The most important contribution of the Constitution to civic nationalism is of representation centred on individuals.
A new understanding
- The most important contribution of the Constitution to Indian civic nationalism was that of representation centred on individuals.
- As legal scholar Madhav Khosla explains in his impressive book of legal history, India’s Founding Moment, the political apparatus of establishing a constitutional democracy in postcolonial India involved asking Indians to have a new understanding of authority.
- They would be liberated from British imperial despotism through submission to a new idea of Indianness that saw them as equal agents.
Indian Society and Liberal Constitutionalism
- The founders of the republic chose to impose a liberal constitution upon a society that was not liberal.
- They saw the principles of liberal constitutionalism — the centrality of the state, non-communal political representation, and so on — as essential to Indian democracy.
- In keeping with contemporary liberal thought, they committed India to a common language of the rule of law, constructed a centralized state, but instituted a model of representation whose units were individuals rather than groups.
- This was an attempt to free Indians from their prevailing understanding of their place in society and to place citizens in a realm of individual agency and deliberation that was appropriate to self-rule.
Basis of representation
- The Constitution granted representation not to one’s predetermined religious identity but to one’s individual expression of political agency. That was why the individual vote was so important.
- Democratic politics could not be reduced to the advocacy of pre-set interests.
- At the same time, the Constitution acknowledged group rights, such as
- the right of religious denominations to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes (Article 26(a)),
- the right of a ‘section of the citizens’ to conserve a distinct language, script or culture (Article 29(1)).
- There were also provisions to protect the interests of Scheduled Tribes (Article 19(5)) and a specific provision in Article 25 stating that a ‘heavy responsibility’ would be cast on the majority to see that minorities feel secure.
Privileging the individual
- The ability to recognise groups and yet adjudicate the rights of their individual members, and the adaptability of the Constitution to the ever-changing realities of national life, have effectively made it a vehicle of social change.
- Constitution makers explicitly rejected the notion of religion playing any role in citizenship, arguing that each individual voter exercised agency in the democratic project and should not be reduced to the pre-existing loyalties of religious affiliation.
- This was far removed from the assumptions that have animated the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the threat to introduce a National Register of Citizens.
- The challenge lies in reconciling restrictions on state power with popular rule — to prevent temporary majorities (since in a democracy, a majority is temporary, though some people forget that) from completely undoing what the Constitution has provided.
- The founders of the Indian republic held a conception of democracy that went beyond majority rule. They subordinated politics to law.
- The rights of Indian citizens could not ‘be taken away by any legislature merely because it happens to have a majority’.
Divided between two ideas
- fundamental difference of opinion over religion continues to haunt our politics today.
- The nationalist movement was divided between two ideas; those held by those who saw the religious identity as the determinant of their nationhood, and those who believed in an inclusive India for everyone, irrespective of faith, where rights were guaranteed to individuals rather than to religious communities.
- India never accepted the logic that had partitioned the country: our freedom struggle was for all, and the newly independent India would also be for all.
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