But I have found the document itself too formidable and dense to read. The sociologist Pratap Bhanu Mehta remarks that the Indian independence movement was perhaps ‘the result of British rule having produced too many lawyers’. I dont know about the broad movement itself, but the Constitution it produced certainly merits such a statement.
I am about to embark on a study of books relating to the framing of the Constitution and its success/failures in Republican India. Before I gain more than a layman’s perspective on the document, I would like to state my thoughts about the Consti as a moderately knowledgeable Indian citizen.
In my understanding, a constitution is a set of basic principles that all of society should try to embody and the state should adhere to. Its very nature is universal and as such it is usually unequivocal in its provisions. However, the Indian Consti seems to be an exception. The first amendment of the American Constitution expanded freedom of speech to virtually everything that could be said or done, while the first amendment of the Indian Constitution restricted the same right. A litany of states, castes and religions finds mention in the Constitution, with federal and state laws not applying to many tribes, communities and certain states/districts. While these exceptions may be driven by India’s bewildering diversity, they do make large sections of the document irrelevant for most of the population.
Another objective of a written a Constitution is laying down the principles on which laws can be made and struck down by courts. The Constitution is the supreme law, but it usually doesnt contain law itself. Laws reflect changing times and challenges a society faces, and as such are expected to change as the situation demands. Basic principles are not. Mixing principle and law can confuse a populace, and make temporary provisions cornerstones of the people’s imagination of the state. An example here would be the reservations, some of which are hardwired into the Constitution. I myself do not doubt the need for reservations, but by explicitly mentioning policies and caste groups, the Constitution might restrict the scope for state action in pursuit of social justice and alienate sections of the population.
Lastly, we have the issue of governance. Once again, one would expect constitutions to lay down the basic relationships between the people and the state, and the constituent members of the overall polity of the nation. But the Indian Constitution again is an exception, it lays down the structure of the government itself in a relatively detailed fashion. The famed 73rd Amendment is one example, decentralization is imposed by top down decrees. The nature of local government is not organic but reflects the imagination and imperatives of a centralized elite.
Given these thoughts, it is no surprise that the Constitution of my country feels like a distant and challenging document to me. It seems almost to be a set of complex rules and compromises that keep India’s current geographical space politically united rather than an inspiring document that India’s downtrodden can leverage in their quest for equality. Perhaps through my readings, I will come to realize why our Consti was written the way it was. But there is no doubt in my head that our Constitution needs better PR: popular relatability.