Hail the Republic: How Indians Wrote the Constitution

Republic Day is both a day of celebration and introspection for India

Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
[This article originally appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Kathmandu Post today. See it here as it appeared on the paper.]

On the 26th day of every January a grand ceremony is held on Rajpath (formerly King’s Way), a wide road that begins from the Indian presidential palace located at Raisina Hills, New Delhi and descends on to run along flat land with spacious gardens on both sides that are filled by thousands of spectators. India puts its military might and cultural diversity on full display through a colorful parade while the President awards medals of bravery to deserving citizens. The day, a national holiday in India, has its own name: The Republic Day.

26th January to India is the equivalent of 28th May (15th Jestha) for us, the day we, the citizens of the latest republic in the world, will be celebrating the first anniversary of the declaration of republic in Nepal. On that day in April last year hundreds of thousands of jubilant people throughout the country came to the streets to celebrate the decision of the Constituent Assembly (CA) that, while implementing the earlier decision to make Nepal a republic, abolished the 240-year-old institution of monarchy.

Delhi is a fortress these days, thanks to Monday’s Republic Day celebration plans. The security measures that had been put on place in key parts of the city were extraordinary. The temporary makeshift weekly bazaars at various locations had been closed for at least two weeks. The elaborate parade rehearsals and other activities created traffic havoc in some major parts of the city. Police could be seen in every nook and cranny of the capital that has been a major target of terrorists. “All these efforts to prevent any unwanted incidents on Republic Day,” said my landlord Uncle Mehra pointing to a newly installed barricade on the street near where we live. “Just a precaution,” he added, pointed to policemen, and continued, “They don’t want to take any chance.” Especially in these times when the media is awash with reports that are in one way or another related to the late November Mumbai attacks. In fact, security personnel who died on that day emotionally dominate the list of awardees who were honored by the President.

India declared itself a republic almost two years after it gained independence from the British Raj. The new constitution formulated by their CA — which was in fact elected during the Raj — was also enforced on the same day. That particular day — 26th of January 1950 — was deliberately chosen as a mark of respect to Gandhi who had started celebrating symbolic independence on that date some 17 years before real independence.

After three years of intense discussions and deliberations, the Indian CA brought out what is now considered to be one of the world’s longest constitutions consisting of 395 articles and eight schedules. In all, the assembly held eleven sessions, which consumed 165 days. In between the sessions the work of revising and refining the drafts was carried out by various committees and subcommittees. Such committees were recently formed in the Nepali CA.

The proceedings of the Indian CA were printed in eleven bulky volumes, notes celebrated historian Ramachandra Guha in his 2007 book India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. “These volumes — some of which exceed 1,000 pages — are testimony to the loquaciousness of Indians, but also to their insight, intelligence, passion, and sense of humor,” observes Guha. “In them we find many competing ideas of the nation, of what language it should speak, what political and economic system it should follow, and what moral values it should uphold or disavow”.

While reading those accounts of the CA and how they came up with the federal structure one feels that Nepal is doing (or going to do) what India did some sixty years ago. There were heated debates on the rights of the states and the centre. The constitution showed a certain bias toward the rights of the union of India over those of its constituent states, states Guha.

The constitution provided for three lists of subjects: union, state and concurrent. The subjects in the first list (union) were the preserve of the central government, while those in the second list (state) were vested with states. As for the third list (concurrent), here the center and the states shared responsibility. However, many more items were placed exclusively under the union than under states; and more were placed under “concurrent” than the states wanted. The union of India also had control of minerals and key industries. And Article 365 gave the centre power to take over a state administration on the recommendation of the governor (which is popularly known as President’s Rule).

Provincial politicians fought hard for the rights of the states, observes Guha. They asked for greater share of tax revenues. And they mounted an ideological attack on the principle of centralisation itself. A member from Orissa said that the constitution had “so centralised power, that I am afraid, due to its very weight, the centre is likely to break.” A member from Mysore thought that what was proposed was a “unitary” rather than “federal” constitution. Under its provisions “democracy is centered in Delhi and it is not allowed to work in the sense and spirit of the rest of the country.” A member from Madras thought that the fiscal provisions would make provinces “beggars at the door of the centre.” In the United States both the federal government and the states could levy “all kinds of tax,” he argued, but here, crucial sources of revenue, such as the income tax, had been denied to the provinces.

The next day, according to Guha’s book, another member answered these charges. The member wondered whether it was not “India’s age-old historical tendency of disintegrating that was speaking through these stalwarts.” A strong centre was an absolute imperative in these “times of stress and strain”, he said. Only a strong centre would “be in a position to think and plan for the well being of the country as a whole.” Members of the Drafting Committee vigorously defended the unitary bias of the constitution. “What we want today is a stable government,” said one. “What we want today is a patriotic government; strong government and an impartial and unbending executive that does not bow before popular whims.”

Indian leaders take pride on the fact that theirs is the world’s largest and, more importantly, one of the stable democracies. However, the Indian constitution and federal system are far from perfect. Even after sixty years, debates on the rights of the states and centre still take place. Indian federalism, in that sense, is an ongoing experiment. It is dealing with separatist movements and resisting efforts — including one by Nepali speaking Gorkhas — for the creation of other states within the Indian union. Recently the states led by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party criticized the central government’s effort to create an American FBI like investigation agency after the Mumbai attacks saying that such an idea undermines the states’ authority and makes the centre more powerful.

Thus one feels that the Republic Day is for India also a day for introspection regarding how far it has come and how long it has to go in terms of addressing the voices of its people through the constitution.

(The writer is the New Delhi bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post.)