It has now been sixty-eight years since the adoption of the Constitution of India on the 26th of November, 1949. While the adoption of the Constitution was obviously a landmark event, what rings particularly urgent and relevant today is the speech delivered by Dr. Ambedkar the previous day at the concluding session of the Constituent Assembly. The chairman of the committee that drafted the constitution did not just celebrate what they had achieved; he had also pointed to the vulnerabilities of the Constitution and hence of the democratic republic founded on the basis of the constitution.
Today these vulnerabilities of the constitution are the ominous reality of our times. The checks and balances, the division of powers, the institutional integrity, the parliamentary conventions and procedures that are supposed to be central to the functioning of a parliamentary democracy are all at stake. With a despotic regime riding roughshod on the constitution, the spectre of a fascist takeover stares the republic in the face.
The delicate but well defined division of powers and responsibilities among the legislature, executive and judiciary are being systematically blurred and transgressed. The government made a mockery of legislative provisions to get a whole range of arbitrary measures including the most controversial Aadhaar Bill passed as a money bill in the Lok Sabha. The Supreme Court had mandated the Aadhaar as being voluntary and not mandatory but when the executive is showing utter contempt for this apex court order, the latter instead of censuring the government is just allowing the executive to get away by just leaving things unresolved.
Demonetization and the Rafale deal have been two explosive examples of utter violation of even the cabinet system with the Prime Minister unilaterally announcing decisions of far-reaching consequences. Even after one year, the country is still paying the enormous economic and social cost of demonetization while the government keeps dishing out lies about the presumed gains of demonetization. Some three decades ago, it was the Rs 64 crore Bofors scam which had triggered the downfall of the Congress, but today the Modi regime is defending the scandalous Rafale deal in which Narendra Modi bypassed every institutional mechanism and mysteriously overturned the erstwhile terms of negotiations with the French company Dassault to announce his government’s decision to purchase 36 fighter aircrafts roping in Anil Ambani’s greenhorn Reliance Defence as a joint venture partner in place of the experienced public sector unit Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
While the government and especially the Prime Minister is centralising and concentrating all powers in the hands of a small cabal, the rights and liberties of citizens are being systematically curtailed and eroded. Apart from using the draconian AFSPA as a shield for extra-judicial coercion and violence, the central government and various state governments ruled by the BJP are routinely invoking the NSA to jail activists (peasant leader Akhil Gogoi in Assam and Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad in UP are both currently in jail under NSA) and the notorious Sedition Act to suppress dissent (JNU student leaders were charged with sedition and sent to jail). Another law from the colonial era, the defamation suit, is also being used as a weapon of harassment and intimidation to curb investigative journalism. Whether it is the Adanis threatening the prestigious Economic and Political Weekly or the government teaming up with Jay Amit Shah to try and browbeat the leading digital magazine The Wire, the defamation suit has been the trusted tool of coercion.
Alongside this growing subversion of the Constitution and the institutional spirit and framework of democracy, we have open assault on the rule of law. Thanks to the tacit encouragement of the state and the vicious political environment, cow terrorism continues unabated. In a repeat of the Pehlu Khan case we have witnessed yet another cow terrorist murder, of Umar Mohammed, in the same state of Rajasthan. The murder of young Junaid inside a crowded train compartment near Delhi showed that the killer mobs did not even need the excuse of alleged cow-slaughter or beef consumption.
Facilitating such daylight murders by lynch mobs and targeted killings of dissenting writers and activists is an environment of hate and fear openly patronised by ministers and leaders of the ruling Sangh-BJP establishment. The open offer of bounties for beheading the director or leading actor of a film does not invite any kind of administrative or judicial intervention. The NIA and the highest court of a state of course rush to annul an inter-faith marriage and even the Supreme Court does not unambiguously uphold Hadiya’s plea for freedom to choose her faith and partner, asking her to stay in a hostel in place of her parental custody! It is this shocking display of silence and ambivalence on the part of the highest echelons of judiciary which is aggravating the vulnerabilities of the constitutional republican order in India that Dr. Ambedkar had apprehended so prophetically right at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.
While the role of the crucial custodians and pillars of democracy remains disturbingly passive and submissive in India, ironically in neighbouring Pakistan, by no means a bastion of parliamentary democracy, the same institutions are showing a much higher degree of courage and activism. The Panama and Paradise papers are being subjected to a conspiracy of silence in India despite a large array of prominent and powerful individuals being names in these papers, in Pakistan no less a person than the Prime Minister has been sent packing!
The only ray of hope in this disturbing atmosphere comes from the sustained struggles of the people. This November, Delhi witnessed massive assemblies of workers and peasants from across the country. In a normal situation, November is when Parliament begins its winter session. The trade unions and peasant organisations had called their programmes with the hope that Parliament would show some sensitivity to their demands. But the people’s assemblies were the only things we had in Delhi this November with the BJP avoiding any kind of parliamentary questioning and accountability before the crucial Gujarat elections. With the powers that be bypassing and undermining the parliamentary institutions and constitutional processes and principles, let us step up the assertion of the people by all possible means. The constitutional vision of liberty, equality and fraternity in a sovereign, democratic, secular, socialist republic cannot be left at the mercy of the dictatorial design of the rulers.