For the last couple of years I have been doing an informal survey. Every now and then I ask people a simple question: Have you read the Indian constitution? I may pop that question while addressing a meeting; or in a discussion with a small group; or to the person sitting next to me on a flight. I estimate that I have asked this question to about 10,000 people at random – friends, family, acquaintances, strangers. Not a single person among the whole lot has ever admitted to having read the Indian constitution.
One wonders why. Everyone surveyed was most certainly literate, most even had higher education. Many of them were involved in – or at least had a deep interest in – socio-political matters. All of them were definitely citizens of “the socialist, secular, democratic, republic” of India.
Is the Indian constitution not worth reading? Is it like some ancient esoteric document that is written in an arcane language and is not really relevant in today’s circumstances? Is it like what the Vedas and the Upanishads are to the inhabitant of India? Those texts are usually something that they have heard about from time to time but have only a vague idea of what they contain, and they leave it to those who have a professional interest in them to study and do what they like with them.
The survey was informal but the results lead me to believe that a vanishingly small percentage of Indians have ever bothered to read the constitution. That should make you sit up and take notice. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. It is the basic set of rules. It also has meta-rules, rules on how to make rules. The constitution is the most important political document whose impact is felt by the citizen in every aspect of life everyday. Its effects are as pervasive as the air that we breathe. It defines the basic characteristics of the society that we live in. Indeed, in a very strict sense it builds the society that we live in. I believe that the constitution is the DNA of a society and the genes it encodes determine whether the society prospers or not.
I instinctively compare India and the US whenever I wish to learn about something that has socio-economic implications. I consider both countries home and have strong emotional, social, professional, and educational links with both. It does bother some people, though, that I am forever comparing the two. Be that as it may, the fact is that the rest of the world has a lot to learn from the US experience.
I believe that the Constitution of the US is the foundation upon which the considerable successes of the United States of America rests. It is the work of fallible humans but at least in the crafting of that document they came fairly close to a perfection that I think will be hard to duplicate. Four handwritten pages. That is all. Just four pages in long hand. Add to that the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments. Though you could easily read it over a lazy cup of tea, it is best read slowly and deliberately as it is worthy of reverence. It is less than five thousand words long.
I have read the Constitution of India. It is around one hundred twenty thousand words long. It would easily fill a 400-page book. It did take me two days to read it. Every now and then I would wonder what was the point behind something but then I moved on. There are bits that makes me think that one of us – either the writers or I – must be a bit stupid.
The US constitution is clearly not only a shorter document but it is also more robust. In the nearly 220 years of its existence, it was amended only 27 times, with the first 10 amendments being the Bill of Rights. The Indian constitution has been amended 94 times in the 56 years of its existence. If the US constitution had seen the same frequency of amendments, it would have had around 400 instead of 27 amendments.
I want to say more about the two constitutions but later. For now, here is my concern. The constitution is the document which actually governs the nation. The politicians and bureaucrats are just the agents that carry out what the constitution dictates. If practically nobody has read the one single document that sets out the rules of the game, is there any point in saying that we are people who are governed through our consent? Isn’t it a person’s consent that distinguishes a democracy from an aristocracy or dictatorship? And if a person has not read the rules, can he be said to have consented to the rules?
Rules must be known to be meaningful. Furthermore, the rule set has to withstand scrutiny. If unexamined, a bad set could continue to rule society. It worries me that not only do people not read the constitution, what is worse is that nearly half of Indian citizens cannot read it even if they wanted to because they are illiterate.
I don’t wish to make too wide a claim but I think that the inability of the people to know the rules of the game is a contributing factor in the degeneration of the government of India. Criminals rule because the ruled don’t know the rules. The logical conclusion we seem to be headed towards is when the entire government – from the very top to the very bottom – is comprised of people whose moral turpitude is evident and shocking.
It is time to sit up and take a good look around. I will be back.