The first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad believed India to be a country made by God and nature. He wished to see a country free of poverty, squalor, ignorance and ill-health, without distinction between high and low, rich and poor.
As per his idea of India, religion was meant to bring people together, and not to be used a divisive force. He hoped for the erasure of untouchability, and for it to be forgotten like an unpleasant dream.
“India has never prescribed or prosecuted opinion and faith and our philosophy has room as much for a devotee of a personal god, as for an agnostic or an atheist,” said Dr. Prasad in his address on January 26, 1950, the day India adopted its Constitution.
“It should be our effort to get free of these limitations and frame a Constitution which will assure all men and women of this country, no matter of what religion, province or shade of opinion, that their rights are fully protected,” he during one of the Constituent Assembly debates.
In this piece, we try to imagine what Dr Prasad would observe if he were alive today, in the context of his speeches and writings.
On a fine winter morning, as India celebrates its 73rd Republic Day, Dr Rajendra Prasad visits a tea stall at Haridwar.
He picks up a newspaper and reads about the recent Dharam Sansad event at Haridwar where calls were made to wipe out certain minorities.
He asks the shop owner: "Has any action been taken against them?"
"They have been arrested, I believe," the shopkeeper replies.
He remembers his words from a speech made on August 14, 1947, where he said,
“To all the minorities in India, we give the assurance that they will receive fair and just treatment and there will be no discrimination in any form against them. Their religion, their culture and their language are safe and they will enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizenship, and will be expected in their tum to render loyalty to the country in which they live and to its Constitution. To all, we give the assurance that it will be our endeavour to end poverty and squalor and its companions, hunger and disease; to abolish distinction and exploitation and to ensure decent conditions of living."
Dr Prasad now boards a train towards the Delhi. On entering the national capital, he is amazed by how the city has developed over the years.
He stops at 26, Alipur Road in Civil Lines, near Vidhan Sabha, to pay tribute to the father of the Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar. While coming out of the building, he sees two people going down the sewer.
He steps forward and asks them,
“Why are you working here? Is it even safe to go down like that?”
“It’s great of you to have asked, but eventually no one cares here. I lost a family member to manual scavenging last month and still no compensation has been given to us," one of them replies.
While he walks away from that building, he recalls his words after India got independence.
“India has, after a long period of subjection, gained her freedom and independence. That freedom has to be maintained, defended and enlarged at all cost, for it is on the basis of that freedom alone that any structure of progress can be built. But freedom by itself is not enough-it must also bring a measure of happiness to our people and a lessening of the burdens they suffer from. It has, therefore, become of vital importance for us to labour for the rapid economic advancement of our people and to endeavour to realize the noble ideals of equality and social and economic justice which have been laid down in our Constitution.”
Prasad then decides to visit his native village in Bihar, where he meets a family living in a dilapidated hut. There is a portrait of a young man hanging next to the door.
"I hope you all are fine. Who's this person? Is he lost?"
"We have been through a lot. We were fortunate enough to have reached back home in 2020, but since then, we are stuck here. There was a lockdown announced back in 2020 which changed everything. We all went back home on foot, but sadly some of us were not privileged enough to make it back to our villages," replies the young man's mother.
This whole scenario reminded him of his concluding speech as President of the Constituent Assembly:
“Whatever the Constitution may or may not provide, the welfare of the country will depend upon the way in which the country is administered. That will depend upon the men who administer it. It is a trite saying that a country can have only the Government it deserves. If the people who are elected are capable and men of character and integrity, they would be able to make the best even of a defective Constitution. If they are lacking in these, the Constitution cannot help the country. India needs today nothing more than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before.”
Over the course of his speeches, President Prasad, a lawyer by profession spoke on a number of issues that remain causes for concern for India in the 21st century.
He firmly stood by the need for a judiciary independent of the ruling government. In a Constituent Assembly speech, he made remarks to this effect. He said,
“We have provided in the Constitution for a judiciary which will be independent. It is difficult to suggest anything more to make the Supreme Court and the High Courts independent of the influence of the Executive.”
The jury is out on whether we have achieved this vision, given studies like the on civil political liberties, in which India dropped a point in 2021 as a result of “a pattern of more pro-government decisions by the Supreme Court."
Despite the challenges they face, Constitutional courts continue to strive to protect our liberties and the Supreme Court under seems to be reviving citizens’ faith in its justice delivery mechanism.
He also spoke extensively on individual liberty of Indian citizens, which the courts are tasked with safeguarding.
“One of the great tasks which we have in hand is to complete the Constitution under which not only will freedom and liberty be assured to each and all but which will enable us to achieve and attain and enjoy its fulfilment and its fruits,” he had proclaimed on the day India attained Independence.
Although the courts in the recent past have made great efforts to fulfil this ideal, there have been instances where people have not been provided succour when targeted by authorities. Bail, an essential facet of liberty, is sometimes treated as an exception rather than the rule, particularly for those who against the powers that be.
He also stressed on the importance of ensuring the freedom of opinion and expression, which we inherited from our traditions.
However, there are some authorities that do not seem to hold this fundamental right in high regard. On the occasion of Human Rights Day 2021, that the freedom of speech cannot be an unruly horse that violates sovereignty and integrity of the country, public order, decency or morality.
As Senior Advocate put it,
“Today, and for the past 5-6 years, there is, I regret to say, another more insidious threat: a threat from the metaphorical Trojan horse. It is a threat from within. And the government may have something to do with this, but the threat comes from self-censorship and self-imposed prior restraint - by the press and more so by the electronic media.”