As India marks its 72nd Republic Day, it is instructive to go back to the scale of achievement of the founding moment of modern Indian constitutionalism
As India marks its 72nd Republic Day, it is instructive to go back to the scale of achievement of the founding moment of modern Indian constitutionalism. In 1950, after a deliberative process in the Constituent Assembly — its proceedings make for fascinating reading and continue to startle scholars and observers with the breadth and ambition of the vision at hand — India formally adopted its Constitution. This document took the best of constitutional schemes elsewhere, but it was also devised with India’s specific requirements in mind and represented a rupture.Bruised and battered by colonialism, India was to be sovereign. A modern democratic State was institutionalised. Universal adult franchise, in a society of stark social and economic inequality, enabled political equality. Parliament, popularly elected, would express the sovereign will of the people. India would be a Union of states — in recognition of its diversity and recognition that the Centre alone could not govern a country of India’s size and diversity. The word secular was added to the Preamble only later (in controversial circumstances during the Emergency). But there is little doubt that the spirit of secularism permeated through the Constitution — the State would not have a religion; it would not discriminate on the basis of religion; and Indian citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs, would exercise equal rights. In recognition of the entrenched structural inequalities, the Constitution had provisions for affirmative action for marginalised groups. With fundamental rights, including the right to free speech, individual liberty was made a key pillar of India’s political design. And institutions, including an independent judiciary, were to keep a check on executive excesses.This liberal democratic design has served India well. But the Republic can only work well if all pillars of the Constitution function in letter and spirit. This has been a particularly difficult period — with Indian sovereignty challenged in eastern Ladakh; an increasing perception that the nature of the Indian State is transforming from a secular one to a majoritarian set-up; questions about the role of institutions and the erosion of civil liberties; and the federal structure coming under stress. It is time for India to return to the spirit — not just the letter — of the Constitution and reaffirm its commitment to safeguarding constitutional values on this Republic Day.