On Constitution Day, observed on November 26, the observations of B.R.Ambedkar came to mind, made while moving the motion on 4 November 1948 for consideration of the Draft Constitution by the Constituent Assembly. He said, “I feel that it is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in war time. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is, that Man was vile”.
What was uppermost in the mind of Ambedkar who chaired the Drafting Committee was to sustain the unity of India in face of the partition of our country, and the catastrophic communal carnage, the massive migration of people between India and Pakistan, and the atmosphere of hatred and hostility created all around in the name of religion.
It was thought the partition of India was not a one time affair; that it would continue to balkanise India along fault lines of language, creed and ethnicity.
Safeguarding the Constitution is a means of safeguarding India. What is happening of late is a serious attack from state and non-state actors on the Constitution of India which was rightly described by Granville Austin, an expert on it, as first and foremost a social and economic document.
In fact Amedkar prophetically said in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly that political equality without social and economic equality would imperil the freedom and independence India had achieved from British rule.
Today, those controlling the state machine by virtue of the mandate they received from us, as also non-state actors affiliated to the ruling elite, are attacking the Constitution.
A Shiv Sena leader some time ago made the preposterous suggestion that Muslims of India should be disenfranchised so as to prevent them from being used as vote banks by some political parties. A BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP said that non-Hindus should not be allowed to vote unless they ‘proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus’.
Such suggestions are horribly dangerous and constitute an attack on the Constitution, which upholds the rights and liberties of people irrespective of the faith they pursue. These demands flow from a divisive agenda aimed at converting India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, contrary to the architecture of the Constitution and the civilisational ethos of India defined by a culture of coexistence and acceptance. This agenda runs against the vision of Dr Ambedkar, who declared the idea of Hindu Rashtra as arrant nonsense, and nurtured the challenging vision that India must be a country marked by one-person-one-vote and one-person-one-value.
The majoritarianism so blatantly on display now, in the name of Hindutva, and temple construction in Ayodhya upon the unlawfully and violently demolished Babri Masjid, and the attempts being made to prevent women from accessing the Sabarimala Temple as mandated by a Supreme Court judgement, are ominous trends. Their spread and acceptance poses grave danger to the Constitution and the rule of law.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi rightly said that “It is in our best interest to heed the advice of the Constitution. If we do not, our hubris will result in a sharp descent into chaos.”
Such hubris is manifested in the statements and efforts of people to mobilise citizens in the name of faith, in contravention of the law and Constitution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statement that a particular party is pressuring the Supreme Court to delay judgement on the Ayodhya title dispute is only hubris intensified.
It goes against the secular basis of statecraft. A prime minister who takes credit for giving due place to Sardar Patel in history should be mindful that it was Patel who chaired the subcommittee of the Constituent Assembly for guaranteeing safeguards for India’s minorities; it was Patel who dismissed the clamour for Hindu Rashtra as a mad idea.
What is being done now is to use all possible resources to change the very nature of the polity, by invoking in a hateful manner a particular faith, and by blinding people to the diversities of India.
It was Prime Minister Nehru who while replying to the discussion on the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly on November 8, 1948 said, “This very Objectives Resolution sets out adequate safeguards to be provided for minorities, for tribal areas, depressed and other backward classes. Of course that must be done, and it is the duty and responsibility of the majority to see that this is done, and to see that they win over all minorities which may have suspicions against them, which may suffer from fear.
“It is right and important that we should raise the level of the backward groups in India and bring them up to the level of the rest. But it is not right that in trying to do this we create further barriers, or even keep to existing barriers, because the ultimate objective is not separatism but building up an organic nation, not necessarily a uniform nation because we have a varied culture, and in this country ways of living differ in various parts, habits differ and cultural traditions differ. I have no grievance against that.
“Ultimately in the modern world there is a strong tendency for the prevailing culture to influence others. That may be a natural influence. But I think the glory of India has been the way in which it has managed to keep two things going at the same time: that is, its infinite variety and at the same time its unity in that variety.
“Both have to be kept, because if we have only variety, then that means separatism and joint to pieces. If we seek to impose some kind of regimented unity that makes a living organism rather lifeless.”
At a time when the political leadership is vilifying Nehru it is worthwhile to recall his vision “not to impose regimented unity” which negates the Constitution. Prime Minister Modi who proudly proclaimed in 2014 that he could be elected to that high office because of the Constitution, should walk the talk in defending it.
To take just one instance, he should not reduce the idea of citizenship enshrined in it to religion, as is being done through the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which provides that only Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Jains entering India from other countries may be considered for citizenship of India.
This excludes Muslims.
In so doing it wholly contradicts the vision of Sardar Vallabhbahi Patel, who during the discussion on the citizenship articles of the Constitution said that the laws concerning citizenship should be as liberal, enlightened and broad as possible. In saying so Patel was articulating the idea of India which inheres in the Constitution.
It is Prime Minister Modi who should set a shining example as defender of the Constitution in its letter and spirit, and shield it from political hubris.