By S N Sahu | PUBLISHED: 25, Jan 2011, 18:13 pm IST | UPDATED: 18, Feb 2011, 17:20 pm IST
"Constitutional Assembly provides solution to communal problem," this was said by Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi underlining the very depth and significance of the Indian Constitution.
The celebrations centering around Republic Day on 26 January marks the triumph of our gigantic effort to have for ourselves a Constitution which came into force on 26th January 1950 and which was of significance not only for India and Indians but also for the whole world. Way back on 26 January 1930, the Indian National Congress adopted the resolution for Poorna Swaraj, complete independence, for our country in its Session held in Karachi. It was to commemorate that day that we chose 26 January to declare ourselves as a Republic making our people the repository of power and authority for shaping the destiny of our nation.
Even a developed country like Japan has not drafted its own Constitution. It was imposed on its people by the United States of America after it surrendered to the USA following the dropping of atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is in this context that the drafting of a Constitution by the representatives of people is indicative of the self esteem of a nation and its sovereignty.
The Constitution that we gave to our nation through the Constituent Assembly of our country is now considered as a model guaranteeing political rights to our people, celebrating diversities in a federal frame and providing special safeguards to our minorities and socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society. Our unity and integrity and the basic values of our modern nation and ancient civilization have been nourished to a considerable extent by the Constitution of our country.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly stressed on cultivation of constitutional morality to protect our independence and sovereignty and hold together people through the silken thread of fraternity. In fact, the manner in which the values of the Constitution have spread among different sections of our country and the extent to which India is now known for constitutional and parliamentary democracy owe a lot to the functioning of our body polity within the framework of the Constitution which is the reservoir of our strength.
When the erstwhile Soviet Union was on the verge of disintegration last ditch efforts were made by its leaders to protect its integrity. Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the last President of the then USSR, during one of his visits, to London shared his anxiety with the then the Prime Minister of U.K. Margaret Thatcher that his country was getting fragmented into pieces. Her persuasive advice to him was to derive inspiration from India which cohered as a single nation in the face of mounting challenges and difficulties primarily due to democracy and constitutional method of nation building. In fact, the Parliamentary democracy that we adopted following the provisions of our Constitution has been the major factor behind our progress. It is noteworthy that our former colonial masters referred to the example of India to drive home the point that the erstwhile Soviet Union could have protected itself from disintegration by adopting parliamentary democracy.
Apart from surviving as a nation, we have achieved remarkable progress due to the constitutional frame of governance based on democracy.Before we attained independence India was devastated by recurrent famines causing death to millions of people. Life expectancy was less than thirty years. It is due to our constitution and parliamentary democracy that we could avert famines during post independence period. With the operation of the constitution, we could build our democracy in a full-fledged manner. The principles and practices of democracy combined with existence of a free and independent media contributed to the creation of a social and political order which could guarantee people the freedom to protest, participate and freely voice their opinion.
Based on such principles of governance that we could put an end to the famines which had sapped our vigor and strength as a nation. As early as 1919, a great leader from Orissa Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das had the insightful understanding that famines could be prevented through meaningful media activity. He, therefore, founded a newspaper called ‘The Samaj’ which among other things became the voice of the voiceless to save many lives from death caused by the famine of 1919. Much later in 1970s, it is Prof. Amartya Sen who made the famous statement that democracy and free press is the best guarantee against famine.
In other words, our Republican Constitution which celebrates the freedom of the individual and which provides the Directive Principles of State Policy and makes them fundamental in the governance of our country provided a framework of governance which protected people from famine which is now increasingly understood as a man made disaster. It is by working within such a framework of governance that our life expectancy went up from 27 years in 1947 to 55 by 1972. Doubling of life expectancy in twenty five years of independence has been described as unprecedented in history. Our Constitution and parliamentary democracy, therefore, are as much significant for sustaining and promoting political aspects of democracy as for protection of the health and well being of our people.
No wonder, therefore, that the Constituent Assembly of India was rated by an American expert of Indian Constitution Dr. Granville Austin as the second most important event in the history of mankind after the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. In fact, the Philadelphia Convention gave to the Americans their constitution which is considered as one of the greatest constitutions in the history of democracy.
Our Constitution is unique in many respects. It was drafted on the basis of consensus and accommodation. Hardly any division took place in the Constituent Assembly to decide the inclusion of an Article or an Amendment in the draft Constitution. It embodied in its scope the rights of minorities.It aimed at transforming a society which suffered backwardness due to centuries of colonial rule and other reasons indigenous to our country. Through it we had a grand vision to transform an ancient civilization and take it forward to the modern age. In spite of many shortcomings we have succeeded to a great extent. The absence of such a Constitution in many of our neighbours has resulted in prevalence of disorder and disunity and at least one country suffered dismemberment.
India’s unity has been described as weak and fragile. However what we have achieved through our constitution remains a laudable example for other nations. The European Union is trying to achieve something close to what India has achieved. But it is still a distant dream for them. Keeping together people speaking a variety of languages and professing diverse faiths is no easy task. In fact, what India has achieved is of world wide significance. When we were adopting parliamentary democracy immediately after independence it was said by a perceptive British politician Mr. Aneurin Bevan that success of India’s experiment with democracy would cause immense good to the whole mankind. We pay our tribute to the framers of our Constitution who had the genius to understand the complexities of our nation and at the same time give us a constitution which would take care of our evolving needs and aspirations.
In our constitutional frame of governance key functionaries such as the President of India and the Governor of States take oath which is different from the oath taken by the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers of our States and other Ministers whether belonging to the Union or its constituent units. While the President and Governors take oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of India, the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and other Ministers take oath owing allegiance to our Constitution. There is fundamental difference between the two. The President and Governors are duty bound to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
During the 61 years of our Republic probably no President other than President K.R. Narayanan faced huge challenges to defend the Constitution of India. It was during Mr. Narayanan’s tenure that a serious attempt was made to review the Constitution of our country. He while addressing the nation on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of our Republic posed the question, “let us examine if the Constitution has failed us or we have failed the Constitution”. That remarkable statement prompted the Government of the day to change its decision to review the Constitution.
Instead it appointed a Commission to review the working of the Constitution. On another occasion Mr. K.R. Narayanan also went to the extent of quoting Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of our country, who had said that if we failed in making our Constitution work the future generation instead of blaming the Constitution would blame the people who were given the responsibilities to make it work.
In 1997 when the BJP Government in Uttar Pradesh was dismissed by the Union Government headed by Prime Minister I.K. Gujral on the ground that violence took place on the floor of the Assembly and President’s Rule was imposed there, Mr. K.R.Narayanan refused to sign the proclamation on doted lines and returned the file for the reconsideration of the Government which had the wisdom to respect the President’s decision and did not send it back to him. It was yet another example of a decision of President Narayanan who true to the oath he took, protected, preserved and defended the Constitution. Such examples of constitutional propriety and legality are essential to correct many lapses and deviations from the provisions enshrined in the Constitution itself.
It is important for our people to imbibe constitutional values and perform their roles as citizens of this country.This is the only way in which we can cement our unity and integrity and take this nation forward. Any departure from the constitutional scheme of governance will spell danger to the Constitution itself and to the very existence of India. Therefore, the Supreme Court of India has ruled that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot be altered even under the provisions to amend Constitution itself. The Constitution is thus sacrosanct. It is not only the fundamental law of the land but also the heart and soul of our nation.
Granville Austin had said that the Constitution of India is first and foremost a social and economic document. Most of its provisions in fact deal with social and economic rights of our people. Therefore, it is much more than the fundamental law of our country. As long as we remain wedded to the constitutional ideals we can safeguard our democratic and secular republic. It is heartening to note that there is consensus among political parties to strengthen the constitution of our country. There may be minor variations from this consensus but overall there is commitment to further fortify it. This augurs well for the future of our nation and for mankind.
The survival of our Constitution is not only good for itself but for the whole world. This is the deeper meaning and significance of our Republic Day celebrations.
Satya Narayan Sahu: The author was OSD and Press Secretary to the late President of India Shri K.R.Narayanan and served as Director in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed by the author are his personal views.