“Today India recovers her soul after centuries of serfdom and resumes her ancient name”, enthused an editorial in the Hindustan Times on the 26th of January 1950. “Hail our sovereign republic… A day of fulfilment… Good wishes from far and near… Rejoicings all over.” 66 successful years as a republic, we have much cause to celebrate – especially given the daunting nature of our democratic experiment. With astonishing diversities in language, religion, caste and class, the idea of India defied every modern conception of a nation-state. We met with the doomsayers and not only have we survived; we have thrived.
However, in the din and pomp that surround such momentous occasions, the call to reflect is sometimes overwhelmed.
Republic Day marks the enactment of India’s Constitution. And this necessarily leads one to ask what the Constitution of India is – just another book? A plain letter of the law? What is its place in our society and why is it celebrated? Granville Austin, the great constitutional scholar, describes in his book, ‘Working a Democratic Constitution: A History of the Indian Experience’, the Constitution’s role in realising three chief objectives: (i) the protection of fundamental rights, democratic processes and institutions, (ii) the enforcement of social and economic policy to uplift the masses and (iii) the preservation of India’s unity and integrity. These three strands come together to form what Austin calls the ‘seamless web’. The constitution serves as the iron framework through which the seamless web is collectively carried out and conflicts between them are resolved, thereby giving living effect to the rule of law. The visionary character of our constitution, its allegiance to universal and fundamental principles of justice and human dignity make it one of the finest in the world and a true reflection of what it is to live the Indian experience. It is therefore the most sacred and central document in our society. However, the last six decades in India have periodically witnessed the breach of the rule of law, often most severely. With such a great framework in place as our Constitution, one would wonder why this is the case.
We need two hands to clap and the blame necessarily lies both with the state and with its people. For a thorough investigation into the former, one might be interested to read ‘The Rule of Law’ by the former British Law Lord, Tom Bingham, where he seminally outlines the institutional framework that can effectively ensure the rule of law in a modern democratic country.
It is, however, more difficult to think about the role of society in preserving the rule of law. Institutions can be reformed through legislation and political will; individuals in a society have to be considered more subjectively. We normally err and behave regrettably when we act against our conscience. The Constitution of India, in all its visionary grandeur, reflects the collective conscience of our society. The further we stray from our constitutional spirit, the greater will be our assault on the just balance the Constitution seeks to protect.
There arises a question at this point: what is the definition of ‘justice’? This is an important question to address. While the notion of justice is quite nebulous, indeed, it is so only on its fringes (in exceptional matters where its application is concerned). In the heart of these concepts, we have a very structured understanding available to us of what it means. It would serve one well to read and understand Lord Bingham’s book to grasp the heart and spirit of justice in a liberal democracy like ours.
A profound respect for the rule of law, therefore, can only come if we understand its value in our society and are acquainted with its call to our conscience within. Nani Palkhivala, the great jurist who fought and established the supremacy of the constitution’s inherent spirit (through the famous Kesavananda Bharati case in the Supreme Court) always stressed that eternal vigilance is the price we pay as citizens of a free society; if we are not prepared to be eternally vigilant, we might even lose the inherent freedoms and liberties that make our country so great.
Loud and shiny rhetoric aside, my patriotism is rooted in admiration and gratitude to our great constitutional legacy, the celebration of which I carry out today in reaffirming my allegiance and pupillage to it. This, when earnestly acted upon by each of us, will give such a momentum to the rule of law that democracy and civil liberties will survive much beyond us in times when our place shall know us no more.
A happy and meaningful Republic Day to you!
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