Saturday, January 25, 2014

Republic Day Lecture: A Constitution for a Generation

I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence. - Thomas Jefferson, 1789 

The Constitution of India, in many ways, is a remarkable document in that it constitutes one of the broadest social contracts in human history, connecting millions, now a billion, people from thousands of backgrounds, cultures and languages together in one overarching comity, turning a subcontinent, albeit a truncated one, into a nation for the first time in its history. Such a variety of people coming together under a common set of ideals, and sticking to them after over 60 years, is an achievement that every Indian is rightly proud of.

Obviously, the 'glue' that holds together the nation is its Constitution, which sets out rules of fairness for every Indian - a government of the people, by the people and for the people. While these ideals are not in doubt, there have also been many institutions that have failed the Constitution. Or perhaps, the Constitution has proven inadequate to the changing times. A social contract, after all, is a contract between men and women representing the nation at a point in history. How long do those men and women remain representative?

The Living Constitution 
While these ideas may seem maverick, they are actually as old as the Constitution itself. Our founding fathers understood that, for a rapidly evolving nation, it was impossible to set out a set of principles that were set in stone and would last for eternity. It was precisely for this reason that an elected Parliament was given the power to amend the Constitution freely, and even amend those amendments, and even go so far as to reject the Constitution itself, to make the document an organic, evolving one that can meet the needs of every generation.

And indeed, the Constitution has been amended over a hundred times since it was enacted, the first amendment actually coming less than a year after enactment. When Indian negotiators deal with insurgent groups, they talk about 'the four corners of the Indian Constitution'. This is actually a misnomer because the document has no bounds, at least none built into it. The only bounds of the Constitution were created by the Supreme Court under the Basic Structure Doctrine and they leave a lot of room for change.

Need for Change?
And yet, in many ways, the Constitution seems inadequate. The top-down structure, in which the Central Government holds tight control over the most important aspects of people's lives, with State Governments being left to handle the rest, is quickly breaking down even without any amendment to the document.  States demand greater autonomy and a say in decisions that affect them - all within the Indian Union. Sub-national aspirations have grown, with smaller communities pushing for greater control over their own resources. While some may grow alarmed at this trend, it is actually quite a good thing for people to grasp the true meaning of democracy and make the Republic flow not top-down but bottom-up.

In that respect however, the Constitution does come up short because it was written in a very different set of circumstances. In 1949, there was no India in the sense of a nation, we were bound by the memory of colonial rule, the glorious freedom struggle, and the horrors of Partition, but the four corners of India hardly knew each other beyond that. In 2014, the Indian nation is a reality, although what that nation should be like is strongly contested. People have mixed, barriers have fallen and now it is impossible to imagine a different India. The Constitution does not adequately recognize this change and still shows a sort of scorn towards enabling local communities to govern themselves. Thus, society has changed but the social contract has not.

A New Contract
The social climate has changed considerably since 1949 and it only makes sense to review the social contract again - not to weaken the Republic, but to strengthen it, by strengthening what is its strongest part - its people. Thomas Jefferson believed that every generation should write its own Constitution, effectively write its own social contract. While that may seem like a radical idea in India, it is not too far from what the great men and women who drafted our Constitution believed. If anything, they believed that the same generation should be able to change that social contract within their generation itself.

On this, the 65th Republic Day of the Republic of India, Indians across the globe stand proud of their Constitution and its ideals - through which We, The People, gave birth to our Republic.

Happy Republic Day
Jai Hind! 

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