March of the Republic

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India will once again be celebrating the day it dedicated itself a Republic on this day in 1950, having given itself a constitution as the sole authoritative guideline by which the country is to be ruled. This constitution is said to be the most detailed ever, having borrowed features from practically every other constitutions of other successful republics, in particular that of Britain. It is also a constitution far from rigid, and it is not a coincidence that it has already undergone 115 amendments in the 52 years of its existence. What should be a matter of optimism for all is this document defining what India is and should aspire to be, is open to more changes anytime in the future, provided these proposed changes do not seek to change its fundamental character. Until the infamous Emergency of the 1970s, making fundamental changes to it, though by a very difficult 2/3 majority of the Parliament was possible but now this feature is virtually no more. As for instance, under this constitution, India can never be a dictatorship (as the Emergency almost managed to once by perpetuating itself through controversial amendments), although in a limited way there are provisions for extremely centralised emergency governance in times of crisis, such as external aggression, financial emergent situation, extreme internal turmoil resulting in complete breakdown of the law and order etc, under its Article 365. This Article, as we are well aware, can also be invoked if there is a constitutional crisis, such as in the case of the inability of political parties to form a government in any one of the states or the Union by due procedures laid down in the constitution. This temporary emergency governance mechanism which we know more popularly as President’s Rule or Governor’s Rule, is becoming increasingly redundant, as another relatively recent Article of the constitution which anticipated this lacuna, ensured the structure of constitutional politics is reformed adequately to virtually make it impossible for turncoat politicians to switch loyalty once elected to the Parliament or the state Assemblies.

True there are intransigent faces of the Republic. Without even going through the exercise of arguing the merits or demerits of it, let us just consider the developments regarding the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, demonstrating how the spirit of this constitution can also be deliberately and unceremoniously silenced. In 2005, following wide protests in Manipur over the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in the custody of the Assam Rifles, and at the behest of none other than the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, a 5-member commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Jeevan Reddy, had been constituted to look into the issue. The commission had since submitted its report recommending the AFSPA be scrapped and replaced by a more legally accountable civil law which sought to be as close to the mandate given to the commission by the Prime Minister – to come up with a more “humane” law. If the constitution was supreme in defining what the shape of the governing spirit of the country should be, the matter should have ended there and the AFSPA should have seen its last day. But because of objections from the defence forces, the report of the commission was never made public. Thankfully, in this case, as in so many others, the Indian media proved to be the faithful watchdog of the republican spirit the constitution envisaged, and The Hindu daily published the entire report verbatim in digital format in its internet edition.

This is just one case. Obviously are many more such hiccups the Indian Republic is prone to. Notwithstanding all this, it must also be acknowledged that in the entire Asian region, post-colonial India has been one of the very few countries which has managed not to compromise its democratic character totally. Take just India’s immediate neighbours – Burma, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh… In the years since the end of the World War-II followed quickly by their liberation from colonial yoke, nearly all of these countries have had to suffer radical authoritarian governments, causing immense trauma for their populations. Only India has remained steadfast on the democratic path. No argument about it that the Republic must cure itself of its hiccups, but the point of optimism here is, the methods for this cure is built in the very structure of its constitution. Should not it be time to think of exploring this option seriously by all dissidents?

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