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India's plurality, secularism must be protected

Rahul Singh (Centrepiece)
Filed on January 25, 2020 | Last updated on January 25, 2020 at 10.02 pm

Indian constitution has not delivered on its lofty promises. India remains a poor, malnourished society, riven by communal and social divisions. The gulf between the rich and the poor is still huge.

Two important dates mark India's independence from British colonial rule. The first is of course, August 15, 1947, the very day India got its independence and the British formally left India. That is when India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, made his moving 'Tryst with destiny' speech. Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, the main spirit behind India's struggle for freedom, was still alive, though he would soon be felled by an assassin's bullets. But he had refused to take part in the celebrations of independence. For him, it was a time of mourning, as he had wanted the sub-continent to remain one country and not be divided into India and Pakistan.

A Constituent Assembly was formed to give shape to the Indian constitution which, after long discussions and amendments, finally came into being on January 26, 1950, annually celebrated as Republic Day since then. It was three years into the making, and the two main persons behind it were Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of what were then still called 'untouchables', later to be labelled 'Dalits' (in-between Mahatma Gandhi nicknamed them a more acceptable Harijans, or 'children of God', an appellation that they later found to be too patronising). Ambedkar's inputs were crucial.

Dalits were at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, shunned by the higher castes, and relegated to work as sweepers, and making leather goods (cows being considered sacred by caste Hindus). In India's villages, they lived in separate areas and drew water from different wells. The new constitution, with its emphasis on equality, had to be worded so that they were more integrated into Indian society.

It also had to take into account the country's religions and communities. Indeed, India was then - and remains even now - perhaps the most bewilderingly diverse nation in the world. Virtually all the major religious communities worldwide resided in India:

Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Zoroastrians. The constitution needed to reassure them that they could live in peace in India, able to maintain and propagate their faith without hindrance or persecution. The timing was ominous, since the Indian constitution was taking shape soon after the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. The partition was accompanied by perhaps the biggest exchange of populations, numbering some ten million, in the modern era. It was also marked by a frenzy of communal killing, in which about one million perished on both sides of the border. Hence, framing a constitution with such a backdrop of recent hatred and violence was no easy task.

The main features of the constitution were largely inspired by the examples of the successful democracies of the US, UK, and France. From the US was borrowed its federal structure, a 'union of states', and the setting up of a Supreme Court, the highest court of appeal. From the British, its laws and its system of justice whereby you were innocent until proven guilty, and its notion of parliamentary democracy. And from the French, the values dating back to the French Revolution of 1789 - liberty, equality and fraternity. In India, with its numerous divisions of caste and religion, fraternity was especially important.

Many developing countries won their independence from colonial rule at roughly the same time that India did. They, too, had formulated their own constitutions, enshrining much the same set of values as India did. However, most of them gave way to authoritarian or military rule. In Pakistan the army took over only a few years of its independence, overthrowing democracy. And then, in 1971, after losing the war against India, it split, with Bangladesh coming into existence. Democracy and the constitution saved India from a similar fate, though for almost two years under Indira Gandhi's 'Emergency' rule, the constitution and democratic rights were suspended. But with the lifting of the 'Emergency' in 1977, Indian democracy and the rule of law were back on track.

So, why does the Indian Republic remain flawed ever since it was set up seven decades ago?

Chiefly because it has not delivered on its lofty promises. India remains a poor, malnourished society, riven by communal and social divisions. The gulf between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the disadvantaged is still huge. In particular, Indian women remain oppressed. Their representation in the two Houses of the Indian parliament is only 15 per cent (in more mature democracies it is close to, or over, 50 per cent). Indian Muslims, too, are underrepresented in the areas that matter, such as the police, the armed services, and the civil services. In the recent elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gave hardly any tickets to Muslim candidates. Little wonder that they feel marginalised and discriminated against in the India of today.

However, the biggest challenge to the values enshrined in the Indian constitution looms a few days ahead. The new Citizenship Act, though it has been passed by Parliament, where the BJP has an overwhelming majority, clearly discriminates against India's 200 million Muslims. Protests and agitations against the Act are spreading all over India, not just among Muslims, but other communities as well, with students at the forefront. The Indian Supreme Court will soon decide the constitutional validity of the Act. India is collectively holding its breath.

Rahul Singh is a former editor of the Khaleej Times


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