Categories
Issue 18

What Constitutes a Constitution?

Adit Shankar

A political tussle over the demand for a new constitution raises interesting questions about our relationship with the constitution, especially as it is increasingly perceived to be under threat. Open Axis explores this relationship.

“India requires a new constitution…I firmly believe that so many nations have rewritten their Constitutions whenever they felt it necessary. They have got new Constitutions. Now, there is a need in this country to pursue a new Constitution of India. Our slogan will be ‘Naya Soch, Nayi Disha, Naya Samvidhan (new thinking, new direction, and new Constitution).’” A mere week after India’s 72nd anniversary of adopting the Constitution, this proclamation by Telangana Chief Minister, K. Chandrashekhar Rao seems both provocative and confusing. KCR buttresses his claim by stating that “people’s expectations haven’t been met” in the past 75 years, which invalidates the utility of the present constitution. But how would a new constitution help in meeting those expectations? Is it even the point of a constitution to meet “people’s expectations?” Further, what is the relationship between a constitution and political outcomes?

The comments seem slightly more understandable in the context of KCR’s grievance against the centre, as it constantly overlooks and overrides the constitutional powers mandated to state governments. Yet, that grievance catapults to a desire for “newness” as a sort of panacea: a new constitution will solve everything that plagues the country, much like a project of remodelling Lutyens’ Delhi becomes the key to national rejuvenation. Replicating both the current dispensation’s logic of needlessly introducing novelty and its penchant for alliterative sloganeering, KCR seems to be speaking in the language of the very central government he seeks to oppose.

KCR’s call-to-arms elicited condemnation from across the political arena. Curiously, leading the charge is BJP MP from Telangana, Bandi Sanjay Kumar. In a series of tweets criticising the Chief Minister’s “abusive” attitude towards the Prime Minister and the constitution, Kumar ends with: “BJP abides by Dr. B.R Ambedkar’s Constitution and will never allow it to become vulnerable to the machinations of megalomaniacs like KCR.” One might concede sincerity to Kumar’s opposition to “megalomaniacs like KCR;” but leaving the Constitution vulnerable to the machinations of other kinds of megalomaniacs must certainly be fair game for Kumar.

What with the overt violations of legal procedure and convention, the authoritarian capture of otherwise autonomous institutions, like the Election Commission, military, and even the judiciary, along with a proliferation of hate-speech and atrocities against religious minorities and oppressed groups across the country over the past seven years. It is difficult to believe, then, that the BJP abides, in any measure, by “Dr. B.R Ambedkar’s Constitution,” as it unabashedly flouts the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity installed within our Preamble. Instead, Kumar’s comments stem not from a commitment to constitutional morality, but a treatment of the constitution as a sacred relic rather than a readable document, whose spirit might founder some of the foundational assumptions behind Kumar’s own political ideology.

Both KCR and Kumar, then, seem to leave us with two models of thinking about the constitution: it is either treated as a means to an end—the achievement of particular political and economic outcomes that the current document has failed to ensure—or defended as an object of almost religious reverence, ironically failing to take its actual text seriously. Either a tool, or a sacrament. But are there other ways of thinking about the constitution, other forms of envisioning our relationship to it as citizens? To hark back to an earlier set of questions, what is the purpose of a constitution? Can we ‘defend’ the constitution without worshipping it or resisting suggestions of change?

Without necessarily answering these questions in any direct manner, I’d like to turn attention to a phrase that I just used: constitutional morality. This seemingly self-explanatory term—a moral commitment to the constitution, or the morality enshrined within it—appears as an object of critical inquiry in various discourses of constitutionality. The most relevant instance of the phrase comes from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s citation of the classicist George Grote, in his speech ‘The Draft Constitution,’ delivered on 4 November 1948: “By constitutional morality, Grote meant… a paramount reverence for the forms of the constitution, enforcing obedience to authority and acting under and within these forms…”

It is difficult to do justice to the entire complex of ideas that this abbreviated sentence presents, but what is particularly interesting is the repeated use of the term ‘form.’ For Grote, reverence is enacted not simply to the constitution but its forms. However bitterly opposed different political factions may be, they must share a belief in the sacredness of the form of the constitution. This belief becomes constitutional morality itself.

It is the form of the constitution, then, and not just the sum of laws contained within it—it’s content—that should gain prominence in our evaluation of it. The form of the constitution doesn’t merely refer to the framing of a legal document; it bleeds into a socio-political and intellectual space, and the conditions on which the functioning of that space is premised. Thus, we might disagree about the validity of certain laws—the current debates on marital rape, or the infamous section-377, repealed shamefully recently, bear testament to the existence of reprehensible legal statutes—or be disillusioned by the dissonance between the vision of the constitution and the lack of its actualisation. But to truly respect the constitution is not to defer to a specific set of rules or axioms; it is to consider seriously the process of encountering difference, listening to dissenting voices, and respecting the dignity of each individual that undergirds its very composition: what forms a constitution.
Yet, as we collectively acquiesce to a project of annihilating difference, where democracy is preserved merely as a catalyst for demagoguery, we are moving further away from this vision of constitutional morality, a vision that Pratap Bhanu Mehta expands upon in his lecture titled ‘What is constitutional morality?’: “In the face of difference, the only point of unanimity that one can seek is over an appropriately designed adjudicative process…What the parties have to agree to, as Ambedkar recognizes over and over, is an allegiance to a constitutional form, not an allegiance to a particular substance.” It is precisely this ‘adjudicative process’ whose downfall we witness today in the relentless erosion of institutional authority. Far more dangerous, however, is the ruling dispensation’s singular allegiance to its own ideological substance that threatens to deform the constitution to its very core.

Adit Shankar is a first-year masters student of English at Ashoka University. His writing has previously appeared in Scroll, and he is interested in the politics and literature of South Asia.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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