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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 5, January 21 & January 28, 2023

Salvaging Gandhi and Ambedkar’s Vision of the Republic to Safeguard the Constitution | S N Sahu

Saturday 21 January 2023, by S N Sahu

 While celebrating the 73rd anniversary of the Republic of India it is important to be mindful that leaders of freedom struggle while struggling to make our country free from British rule demanded the establishment of a Republic. Their arduous exertions eventually got fructified on 26th January 1950 when the Constitution came into force.

 Republic as Birth Right 

 Lokmanya Tilak’s clarion call that “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it” is fairly well known. In fact it is lesser known that on 19th March 1921 Mahatma Gandhi while speaking at Amraoti stated that Indians had the birthright to establish a republic as India had village republics from time immemorial. Such articulations and the accompanying demand to make India a Republic and confer the status of citizenship on all Indians in contrast to their status as subjects within the British Empire met with stern measures from the colonial regime which persecuted those who publicly espoused the vision of converting India to Republic after achieving independence. It was evident from the article “Repression and its Lesson” authored by Gandhi and published in Young India on 30th March 1921. In it he referred to a freedom fighter Cholkar’s speech delivered in Nagpur and wrote that he was being persecuted for speaking in favour of a Republican form of Government for India. He then forcefully stated that if that was the essence of the offence committed by Cholkar then every Congressman would be treated as an offender, “For he will not hesitate to think of, and work for, a republic, if he could not gain his birthright without complete independence”.

 Republic Means All Will Live Together 

 It is well documented that the Constituent Assembly met on 9th December 1946 and Jawaharlal Nehru, on 13th December, moved the Objectives Resolution which, among others, stated the firm and solemn resolve of the Assembly “...to proclaim India as an Independent Sovereign Republic and to draw up for her future governance a Constitution”. Mahatma Gandhi in a prayer meeting in Delhi on 12th June 1947 referred to the initiative of Nehru to name our country as a Union of Indian Republic and explained the meaning of Republic by saying “..all will live together...” He did so when Indians were writhing in pain caused by the partition of the country and several millions of people living together for thousands of years regardless of their religious persuasion, in several parts of India, were displaced and even killed in the name of their religion. So Gandhi’s interpretation of the meaning of Republic in terms that “all will live together” is of abiding significance when the country is celebrating the 73rd anniversary of our Republic on 26th January 2023 and there is an assault on the shared culture of living together in the name of faith, food, dress, modes of worship and inter-religious matrimonial relationship.

 Attack on Secular Idea of Citizenship and Basic Structure Doctrine 

 Even the idea of citizenship of the Republic of India based on the broad and enlightened provisions of the Constitution are being conferred on some people of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan only if they belonged to any of the faiths such as Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism. It excludes Muslims on the ground that they are not persecuted in those countries on account of their faith. Never in the history of the Republic of India citizenship was granted to foreigners of some select neighboring countries on the grounds of their religious identities. Such a measure taken by Modi regime by amending the Citizenship Amendment Act constitutes a serious attack on the Republic of India which is not defined by any denomination and secularism along with the republican and democratic form of Government is held to be the basic structure of the Constitution by the Supreme Court in the Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973.

 Therefore, attack on the people living together or forging matrimonial relations cutting across caste or religious boundaries is an attack on the Republic itself. It is indeed extremely frightening that such attacks are being launched by those who are operating the State apparatus of our Republic. The legislations passed in several BJP ruled States on the issue of non-existent love jihad in fact target interfaith harmony which embodies the ideal of living together and, therefore, constitute the core meaning of the Republic.

The Republican form of Government is the basic structure of the Constitution. Therefore, any form of attack on the basic structure of the Constitution is an attack on the Republic. The Chief Justice of India Justice Chandrachud recently said that the basic structure acts as the north star guiding the judges in convoluted times. It is rather very distressing that high constitutional functionaries like the Vice President of India is interrogating the basic structure doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court in 1973 and putting question marks on our credibility as a democratic country because the Parliament, as mandated by the Supreme Court in the Kesavananda Bharati case, can amend the Constitution but not its basic structure. Such pronouncements made by Vice President of India two weeks before the 73rd anniversary of our Republic and the counter coming from the Supreme Court itself shows categorically who stands in defence of the Constitution and who is against it.

 Polarisation and Call for Boycott of Minorities Endanger the Republic 

 The Republic of India derives its power and legitimacy from people professing diverse faiths and speaking a variety of languages. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore poetically described them as “Jana Gana” and gave them the exalted status of Adhinayak of our country in our national anthem. It is they who play the role of Bharat Bhagya Vidhata, the shaper of the destiny of India. The division engineered among Jana Gana in the name of faith by leaders of the present regime at the Centre has proved to be fatal to our unity and cohesion which are indispensable for the progress and advancement of the nation. Dr. B R Ambedkar while participating in the discussion on the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly on 17th December 1946 made a crucial point which is critically significant for our time when we are witnessing alarming pace of polarisation of society and call by Hindutva leaders for arms, genocide of Muslims and their comprehensive social and economic boycott. He said that the sovereignty of Indian Republic cannot be derived from people if Muslims did not find adequate representation in the Constituent Assembly. He expressed his worry and anxiety when he heard some leaders talking of war against Muslims to settle Hindu-Muslim issues. He cautioned that any war waged against Muslims would never result in victory for any side and it would be a perpetual war with no end in sight. Therefore, he appealed to the leaders to show statesmanship to deal with matter concerning Hindus and Muslims with a spirit of reconciliation. Those thoughts and words uttered by Dr. Ambedkar when the idea of Republic of India was being discussed in the Constituent Assembly are of immense significance when we are celebrating Republic Day and minorities specifically Muslims are feeling extremely insecure because of call given by Hindutva leaders for eliminating them and wiping out their presence in social and economic activities. In fact Dr. Ambedkar said in the Constituent Assembly on aforesaid date that to forge unity among heterogeneous masses of our country, the leaders should take along every party and every section. He then added, “... it would be an act of greatest statesmanship for the majority party even to make a concession to the prejudices of people who are not prepared to march together..” He also appealed to leave aside slogans and words which frightened people. How prescient was Ambedkar indeed! His exhortations uttered seventy-six years back assume enormous significance for our Republic when BJP as the majority party and its top leadership, instead of taking along all sections of society and avoiding slogans and words generating fear among people, are following a muscular approach and peddling majoritariansim recklessly.

 It is tragic that several leaders of BJP have called for comprehensive social and economic boycott of Muslims. It is contrary to the vision of Ambedkar who in the chapter on Fundamental Rights of his draft Constitution for the United States of India, prepared in 1945, provided that those calling for boycott of minorities for their exclusion from socio-economic spheres should face sever penal action. He also envisaged a role for the future legislature of India to frame laws for imposing stringent punishment against those boycotting minorities. Today that vision of Ambedkar is of paramount significance to firmly deal with the hate speeches and call given by BJP leaders for ejecting Muslims from all spheres of collective life. Such calls are contrary to the meaning of the Republic given by Gandhi that “all will live together.”

 Republic and the Press 

As we celebrate the 73rd anniversary of our Republic we are painfully aware that in terms of the press freedom index India occupies the 150th position in the list of 180 countries. It is a sad commentary on the state of our media. Now people are witnessing the sad spectacle of the Government of India using emergency provisions of the Information Technology Act and asking YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to remove the BBC documentary The Modi Question so that people do not get access to that documentary showing Modi vis-a-vis 2002 communal violence of Gujarat.

The paranoia evident in such actions of the Modi regime in handling media expose is indicative of the diminishing culture of accountability which does not augur well for our Republic. Joseph Pulitzer wrote that “The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations” and added, “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.” Unfortunately, the journalists of the present generation are facing criminal action even while doing their duty to report news. As a result the fall of the press has resulted in the fall of our Republic. The critical necessity is to salvage the Republic, the Constitution and its basic structure. Eventually “We the People” who gave the Constitution and established the Republic will stand as the shield to protect it.

(Author: S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan)

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