Monday, April 3, 2017

Our Constitution - What did we Resolve, and Where do we Stand

No one is wholly tolerant. The more you believe in tolerance, the less you can tolerate the intolerant. - - - Robert Quillen

India has been a multi-religious society for many millenia, well before the advent of Christianity and Islam, the world's two large monotheistic religions. Both these religions have had a very bloody past trying to convert people from other faiths/ beliefs in to what they felt was the right faith/ belief. Luckily all these bloody battles are behind us in this modern world. Conversion to their belief/ faith is still important for these two religions, but fortunately wars and conquest are not part of the process any more, and it would hopefully continue to be so in the future too.

Democracy and secularism are the widely accepted forms of administering and governing a large group of people who are organised in to a modern nation-state.

India achieved independence and joined the comity of modern democratic states on 15 Aug 1947. Independence of India came with a price. The country was divided on religious lines; with Pakistan to be in control of Muslim majority areas in the East and West of erstwhile India, and India retaining the Hindu majority areas. The Hindu majority areas contained people of all faiths, including Muslims too.

Even though the division of India took place on religious lines, India opted to be become a 'Sovereign Democratic Republic' under the Constitution that was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949, and came in to effect on 26 January 1950; a day that is now celebrated with great zeal and fanfare as the Republic day. In 1976 two words, viz. Socialist and Secular, were added to the preamble to the Constitution, thus making India a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic. It is important to understand the interpretation of secular in the Indian context, as it is at variance with the definition of secular. Most democratic countries have their own version of secularism that is practiced, based on the local conditions and needs of the citizens. Let us try and understand Indian secularism.

The Original and the Amended Preamble to the Indian Constitution
Image Courtesy: Google Images

The word secular as defined by states, 'of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred.' This is generally true in the case of USA. However, secularism in India is at variance to what is understood in the Western world.

Unlike the West, in India religion plays a very important part in the lives of most ordinary Indians and thus religion could never be kept separate from the affairs of the state. Dr S Radhakrishnan had beautifully expressed the essence of Indian secularism when he stated, “When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life or that we exalt irreligion. It does not mean that secularism itself becomes a positive religion or that the state assumes divine prerogatives…. We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status. This view of religious impartiality or comprehension and forbearance has a prophetic role to play within the National and International life.”

To unify the country under one law and to provide an equal opportunity for justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity to all its citizens, the founding fathers toyed with the idea of a uniform civil code (UCC) to be applied to all, irrespective of the religion. This was considered as interference in to the personal affairs of the citizens and was thus dropped from being added in to the Constitution at that stage. Similarly, since India represented the Hindu majority areas, the slaughter of cows was also considered, but deferred. 

The trauma of the partition of the country on religious lines must have prompted the founding fathers to exercise caution at the time, but the idea was not dropped. The idea of UCC was included as a Directive Principle, as Article 44 of the Constitution, which directed the government to "endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India." 

Similarly, a Directive Principle, under Article 48 of the Constitution of India mandated the state to prohibit the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.

Hindu code bills that aimed to codify and reform Hindu personal law in India were passed in the 50s, under the Indian National Congress government led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. There was significant opposition from various conservative Hindu politicians, organisations and devotees; they saw themselves being unjustly singled out as the sole religious community whose laws were to be reformed. However, the Nehru administration saw such codification as necessary to unify the Hindu community, which ideally would be a first step towards unifying the nation. 

They succeeded in passing four Hindu code bills in 1955–56: the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act. (Wikipedia)

The same was not and has not been attempted for the other minorities and also no attempt has been made to draft a UCC for fear that the Congress could lose minority votes. All this has happened when the country has largely been ruled by the Congress party. What about civil society, human rights activists and journalists?

Even civil society organisations, journalists, and human rights activists have shied away from advocating a UCC for Indian citizens. This is a result of the prevailing erroneous belief that the uniform civil code is meant to curb personal laws, and that too only of Muslims, who form about 15% of the Indian population.

In real terms, a uniform civil code was desired by the framers of the Constitution to ensure that the basic fundamental rights of citizens, irrespective of their religious and other identities, are protected within a larger human rights framework.

Instead of working towards a UCC, the Congress led government with absolute majority, under PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, strengthened the hands of the Muslim clerics/ conservatives by framing a law  (Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986) neutralising the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case. This was a case where the Supreme Court had ruled against the Muslim personal law as adjudicated by the Muslim religious body with regard to the non payment of maintenance after a marriage was dissolved after 44 years and five children. This led to large scale resentment amongst a large section of Indian society, including Muslims, as also the political parties against the actions of the Congress party. At around the same time that the Congress was losing credibility, a large number of regional parties were gaining strength/ forming in different regions of the country. 

To gain vote share, these regional political parties attempted to consolidate their vote banks based on caste, language, ethnicity, and religious identities by promising short term benefits to their voters, without considering any long term impact on the stability, development, or progress, of the individuals, society, state, or the nation. The people of India were misled by them but have now come to understand these short term tactics employed by the political parties.

Another event in that started in the 80s and assumed grave proportions in the 90s went relatively unnoticed, when compared with the enormity of the problem, was the forced exodus of over 3 lakhs Kashmiri pandit families from the valley without any political party fighting for their cause. Hindu families were forced out of the only Muslim majority area in India; many atrocities have also been reported, including killings, looting, and rape. This created a feeling of victim hood in the majority community, which constitutes about 80% of the total population. It was felt that all political parties vie with each other to fulfill the needs of the minorities and are willing to overlook the excesses that are attributed to them. 

No government has so far done any thing to restore the Pandits back to their homes. No Muslim organisations in the country have openly condemned these condemnable acts of making people refugees in their own country. 

The Hindus are hardly a homogeneous people, but constitute about 80% of the population. Hindu belief system has never been against secularism and talks of the world being one big family (Vasudaiva Kutumbakam). As a matter of fact it is the Hindu belief in multiplicity that has made a secular democracy possible in this part of the world. M J Akbar states the fact very cogently when he argues, "India is a secular country because Indian Hindus, who constitute the majority, and therefore have a proportional impact upon the political ethos, have created and defended a Constitution that is a remarkable triumph of reason over the temptations of sectarian passion. India is secular not because Muslims need it, but because Hindus want it."

The political parties whether it is the Congress, the BSP, the SP, the SAD, the PDP, the NC, the RJD, the MNS, the SS, the DMK, the AIADMK, the TMC, have all alienated the truely secular Indians by their misguided vote bank politics of giving short term benefits to a few, rather than providing long term stability and progress to all. They have divided our country in the name of religion, caste, language, ethnicity and what have you. And then against this abysmal backdrop, a leader emerges who speaks a language of 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas'. Why would it not appeal to every right thinking citizen, disillusioned by the corruption, family politics, and self serving political system that has been in evidence for sometime now. The Indian democracy in the past few decades has been more about 'by the people, of the people' but has been less about the third most important essential of 'for the people'

BJP has thus been able to consolidate a large part of this 80% Hindu vote, and other disaffected people too, that had been fragmented earlier due to the inherent nature of the Hindu belief system. Most of the credit for this consolidation goes to the opposition parties, and their short term vision.

The only viable national opposition party, the Congress, refuses to introspect on its rapid fade-out, which accelerated with the 2014 general elections, in every region of the country, and in the national sphere too. They will have to change the model by which they were elected, thus far. 

Modern India, young India, irrespective of beliefs/ caste/ region wants to progress, to move forward in life, and wants to feel proud of being Indian; Indians are no longer content to lookup to 'mai-baap' governments for doles, but want governments that will facilitate their entrepreneurial energies.

Congress needs to Introspect: India needs a strong opposition and Congress owes it to the people of this country to provide that, by rethinking on the role it is required to play vide our Constitution - the role of a constructive opposition. The present leadership is based on entitlement and not on serving the people; this needs change at all levels. The Congress has to re-connect with the people that it represents. This is very urgent now since we do not have any national party of stature at this moment, other than the Congress that can stop the BJP juggernaut. 

There is a talk of a maha gathbandhan (grand coalition) to stop PM Modi and with it the BJP's steep ascent. A national coalition of anti-BJP parties would be a disaster, as they have no clear national agenda, except self interest and self preservation. Their coming together may achieve victory in the polls but would be disastrous for the nation, because once they come to power, they would all pull in every which way, much like the Janta Party in the 70s.

In case the BJP does not have a realistic challenger then the other scenario is most likely to unfold. Democracy is a game of numbers; 50.0001% is a majority, and gets to form the government and govern the other 49.99999% too. As this majority number rises to beyond two-thirds, they have the power to change the laws of the country, as was shown by the Congress under PM Rajiv Gandhi.

When BJP asks for return of the Pandits to their homes in the valley, when they ask for UCC, when they say 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas' and also live by it, when they ask for ban on cow slaughter, they are within the bounds of our Constitution. These facts are also appealing to the silent Hindu majority, as gross injustices, and also as minority appeasement or pseudo secularism practiced by nearly all the political parties.

The Congress cannot fault the BJP on their stand. The Congress should not try to find fault with what the BJP is saying; they should not try to divide the communities by mouthing half truths; this has stopped working in this information age, where social media has replaced traditional media, which could be controlled/ manipulated. Instead the Congress should start to connect with the people of this land, understand their concerns, and work to lift the nation to greater heights, within the bounds of our Constitution. The Constitution has been very well drafted by our founding fathers and is one of the unifying symbols of our widely diverse population. The Constitution was agreed upon at a time when we emerged as a nation that had been divided on the basis of religion, with the Hindu majority areas being part of India.

Why did the Congress not move forward on the two directive principles of our Constitution - that of UCC and ban on cow slaughter, even though Congress had been in power in the Centre, and in the states too, for a large part of our independent existence as a nation.

UCC: Uniform law is the only answer to a diverse democracy, like ours. It will be a great unifying factor for every citizen. Muslims cannot be governed by a personal civil law as per Sharia, but criminal law as per IPC. Every citizen has to be treated equally under law, be it civil or criminal.The issue of UCC has emerged into India's political discourse recently because many Muslim women, affected adversely by the personal laws, have begun knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court to uphold their fundamental rights to equality and liberty in keeping with the constitutional provisions. There are divorced Muslim women with children seeking maintenance, and openly demanding of the PM, 'we voted you to power in UP, you now look after us'. A large majority of informed citizens are for the UCC. It is the duty of every political party to educate the people on the benefits of UCC, rather than create a 'vote bank' division on this issue

Every other democracy has a UCC, except India. It is also mandated by our Constitution under the Directive principles. In addition, many Muslim countries have also reformed their personal laws. Why not India? 

Cow Slaughter: Rightly or wrongly, if 80% consider cow as mother, then that is the majority view and that has to prevail in a truely representative democracy. However, this fact has to come about through education and sarv samiti (mutual consent) of the communities involved in the spirit of our Constitution. Fraternity is an important aim of our Constitution and this can only come about through each citizen taking care of his/ her responsibilities towards the rights of others. Let political parties focus more on the unifying character of our Constitution than on vote bank politics that has stopped meeting the aspirations of our young nation.

We have now come to an important cross road in our national evolution where-in we have to decide if our personal beliefs are more important, or our collective progress as a nation, bound together by a brilliant Constitution. The interests of all the citizens would be well served by standing solidly behind the constitution, and even more so the rights of the minorities. The Constitution is the only living document that guarantees fundamental rights to all citizen, irrespective of belief, sex, caste, etc.

Let us all support our brilliant Constitution, in letter and spirit.

No comments: