Constitution during a road show in Varanasi
Chandrashekhar Azad holds up a copy of the Constitution during a road show in Varanasi | ANI Photo
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A couple of weeks ago, an old friend informed me that he had decided to join the public protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens in his city. Like me, he is a staunch believer in constitutional methods in politics and policy change. We both like to quote B.R. Ambedkar’s famous “grammar of anarchy” injunctions against protests and civil disobedience. He was convinced that he was doing the right thing morally, but was uncertain of the constitutionality of it. He asked me what I thought about the matter. This is what I told him:

Let’s first parse what Ambedkar had warned against in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949: “We must…hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.” (Emphasis mine.)

The key sentence in this important paragraph is the one where he points out that when there is no way left for constitutional methods, public protests are justified. After the Supreme Court repeatedly failed to uphold basic fundamental rights and balance the Narendra Modi government’s overreach, there is a question mark on whether there is any way left for constitutional methods. The religion-based criteria in the CAA is unconstitutional. When citizens wanted to protest against the bill, many state governments imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the IPC and arrested protesters. Internet access was shut down in many places across the country. In some places, police action was blatantly unconstitutional.

When the government and law enforcement authorities are no longer constrained by constitutionality, and when the Supreme Court is unable to secure individual liberty, there is a case to argue that public protests are justified. Who decides whether the constitutional methods are open or not? Well, every citizen can.


Also read: For CAA-NRC protesters, the Constitution is a talisman and preamble the war cry


Democracy on a treadmill

As I have argued before, peaceful public protests are constitutional — in that every citizen enjoys the right to free expression — but are unconstitutional methods. Yet, when faced with a state going off the constitutional rails, public protests aiming to restore constitutional behaviour are justified. In fact, in their new book The Narrow Corridor, Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that public protests are necessary, because institutions, separation of powers, and checks and balances do not always work.

“Liberty needs the state and the laws. But it is not given by the state or the elites controlling it. It is taken by regular people, by society. Society needs to control the state so that it promotes people’s liberty instead of quashing it. Liberty needs a mobilized society that participates in politics, protests when it’s necessary, and votes the government out of power when it can…For liberty to emerge and flourish, both state and society must be strong. A strong, mobilized society is needed to control and shackle the strong state.”

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They go on to argue that being a liberal democracy is like being on a treadmill: the state and society must keep running to stay where they are. The state must continuously strengthen its capacity “to control violence, enforce laws, and provide public services that are critical for a life in which people are empowered to make and pursue their choices”. At the same time, society must constantly strengthen its ability to force the state to act within its constitutional bounds. By this measure, Indian society has been weak or negligent, and the current protests have been long overdue.


Also read: In Ambedkar’s ‘Proposed Preamble’ to Indian Constitution, there was no ‘equality’ clause


A necessary antidote

The anti-CAA/NRC protests are the first in my living memory of any sizeable public agitation that demands adherence to the Constitution, not a departure from it. The protests are not demanding special entitlements. They are not seeking exemptions or exceptions. They are rallying around the Constitution, waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. They are doing so peacefully in the face of disproportionate use of force by police in many places. Both the ends and means are justified from a constitutional point of view.

The onus is on institutions and holders of constitutional office to respond to the growing public outcry by reflecting on their actions and committing themselves to their proper roles. Civil servants and police officers must muster the courage do what the Constitution enjoins them to do, not whatever their political masters order them to. So too the judiciary. At a time when young men and women across the country are showing undaunted courage to face police lathis, surely those who are sworn to uphold the law ought to show some too.

So no, protests seeking a restoration of constitutional rule are not the grammar of anarchy. Rather, they are the antidote.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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18 Comments Share Your Views

18 COMMENTS

  1. It seems the author has usurped to himself the final authority to declare what is constitutional and what is unconstitutional. All the institutions enshrined in our constitution the Apex court included, have been, according to him, literally working against the constitution. Hence , he is invoking even Ambedkar to support agitations and confrontations disapproved by Ambedkar. But who will judge his interpretation of being in consistence with the constitution or otherwise. Really a very tall claim to be omniscient indeed. God save the country from such omniscient intellectuals.

    • Agree with you. Author also changed the speech itself. Section of Ambedkar’s quote in which clearly written, “when there WAS ….” And author just two line letter writing , “when there is…..”. In Ambedkar’s quote he was referring to the past sit-ins only and made no favourable argument for future. He created no exceptions for future even in this speech.
      But Author very cleverly changed the meaning so he can justify his opinion/story and secondly in his story he himself became the final authority to decide what is unconstitutional.

  2. What a load of poppycock! What is unconstitutional about the CAA. It was ratified by both houses of Parliament. Where were the peaceful protests. They were violent!

    There is nothing religious about act. It simply says india will give citizenship to persecuted minorities. Muslims are not persecuted minorities in Islamic countries. There is nonway to ascertain if an immigrant is a persecuted or an economic migrant. Hence if you open it to muslims, it is like bringing in the wolf with the lamb. I.e. the persecutor and the persecuted. Why are Indian muslims so agitated. This act does not affect them in any way.

  3. The 22 Vows ( 22 Pratigya ) of Buddhism by Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar, delivered in 1956:

    1. मैं ब्रह्मा, विष्णु और महेश में कोई विश्वास नहीं करूँगा और न ही मैं उनकी पूजा करूँगा

    2. मैं राम और कृष्ण, जो भगवान के अवतार माने जाते हैं, में कोई आस्था नहीं रखूँगा और न ही मैं उनकी पूजा करूँगा

    3. मैं गौरी, गणपति और हिन्दुओं के अन्य देवी-देवताओं में आस्था नहीं रखूँगा और न ही मैं उनकी पूजा करूँगा.

    4. मैं भगवान के अवतार में विश्वास नहीं करता हूँ

    5. मैं यह नहीं मानता और न कभी मानूंगा कि भगवान बुद्ध विष्णु के अवतार थे. मैं इसे पागलपन और झूठा प्रचार-प्रसार मानता हूँ

    6. मैं श्रद्धा (श्राद्ध) में भाग नहीं लूँगा और न ही पिंड-दान दूँगा.

    7. मैं बुद्ध के सिद्धांतों और उपदेशों का उल्लंघन करने वाले तरीके से कार्य नहीं करूँगा

    8. मैं ब्राह्मणों द्वारा निष्पादित होने वाले किसी भी समारोह को स्वीकार नहीं करूँगा

    9. मैं मनुष्य की समानता में विश्वास करता हूँ

    10. मैं समानता स्थापित करने का प्रयास करूँगा

    11. मैं बुद्ध के आष्टांगिक मार्ग का अनुशरण करूँगा

    12. मैं बुद्ध द्वारा निर्धारित परमितों का पालन करूँगा.

    13. मैं सभी जीवित प्राणियों के प्रति दया और प्यार भरी दयालुता रखूँगा तथा उनकी रक्षा करूँगा.

    14. मैं चोरी नहीं करूँगा.

    15. मैं झूठ नहीं बोलूँगा

    16. मैं कामुक पापों को नहीं करूँगा.

    17. मैं शराब, ड्रग्स जैसे मादक पदार्थों का सेवन नहीं करूँगा.

    18. मैं महान आष्टांगिक मार्ग के पालन का प्रयास करूँगा एवं सहानुभूति और प्यार भरी दयालुता का दैनिक जीवन में अभ्यास करूँगा.

    19. मैं हिंदू धर्म का त्याग करता हूँ जो मानवता के लिए हानिकारक है और उन्नति और मानवता के विकास में बाधक है क्योंकि यह असमानता पर आधारित है, और स्व-धर्मं के रूप में बौद्ध धर्म को अपनाता हूँ

    20. मैं दृढ़ता के साथ यह विश्वास करता हूँ की बुद्ध का धम्म ही सच्चा धर्म है.

    21. मुझे विश्वास है कि मैं फिर से जन्म ले रहा हूँ (इस परिवर्तन के द्वारा).

    22. मैं गंभीरता एवं दृढ़ता के साथ घोषित करता हूँ कि मैं इसके (परिवर्तन के) बाद अपने जीवन का बुद्ध के सिद्धांतों व शिक्षाओं एवं उनके धम्म के अनुसार मार्गदर्शन करूँगा.

    Jai Bhim
    Jai Bharat Mulnivasi

  4. The article misreads Babasaheb’s anarchy remark completely. BRA did not mean a generalized condemnation of protests. He meant, if the context of protest does not question the status quo of Brahminical polity and if the protest does not involve uplift of lowest of the low, then such protests violate Constitution. For example, anti-anti-CAA protests. Therefore, the article is grossly wrong by interpreting Ambedkar without the right context.

  5. While being a great thinker, Dr. Ambedkar was primarily a constitutionalist and was certainly wrong about the importance of protest. In his final speech, Dr. Ambedkar also warned against hero-worship. We should not worship him, rather to achieve Ambedkar’s dream, we may have to challenge some of his ideas of constitutionalism.

  6. In Indian democracy changes to Constitution can be done only through parliament and not through violent agitations and anarchist protests. It’s now crystal clear to majority of Indians that those who are protesting in the name of upholding the constitution, they are essentially crooks and goons who have no trust in parliament and want to force their views on all through violent means like Naxals.

  7. Majority of Indians probably don’t even know the constitution. How many can claim to have even read and understood even parts of it? How many agree with what has been written in it including the illegal insertion of ‘secular and socialist’ by a dictatorial regime. Probably time to review the constitution to understand whether it has lived up to it’s ideals or remains simply a cut paste job past it’s sell by date.

  8. After learning that Afzal Guru was hanged unnecessarily and our own police played an important role in the Parliament attack, I think we can conclude that the constitution is no longer functional and that it has been non-functional during both Congress & BJP rule.
    I am in support of protests but not violent protests. The intentional postponement of the CAA hearings by the SC is also an indication of the collapse of the constitution going forward another step.
    I agree with the author on this issue. I am an atheist but I wish there is really a God who can come down and mete out justice to all those people who killed an innocent man in the name of the people of India.
    This should never happen in my name anymore but I feel so helpless.

    • Don’t feel helpless because there are thousands, may be millions, who feel the same. In the words of Shally: Rise like Lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number–/ Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you–/Ye are many — they are few.
      Or, if you prefer Paash: Sabse khatarnak hota hai/ Murda shanti se bhar jaana/ Na hona tadap ka/ Sab kuchh sahan kar jaana/ Ghar se nikalna kaam par/ Aur kaam se laut kar ghar aana/ Sabse khatarnak hota hai/ Hamare sapnon ka mar jaana. SO do join the next non-violent protest close to you.

  9. People are sovereign, and the government machinery viz parliament, judiciary and the executive are essentially controlled by the people. It is important to note that the laws and rules are to control the government machinery and it’s limit.

    The core humanist values, liberty, equality, fraternity will determine the outcome.

    So protests to restore the Constitution those are peaceful are essential to control the state.

    • In democracies public protests can influence those who sit in the parliament or decide who should sit in parliament but it’s a wishful thinking that people control state.

  10. The title of the article is rhetorical. Restoring the Constitution arises, only when the existing constitution has been abrogated. Has it happened? No, to the best of my knowledge. The writer is justifying destructive protests as an attempt to bring back constitutionality in public life. Rank hypocritic approach.

    • What would you expect from the author with typical name? Rubbish and nothing but the rubbish. It has to be anti India, anti BJP and last but not least anti Modi. Otherwise no one can justify this rubbish.

    • Not true at all. The constitution doesn’t have to be abrogated to be restored. The need to restore it arises when it is totally ignored, as it is now, or suspended, which was the case during Emergency. Comprende?

      • So you are restoring constitution by destroying public property, attacking police, abusing army and raising Islamic slogans. Only fools can think of resporing constitution even after completely being rejected by people in elections.

    • Agree, they want to create anarchy without offering any alternative. All these persons were silent during persecution of minorities in our own country, three states and also our three neighbor countries.

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