Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was the prime architect of the Indian Constitution. He put his heart and soul into it and gave to a complex and diverse country like India a comprehensive document in the form of the Constitution on 26 November 1949.
Dr Ambedkar is no doubt remembered fondly by the nation on several occasions every year; on his birth and death anniversaries and on the Republic Day, and of late, since last couple of years, on the newly conceived Constitution Day. One thing is conspicuous in all these events. Dr. Ambedkar is remembered largely for his commitment to and efforts for social justice. His clarion call for fraternity, besides liberty and equality, his emphasis on social equality, besides constitutional and political equality through ‘one man one vote regime’ are all remembered as his greatest contributions.
They are all important contributions of Dr Ambedkar to the downtrodden of India. But he is not just that alone; he is that and much more. The very Constitution that he had strived so hard to put in place was not just about any single issue or community. It is about the entire spectrum of the private and public life of over 450 million citizens at that time, and by extension 1.25 billion citizens now. Dr Ambedkar was concerned about the plight of the downtrodden; but he was also concerned about the larger well-being of the entire nation. He saw in the Constitution a hope for the downtrodden as well as an order in the larger Indian society. He laid all his hopes of success of the Constitution on its true masters, the people of India.
Joseph Story, an eminent jurist and commentator of the Constitution and politics was to America what Nani Palkhivala was to India. Talking about the US Constitution, Joseph Story observed: “The Constitution has been reared for immortality if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour, by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, the people”.
Dr Ambedkar too expressed the same apprehension about the Indian Constitution and politics. “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot”, he once said. Despite the hard work and dedication that has gone into making of the Constitution, Dr Ambedkar knew fully well that it fails to deliver if the keepers of it, the good people, lethargic and indifferent, thinking that politics as a vocation is all scum, stay away from it; and the bad and ugly in the society come to occupy the positions of power.
As Carne Ross puts it in The Leaderless Revolution, democracies facilitate an honourable agreement between the people – the electors, and the government – the elected. The Constitution is in reality the document of that solemn agreement between the elector and the elected. Unfortunately, at least in India, people hardly know their Constitution well. Sections of the society, whose interests the Constitution intends to protect, know a little or a lot only about those sections of the Constitution that are intended to safeguard their interests. But the larger intent and import of the Constitution is hardly known to the people.
On 26th November, speaking on the occasion of the Constitution Day, the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, highlighted precisely the same thing. “It is a paradox that our citizens, in whose name the Constitution was adopted, are sometimes not sufficiently informed about what the Constitution means for us. Let the 70th year of its adoption be dedicated to enhancing awareness about the Constitution”, he said in his address to the nation.
In fact, although the final draft of the Constitution was passed by the Constituent Assembly on 26th November, 1949, and subsequently the same was adopted as the Constitution of India on 26th January, 1950, no special effort was ever made in all these years to inform and educate the people about it. It was only in 2015, 65 years after its adoption, that Prime Minister Modi thought of celebrating the Constitution Day annually with the objective of letting its keepers, the people, know about it well.
Lack of awareness about the Constitution among the larger masses allowed for the intermediate forces, some of whom are the products of that very Constitution itself, to subvert its spirit and thus leading to the violation of that solemn agreement between the voter and the voted. Dr Ambedkar had warned about this possibility in his last address to the Constituent Assembly one day before its passing, on 25th November, 1949.
In that speech, famously known as ‘Three Warnings’, Dr Ambedkar raised the spectre of India losing its independence once again if the Constitution was not adhered to in letter and spirit. “On 26th January, 1950, India will be an independent country. What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain her independence or will she lose it again? This is the first thought that comes to my mind. It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future. What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people”, he said in that address.
The constitutional governance faces challenges from its own limbs like the judiciary, bureaucracy and the political establishment internally. Externally too, it today faces a serious challenge from certain group interests championed by forces that are not accountable, nor representative of the masses.
Judiciary is an important branch of our Constitution. In a way, the only branch which still keeps the hopes of justice of large sections of the masses alive. But of late, the surviving institution of people’s trust too seems to be passing through a phase that poses a challenge to the genuine upholding of the interests of the people.
One important case in the recent times attracts our attention to this. Justice delayed or justice hurried, both lead to justice denied. In the first instance is the Ram Janam Bhumi case, a matter pending before the Supreme Court for the last six years. The simple question referred to them was whether the order of the Allahabad High Court trifurcating the main temple compound where once a temple, followed by a mosque had stood and currently a make-shift temple of Ram Lalla stands, is valid or not.
It took five years for the Supreme Court to open the matter in the middle of 2017, only to discuss the issue of translating all the relevant documents – some 14,000 pages, which were in Hindi, Urdu and other languages, into English. Who will take responsibility for translation? Finally, the UP Government came forward to do that.
Then the Court suddenly found the issue of relevance and importance of Mosque to Islam as a major question for adjudication. That the said question, may be important in some other context, was completely extraneous to the present case, didn’t find favour with the learned judges. That issue too was finally settled and the previous Chief Justice had announced that the expeditious hearing of the main case would begin on October 29th, 2018. In the first week of October, the Supreme Court got a new Chief Justice. When the matter came up before the bench headed by the new Chief Justice, it took just 3 minutes for him to declare that the Ram Janam Bhumi matter was not a ‘priority’ to the Court. He pushed the matter to later in January 2019.
It should go to their credit that the parties involved, both the protagonists of the temple and their adversaries, have thus far laid their hopes on the Supreme Court. But now, the unintended consequence of the Supreme Court’s declaration was that they had to turn it into a ‘priority’. That is why we see enhanced activity in the country, including massive mobilisations in favour of the temple.
Such instances showcase the challenge to the Constitution from judicial activism leading thereby to the violation of the solemn agreement.
The other challenge comes from the second organ of our constitutional government, the bureaucracy. Speaking at an event recently, former President Dr Pranab Mukherjee called the bureaucracy as the biggest impediment to development. “Bureaucracy is the biggest hurdle of our development and we must rectify it”, he said. Not that individual bureaucrats are bad. But bureaucracy as a system and an institution has the potential of derailing the efforts of the political establishment and denying justice to the people.
Then comes the role of the political parties. Dr Ambedkar, in his last address to the Constituent Assembly, had warned that “If the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in a jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever”. Today, we see a situation where the national parties are increasingly becoming marginalised and a large number of regional and other group-based parties emerging with strong constituencies of their own.
It will be unwise to dismiss the rise of these identity-based groups and parties. It is a global phenomenon today. In a scintillating work titled Political Tribes, well-known author Amy Chua writes: “We tend to view the world in terms of territorial nation-states engaged in great ideological battles – Capitalism versus Communism, Democracy versus Authoritarianism, the ‘Free World’ versus the ‘Axis of Evil’. Blinded by our own ideological prisms, we have repeatedly ignored more primal group identities, which for billions are the most powerful and meaningful, and which drive political upheaval all over the world”.
The Constitution has been facing this acute challenge from identity groups that don a political avatar.
The third challenge comes from causes that largely the Teflon-coated Liberals champion. They pick up certain myopic concepts, and, using the systemic loopholes, attempt to subvert the very spirit of the Constitution itself. In that, they get help from their fellow ideological travellers in various important institutions. Their agendas are narrow and in most cases lofty, but largely unconnected with the reality of the masses. They co-opt political actors or sometimes themselves become one, but not really accountable to any. These groups include certain NGO activists too. Their influence is enormous these days because it is fashionable to associate with the causes they champion, despite the fact that they hardly represent any significant section of the population.
“A growing number of political actors, who are neither politicians nor conventional political parties, nor accountable to anyone but themselves, are wielding enormous influence over policy-making these days”, rues Carne Ross, former British diplomat in his book The Leaderless Revolution.
One latest example of the influence these groups enjoy is the Sabarimala temple episode. A harmless tradition at a temple of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala was challenged as spurious, on the ground that it is against gender equality. Those who challenged it using certain Constitutional provisions pertaining to Fundamental Rights didn’t include a single devotee. On the contrary, the petitioners claimed that they were non-believers and had nothing to do with the given temple or its traditions. That teaching gender equality to a matriarchal society like Kerala, where women lead the social life in all spheres, including religion, is like carrying coal to Newcastle, or that not a single woman devotee came forward to demand entry into the temple couldn’t stop the Supreme Court in deciding to throw open the doors to women in the age group of 10 and 50.
It has resulted in a situation where the State Government led by God-less Marxists in Kerala forcing a break in the tradition by compelling women to enter the temple and the tens of thousands of religious women coming out on to the streets in all Kerala towns and villages demanding that the order be withdrawn. Another classic example of what the people want their rulers to do and what the middlemen want to impose on them. While jealously safeguarding the individual rights we tend to forget that people also enjoy certain ‘group rights’ and they too need safeguarding. In fact, the Indian Constitution recognises this through several of its articles, including articles 25 to 30 that cover a gamut of rights of the religious groups.
Democracy is described as a government “Of the people, By the people and For the people”. It no doubt continues to be a government ‘of’ and ‘by’ the people. But it increasingly ceases to be ‘for’ the people. Instead, it is becoming a prisoner in the hands of group and narrow political interests. Dr Ambedkar and Joseph Story were both referring to this danger.