Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Tangled Web — Part 4

Survey

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.

Comparing Constitutions

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.

  • Sumanth Cidambi

    Atanu

    Unfortunately, “if Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. . . the golden rules set out in the Preamble to the Constitution, are to be achieved, the Indian polity has to be educated and educated with excellence” – P A Inamdar vs State of Maharashtra (2005) 6 SCC 537

    Secondly, the provisions in the Constitution have been amended on occasions when the Courts overturned the authority of the Government of India, to subsequently accomodate policy decisions of the ruling party.

    When originally drafted, our Constitution took into account provisons from the best practicing democracies of world – UK, USA, Sweden, Norway, etc. Unfortunately, the original draftsmen did not envision the moral bankruptcy of the latter day Indian politican or the manner in which they would corrupt all strata of society, courts included. As is often the case, idealistic draftsmanship failed the test of bleak reality.

    Cheers
    S

  • Kumar

    There is a book written by D.D.Basu on The Constitution of India.

    When I read it several years back, I found it to be quite readable, as it gave the reasons and history behind some of the amendments.

    The Indian Constitution has been drafted with the best of intentions, and by looking at best practices from US, UK, Ireland etc. We all agree that where we have failed is its implementation.

    The reasons for the Indian Constitution being long, the American one being short, and the UK one being ‘unwritten’ or ‘uncodified’, are historical.The UK constitution evolved over the years, so, it can stay ‘uncodified’. The American one was probably one of the first written constitutions.So, they just put down some very high level stuff about how they wish to be governed. The Indian Constitution was written in an age when the discussions about self-governance, the separation of powers between Judiciary, Executive and Legislature, and so on, were in quite a matured stage.

    Yes, there is a need for our citizens to read and understand the Constitution. The Social Sciences text books in India do give a good overview of the major features of the Constitution to students. But with the focus being on Sciences and Maths, ‘civics’ and ‘history’ are treated indifferently by schools, students, and parents alike.

    One need not read the whole Constitution actually. One could actually print the Civics portions of the textbooks from 8th class to 10th class.The fineprint will be missed, but at least people can then say they have read the ‘abridged’ or simplified version of the Constitution.

  • http://pnarula.com Pankaj Narula

    I can certainly see the beauty of a simplified version of constitution. But that should not be difficult to make in this age of tangled webs aka internet. In fact you can read the complete Indian Constitution on the web at

    http://indiacode.nic.in/coiweb/welcome.html

    It is available in English and Hindi.

    Another thing to note is that even in US the political literacy is on decline. Check this InfoPorn at wired

    “More than a decade after the Internet went mainstream, the world’s richest information source hasn’t necessarily made its users any more informed. A new study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that Americans, on average, are less able to correctly answer questions about current events than they were in 1989. Citizens who call the Internet their primary news source know slightly less than fans of TV and radio news.”

    You can find detailed stats at

    http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/15-07/st_infoporn

    - Pankaj

  • http://dipanjanc.blogspot.com dipanjan

    “For centuries the political creed of the Indian peasant and the Indian worker has consisted of one single article: never to trust the professions, the motives and the doings of their rulers. This distrust of the State and the ruling order is virtually ineradicable. In the last two years I have received plenty of confirmation that it persists even after the transfer of political power to Indians. If anything, the suspicion has become intensified. Of course, the masses of India will maintain every outward appearance of siding with the ruling order as long as they believe it to be powerful, out of fear of its unlimited capacity to do harm. But as to help, they know better than to look for it to the State or any set of rulers: on that score, after Fate, they rely on their lone selves.” …

    “Political consciousness has to be considered next:the older form of nationalism had none, if by political consciousness is understood he capacity to make a distinction between various types of political institutions and governments, and the added capacity to make a deliberate choice among these forms. The only kind of internal government the older nationalism was familiar with and could understand was absolute personal rule, and the only kind of political change it could conceive was limited to the possibility of changing the autocrat’s personality.” …

    “For all his preoccupation with politics, the middle-class Indian never developed any real political aptitude. He never showed any understanding of representative government, nor any capacity to work it, as he certainly would and could have done, had he possessed either, in the sphere of municipal administration. His interest in democratic government, where it was not an indulgence in his favourite intellectual pastime of logic-chopping and equally favorite practical pastime of bossing cliques, sprang only from his eagerness to find the most effective dissolvent of British power in India, and he soon discovered that the slogan of democracy was such a dissolvent as his rulers could least counteract. Our political consciousness never penetrated deeper than this and was never able to create among the general mass of the people any stronger or widespread desire for internal political freedom and democratic freedom. Accordingly, there is hardly any occasion for surprise if today an overwhelming majority of the people of India are perfectly content with an oligarchical one-party dictatorship which respects political freedom and personal liberty even less than the regime which it has replaced.”

    [The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian]

  • Shri

    Constitution of india is one of the worst written by so called intelligent guys like Ambedker. It would be a good exercise for you guys to write a NEW FAKE contitution of India (like those FAKE PM letters)that is only 4 pages taking into account of the practicality in the modern India.

  • jala

    While studying COmputer Science, I studied OPerating Systems and there was a quirk quote in a book [I think It was written by Silberschatz & Galvin]
    “There’s some social use in keeping Lawyers busy, else they’ll become politicains.

    It amazes me that Father of the Nation and his majority of his kins [Our Neta's] are lawyers.

    They are groomed to “Argue till-death”. Anything we do in India [Consituition to simple Law] is very verbose and time-consuming.
    Is this because of Lawyer-giri?………..

  • Venkat

    I downloaded Indian constitution into my comp and it is still lying there for days! The initial euphoria I had while downloading soon died in a few hours after I started thinking of negotiating the traffic, rain-waters etc!

    Sometimes I think Indian democracy is a peudo-democracy and instead an oligarchy/just dictator would be a better alternative! How worthy are our ministers to be proud of our democratic setup?! :( (

  • Devsan

    Wonderful post.

    Mr. Dipanjan. It’s very easy to quote Nirad Chaudhury, VS Naipaul and ilk and trash India. Whatever may be the drawbacks the truth is that Indian middle class and especially the poor have always been loyal to democracy. Only for this reason Indian democracy is a success. Recent elections in UP confirm this. As literacy levels rise “an oligarchical one-party dictatorship which respects political freedom and personal liberty even less than the regime which it has replaced” will vanish sooner rather than later.

  • http://desilibertarian.blogspot.com triya

    You should have asked me. I would have said Yes! :) I took it as a project over a semester and I am not surprised that most people haven’t read it. Its long and convoluted. The problem is that it is very particular, whereas the US Constitution is very general and applies to a homogenous citizenry. The Indian Constitution has to apply to a heterogenous secular group of individuals and make particular provisions for each group, and that makes the law very specific. So the up keepers of the law have to be consciously aware of every deviation from the main rule and there are so many. I think it is an extremely ambitious constitution and that is why the rules of the game are so elusive to most people, because there are so many exceptions. I have a soft copy of it and hope that someday I will be able to write a grand treatise like Hayek did in his Constitution of Liberty and Law Legislation and Liberty (Vols 1, 2 and 3). Till then, I keep going back to the Indian Constitution. Its a rich source of academic papers on constitutional political economy. :)

  • Pavan

    I’m going to have to disagree with Triya there. The American constitution was not designed for a homogeneous population. The social stratifications they were trying to deal with were merely different from India’s. The early US had conflicts between large states and small, free states and slave, commercial states and agricultural ones. Regionalism was a huge deal in the early days of the USA because the original 13 states were, actually 13 very different colonies. They ranged from being refuges for Catholics, refuges for militant Protestants, prison camps, and get-rich-quick frontiers.

    The differences are not so unlike India’s varying ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities. The difference is in how they chose to combat these things. The US Constitution chose to take a hands off approach. The framers decided that the best way to keep the Republic functioning was to simply constrain the scope of what constituted a “political issue.”
    Is religion divisive? Hell yes it is. So why bother trying to get the government involved in such a messy business? The reason the fusion of religion and politics gets messy is because nobody likes to feel imposed upon. So if you protect everyone’s freedom of conscience, nobody has grounds to claim favoritism. Once issues like religion cease being a motivation and/or a source of political power, the government will no longer have a vested interest in trampling on people’s religious beliefs.
    The entire idea is that every single group within the Republic will be ignored or interfered with equally so at the end of the day, the government is more about doing what is in the national interest and leaving petty regional or communal squabbles alone.

    India went a different route. Rather that leaving issues like religion and caste alone, India’s politicians decided to address each and every social issue India had within the Constitution itself. Thus we end up with quotas, inane laws regarding religious expression, and a defined expectation of government entitlement programs. Having taken this route, suddenly everything and everything is “up for grabs” politically. Because the government has gotten itself involved in the mundane affairs of so many various and sundry social groups, each and every group is clamoring for their piece of the pie. Thus, you have a government more focused around appeasing individual interest groups rather than synthesizing all their needs into what can be considered a cohesive “national interest.”

    I could go on and on about this for days and I have actually thought about several structural changes to the Indian government that could fix this. But I don’t much see the point in that.

    (I will have to admit a disclaimer. I have never read the Indian Constitution myself, although I could probably cite the American one line for line.)

  • http://http:desilibertarian.blogspot.com triya

    Pavan I agree with you. What I meant by homogenous was that what was in the constitution could be applied to all groups and citizens of the nation. Essentially I was trying to say the very same things you were, except that you are more articulate about it than I.

  • http://scritic.blogspot.com scritic

    That’s an interesting thought, Atanu. I wonder how many in the US have actually read their own constitution — what I think they do know is the Bill of Rights, and somehow this seems tied to the fact that the US Supreme Court is always constantly re-interpreting some clause of the Bill of Rights. Are faith-based initiatives in accordance with the Establishment Clause? etc etc. Perhaps we need something like a Bill of Rights in India — something short, concise and “in the spirit” of the constitution. For the record, the preamble of the constitution is something I’ve always liked — I remember they made us memorize it in school, which, on the whole, I think was a good thing.

  • http://gudem.blogspot.com Chandra

    Reading scritic comments, I just saw Gordon Brown, the new PM of GB, in his first speech to UK parliament, proposing a Bill of Rights for UK and proposing to have a written constitution for UK.

    Also talking of Indian constitution, there seems to be some thing to Kumar’s comment – purely based on how EU’s constitution turned out last year. And India was (and still largely is), by and large, continuation of the British Imperial laws and frame of mind.

    I am positive if US wrote it’s constitution today, it’ll be longer than India’s – just look at it’s code of federal regulations and tax laws. 200 years ago were simpler times and so American Constitution (and I think at least some founding members were lawyers). And obviously it served very well for US.

  • Inderpreet Chawla

    Congratulations! interesting survey. Another useful (albeit difficult) one could be to ask “What does it mean to you to be an Indian citizen?”.

    On a different note, your comparison between US & India:
    Politically, contemporary India is probably a better democracy than contemporary US, in true sense of the word. In fact, I would say US is now a fascist state that merely wears the trappings of a democracy, and yet it has a very sharp constitution, and 99% literacy rate. Successes of the US are more to do with the quality of leadership until the end of ww2. Further, in the past 60 yrs, literacy in the US has increased, and yet quality of governance has deteriorated considerably.

    Comparison between US & India can be useful but a blind (or instinctual) attempt at doing so doesn’t do much merit.

    Perhaps, there is a need to look at the evolution of Indian politics within country’s socio, cultural, and historical context.

  • http://valluvar.blogspot.com shiv

    The constitution is a living document hence the amendments. Per se i see the mechanism of constitutional amendments as a healthy trend. Moreover the current judicial setup ‘defends’ what is called the basic structure. the 9th schedule should be scrapped or slimmed down drastically toward the same end.I am sure you will support that . And as an aside, i have read the constitution. (well sort of skimmed through). Constitutions however can become tools of ultimate tyranny if the basic structure is not preserved. In this i support your view point that the citizens should read it.

  • http://travelbooklogs.com/blog/ Nikhil

    Atanu, another post that made me go “Oh Sh!t … that makes too much sense!” Great read and thanks for pointing me to a future (maybe unenjoyable) read.

    Does anybody know where one can get a copy of the Indian Constitution?

  • http://dipanjanc.blogspot.com dipanjan

    @Devsan,
    1) I do not think Nirad C and Naipul belong to any “ilk” together.

    2) I am not trashing India. Moreover, contrary to popular opinion, the motivation driving Niradbabu to write his essays and autobiographies in Bengali — yes, his Bengali prose is equally penetrating and uncompromising — and English was not India-bashing.

    3) I quoted him because I thought the quotes are relevant to Atanu’s point about our indifference.

    4) I am not even sure if I completely agree with everything he said there, but the quotes are insightful nevertheless.

    5) The point about deep historical distrust and suspicion of our rulers is often overlooked. I grew up in a small town in West Bengal which was considered as “Lal Durga” — red fort, red stands for CPI(M). Around the time of each election, I used to hear people wondering “oder jetai bhalo, power-e thakle taao shanti, na thakle je ki korbe, bhabai jaay na” (In a way, it’s better that they keep winning. Being in power makes them somewhat responsible, we can’t even begin to imagine what would happen if they lose). This is what Niradbabu was referring to, presciently in 1949.

    6) The other point about the nature of our interest in politics is worth pondering, too. We revel in the cult of personalities, not so much in the boring details of rules, processes and rights. Goes back to Atanu’s point again.

    7) Niradbabu’s municipal government reference is historically significant because even in British India, the municipalities were run by Indians and he had a ringside view and of how incompetently those responsibilites were used to be handled. That first-hand experience is behind his conclusions.

    8) Finally, I thought it was obvious from the quote that it was written in 1949. Therefore, in 2007, if you are saying that the oligarchical dictatorship which incidentally was a specific characterization of Nehru government, not the vision of Indian democray, in general, he referred to in 1949 will “soon vanish”, don’t you think he was on to something more significant than mere trashing?

  • G G K

    Nikhil
    heres the web link ive used once
    http://indiacode.nic.in/coiweb/coifiles/part.htm

    Cheaper printed copies for Rs 400 were available in Delhi 2 years ago.

    Also do study 44th amendment and its taking away right to property.

  • http://onlyvoid.blogspot.com Shivani

    Could you please post the list of “must read books / or your all time favorite books” for all your readers?. Thanks.

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  • Devsan

    @Dipanjan

    Pray why wouldn’t the middle class of India be suspicious of its rulers- especially when the rulers are oprressive, come from faraway lands, follow religions which can thrive only at the destruction of all other religions and take pleasure in defiling local monuments?

    It is the middle class which in the face of thousand adversities carried on with it’s religion and language, preserved it’s ancient literature and books of knowledge and did not surrender meekly like everyone else.

    It is history which will ultimately judge Nirad Chaudhury’s predictions. He threatned wild calamity and political uncertainity after the British had left. None of it has come true. Hopefully his slur that Indian are incapable of governing themselves will also come untrue.

  • Amit

    A healthy democracy requires constant and continuous participation by its citizens. Our responsibilities begin after we cast the vote, not end with it.

    -Amit

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