Constitution Day 2020: Reimagining the Constitution as an educative experience

Recent debates about core principles such as secularism and citizenship have brought the Constitution and its place in modern Indian history into sharp focus.
Constitution of India, Constitution Day
Constitution of India, Constitution Day

Seventy years ago, India’s first Prime Minister, just before midnight on August 14, 1947, said,

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

Though, August 15, 1947 was the day India formally attained freedom from colonial rule, the ideals of the leaders of our independence struggle took concrete shape three years later, on January 26, 1950, when the Constitution of India came into force.

Dr BR Ambedkar, the chief craftsman of the Constitution, in his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, said,

“On 26th January, 1950, India will be an independent country.”

True independence was proximately linked to the birth of the Constitution, for it marked a declaration of the terms under which all Indians - no longer subjects, but citizens - were to perform the rituals of self-rule. The framework of democratic politics was to be locked in the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity, and the Constitution itself promised to be a revolutionary and modernising force.

The Constitution was intended not merely to be a tool for governance, but a vehicle to usher in a new era of inclusive democratic politics. This necessitated a thorough restructuring of the Indian society. India’s founding document was, therefore, intended as a transformative Constitution.

Gautam Bhatia, in his book titled The Transformative Constitution, argues that the Constitution sought to repudiate two clear ‘legacies of injustice.’ Firstly, it transformed erstwhile subjects of an alien colonial regime into citizens of a Republic. Citizens who could exercise the agency of franchise and had inalienable rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Secondly, it transformed the relationship between the State and the individual. The Constitution recognised that historically, in India, the State had not been the sole centre of power and that the Indian society was characterised by ‘layered sovereignty’. Hierarchical oppression stemming from structures like caste still loomed large and the role of the Constitution, as Bhatia explains, was to liberate the Indian people from this political servitude.

The Constitution, however, posed daunting challenges - of fostering democratic ethos and fulfilling aspirations enshrined in the document - on future governments. Shibanikinkar Chaube, in his book titled Constituent Assembly of India, has called this the ‘The Indian Problem. That is, achieving national unity, developing constitutional institutions, and strengthening democracy in the face of inhospitable conditions. Independent India’s ability to flourish as a democracy hinged on actualising constitutional principles, which, for a newly conceived nation battling a communal Partition, a dismal economy, and a deeply stratified society, reinforced apprehensions about the impossibility of self-rule.

The founding fathers, however, relied on the constitutional text as a response to the problems of democracy and to give effect to the transformative spirit of the Constitution. While colonial rulers like Lord Minto raised concerns about the maintainability of representative government in the sub-continent by believing that it was “uncongenial to the traditions of eastern populations”, the Constitution sought to fill the missing foundations on which self-rule was to be predicated. The Constitution was the founding fathers’ and mothers’ answer to regressive imperial arguments.

The Constituent Assembly, however, admitted that democracy in India was not a natural sentiment. For instance, Dr. Ambedkar described democracy as a “top-dressing on Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” His fear emanated from the belief that India’s social structure was incompatible with parliamentary democracy. Hence, the Constitution also shouldered the responsibility of creating democratic citizens through democratic education and means.

Effectuating a seamless transition to sustainable constitutional democracy, Madhav Khosla argues in his book India’s Founding Moment, required three key elements. These were, “the explication of rules through codification; the existence of an overarching state; and representation centred on individuals.”

The moment of India’s founding, in this sense, was marked by a unique position where the framing of the Constitution and democratisation occurred simultaneously. The Constitution, therefore, was a guiding document intending to create common meanings over shared norms of self-governance. Khosla further believes that the Constitution was “conceptualised as a pedagogical tool to act as an instrument of political education — aspiring nothing short of building a new civic culture.”

Explication of rules through codification, which Khosla deems essential to the educative purpose of the Constitution, was used by Dr. Ambedkar in including seemingly banal details of the country’s administration in the Constitution. On November 4, 1948, Dr. Ambedkar explained to the Constituent Assembly why ostensibly insignificant details of administration were necessary to cultivate a culture of allegiance towards the Constitution. Leaving these details out of the Constitution meant empowering the Parliament to work them out. This, Ambedkar opined, could alter the very essence of the Constitution, as legislatures enjoyed considerable discretion in administration of laws. Ambedkar feared that India’s inexperience with democracy might cause its people to abandon it. Hence, nurturing constitutional morality and a strict reverence to the Constitution was imperative.

Another illustration of why the framers wished for the Constitution to be an educative experience comes from a scrupulous exploration of the reasons for including Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) into the Constitution.

There are several competing understandings about the intent behind codifying non-justiciable DPSPs into the Constitution. It is wise to question why the founders chose to recognise numerous socio-economic rights, but keep them outside the purview of judicial enforcement. Aakash Singh Rathore, in his book titled Ambedkar’s Preamble, argues that “the main components of economic justice, and many of social justice, were relegated to the Directive Principles as they were considered too controversial for inclusion into other binding sections of the Constitution.”

This, however, is a reductive understanding of the Directive Principles. A vision true to the original intention of the framers comes from Khosla, who suggests, “without the directive principles, legislators might be entirely at sea and might exercise power without an overarching conception of socioeconomic welfare.” The codification of DPSPs was meant to train both citizens and the State in the ways of democratic politics. As Khosla opines further, “the pedagogical promise of the Constitution would thus be furthered, for directive principles would have an educative value.”

Therefore, the purpose of codification - from Directive Principles of State Policy to administrative details - was to generate common meanings around constitutional principles where few such meanings existed. This distinct approach towards codification was to allow the Constitution to navigate its way through an uncharted territory and for the people to make sense of now possible individual actions across domains. By providing a common consensus relating to principles of self-governance, the Constitution sought to transform citizens into democrats.

As Granville Austin, in his seminal book Cornerstone of a Nation suggests, the Constitution established, both, “the nation’s ideals and processes for achieving them.” The Constitution not only provided mechanisms for the fulfilment of these ambitions but also acted as an educative impetus to train citizens in the ways of a democratic Republic, which, hitherto, due to centuries of subjugation, were unknown to them.

This Constitution Day comes amidst a heavy contestation over fundamental constitutional norms. Debates about core principles such as secularism and citizenship have brought the Constitution and its place in modern Indian history into sharp focus. I believe this provides us with an opportune time to reimagine the Constitution as an educative experience. Doing so shall remind us of the shared meanings of democratic politics as envisaged by our founders and to look for reconciliatory means within the bounds of the Constitution.

The author is a third year law student. He tweets at: @sarthakk_20

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