The Constitution of India
By Sumant Batra
This may come as a surprise to many but a literary work that has, and continues to influence me, and surely many others is, the Constitution of India. The longest written constitution of any sovereign nation in the world, the Constitution of India is an extra-ordinary work of literature. The original text of the Constitution contained 395 articles in 22 parts and 8 schedules. From its various revised editions, the number of articles has increased to 448. Co-authored by a galaxy of luminaries, including thinkers, visionaries and statesmen, this unique piece of literature, far ahead of its time, continues to awe and inspire its readers around the world.
Simply speaking, the Constitution of India is the supreme legal statute book of the country. Read carefully, it is a rare literary gem that so eloquently and emphatically articulates the aspirations of a nation – a nation unique in its social, cultural and religious diversity. I read parts of it every day not only in discharge of my professional obligations, but also, to find answer to complex questions that events around us throw up every single day. The book answers each single question, so accurately, if read in its true spirit. I have read it more deeply in recent times, in particular in 2015, due to debates around nationalism and secularism.
While there are a number of commendable features of the Constitution, there is one compelling provision in particular that determines and influences my way of life, response, behavior and reaction to situations and circumstances every day. This is the Preamble to the Constitution of India.
The Preamble to the Constitution is similar to the preface of a book. Except that it also happens to be its soul in this case. The authors’ note declares that “We, the people of India…adopt, enact and give to ourselves” India that is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic and a welfare state committed to secure justice, liberty and equality for the people and for promoting fraternity, dignity of the individual, and unity and integrity of the nation.
While each word of the Preamble calls for an essay similar to this essay, I am confining the present to one word – “secular”. The word secular is commonly understood in contradistinction to the word “religious”. But the meaning of the word “secular state” in its political context can and has assumed different meanings in different countries, depending broadly on historical and social circumstances, the political philosophy and the felt needs of a particular country. In one country, secularism may mean an actively negative attitude to all religions and religious institutions; in another it may mean a strict “wall of separation” between the state and religion and religious institutions. Although the idea of secularism may have been borrowed in the Indian Constitution from the West, it has adopted its own unique brand of secularism based on its particular history and exigencies. In India, the word “secular” has a much deeper connotation. The Constitution mandates that the state shall have no religion of its own. India is, therefore, secular in that there is no official religion. India is also not a theocratic state. The Constitution does not envisage the involvement of the state in matters associated with religion and religious institutions, and even indeed with the practice, profession and propagation of religion in its most limited and distilled meaning. The Constitution also provides that all persons shall be equally entitled to the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. This aspect of secularism is fairly well understood.
But the Indian Constitution goes a step further to ensure that the secular character is respected and preserved. It prohibits political parties from espousing a particular religion, for, if a party that espouses any religion came to power, the religion espoused by it would become the official religion and all other religions would come to acquire a secondary or less favourable position. Further, whilst the Constitution is neutral in religion, it is, at the same time, benign and sympathetic to religious creeds however unacceptable they may be in the eyes of the non-believers. Subject to consideration of public order, health and morality, it is not open for anybody to question the tenets and practices of religion, however irrational they may appear to an outsider.
India is a country where many religions are practiced freely. We have witnessed many instances of friction and tension among communities on religious grounds since independence. The year 2015 is particularly noticeable in this regard. Yet, India has shown resilience to overcome these instances proving they are aberrations and not the norm. It is because the state responds to such situations in the spirit of secularism. It is also because the people of India swear by the Constitution of India and live by the spirit of secularism. Whenever the state has strayed or any section of society has acted contrary to this important tenet of the Constitution, the judiciary has stepped in to make corrections. An impartial judiciary, independent of the legislature and the executive, has been provided by the Constitution to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Constitution are guarded. The power of judicial review given to higher courts keeps a check on the executive and legislature. The Indian courts have interpreted the word “secular” not just in letter but also in spirit.
It is this and many such other remarkable features of the Constitution that have influenced me significantly. Each time I read it, I salute its authors for having given to this great nation an even greater work of literature. Every person living in this country and outside must read this book. I regularly explain the main features of the Constitution to my children, in a simple form, so that they, together with the spirit behind them, are imbibed in their thought process as they grow. For, our children are the future custodians of this great book. A book that captured the aspirations of past generations, guides the present generation in creating a better world, and will continue to guide the future generation in building an even better world.
Sumant Batra is a trained corporate and policy lawyer of global eminence. He has championed a number of innovative creative projects to promote literature. The initiatives started by him are rapidly developing into a robust literary voice of the country. Sumant is the founder of Kumaon Literary Festival, the Taj Colloquium, Fellows of Nature International Short Story Contest and a number of other literary initiatives.
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