When the Political Elite Fails to Honour the Constitution in a Democracy...

... both the politics of freedom and that of self-restraint are compromised, uncertainty wracks society, and anomie follows.

Listen to this article:

On January 24, in Chadi village of Rajasthan’s Bundi district, a bridegroom accompanied by band, baaja and baraat rode a mare to the venue of his wedding. In a society where bridegrooms, clad in resplendent finery, usually if not, always ride a mare to the place where their marriage ceremonies will be solemnised, this is hardly a matter that should occasion comment.

But newspapers of January 25 carried the news item that Shriram Meghwal rode a mare in his wedding procession, accompanied by music and a DJ. This was the first time in the Bundi district that a Dalit groom could do so, mainly because 60 policemen and representatives of the district administration accompanied the baraat. At around the same time, in Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh, Dilip Ahirwar mounted a mare to lead his wedding procession. His house was ransacked by some people belonging to the upper caste community, presumably as punishment. He had dared to break a code that Dalits could not follow; a tradition that was reserved for the upper castes.

The constitution of India, which we celebrate on 26 January of every year, has granted to each citizen an elaborate set of rights to life, liberty and security under Article 21. A right gives us the freedom to do, or not to do. If a young man wants to ride a Harley-Davidson to the site of his wedding, no one can prevent him from doing so. Equally he can walk, or run, or saunter to the venue, the choice is his and his alone. Or he can mount an adorned mare in the time-honoured tradition. But no. Our democratic Constitution came into effect in 1950. Today we are in 2022, and Dalits are still prevented from exercising their choices. Is this not a matter of public concern and debate on what the status of the constitution in our eyes, and in the eyes of the holders of power, is?

We continue to inhabit one of the most hierarchical and oppressive caste-bound societies the world has seen. Our own people are prevented from exercising their constitutionally mandated right to liberty. Rights are important because they allot to the bearer moral status. The possession and exercise of rights makes a political statement: there are certain things that should be done for people. There are certain things that must not be done to them. In a democratic world, rights are our only political weapon; our only political vocabulary to overturn hierarchies. Have constitutionally granted rights succeeded in changing social equations in India? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

We had enough early warnings that constitutional democracy and its language of rights may not succeed in a profoundly undemocratic society. On November 4, 1949, during the discussion of the draft constitution, B.R. Ambedkar addressed a significant issue that had been catapulted onto the agenda of the assembly – that provisions of the constitution had been borrowed from the West. Can, he asked rhetorically, a constitution framed in the middle of the 20th century be absolutely new. “The only new things, if there can be any, in a constitution framed so late in the day are the variations made to remove the faults and to accommodate it to the needs of the country…As to the accusation that the draft constitution has produced a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935, I make no apologies. There is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing. It involves no plagiarism.”

Ambedkar accepted that the section on administrative provisions in the constitution had replicated the Government of India Act, 1935. Certainly, he said, such detailed administrative provisions should not form part of a Constitution. But their inclusion was necessary to protect democracy. For, as he was to say famously, democracy “in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic”.

The Constitution of India.

This phrase has been quoted often enough. The implications of the phrase are of enormous significance. Ambedkar brought great learning, immense political understanding, and perception to the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly. He also brought to the debate enormous wisdom born out of his own experiences as a Dalit. Life had taught him that it was not enough for the people to metaphorically give themselves a constitution. The constitution should become a part of their lives and those of the political elite, it should be an object of reverence, and a recipient of political passion. He called this virtue ‘constitutional morality’.

Also read: When It Comes to Dalit and Tribal Rights, the Judiciary in India Just Does Not Get It

The idea of constitutional morality

Ambedkar’s inspiration for the concept of constitutional morality, that he introduced in his speech of November 4, 1949 on the draft constitution, and on November 25, 1949 in his final reply to the debate, was the 19th century British historian and Enlightenment thinker George Grote (1794-1871). Grote had authored 12 volumes on the history of Greece (1846-1856), particularly on Athenian democracy. On defending Athenian democracy against its critics from Plato onwards to his contemporaries, Grote suggested that Athens had given to the world a notion of democracy that rested on the twin planks of freedom and self-restraint. He focused on Cleisthenes, considered to be the founder of Athenian democracy, and on his belief that we must be passionately attached to the constitution.

The coexistence of freedom and self-imposed restraints, for Grote, can be found in two other historical instances. The first was the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688. In that year, the monarch James II was replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband William III on the throne. The other instance was provided by the American Constitution. In the case of Athens, as in later historical instances, it was generally accepted that the procedures of decision-making had to be governed by the morality of the constitution, particularly if the law was silent on the specifics of certain situations. There was a deeper argument that underlay the idea of constitutional morality. This is best expressed in the words of Grote.

“It was necessary (for Cleisthenes) to create in the multitude…that rare and difficult sentiment which we may term constitutional morality – a paramount reverence for the forms of the constitution, enforcing obedience to the authorities, acting under and within these forms, yet combined with the habit of open speech, of action subject only to definite legal control and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to all their public acts – combined too with a perfect confidence in the bosom of every citizen amidst the bitterness of a party contest, that the form of the constitution will not be less sacred in the eyes of the opponents than his own.”

Political authorities, in other words, were responsible for the inculcation of this political virtue and what for the Victorians was ‘character’. As an aside, Grote’s critics allege that his ‘apologia’ for Athens was not about Athenians but about his own generation, about Victorians who respected character born out of thrift, industry and prudishness.

To return to constitutional morality, citizens had the right to freely criticise the holders of power as long as they observed restraint. But for this to happen, they had to be confident that every political leader held the constitution to be sacred. The relationship between political authority and the rights and responsibilities of citizens was based on shared respect for the morality of the constitution. The government had special responsibility; morality had to be taught to the people through example. Constitutional morality bred moderate politics, otherwise societies will land up, according to Grote, with the sort of excesses that were bred by the French revolution.

Ambedkar applied the same logic to the Indian case. It is only when society is saturated with constitutional morality, that we can take the risk of omitting the details of administration in the constitution. But can we presume, asked Ambedkar in a rhetorical stroke, that there is diffusion of constitutional morality in India? For constitutional morality has to be cultivated; it is not a natural sentiment.

Indians had yet to learn it because our society is profoundly undemocratic. The implication was that the virtue had to be inculcated in the people by a government that is passionately attached to the morality of the constitution. Leaders had to be exemplars. They could not show disrespect for the constitution and expect respect from the citizens for their own constitutionally mandated positions of power. Therefore, the first goal they had to protect was the freedom of the citizens.

Also read: Neither Licchavi, Uttaramerur or Westminster, India Needs a Republic That Empowers Its Citizens

The second implication of Ambedkar’s notion of constitutional morality, self-restraint, was that all clashes of interest and all conflicts had to be resolved within the framework of the constitution, and in accordance with the morality of the constitution. For Ambedkar, the adoption of the constitution and the transition from subject to citizen, marked the end of agitational politics. Since the 1920s the Indian people had mobilised in one of the major struggles for freedom in the 20th century. Mass movements had succeeded in challenging the colonial government on practically every policy. Now it was time for Indians to transit from agitational politics to the politics of responsible citizenship.

The transition would be undoubtedly difficult. People belonging to diverse persuasions could mobilise under the flag of non-cooperation, or civil disobedience, or Quit India. Could they begin to work with each other and realise democratic ideals quite in the same way in an undemocratic society? We could do so only if we “hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It must mean that we abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha”.

Ambedkar was profoundly sceptical of the self-righteousness of Satyagraha. He was particularly suspicious of the claim that the satyagrahi embodied the truth and represented the highest form of morality. He believed in plurality, or that all opinions should be accorded respect. It is only then that we can begin to work out conflicts within the ambit of the constitution. In a vital way Ambedkar’s argument inaugurated the idea that we can resolve issues democratically only through dialogue between equals.

There is much more that can be said about democracy through dialogue. The crucial point is that we can practice self-restraint in politics if we are confident that power holders respect the morality of the constitution. But if they begin to denigrate the constitution, particularly the chapter on fundamental rights that marries freedom to self-restraint, sections of society are encouraged to infringe the dignity of their co-citizens, that dignity that is protected through rights. How can one social group assume that it has rights that another section does not because of the morally arbitrary factor of birth? They can only do so if they are confident that the political elite is not passionately attached to the morality of our constitution, which is the morality of democracy and justice.

When the power elite fails to honour the constitution, both the politics of freedom and that of self-restraint are compromised, uncertainty wracks society, and anomie follows.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.