The Indian Constitution, adopted by the constituent assembly on 26 November 1949, has not only survived but also sustained India’s liberal democracy. This is particularly glaring when compared to the constitutional fate of India’s neighbours. The Indian Constitution, for the most part of the post-colonial period, has been the sole flower in the constitutional graveyard that is South Asia.
However, contemporary political developments have raised alarm over the Constitution’s well-being and integrity. These warnings are often dismissed and treated as exaggerations. There’s a tacit assumption that no matter what happens, India will always remain a constitutional democracy. This is dangerous.
In the early 1930s, the Nazis had made their intention with regards to the Jews clear through their pamphlets and speeches. The Weimar Constitution at that time, as historian William Shirer described it, was “on paper, the most liberal and democratic document of its kind the twentieth century had ever seen… full of ingenious and admirable devices which seemed to guarantee the working of an almost flawless democracy.”
When the Nazis did come into power, political commentators felt that they would act in line with the Constitution. A leading Jewish newspaper in 1933 said:
“We do not subscribe to the view that Mr Hitler and his friends now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights… a number of critical factors hold powers in check.”
We know how things turned out: Hitler stripped the Weimar Constitution of any relevance and went on to implement his plans for the Jews – and no one could stop him.
This history lesson is one we must never forget: The existence of a Constitution – no matter how liberal or democratic – does not ensure its survival. Further, when individuals or groups, especially those holding public office, engage in anti-constitutional rhetoric, we must take them at their word.
When a Hindu monk elected to the chief ministership of India’s largest state, Yogi Adityanath, says that “there is nothing wrong in a Hindu Rashtra concept”, we must take this seriously. When the ruling party and a member of parliament have no qualms in threatening to “uproot” the government of Kerala for implementing a judgment of the Supreme Court, we cannot take his statement lightly.
This instinct, of adopting a stance of constitutional vigilance, is one we must make second nature in our engagement with what happens around us. Should we leave this function to courts, which are constitutionally mandated to do so? After all, hasn’t the Supreme Court in its recent judgments in triple talaq, Sabarimala, Aadhaar etc. furthered and protected constitutional values?
This notion of exclusively loading the Supreme Court with guarding the Constitution flows from what Wesleyan University professor John E. Finn calls a ‘juridic’ conception of a constitution that views a constitution as primarily a legal document rather than a product of a “politically constitutive act”.
Speaking in the American context, he argues for viewing a constitution as ‘civic’; a civic constitution’s “principal ambition is to constitute a political community in which citizens shoulder a significant part of the responsibility for achieving and maintaining a constitutional way of life”.
This is useful in the Indian context. We need to create a constitutional culture that encourages us to think of our Constitution as a ‘civic’ one that facilitates active citizen engagement in deliberation and ‘civic work’ around the Indian Constitution’s origins and working. This culture, in order to vibrate with citizens, especially the young, must consist of a significant ‘popular’ component that leverages music, art, literature, and films. It must have a special emphasis on vernacular languages.
In 2017, I came across something interesting watching an episode of Conan – a popular American late-night talk show. The host and his guest – a famous comedian – were discussing US President Donald Trump. The guest said about Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from entering the country: “… I didn’t know you could do that…remember that….”
The guest then went on to sing a few lines of a song: “I’m just a bill…”. The audience cheered because they also recognised the song, which was part of a popular series of American educational animated short films produced by School Rock House that originally aired between 1973 to 1985. The short film was a fun yet rigorous guide to the legislative process in America.
This is a great example of popular constitutional culture in action: A citizen is trying to make sense of the policies of his President through the memory of cultural reference. This, unfortunately, is unlikely to happen in India; most of us are products of an ad-hoc, dreary and snore-inducing civic education.
We have Saare Jahan Se Achha and Vande Mataram for patriotism and nationalism. We have no cultural symbols for constitutionalism that creatively, without adopting the tone of hagiography or mindless praise, can articulate India’s rich constitutional tradition – its novelty, shortcomings, and strengths. This, along with other initiatives like the reform of our formal civic education system, can produce a culture that can safeguard our constitutional democracy. The framers of our Constitution gave us a republic. We must prove to them, and ourselves, that we can keep it.