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Mahatma Gandhi Community Forum

[WHY NOT A NEW CONSTITUTION? is my contribution published in 1992, in the book "REFORMING THE CONSTITUTION" edited by Dr.Subhash C. Kashyap, Former Secretary-General of Lok Sabha.  I thought it appropriate for me to share this with Gandhi Topia members.  The present Indian generation of this "IT Yug" must rise up and make it possible.  A change is inevitable.  Values change.  One has to accept this.  Let the change be directed towards the best for the common man.  After all the strength of a chain is equivalent to the weakest of its links.]

 

INDIA is just completing forty-five years of its independence from colonial rule.  Forty-two years have already passed after the country’s becoming a republic with its own written constitution.  During these forty-two years, the constitution has gone through sixty-nine amendments.  Many more are bound to take place in the coming years.  May be by the end of this century, while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the working of the constitution, the total amendments would exceed one hundred.

 

In the year 1979 the then President of India, Dr.N.Sanjiva Reddy, proposed a review of our constitution.  After more than a decade, in early 1991, President Venkataraman went a step further and suggested the setting up of a Constituent Assembly to redraft the constitution or incorporate necessary changes in it.

 

The need of the hour is not merely a review of our constitution, but the replacement of the existing one by a new constitution framed by a newly constituted Constituent Assembly elected by universal adult franchise where all citizens above 18 years of age should be able to participate.  If this is not done, India might go the way some of the other nations have gone in recent years.  Some of the developments around us like the increasing number of militant groups, secessionist movements, regionalism, communalism, casteism and above all political killings of leaders like Smt.Indira Gandhi and Shri Rajiv Gandhi must cause grave concern.  With no less a person than the President himself suggesting the setting up of a Constituent Assembly, the proposal deserved serious thought and action without any further delay.  Next general election could very well be an election for a new Constituent Assembly.  Hopefully, we should be able to enter into the 21st century with a new constitution framed by a Constituent Assembly elected by Indian citizens majority of whom belong to the post-independence generation.

 

We have before us the experience of how our constitution has worked for more than four decades.  We have before us the history of the working of other democracies in the world, especially after the Second World War.  We have seen the cold war and also its end.  Also we have before us cases where countries once democratic could very easily slip into authoritarian and dictatorial rule.  We should be able to learn appropriate lessons and frame a new constitution, which would be free from the lacunae in our own and other constitutions.  Our new constitution can be expected to have a revolutionary significance in the matter of  leading the country from political independence to economic, social and moral freedom for the people.  It is worth noting here what the then Secretary of State for India said in a speech at Manchester on 20th November 1941:

 

Congress has demanded that the future constitution should be settled by a Constituent Assembly through universal adult franchise over the whole of India.  This is an impossible demand.

 

What was impossible in 1940’s under colonial rule should be made possible now in 1990’s under Congress rule.  Can Congress easily forget its own past?

 

Certain self-styled constitutional pundits, so called leaders surviving on a glory borrowed from the colonial past and through coterie rule and status-quoits are bound to oppose any such move.  The country is not their alone and they alone should not be allowed to sit in judgment about the future of 850 million people.  The present generation should have an opportunity to prepare a new constitution incorporating in it its hopes and aspirations and ensuring a better future for itself and for the coming generations.  The constitution should have a mandatory provision for review after every twenty-five years so that the hopes and aspiration of newer and newer generations are taken care of.  It should be able to create genuine federalism in the country with no need or room left for armed struggles and liberation fronts like those for independent Jammu and Kashmir, Khalistan, Jharkhand, Gorkhaland, Bodoland, etc.

 

Even after the liberation of the country from colonial rules, all these four decades and more we have lived in the shadow of colonial rule.  It is time we should get out of it in order to be able to march fast forward towards the 21st century with genuine freedom for the 850 million people - political, economic, social and moral freedom - with no more exploitation of the poor by the rich and the weak by the strong.  There should be no coterie rule in the country under the cover of democracy and ritualistic elections.  Only then would we be able to experience that freedom so appropriately described by Rabindranath Tagore in the following lines:

 

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the hoary desert of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action;

Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

 

When Berlin Wall could fall, East European countries could move towards democracy, U.S.S.R. could collapse ending the long cold war, Mr.Nelson Mandela could be out of South African prison and apartheid system could be seen to be on the way out, man could land on the moon, advancements in audio-video communication systems could bring the world closer, a new constitution for India and the proposed new freedom for its people should also be possible.  We have to remember always to move forward, as stagnation leads to pollution, pollution leads to degeneration and degeneration leads to self-destruction.  It will be a pity if we have to preside over our own self-destruction.

 

It is really tragic that in a country like India, which won political freedom from the mighty colonial masters through a non-violent struggle, violence and killings of innocent men and women should become a matter of routine.  How could the country so soon become a sprouting ground for all kinds of militant groups?  There is an alarming increase in the number of movements generally branded and condemned as secessionist.  How long can we blame “foreign hands” or “misguided and disgruntled people”?  How long can we escape from realities?  How long can we cover up our own failures?

 

It must be said that the present constitution given to us by the founding fathers did help the country to secure political independence from colonial rule and survive for so long as a free nation without disintegrating or falling into authoritarian or dictatorial rule.  That eight hundred and fifty million people (more than the combined population of Africa and South America) could live together as one political entity under conditions of freedom from colonial rule for so long, is no small achievement.  Never before in history and nowhere else in the world, one six of the world’s population with so many diversities lived together as a single sovereign nation.

 

At the same time, we must admit with a sense of shame that even after so many years of political freedom we are still to achieve for the majority of our population economic, social and moral freedom.  Those who won for the country political freedom through a non-violent struggle, after coming to power, did not consider it so important to continue the struggle and win economic, social and moral freedom.  Perhaps it was ignored because it was less exciting and not as very spectacular as the struggle for freedom from colonial rule.  All along they remained busy in the ungainly skirmishes for power without even winking a cursory look at the sufferings of the majority of our population.  Our rulers found glamour and glory in building the facade totally ignoring the foundation i.e. the hundreds of thousands of our villages and millions of our rural people who actually produced food and fiber for the whole nation.  We have had green revolutions and tons of food grains rot in FCI godowns while many children go to bed with an empty stomach and there are starvation deaths here and there.  We produce millions of yards of cloth and export ready-made clothes, but there are millions of our people who cannot still have adequate clothes to cover their nakedness and protect themselves against extreme climates.  Deaths due to cold and heat waves are also not very uncommon.  Our rulers have succeeded in creating for themselves rotten boroughs leading to corruption.  Our so-called representative institutions are popular and democratic only in name.  How long things can go like this?  As Dr.Radhakrishnan quite rightly observed:

 

People who wander about, find no work, no wages and starve, whose lives are a continual round of sore affliction and pinching poverty, cannot be proud of the constitution or its law.

 

Socrates said: “To know yourself is the beginning of wisdom”.  It is time we understood ourselves as individuals and as a nation.  Then alone shall we have the wisdom to understand things in terms of realities.  Then alone shall we achieve the necessary will to remove the ills afflicting the nation and lead it forward to real political, economic, social and moral freedom for its millions who remained exploited to the hilt and neglected totally for centuries.

 

No one can deny the fact that the strength of a chain is equivalent to the strength of the weakest of its links.  Each citizen is a link that makes the nation.  The physical, moral and spiritual strength of each citizen is the mighty strength of the nation.  The strength of a nation is not based merely on brute military and police strength, not on its huge arsenals of destructive weapons, not on the muscle power or just personal or media created charisma of its leader, not on the number of multi-millionaire industrialists and sky polluting high-rise industrial chimneys, not on ultra modern cities and multi-million value high rise buildings, and not on the attraction and strength of just statistical figures of GNP, GDP, BOP, etc.  The ultimate strength of a nation lies in the strength of each citizen and his well-being.

 

None other than Mahatma Gandhi understood it well.  He is no more with us, but his writings can still inspire those who care.  What a difference it would make if those in authority could take to their heart the following words of Mahatma Gandhi:

 

I will give you a talisman.  Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test.  Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.  Will he gain anything by it?  Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?  In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?  Then you will find your doubt and your self melting away.

 

On 15th November, 1947, when Mahatma Gandhi was still alive and a guiding force for both the Congress and the country, the All India Congress Committee passed the following resolution:

 

Political independence having been achieved, the Congress must address itself to the next great task, namely, the establishment of real democracy in the country and a society based on social justice and equality.  Such a society must provide every man and woman with equality of opportunity and freedom to work for the unfettered development of his or her personality.  This can only be realized when democracy extends from the political to the social and the economic spheres.

 

How far this resolution was implemented by the Congress?  How many present-day Congressmen will remember or care to recall such a resolution?  After independence, the country was mostly ruled by the Congress.  Even when there were non-Congress governments at the Centre, the government was headed by those who were once Congressmen.  While in power the Congress blamed the opposition for all its failures and while out of power it blamed those then in power.  There is now a slight change in this sort of an attitude, but one cannot be sure as to how  long it would last.

 

The world is changing very fast.  We must also change in the interest of our people at large.  We must be able to restore to the common man control over his own life and destiny.  He must be guaranteed work, food, clothing and shelter.  Democracy must be made more realistic and meaningful for him, extending the political freedom to economic, social and moral freedom.  Much above the present day ritualistic elections and manipulative politics, which cannot in itself be called democracy, each citizen should have a guaranteed participatory role in the governance of the country.  For all this, we must have a newly written constitution.  Just a few amendments managed by the ruling party, just like cosmetic surgery, will not suffice.  No longer can we afford to be sentimental about a written document ignoring the hopes and aspirations of the majority of the people and their welfare.  The Central Government must be called upon to announce its intention to have a new Constituent Assembly without any further delay.  A debate should start at all levels, right from the village panchayats upward.  It could be discussed at colleges and universities, trade unions and chambers of commerce, social and voluntary organizations and various political parties.  Unlike in 1940s, now we have sophisticated electronic gadgets like computers, which can feed us with reliable data.  Also, we have professional people, who can gauge the will of the people.  The draft once prepared could be thoroughly discussed at all levels before being given final shape and passed by the Constituent Assembly.  Such a constitution would ensure fundamental rights and corresponding duties for each citizen, village panchayats, city/municipal wards and councils, panchayat samitis, district councils, states, regional councils and finally the Central Government.  Rights without corresponding duties and duties without corresponding rights are meaningless.  No party at the Centre should be in a position to postpone state elections, nor should it be possible for any state to postpone district council and panchayat elections, merely for the ruling party’s own political convenience.  We must be able to evolve a constitutional mechanism where the foundations of democracy cannot be eroded or thwarted.

 

With the announcement of formation of a new Constituent Assembly, all secessionist movements and armed struggles as well as manipulative politics would hopefully cease.  People who had once taken up arms but agree to give them up should be allowed general amnesty and given an honorable opportunity to come back in the main stream of society for rebuilding the nation through constructive work.  Also they could help the formation of a new constitution wherein their genuine aspirations are taken care of.  No one other than police and military personnel, who are duty bound to protect each citizen and the country, should be permitted to possess lethal weapons of any kind.  There could be local committees to vouch that official machinery like that of the police is not misused by any quarter and the citizens are not harassed or victimized.

 

The energy of educated unemployed and underemployed men and women should be diverted and utilized to spread literacy so that during the 21st century we can avoid use of symbols for elections, political parties should assume a special responsibility for spreading literacy.  This way we can create a general awareness of citizens’ rights and duties and also help them understand the essence and spirit of the country’s new constitution, which they would have helped to frame.  This is essential for constitutional stability and for democracy to survive and get strengthened.  Aristotle’s words in his famous treatise on Politics are worth recalling:

 

The greatest of all the means…for ensuring the stability of constitutions - but which is nowadays generally neglected - is the education of citizens in the spirit of the constitution…Licentiousness may exist in a state as in individual persons…The education of a citizen in the spirit of his constitution does not consist in his doing the action in which…the adherents of democracy might delight.  It consists in doing the actions by which…a democracy will be enable to survive…The democrat starts by assuming that justice consists in equality; he proceeds to identify equality with the sovereignty of the will of the masses; he ends with the view that ‘liberty and equality’ consist in ‘doing what one likes’…

 

This is a mean conception of liberty.  To live by the rule of the constitution ought not to be regarded as slavery, but rather as salvation.

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