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Indian Constitution

Indian Constitution

In Kerala where I was born and brought up, it was quite common for Christian preachers and pastors to distribute some books of the Bible, if not the whole book, free of cost to those willing to accept them. Gideon is an organisation that promotes the distribution of the Book. It is because of Gideon that one finds the Bible in hotel rooms the world over.

Other religious groups have learnt from these pioneers. Recently, I saw a monk belonging, most probably, to the Hare Krishna movement distributing copies of the Gita at a nominal price. Since I have a beautiful, bilingual edition of the Gita, explaining in English the meaning of every Sanskrit word, I politely refused to accept it.

The last time I went to the International Book Fair at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, the largest crowd was at a bookstall where copies of the Quran in English and Hindi were given free of cost. Again, I refused to accept because I have a beautifully printed, calligraphed holy book of the Muslims that contains the text in both Arabic and English.

The motive that drives the Christian missionary, the Hindu monk and the Islamic publisher is the same, to propagate their religion, perfectly sanctioned by the Constitution. A few years ago, I met a different kind of missionary who distributed free copies of the Indian Constitution. 

It was a pocket edition. I gladly accepted it and when he said that he accepted donations also so that he could reach more people, I gave him a small donation. His mission in life was to see every Indian family having a copy of the book. After all we as a nation are governed by the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution impacts our lives much more than the religious books I mentioned.

I had a little interaction with the missionary. He argued that to be a good citizen, it was necessary to learn by heart the national anthem, the national song and the preamble of the Constitution. Every student, every citizen should at least understand the significance of the Preamble, one of the most beautiful features of the Indian Constitution. I wished him the best in his endeavour.

On June 15, I was very happy to read a report circulated by UCAN that the Catholic Bishops Conference of India has decided to teach in all its educational institutions the salient features of the Constitution. The Constitution is not for the CBCI alone. True, it was the Catholics who first set up a printing press in India, long before the “Indian” government had one. It marked the beginning of the printing revolution.

Let the CBCI idea be picked up by every government, municipal bodies, religious and social institutions running schools, colleges and universities in the country. Knowledge is power. If every citizen knows the provisions of the Constitution, especially his fundamental rights and duties, India will be a better place to live in.

Early in his career as Prime Minister, one significant statement Prime Minister Narendra Modi made was that the only book that would guide him was the Indian Constitution that came into force on January 26, 1950. Had he imbibed the spirit of the Constitution, he would not have presented to his Japanese counterpart an expensive edition of the Gita or 2000 kgs of sandalwood to a temple in Kathmandu or utilised government infrastructure to visit temple after temple. He should have spent his own money for the same.

Be that as it may, Modi belongs to a group, a powerful one at that, which has its representatives presiding over the nation, both Houses of Parliament and occupying almost every Raj Bhavan and Raj Niwas in the country.

This particular group has an aversion for the Constitution. When the 284 members of the Constituent Assembly signed the document on November 26, 1949, after deliberating on it for two years, 11 months and 18 days and decided to enforce it from January 26 the next year, it was a day of celebration for Indians the world over. 

MS Golwalkar, popularly called Guruji, who headed the RSS, had this to say about the Constitution: “Our constitution, too, is just a cumbersome and heterogeneous piecing together of various articles from various constitutions of Western countries. It has absolutely nothing which can be called our own. Is there a single word of reference in its guiding principles as to what our national mission is and what our keynote in life is?”

Alas, it is this view that guides the thinking of the RSS. When the BJP came to power at the Centre for the first time, one of the first things it did was to appoint a committee to review the Constitution. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice MN Venkatachalia, who headed the Committee, was not ready to do a hatchet job and he gave a report that could not have pleased the then Home Minister LK Advani, who took the initiative to appoint him.

That does not mean that the Sangh Parivar has abandoned the project. Every now and then we hear Union ministers and top leaders of the Parivar making assertions that the solution to the problems of the nation was in redrafting the Constitution. For the creation of the New India that Modi often talks about, the BJP needs a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament. It is to amend the Constitution.

Of course, the Supreme Court has ruled that the “basic structure” of the Constitution cannot be altered but it did not explain what constitutes the basic structure. With some judges, whose IQ is as good as to claim that peacocks do not copulate to produce their offspring, around us, we cannot be rest assured that the judiciary would take care of any attack on the Constitution. Central to the exercise of protecting the Constitution is to disprove the myth that it was a piecing together of various provisions of various constitutions.

A noteworthy fact about the Constitution is that out of 35 constitutional polities born after the Second World War, India is the only country which survives with its Constitution. All other countries fell prey to totalitarianism, civil war and military take-over. Why did it work in India, whereas it failed in Islamic Pakistan, Hindu Nepal and “Buddhist” Sri Lanka? Was there anything true in Golwalkar’s assertion?

Great jurists NA Palkhivala, Justice HR Khanna and Justice Krishna Iyer had answered the question: how much Indian is the Indian Constitution? They argued that our Constitutional values are those human values evolved in India through her crowded history of 5000 years. MP Raju is an eminent lawyer and author of several books. Nothing fascinates him more than the defence of the Constitution.

I heard with great interest his extempore speech at the Kerala Club while introducing his new book  India’s Constitution: Roots, Values and Wrongs (Media House, Pages 464, Rs 595) in December last. He has picked up the thread from where Palkhivala, Khanna and Iyer had left it. And I can say with confidence that he did a marvellous job in dispelling the impression that the Constituent Assembly did what is today known as a cut-and-paste job.

Raju begins his argument highlighting a little-known or little-discussed aspect of the making of the Constitution. The first thing that the Assembly consisting of members like Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabh Bhai Patel, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Sarojini Naidu, Raja Jaipal Singh, Frank Anthony and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur did was to pass the Objective Resolution. This was done on January 22, 1947.

The resolution contained the values and objectives of the Constitution to be framed. The members wanted to send a message to the posterity on the importance they attached to it. Hence they decided to pass the resolution, all the members standing. All other resolutions and provisions were to be voted and passed with the members sitting only.

“Thus at the outset of the framing of the Indian Constitution, the centrality of human values was categorically stressed and declared. There were great leaders both saintly and wise to take inspiration from. We had great works, both religious and secular, to lay our foundation on. Models of great nations and their constitutions were available to emulate. 

“But our civilizational experience had taught us the supreme lesson: it is values and ideals which should govern us. We are not to be governed by charismatic leaders or heroic saints. We should allow ourselves to be governed by values and by values alone. We might take assistance from all other things as appropriate according to those values. The declaration of values as the objective resolution with a few changes found place in the Constitution when it was finally framed — the preamble of the Constitution of India”.

When I read this, I remembered the missionary I quoted who wanted the preamble to be learnt by heart like the national anthem by every Indian. Raju has such a good command of the Sanskrit language and considerable knowledge about the sacred texts of India that when he argues he uses them with telling effect. Take the case of the rivalry between the Aryans and the non-Aryans or between Devas and Asuras. The Devas were led by Indra and the Asuras by Prahlada.

In the battle that ensued, Indra was defeated by Prahlada who became the ruler of all the three worlds. Indra could not understand why or how Prahlada could defeat him. Inquiries revealed that Prahlada had a virtuous character (sheel) based on the values of non-violence (adroha), compassion (anugraha) and charity (danam). Prahlada was invincible as long as he followed those values.

Using a clever stratagem, Indra sought and obtained a boon from Prahlada under which Prahlada loses all the great qualities he had — righteousness, truth, good deeds, power and prosperity, all of which have their roots in good character. As a result, Prahlada became vulnerable and he was eventually defeated.

Now compare Prahlada with Modi. There were millions of people who believed that he would do something great. But as he began speaking lies, people began losing their trust in him. Today his speeches evoke laughter, not confidence. He has become, like Prahlada, vulnerable. There are not many to defend him when he asks foolishly and mischievously why Nehru did not go to the Cellular Jail in Andamans to meet Savarkar.

Once a leader loses character, he loses everything. In India’s Constitutional scheme of things, rules based on values, matter, not rulers. When Indira Gandhi tried to tinker with the rules, the people were ready to throw her into the electoral dustbin. Raju argues that the issue was settled long back in Greece. Plato argued for a philosopher king but his disciple Aristotle argued that even a philosopher king would not be without passion. 

“Hence what is required is to make him also subject to the principles and values extracted from philosophers and the constitutions of others”.

When the British wanted to build a house for the Viceroy in New Delhi, they did not choose a European model. Instead, they looked closely at a Buddhist vihara. That is why the Rashtrapati Bhavan looks like a Buddhist vihara. “The five precepts taught by Buddha are almost identical to the universal values arrived in both the Brahmanic and Sramanic traditions”. 

Kautilya’s Arthasastra classified the duties common to all as non-violence, truthfulness, uprightness, freedom from malice, compassion and forbearance.

Ashoka’s pillar edicts reflect the values that should guide the nation. It was not accidentally that Mahatma Gandhi chose non-violence as the only weapon in the fight against the British. As Raju points out quoting several texts,  Ahimsa (non-violence) is the queen of all universal values. “Ahimsa paramo dharma” thus becomes the national creed.

There were many Western scholars who believed that India’s was a case of Oriental despotism and it would never be able to become a democratic nation. Amartya Sen in his seminal work on Justice proved that India practiced some sort of democracy long before it became the norm in the West. Raju points out that India had a panchayati raj system in place thousands of years ago.

What all this suggests is that the Constitution is absolutely Indian in character. It is the failure of the people which is touted as the failure of the Constitution. Rule of men, instead of rule of values, is a constitutional wrong paraded as governance. The fault is not with the Constitution. It is with the people who have to function within the parameters of the Constitution and who have to uphold it at all times. Raju’s book must be read by all those who wrongly believe that the Indian Constitution is foreign, not Indian.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 18th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 25)