Posted by: Vikram | January 30, 2018

The family, the economy and the Constitutional Morality project

The Indian Republic began its innings with prescient words from Dr. Ambedkar regarding what he called ‘Constitutional morality’, the individuals understanding of right and wrong, as informed by the core constitutional values of justice, liberty and equality. In his speech on November 4, 1948 while introducing the draft constitution for debate, Dr. Ambedkar said,

“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”

I have an anecdote from my childhood to share which typifies the absence of constitutional morality in India. Those were the days during which personal computers had only recently been introduced in India, and people were setting up air conditioned ‘computer rooms’ as businesses. A friend of my uncle had also ventured into the computer room business, and had invited him for a tour. Now, ask any 90s Indian kid, and they will tell you that a cardinal rule for entering a computer room was to first take off footwear, mandir style, before one ventured in. A few minutes into the tour, my uncle reminded his friend that he had perhaps forgotten to remove his sandals. The friend replied, “Bhaisahab, agar main chappal nikal dunga, to in sab ko pata kaise chalega, ki yahan per boss kaun hain.” (If I remove my footwear like the others, how will everyone here know who the boss is.)

It is not that this friend was a generally immoral or unpleasant person. In fact, it is entirely likely that he deeply respected his parents and elders, never forgeting to touch their feet when the occasion demanded so. It is also probable that this person spent a portion of the day in pooja, seeking transcendence from the temporal world of computer room businesses. Indeed, while Indians have continued to imbibe age-old socio-religious values, and abide by the moral framework bequeathed by an evolving civilization with a long history, we have not managed to blend this framework with the moral vision of our Constitution, especially the values of equality and liberty.

For too many Indians, the Constitution has remained a laborious set of rules that governments and officials should abide by, in theory. It remains at a distance from our homes and individual selves. Indian parents conscientiously teach their children that disrespecting elders is unacceptable. But the same parents do not indicate to their children that treating others as inferiors or stopping others from speaking their own mind is equally unacceptable. At home, the Indian child sees a clear hierarchy, with father or some other elder male figure as boss, who usually calls the shots. ‘House rules’, which are ubiquitous in the US, with all members of a family, including the father, obeying certain rules are rarely heard of in India. The sidelining of constitutional morality begins at home.

The absence of constitutional values is also rooted in the informal reality of our economy. The lack of formal employment options implies that being apprehended for various kinds of criminal behavior doesnt really affect an individual’s chances of landing a stable job. This makes it easier for our youth to justify engaging in ‘street power’ criminality and garner favor with unscrupulous political elements. Formal employment opportunities would not only mitigate any ideas of law-breaking, but would also introduce our youth to new forms of socio-political identification via membership in professional organizations. Such organizations engage with the state, not to demand special privileges or treatment for a specific ethnic/cultural group, but to ensure that the legal and professional environment in which their members operate is fair and enabling. Dealing with the state from the perspective of professional regulation rather than ethnic identity will be a key step in graduating from a functional democracy to a successful democracy.

India has had 70 years of constitutional democracy, scores of free and fair elections, and robust culture of political participation. But the paradigm of such participation has remained trapped in a Darwinian logic, with politics seen as a competition between various ethnic groups to control the state and the bounty of tax-payer revenue that sustains it. At a personal level, despite the acknowledgements of the value of democracy in public, experiences and examples at home condition the individual to think of inequality as natural, and free speech as threat to tradition and stability. The biggest contribution we can make to our Republic is use our talents to create formal employment, and imbibe constitutional values, not just religious ones at home.

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