Ratification of the constitution enters its platinum year on November 26 and so is the Indian Republic. This is the occasion for adult citizens of this land in general and senior citizens who were born before that date, in particular, to introspect as to what happened then and where we are now.
I am among those who were born in the decade when India got its independence and went on to become a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic with a written constitution. On that day a miraculous transformation had happened in my life – from a ‘subject’ of the Maharaja of Travancore, I had become a ‘citizen’ of India. It is a miracle because a ‘subject’ in a kingdom is “one who is placed under authority or control such as vassal to a king/monarch and governed by the monarch’s law” and has no rights of his/her own. On the other hand, ‘citizens’ in a democratic republic have the supreme power and rights which they exercise by voting and electing representatives who enact the laws and govern on their behalf. This was the political transformation.
A social transformation had also happened. The kingdom of Travancore then was a “Hindu Rashtra”. Centuries ago, in 1750, Martanda Varma dedicated his kingdom to his tutelary deity Sri Padmanabhaswamy. As a result of this, Travancore state became the property of this deity making the King a servant of Sri Padmanabha. The flagship of “Hindu Rashtra” was the practice of caste and communal discrimination and intolerance. The most prominent Hindu scripture that advocates the doctrines of the caste system is the Manusmriti. Also known as the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra or Laws of Manu, it is believed to be the first ancient legal text and constitution among the many Dharmaśāstras of Hinduism. With Manusmriti’s major caste division into high and low castes, there was a rampant practice of discrimination in terms of untouchability and unseeability, meaning that it was not only the physical touch of the lower caste that was pollutant to the upper castes but even the very sight itself could pollute. And I, by birth, had belonged to this ‘untouchable/unseeable caste’ and faced political and economic ostracism of the worst type.
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All these elements of ‘monarchy’ and “Hindu Rashtra” crashed once the constitution was ratified and then adopted on January 26, 1950 with four cardinal objectives which are to be “secured by the state for all its citizens”: (1) Justice-social, economic and political; (2) Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; (3) Equality of status and opportunity and (4) Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. It is this constitution that raised me from being an “untouchable subject” to that of a “sovereign citizen” of the world’s largest democracy. Can there be anything more precious and priceless?
This is the gift of democracy and it is indeed a tragedy that this profound knowledge was not imparted to my generation or to the ones that came after. In the event even now the vast majority of Indians do not know the difference between the ‘subject’ and ‘citizen’ and continue to consider themselves as the former rather than the latter. When I try to explain this to the audience of students and teachers in colleges, I see only bland faces! No wonder successive elected governments have succeeded in treating the Indian public as ‘subjects’ instead of ‘citizens’ except for the purpose of casting their votes!
As we enter the platinum year of the Republic, the precious gift of democracy is fast diminishing and is being replaced with the notion of Hindu Rashtra. This is because in ‘New India’, the institutions of democratic governance have been decaying rapidly and are fast losing their capacity to uphold the values of democracy and constitutional norms. Let’s look at three core institutions of democratic governance.
Parliament, which is hypocritically hailed as the “Temple of Democracy”, is in sharp decline and is being ruthlessly stymied and desecrated. Its composition – a large percentage of MPs with declared criminal record, and vast wealth – itself is not conducive to democratic governance. Full sessions have been cancelled and Zero/Question hours severely truncated. Vital issues that haunt the nation and its people – death and destruction caused by COVID-19, Chinese incursion into Ladakh, the critical state of the economy, massive unemployment, brazen sale of public assets, galloping price rise and inflation, rising poverty, festering farmer’s/fisherfolk issues, to name a few – are not even discussed in parliament. And MPs who raise these critical issues or ask uncomfortable questions are either disqualified or threatened with expulsion. Rahul Gandhi and Mahua Moitra are typical examples.
Parliament deceitfully passes laws as Money Bills. Several draconian and predatory laws have been rushed through in an arbitrary and autocratic manner, not complying with even elementary principles of democracy. And the way parliament proceedings take place, its watchdog Committees function and the laws enacted could even shame autocratic states!
Chief Justice of India himself castigated this on Independence Day 2021: “If you see debates which used to take place in Houses in those days, they used to be very wise, constructive… Now, (it is) a sorry state of affairs…There is no clarity in laws. It is creating a lot of litigation and loss to the government as well as inconvenience to the public.” In the event, the cry that democracy is being murdered in parliament rings true.
On the role of the higher judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, this is what one of its former judges said, “The public perception of the vast majority of Indian citizens is that the Supreme Court, of late, has largely abdicated its solemn duty of upholding the constitution in its true spirit and protecting the liberties of the people… It is no longer doing its constitutional duty of protecting citizens against political and executive high-handedness, arbitrariness, and illegalities. Instead, it seems to have largely surrendered before the government, whose bidding it is often doing.”
It looks as if constitutional values which define democracy such as liberty, fundamental rights, equity, electoral integrity, human rights, and dignity of the individuals are very low priorities for the apex court!
It is an autonomous constitutional body with a mandate to discharge its onerous responsibility of conducting elections in a free and fair manner. Of late, EC has not been discharging this responsibility well. It looks as if the Commission has been captured and eviscerated as evidenced by these happenings:
• EC has been deliberately and brazenly ignoring and trivialising major flaws pointed out by experts and political parties regarding the conduct of elections. These include integrity and inclusiveness of the electoral rolls to ensure that no voter is left out; EVM/VVPAT voting and counting not complying with democracy principles and end-to-end verifiability; criminalisation of electoral politics and the evil role of money power including electoral bonds; improper scheduling of elections and failure in enforcing the Model and Media Codes of Conduct.
• Election Commissioners, including CEC, attended a meeting summoned by the PMO and chaired by the principal secretary to the PM to discuss some “electoral reforms”. By obeying PMO’s diktat, the Commissioners have committed gross constitutional impropriety which has never happened before.
• EC actively facilitated the passage of Election Laws (Amendment) Bill to link voter ID with Aadhaar. This measure, which could sink democratic elections, was done at the behest of the PMO. And though ‘voluntary’, EC is coercing the voters to do the linkage with threats of deletions from the voter’s list.
• When electoral bonds were first announced in 2017, EC had opposed it saying it “compromised” electoral transparency. The Commission flip-flopped later and supported the bonds in 2021 and opposed the plea for a stay in the Supreme Court.
• Even now, Prime Minister Modi and home minister Shah are indulging in brazen violation of the Model Code of Conduct in the poll-bound states (announcing a five-year free ration for 80 crore “poor”, Rs 24,000 crore tribal package, free tour of Ram Mandir, etc.) and EC is not lifting a small finger.
All these indicate that there is a clear and present danger to India’s democracy while the prospect of its return to Hindu Rashtra is rising fast.
The words “election” and “democracy” have become synonymous. As of now, the only way to choose our representatives to govern ourselves is through the electoral process. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states as much: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
This is further fortified by the ‘Social Contract’ theory propounded by political philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, through which democracies have emerged and evolved, that state power is justified and lawful only when consented to by a majority of the governed. This consent can be derived only through an honest and genuine electoral process which is not possible when core institutions of democracy decay and then die. Because democracy is championed and sustained by institutions, not Individuals.
Hindu Rashtra rising and democracy diminishing in ‘New India’ could devastate world order and cannot be countenanced.
M.G. Devasahayam is a former Army and IAS officer.