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Given the severe human deprivations and manifold social inequalities that marked its diverse citizenry, the odds against its survival were high. Many scholars have also investigated how democracy has fared in India since independence: its quality, scope and depth, advances and setbacks, successes and failures.
Why the nationalist movement decided to establish a modern representative democracy and the reasons for its specific constitutional architecture, however, has received considerably less attention. In recent years, a number of scholars have trespassed the boundaries of law, history and the social sciences to pursue these questions.
Codification was necessary to explicate the rule of law. A centralized state apparatus was essential to establish clear external boundaries necessary to ensure political sovereignty and enable planned development.
But it was also required to reorder the deeply unequal relations that marked everyday social life in the princely states and myriad villages of the nation. Finally, a liberal conception of political representation was necessary to overcome the predefined collective identities of caste and religion, which severely restricted individual freedom.
Crucially for Khosla, all three elements were of a piece, mutually supportive elements that cohered. First, it situates the constitution of democracy in India in a longer historical narrative, equal in significance to the revolutions of America in and France in , whose momentous events continue to dominate our political imaginary of the birth of modern democracy.
Its establishment in India arguably comprises a more relevant paradigm for Latin America, Africa and Asia, contending against the myriad legacies of colonialism. Many political scientists, especially of a conservative and neocolonial bent, have argued similarly. But their accounts and depictions of democracy in the postcolonial world are often negative: flailing derivative copies of the real thing. The durability of modern Indian democracy against unprecedented odds provides a historically significant rejoinder.
Jawaharlal Nehru signing the new constitution of India on 24 January, , at the final session of the constituent assembly. HT Photo Second, the book comprises a remarkably elegant synthesis of constitutional theory, Indian intellectual history and western political thought. Despite its brevity, Khosla weaves a rich tapestry of ideas and thinkers. Yet readers also encounter relatively less recognized individuals, such as Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, KM Munshi and BN Rau, whose ideas and decisions played a pivotal role in drafting the Constitution, among many others.
The intellectual confidence and political self-understanding they displayed in confronting vital questions is striking. Third, Khosla demonstrates the importance of the Constituent Assembly debates in the making of the constitution, disposing of two rival accounts.
Serious differences existed within the latter over questions of codification, statehood and representation in particular. On the other hand, he demonstrates how the Constitution represented a significant break with the various colonial acts introduced by the Raj, even if the final document included many earlier provisions.
Simply put, the latter failed to offer genuine rights, legislative powers or judicial review to its subjects. The granting of universal adult suffrage to all citizens, regardless of their education, status or wealth, was a revolutionary political act. Indeed, their decision to enable subsequent generations to amend the Constitution with relative ease underscored their outlook. Signing the constitution at the final session of the constituent assembly on Tuesday, 24 January, As constitutional theory, it provides careful legal analysis of many provisions, cases and debates.
In seeking to explain and assess how the founders tackled several constitutional dilemmas, the book endorses their resolution of these predicaments on normative, legal and political grounds. Indeed, Khosla offers them a remarkably sympathetic reading. Not every reader will agree. First, some will question the ideological commitments and political motivations of the founding constitutional architects, many of whom ruled the nation post independence, to protect individual liberties and emancipate the poorest citizens from absolute deprivation.
But the restriction of civil liberties and political rights in contested regions post independence, in the name of public order and national security, has often reflected the misuse and abuse of power. Similarly, the vision of power-sharing presented by Mohammad Ali Jinnah may have been doomed to fail since the problem of minorities within a communal framework defied any simple institutional resolution.
Yet, many will still rue the poor judgment, partisan interests and the will to power that accelerated the tragedy of Partition. Lastly, the failure of the Congress and its main electoral rivals in the early post-independence decades to invest sufficiently in basic education, primary health care and essential public services for all citizens, and the inadequacy of land reform efforts in most of the country, betrayed their constitutional vow to break down many structural barriers to freedom and equality.
Of course, the contingencies, pressures and constraints of governing a country as challenging as India would inevitably test the intentions, skills and judgment of the most capable political leadership.
However, the newly empowered representatives of its democracy made electoral calculations and struck political compromises to satisfy their social interests and will to power in many instances. Hence the progressive aspirations codified in the Directed Principles of State Policy, which Ambedkar believed would hold elected representatives to account at the polls, were regularly breached.
The constitutionalization of democracy in India clearly represented a decisive historic rupture. Preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of India HT Photo Second, it is clear that such failures reflected powerful structural constraints of various kinds.
Theories of constructivism stress the plasticity of the social world in principle. Yet, political autonomy is a relative concept. Its realization in any given context is an empirical matter. The power to construct and reconfigure any demos turns on the balance between state capacity and social forces at a given historical moment. The devastating experience of war and occupation, causing massive social upheaval, greatly expanded the autonomy enjoyed by political rulers of China, South Korea and Taiwan in the mid-twentieth century.
The construction of powerful organizational apparatuses in each of these states, guided by a supreme party, took advantage of these conditions for better and worse. The power of any constitution to reconfigure a society presumes these wider causal factors.
Similarly, Khosla rightly contends that a democratic politics based on individual citizens offers the possibility of redefining who belongs to a majority and whom to a minority across multiple arenas. Yet, shifting electoral majorities can easily coincide with persistent social cleavages.
But its structure clearly failed to ensure, and even frustrated, the social revolution made in its name. Author Madhav Khosla Gauri Gill Third, Khosla explicates how the constitutional founders justified the centralized political apparatus that India established at independence. He rightly points out that its principal rival visions, notably pluralism, regionalism and localism, were less well positioned to eradicate many social practices that undermined democratic equality.
Moreover, the power of the Centre to reorder internal relations could often strengthen the Union, as shown by the integration of princely states and reorganization of states along linguistic-regional lines.
Modern Indian democracy required the common political authority of a state. Yet, the asymmetrical political rights, entitlements and obligations enjoyed by contested regions of the Union, which often employ consociational power-sharing formulas, have also played a key role in maintaining national unity.
Indeed, the centralization of powers in New Delhi, as shown in subsequent decades, could be either too little or too much. On the one hand, it impeded the Centre from removing certain impediments to democratic equality that remained under the remit of states, most notably through land reform.
On the other, it later allowed the Centre to portray demands by opposition parties for greater regional autonomy as existential threats to national unity. It was precisely the suppression of legitimate political demands by New Delhi, on grounds that its democratically elected government embodied the nation, that endangered the integrity of India.
Read more: Review: Books on VD Savarkar by Vikram Sampath and Vaibhav Purandare The scope and meaning of rights, however codified, are clearly shaped by the conduct of ruling political elites. They are also shaped by the beliefs, practices and actions of ordinary citizens. Modern Indian democracy faces grave, arguably unprecedented, threats on the seventieth anniversary of its Constitution.
Saving the former requires a dramatic revitalization of the latter. It is precisely when basic democratic rights are being openly subverted that constitutional morality faces its greatest test.
The Indian Constitution
Having survived through reading just over half of the bare text of the Constitution, I realised that I need a critical interpretation of its origins and the debates that have surrounded its modification over the decades rather than the bare text itself and the often undecipherable footnotes with hindu-arabic and roman numerals in close consonance. Madhav Khoslas introduction does not disappoint. The Oxford India short introduction series has a lovely book introducing the Indian Constitution written by Madhav Khosla. The book is written in a very oratory style as if one is listening to the author. Although largely the book does not make huge assumptions on legal knowledge, some basic understanding of high school civics does it still exist? The chapter gives a very good comparison with federalism and separation of powers in Western countries when compared to India. Loose comparisons with the US system where the due process is often a powerful defence against ANY government action is rather stark.
The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution