Dismantling the World’s Largest Democracy
A new book recounts the inspiring story of how India’s constitution introduced democracy to people who had never experienced it before. Those freedoms are now in jeopardy.
On Jan. 26, a Sunday but also a national holiday, India celebrated its 70th constitutional anniversary. The government hosted a grand military and cultural parade at Rajpath, a boulevard that links the stone arch of India Gate to the presidential palace in New Delhi. Looking on, in a saffron turban, was Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with his guest of honor, Jair Bolsonaro. The president of Brazil had been snubbed by numerous democratic world leaders, but here he was, standing in the same place as earlier guests of honor such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.
In another part of the capital, the Muslim neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh was also celebrating Republic Day. The guests of honor there were two women wearing simple clothing and somber expressions. Radhika Vemula’s son Rohith Vemula was a Ph.D. scholar who had taken his own life in 2016 after a campaign of harassment led by authorities at the University of Hyderabad. Saira Bano’s son Junaid Khan was killed in 2017, when he was stabbed in a train by some passengers. Both young men—one Dalit, the other Muslim—were victims of an ongoing, government-led agenda to establish Hindu supremacy in India. After the two mothers unfurled the national flag, a crowd of hundreds of thousands of onlookers burst into a spontaneous rendition of the national anthem.
The two celebrations were animated by entirely different ideas of what India is and to whom it belongs. They represented a divide that has been simmering for decades but which only manifested in nationwide protests since last December after a series of government actions proved beyond a doubt that Modi was not guided by the constitution.
Last August, his government revoked the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir. That same month, it also announced the results of a count of citizens in the eastern state of Assam, which could render nearly 2 million residents stateless. In November, the Supreme Court finally adjudicated on the matter of the disputed Mughal-era Babri Mosque, granting the land on which it was built to the Hindu petitioners even though it was Hindu extremists who had destroyed the mosque, many with their bare hands. The long-awaited decision was entirely expected; India’s once famously activist judiciary, like its once fiercely independent mainstream media, now often bends to the will of the prime minister. Then, in December, the government passed a law that put persecuted foreign minorities—excluding Muslims—on a fast track to citizenship.
All these actions are components of Modi’s overarching agenda, which is to turn India into a Hindu nation. This ultimate goal violates the very foundation of the country, which was inspired by Mohandas Gandhi’s belief that people of many faiths could and must coexist peacefully. Citizenship in India is based on birthright, not on blood or faith. But Modi is grinding fundamental rights, such as the right to equality and the right to freedom of religion, into the soil.
India has already had one brush with authoritarianism, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency in the 1970s, but even she wanted to be thought of as democratic. Modi no longer seems to hold that aspiration. He has consolidated power in his own hands, fired dissenters, installed pliant heads at major institutions, detained hundreds of opposition leaders, and responded to peaceful protests with violence. To him, the women of Shaheen Bagh are actors in a plot to “destroy national harmony.” In March, Freedom House declared the situation “alarming.” It gave India the largest score decline among the world’s 25 biggest democracies in its annual “Freedom in the World” report.
The speed with which Modi has been able to undermine democracy has frightened many people. Indians now wonder what their constitutional rights really are. Are they absolute? Or can the state revoke them in the so-called national interest?
Seeking answers to these questions has, in recent months, made the Indian Constitution, which happens to be the longest written constitution in the world, a bestseller 70 years after it was first published. In New Delhi, a publisher told the Hindustan Times that he was selling as many as 5,000 copies a month. At the nationwide protests, which until the new coronavirus outbreak were ongoing in many parts of the country, readings of the document’s preamble represented an opening ceremony that set the tone of the slogans, protest songs, and the call-and-response shouts of “What do we want? Freedom!” that inevitably followed.
The constitutional scholar Madhav Khosla’s new book, India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy, therefore couldn’t have been timelier. It delves into the mystery of how some 400 men and women who had spent their lives as colonial subjects went on to create a charter of such breathless ambition. “How did they approach the missing foundations on which self-government was widely thought to be predicated?” Khosla writes. They “met the imperial argument on direct terms. They believed in the possibility of creating democratic citizens through democratic politics.”
These lofty aims were all the more remarkable, the historian Ramachandra Guha reminds us in his book India After Gandhi, given that they were articulated in the backdrop of “food scarcity, religious riots, refugee resettlement, class war and feudal intransigence.”
India lived in its villages, Gandhi had declared; people were divided by caste, subcaste, and religion. They were beholden to whoever ruled the nearly 600 princely states in the subcontinent, and these states were in turn ruled by the British. They had no direct experience of democracy. Then, as though overnight, these same people were granted a lengthy list of rights. Now they lived in a secular parliamentary democracy with universal adult franchise and a single integrated judiciary.
One reason for this breadth of ambition was the quality of the people involved. Even before they’d settled behind the heated desks of the Constituent Assembly in Delhi for their first meeting in December 1946, they’d already written themselves into the pages of history. There was India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; his deputy, the nationalist stalwart Vallabhbhai Patel; Hansa Mehta, a social activist and one of the few women present; and, of course, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the brilliant lawyer who was born Dalit, or lower caste, and who oversaw the entire exercise.
But Khosla’s deeply interesting study also shows us what the document didn’t do. For one, he writes, it did not “explicate how modern citizenship could meet the problem of a divided society.” Nehru had always rejected communal politics, but after the partition of 1947 and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, he came to view India’s secular policy as central to its identity. He dismissed communalism in India, of which he’d had a ring-side view during the blood-soaked partition riots, as a “myth.” This rejection, Khosla writes, “emerged from denial rather than engagement.”
India wasn’t just split along religious lines. The economy “during the last half-century of colonial rule had been in a stagnant condition,” the historian Patrick French writes in India: A Portrait, “with annual per capita GDP flatlining at 0.1 percent.” Poverty sharpened social exclusion and made it harder for people to exercise their democratic rights. One way to prevent that from happening, as Khosla points out, was through the improvement of social and economic conditions.
Yet for all that Ambedkar had to say on the subject, during a landmark speech he made in the Constituent Assembly, “at no point did he argue for enforceable socioeconomic rights,” Khosla writes. Instead, these rights landed in the Directive Principles of State Policy, which aimed to establish a welfare state but which, unlike fundamental rights, were not enforceable in a court of law. (Another directive principle was the prohibition of alcohol.) Ambedkar’s thinking, Khosla writes, was that “even though the principles might lack ‘legal force’ and those in power ‘may not have to answer for their breach in a court of law,’ they would ‘certainly have to answer for them before the electorate at election time.’”
There is another matter whose relevance is being felt now more than ever before. The Indian Constitution made individual freedoms subservient to the authority of the state. “On the one hand, there is a grand proclamation in favor of a right,” Khosla writes. “On the other hand, there is a strong statement enumerating the exceptions to the realization of the concerned right.” One member of the Constituent Assembly observed this early on: “Many of [the] fundamental rights have been framed from the point of view of a police constable.”
Indian protesters who are being detained in great droves on charges of sedition, criminal defamation, unlawful assembly, and even just using virtual private networks to access the internet, mostly in BJP-ruled states, are realizing just how true this is. A constitutional clause allowing for “preventive detention” without trial of up to two years has been used to put away thousands of Kashmiris. The freedom fighter Shibban Lal Saxena had warned against the clause, calling it “the darkest blot on this constitution.” With Modi in power, the police now have virtually unchecked powers, and the courts are refusing to hear cases that challenge the decisions of the government. “The remarkable irony of the present crisis of constitutional democracy,” Khosla writes, “is its uncanny resemblance to the imperial ideology.”
The Indian Constitution is unlike any in the world, in that it sought to teach democracy to a people who had never experienced it. It was “first and foremost a social document,” the historian Granville Austin wrote in 1966. But like any contract, while it was meant to be binding, it could, of course, be broken. “If things go wrong under the new constitution,” Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly when presenting the final draft of the document in November 1948, “the reason will not be that we had a bad constitution. What we will have to say is, that Man was vile.”
This article appears in the Spring 2020 print issue.