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Citizens Voted to Save the Constitution, Now They Must Feel Its Protection

We have to ensure that the constitutional rule of law is felt by every citizen when they interact with the state.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The most comforting lesson from the just concluded Lok Sabha elections has been the re-assertion of the Constitution’s primacy in public imagination. From the opposition’s campaign based on safeguarding the Constitution, to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hasty retreat, denying any intention to change it, the fundamental founding principles of the Republic of India have been reinforced.

The candidate from the Faizabad constituency (Ayodhya district) campaigned for a two-thirds majority to change the Constitution and lost. Former Union minister Ananthakumar Hegde, who has repeatedly called for the Constitution to be changed, was denied a Lok Sabha ticket by the saffron part. BJP, the only political party which seems inimical to the egalitarian values of the Constitution of India, has been forced to declare its support for the Constitution.

The challenge now is to bring the values and vision of the Constitution to every citizen. Hindutva, casteism and communalism, arising out of any religion, is a danger to the country because they are against the principles of equality and fraternity. When an ideology measures an individual’s worth based on the accident of their birth, it devalues a person’s character, their actions and their contributions to society. A good person is no longer a good person if they’re not born in a certain caste or community regardless of their contribution to society. No society can progress unless it values an individual for what they do rather than where they were born.

The droves of Indians who seek to go abroad, mostly to the first world, are driven by their desire for a better life. Most of these migrants are from well-off families. This ‘better life’ does not mean a better job or a higher salary. The promise of the first world is safety, equal protection of the law, clean air and water and a healthier quality of life. This is the great conundrum that faces India. Many of those who seek these protections for themselves, even at the cost of uprooting themselves from their comfortable lives in India, end up supporting leaders and ideologies that deny the same rights and protections to the ordinary Indian citizen.

Denigration of democratic principles, a culture of political and social violence and interference with the institutions that are supposed to ensure the rule of law, all these find many supporters within the diaspora as well millions of voters in India. It is nobody’s case that all BJP voters are communal, but the BJP does have a voter base for whom its promise to uproot the idea of fraternity to right alleged historical wrongs (whether real or imagined) remains its main draw. A section of its supporters also see the promise of a movement designed to do away with the Constitutional ideal of equality which conforms to their idea of inherent superiority. 

Bringing the Constitution to the people

The Constitution and its ideals are the real drivers of India’s progress. The danger to the Republic, though fought off by the opposition and the people of the country for now, is a lack of understanding among people about the Constitution’s role in India’s progress since independence. This connection has to be made and strengthened.

The establishment of educational institutions, medical institutions, industry, a robust democracy and an (admittedly imperfect) rule of law has provided the space for individuals to grow and aim for prosperity. Of the countries which suffered colonial rule, democratic India can hold its head up high as one of the countries which has progressed the most. The only hitch in this progressive path that we have adopted is that many beneficiaries of constitutional idealism do not know what they owe the betterment of their lives to.

Every engineer, doctor, lawyer, administrator and industrialist owes their success to the constitutional framework and the loyalty that successive governments have shown for the Constitution. The country will survive imperfect governments as long as its constitutional backbone remains intact. Societies which lack this backbone fail to provide their members with the chance to grow and prosper. We have enough examples in our neighbourhood: Pakistan, a country constantly at war with its own military, and Sri Lanka, that saw a civil war because it denied equal right to its Tamil citizens.

In this phase of Indian democracy, when substantial numbers, I would argue the majority, of its citizens have voted to defend the Constitution, it should be a matter of urgent priority to bring the Constitution to the people. Let the Constitution not just be a set of high principles, but let every citizen feel its protection. We have to ensure that the constitutional rule of law is felt by citizens when they interact with the state. If a person has to pay a bribe to register an FIR or to obtain a driving licence, an indifference to constitutional idealism creeps in. This indifference keeps growing until it turns to apathy and then to dismissive contempt. This is where a part of our citizenry has reached. To reverse it is a bottom-up process. 

Statutes passed by the state and central legislatures and pronouncements of courts are of limited relevance to most people, unless they are enforced properly. The real battle, in short, is for the establishment of the rule of law. Equality, fraternity and development, both social and economic, will necessarily follow. When the people of India internalise these principles, the machinations of the manipulative and untruthful will cease to matter.

Sarim Naved is a Delhi based lawyer.

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