“We the people…”
“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”
– Dr. B.R Ambedkar
Professor B.R. Ambedkar said these words in the year 1949 and they bear equal relevance today. 72 years after we earned our freedom and 68 years after we gave ourselves a constitution, we have not yet cultivated amongst us the value of constitutional morality or imbibed the true spirit of democracy.
From a young age, we have heard that India is known for its ‘unity in diversity, India’s default ‘tag-line’. The sub- continent is a true melting pot of languages, religions, and races, all held together by one single thread of commonality – being Indian. This identity was granted to us by the Constitution. It also gave us a very important right – the right to vote and choose who governs the nation. The Constitution contains the basic ideals upon which our Nation is built. It envisions India as a sovereign, democratic, republic that provides its citizens with social, economic and political justice, where the values of liberty, equality and fraternity were to guide the citizens and their elected Government. In furtherance of this vision, it gave its citizens certain fundamental rights to ensure that each citizen is equal before the law.
Seven decades after independence, we find that the Indian society is still latently divided along economic, social and
religious lines. This underlying divisive mentality among the masses is easily susceptible to manipulation. It is the State’s responsibility curb such tendencies and protect our society. Recently, however, the elected Government themselves has indulged in divisive politics. The inability to exercise personal choice in matters of food and drink, restriction of free speech and the propagation of popular religious practices is commonplace. Union Minister Anant Hegde, went to the extent of ridiculing the concept of secularism during a speech and going so far as to say that “we are here to change the Constitution’. The RSS, widely regarded as the parent organization of the ruling party, has a history of opposing both the Constitution of India, in favour of the Manu Smriti, and these colours are seeping into today’s ruling party.
As the majoritarian government strides further away from the true spirit of the Constitution, the judiciary has continued to step up to uphold basic constitutional values. The judiciary has a history of providing protection to even the most insignificant minorities and upholding the guaranteed freedoms of its citizens. When the freedoms of Indian citizens have been under threat, the Courts have come forward as a champion of their cause. Time and again, the Court has stressed on an interpretation of the Constitution that enhances democratic spirit.
In recent times, the Court has come forward to protect the liberties of individuals. The Supreme Court granted gender recognition on self-determination basis to the long persecuted and shunned transgender community, they recognised the right to privacy of individuals. In these judgements, by highlighting the freedom of choice possessed by an individual and cementing it as a right, the Court took a stance against instances where personal choice has been stifled.
Another major step was taken by the judiciary in the year 2018, when it decriminalized homosexuality. In the Navtej Singh Johar vs Union of India case, the Court held the archaic Section 377 of the IPC as unconstitutional. Here the Court
beautifully articulated the ideals of individual autonomy and liberty, equality for all without discrimination of any kind, recognition of identity with dignity and privacy as the cornerstones of our Constitution.
With this judgement however, the Court did not merely uphold the spirit of constitutional morality, but tackled the issue head on. The judgement recognised that the fundamental rights of even a single individual must not be violated under the pretext of social morality or the will of the masses. It advised one that it is the adherence to constitutional morality that will protect the nation against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and act as a ‘threshold against the upsurge of mob rule’. The court used this opportunity to reiterate the purpose of fundamental rights, which were formulated to ensure that the subjects of liberty and dignity of the individual are placed well beyond the reaches of majoritarian governments.
In light of the increasing divide between citizens, the Court invoked the thoughts of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and stressed on the importance of fraternity. Dr. Ambedkar was of the view that “without fraternity, liberty [and] equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them… Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.” Once again the Court had a message for the populace, it stressed on the need to be more inclusive and respectful of diversity. Perhaps, it is time for citizens to take a look at themselves, to understand that one cannot be divided upon communal lines unless they harbour that mentality themselves, a mentality that has no rightful place in a democracy. We as citizens, must strive in our day to day lives to ensure that we live with this spirit of brotherhood and fraternity as a truly democratic society.
However, the part of the judgement that is most pertinent today, is where the Court in a silent plea to the citizens, raises the importance of responsive participation of the citizenry. It was of the view that the Court cannot be the sole proponent of constitutional morality and that each individual citizen must imbibe these values within themselves. A court’s order without the participation and support of society, will be reduced to mere words.
I believe, another aspect of participation, though not explicitly mentioned by the Court, is that of accountability. An important duty of the citizenry is to hold their elected government accountable. To scrutinise and question the actions of the Government, who comprise of their elected representatives. In light of the upcoming elections, what can we as citizens do to uphold the ideals of the Constitution of India? We must strive to create an inclusive and peaceful society. A society where every individual may live with dignity, where the most insignificant of minorities are afforded equal treatment before law and society. We must remember that we are only as strong as our weakest link. We must strive to be a society where not only the Supreme Court but each and every citizen strives to uphold the rights of its fellow citizens.
About: This article has been authored by Member of Parliament [Lok Sabha] and Member of the Indian national Congress, Gaurav Gogoi, with assistance from Shefali Mehta.