Posted by: Vikram | December 5, 2010

The Constitution and I

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.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Excellent post.

    Perhaps through my readings, I will come to realize why our Consti was written the way it was

    I’d love it if you could share with us your reading list.

    Maybe much of the top-down, almost patronising tone of the constitution could flow from the fact that its core is basically the Government of India Act 1935?

    Art 356, for example, is nothing but section 93 of the GoI 35. The latter was much hated by the Congress and they refused to take office in the provinces after the 1937 elections unless the Raj ‘promised’ them that the proviso would not be used. Mysteriously, thier opinions abt the provision changed somewhat after 47. 🙂

    • Thanks Hades. First on my list is “The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation”.

      Conrad Barwa, pointed on the facebook comments for this post that since the composition of the nationalist was primarily elite, the tone of the Consti was also elitist. It simply adopted the colonial model of governance.

  2. You are on a very interesting and difficult project. I will be happy to assist you, should you need and if you will keep me updated on your research

    • Thanks Chowla sahab. I will start soon, and will send you questions and queries as they come or post them on this blog.

  3. need changes ? amend the constitution ? our constitution is amended the way the stock prices go up and down !
    And in a country where Laws are not enforced and many are beyond laws, – so what is constitution ?

    • Welcome Neera. I agree completely about the general lack of respect for law and order among Indians.

      My reason for writing the post was to explore the abstract relationship between the Indian Const and the people who are its constituents. Do Indians have a connection with their Consti ? Because here in America, people identify very strongly with their Consti.

      • indian psyche is different from american psyche.
        what is applicable to america cannot be generalised to india.
        indian markets behave differently than american. you should know better.

        for a start we should introduce about “know your constitution and know your rights ” as a subject in high schools in india. perhaps, that generation will collectively start thinking about it ?

        Neera, of course the Indian and American psyches are different, not to mention class differences in both countries.

        However, I feel that the Indian middle class looks upto the American one in many ways and feels its related and equal. So I feel it is reasonable to compare the attitudes of the two on this matter.

        And you are absolutely right about introducing the Constitution in schools. Not only text material but teachers and schools should also encourage activities based on these issues.

        But we shouldnt give up on the young adults. Slowly, through books like ‘India after Gandhi’, the history of republican India is percolating among young English speaking Indians. Perhaps, something similar can be done for the Constitution ?

  4. What’s your take on these articles:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/education/07education.html

    Shanghai is 1 OECD SD above the OECD mean in math and .75 SD above in science. The 90th percentile of Shanghai math scores is above the 99th percentile for the US. That’s a stunning pool of scientific and mathematical talent that China’s producing.

    http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2010/12/07/why-are-chinese-schoolkids-so-good/

    “There are other unanswered questions. Is Shanghai the exception or the rule in Chinese school standards? In some countries, major cities underperform the national average, but that seems less likely in China, given the coast-interior disparities. However, the OECD did look at some rural areas, and found they matched Shanghai’s quality.”

    While India’s middle-class drinks the cool aid and makes risible claims about the superiority of the Indian mind(http://business.rediff.com/slide-show/2009/nov/03/slide-show-1-our-average-student-outperforms-the-american.htm), the Das and Zajonc paper (which you’ve mentioned on your blog) provides a sobering contrast to China’s stunning performance.

    Of course, some claim that the problem is irremediable given their belief (with some scientific evidence, but a few dissenters in the scientific establishment too) in IQ and heredity (see IQ and the wealth of nations for this perspective).

  5. “However, I feel that the Indian middle class looks upto the American one in many ways and feels its related and equal. So I feel it is reasonable to compare the attitudes of the two on this matter.” vikram. That’s your hypothesis.

    Do you have any empirical studies that you have come across for what you state.

    • Neera, my hypothesis is based on my conversations and interactions with family and friends, the prominent presence of America in the media that the middle class consumes and the statements of politicians. I dont have any empirical evidence per se, but this opinion has been put forward by many columnists in their articles.

      I know I am the one that has put forward the hypothesis forward but do you have any evidence for the converse ? I would be interested to know.

  6. sweeping statements in columns, articles and conversations definitely indicates the feel in the air. but in a country of billions of people and “different levels” of middle class – i won’t even count the middle class as having an interest in the constitution. they are choked by the system that they are continuously looking to run away.

    the hypothesis that you have put forward could well be a question that some research student would be interested to explore.

  7. Vikarm, I would recommend a quick read of Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. It has a good summary of how the Constitution was put together and I am sure it lists more specific references in the notes.

  8. […] in what should be a three or four part series on the Indian Constitution. I am trying to understand how and why the Consti was written the way it was. I think I should be able to make good headway on this by reading certain chapters of Granville […]

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Archana Sharma. Archana Sharma said: https://vikramvgarg.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/the-constitution-and-i/ Just came across a nice Blog on politics and Rebublic India […]

  10. […] in what should be a three or four part series on the Indian Constitution. I am trying to understand how and why the Consti was written the way it was. I think I should be able to make good headway on this by reading certain chapters of Granville […]

  11. […] should be an (alteast) four part series on the Indian Constitution. I am trying to understand how and why the Consti was written the way it was. I think I should be able to make good headway on this by reading certain chapters of Granville […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: