Preserving the Republic

On January 26, 1950, India gave to itself one of the most complete, modern and liberal Constitutions in the world. Seventy years on, this country must not just celebrate that moment but rededicate itself to the observance of Constitutional principles, both in letter and spirit. The survival of India as a state, its development as a nation and its growth as an economy over the past seven decades owe a great deal to the fact that India’s Constitution emerged from broad deliberations, and the founding generation’s dedication to Constitutional methods and principles. There is little doubt, of course, that over the course of these seven decades of the Republic there have been times when its liberal bedrock has been under siege — the imposition of Emergency being one such moment. There is every reason to worry that India is now passing through another such stage, if not as obvious as was the case in the 1970s. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) releases a “Democracy Index” every year, which tracks how various countries are doing in terms of their democratic institutions and experience. India dropped 10 positions in a single year, with its rank in the index slipping from 41 out of 160-plus countries in 2018 to 51 in 2019. The EIU stated that “the primary cause of the democratic regression was an erosion of civil liberties in the country”, providing as examples the National Register of Citizens in Assam, the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and its demotion from statehood, and the new citizenship law. 

Such indices should often be taken with a pinch of salt, but there can be no doubt that in this case India’s fall in the rankings reflects widely shared concerns. It is time to examine how core constitutional principles can once again be brought to bear on this country. On multiple fronts there has been a regression in terms of following both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. It is not only a challenge to constitutionally-mandated secularism, but there are also questions about whether the rights guaranteed in the Constitution will continue to be valued and, indeed, updated in a new era. No Constitution is static, and it must change with the times. But the liberal bedrock of India’s Constitution must continue to operate. Those institutions charged with preserving this bedrock must be vigilant to uphold their independence and to defend the basic constitutional principles. 

The basic fact to be noted is that while political change and new ideas must be respected in a democracy, they should not challenge the constitutional principles. It is fidelity to such principles that maintains the continuity and legitimacy of any state. It provides not just opportunities for individuals but also security, without which investment and growth is impossible. Yes, there must be changes: Privacy needs to be respected more, colonial-era restrictions on speech and excessive power for security forces repealed, and property rights need to be revisited. But these are perfectly compatible with the Constitution as written and debated seven decades ago and in the years since. The political class that has often paid lip service to the Constitution over the years had better instead seek to serve it in reality.

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