Today is Constitution Day. It was first instituted in 2015. The government announcement declaring 26 November as Constitution Day was long on details of the activities planned for the day but not very specific about what it was for. It said that this was the day the Constitution was adopted, but since we have been already celebrating 26 January as the day the Constitution came into force, it was unclear why we needed another day for the same thing. It also said that the day will be a tribute to B.R. Ambedkar – the chairman of the committee that drafted the text of the Constitution – but since we already celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti on 14 April, the government announcement was unclear why we needed another day for the same thing.
The curious case of the Constitution Day strengthens my scepticism about “Days” – “the surest sign that an issue is not on the agenda is when they create a “Day” for it.” That “if they declare a X Day, then nobody gives a damn for X, for all values of X.” Can you really put your hand on your heart and solemnly say that people in general – and therefore their political parties, leaders, government officials and judges – really care about the letter and spirit of the Constitution?
It seems as if a nation that lacks any serious commitment to its Constitution is laundering its political conscience by observing an anniversary. If we can observe the anniversaries of Rama, Buddha, Gandhi and Ambedkar without the slightest knowledge of what they stood for, less try to live up to those values, we surely can do the same to a lengthy document called the Constitution of India. (See also why the Constitution is a manual for practice, not a holy book for worship.)
An apathetic citizen
We were hearing lectures about the proper role of governors and the obligation towards upholding constitutional ideals even as we were cheering the post-election skulduggery in Maharashtra. More than 10,000 citizens have been charged with sedition in Jharkhand for the act of ‘writing a part of the Constitution on stone’. Civil liberties have been abridged in Kashmir without constitutional or statutory basis. Law enforcement and investigative agencies of the government have allowed themselves to become partisan instruments, and even the highest judiciary in the country no longer inspires the confidence that it will do justice, not even in a belated sense.
This is, of course, an indictment of our political leaders, civil servants, police and judges. But above all, it is an indictment of the citizen, who is either apathetic, content or complicit in the circumvention of constitutional values.
Actually, the best thing to do today is to read Ambedkar’s concluding remarks at the Constituent Assembly in his famous “Grammar of Anarchy” speech. It is remarkably prescient. He not only tells us what we need to do to protect our freedom but also warns us how we might end up undermining our republic.
Ambedkar puts the ball unambiguously in our court. He says, “however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?”
“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact,” Ambedkar tells us, we must do three things. First, we should reject unconstitutional methods (they are the “grammar of anarchy”); be cautious of putting our faith in charismatic leaders (“Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”); and strive to achieve social democracy (“means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life”). I leave it to you to reflect to what extent we are heeding his warnings.
How a republic dies
History bears out Ambedkar’s fears. In Mortal Republic, Edward J. Watts uses the history of ancient Rome as an example to demonstrate that we cannot take constitutional rule for granted. He finds that “no republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it… Roman history could not more clearly show that, when citizens look away as their leaders engage in these corrosive behaviors, their republic is in mortal danger. Unpunished political dysfunction prevents consensus and encourages violence. In Rome, it eventually led Romans to trade their Republic for the security of an autocracy. This is how a republic dies.”
On this Constitution Day, the government wants to remind citizens of their Fundamental Duties (which, incidentally, were added to the Constitution by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency government). There’s something even more important. We would do well to remind ourselves – and each other – of a greater fundamental duty: to at least expect, if not insist, that those who hold public office perform their functions according to and within the limits of their constitutional remit. Not just today, but every day.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.