As India celebrates the 75th anniversary of her existence as an independent nation, it is time to reflect on what 'India' truly represents. What has given this country the resilience to meet multiple challenges on the economic, political and social fronts over three-quarters of a century and retain her status as the largest democracy in the world (even if there is still a gap between the actual and the potential)?
India has been fortunate that eminent personalities oversaw the transition from imperial to democratic rule, developing a robust Constitution that has, in spite of many amendments, stood the test of time. At this juncture in our history, it would be appropriate to identify the core principles that have enabled India to chart her course of nationhood. The strength of India rests on three fundamental principles embedded in her Constitution: the primacy accorded to the individual, the emphasis on pluralism and the operation of the federal structure of the nation.
India has, over the ages, taken into her fold people from diverse races, cultures and religions. The country displays a heterogeneous collection of languages and traditions. Pluralism is not confined to religion: it is the trait which welcomes and embraces different ethnicities, linguistic groups and those from diverse cultural backgrounds. The Constitution’s greatest boon has been its focus on bringing together, in one nation-state, people who were earlier subjects of British India and nearly 600 princely states. It has located a number of pluralist measures in the part on Fundamental Rights (Part III). These include the freedom to profess, practise and propagate any religion as well as the protection of cultural and educational rights of minorities. Discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth is specifically prohibited.
What is equally noteworthy is the primacy accorded to the individual in Part III. Article 14 guarantees equality before the law to all persons, irrespective of whether they are citizens. The subsequent articles lay down clearly the rights of citizens — of life and liberty, freedom of speech and association, public employment, etc. This marks a sea change in a social milieu where the collective, in the shape of the family, clan or community, was, in centuries past, the arbiter of the rights and duties of the individual. The Constitution gives the individual a dignity of her own, not linked to any entity other than the nation of which she is a citizen.
It is significant that the very first article of the Constitution defines India as a Union of States. The territories administered by the British and the princely states which signed the Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union were amalgamated into different states. Article 1 of the Constitution was recognition of the reality that it was these states that constituted the nation. There is a clear division of responsibilities between the Union and the States in the matter of governance. The Seventh Schedule delineates the subjects which are the exclusive domain, respectively, of the Union and of the States (as well as those where there is concurrent jurisdiction of both). The Constitution provides for a Finance Commission to propose, at regular intervals, the allocation of financial resources between the Union and the States; it also created All-India Services that serve both the Union and the States. These provisions are intended to ensure a collaborative and synergistic relationship between the two, often governed by different political parties. Recognising that federalism has to strike roots below the state level, the Constitution (73rd and 74th Amendments) provided for substantive devolution of powers to rural and urban local bodies.
However, there are areas where closer attention from the Union and state governments, the judiciary and civil society is necessary if India is to serve as an example of a healthy democracy. Powers of arrest are still exercised by law-enforcement agencies in a routine fashion and subordinate courts treat bail applications with a negative frame of mind, so much so that the Supreme Court was constrained to recently observe that India should not become a “police state”. Special acts have severely circumscribed the grant of bail in certain cases. These lead not only to the “process becoming the punishment” (as observed recently by the Chief Justice of India), but also to the burgeoning number of undertrials in jails in India. The 2006 directives of the Supreme Court to insulate the police forces from political pressures need to be implemented by all governments in letter and spirit if the sanctity of individual liberties is to be maintained.
The pluralist ethos has come under strain in recent years, through a combination of executive actions (and inaction) and the emergence of vigilante groups that seek to deliver ‘justice’ in a summary manner. Increasing intolerance for the views of others, especially with the explosive growth of electronic and social media, has contributed to the growing incidence of hate speech, which sows the seeds of bigotry and hatred in large segments of society. It is time governments impartially administer the laws which check such actions (and courts take a severe view of infractions of laws causing social unrest). The media and civil society also need to call out those elements that seek to sow dissension among different sections of society.
There is an urgent need to tone down the adversarial relations between the Union and state governments. A spirit of mutual goodwill, respect and consensus between the Union and state governments, especially those governed by parties other than that governing the Union, is crucial in furthering the economic development of the country and improving the lot of the common citizen.
The promise in the Preamble of the Constitution to secure to all citizens of India justice, equality, liberty and fraternity will be realised in ample (if not full) measure when all the stakeholders in the country actively promote the values enshrined in the Constitution. Only then will India’s tryst with destiny truly be fulfilled.
The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre