On India’s 75th Republic Day, India is perhaps at an inflexion point in terms of defining the living essence or value of its founding fathers. 

The constitution of India’s preamble, its deliberated content, moral value, and structural teachings of its ‘basic structure’ has perhaps never faced a graver challenge from all its organs – the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary – and at the same time. 

As the euphoria of the Ram temple consecration continues to dominate the mind, underlining the thought and practice of new India under the Modi government, India’s constitution, anchored by its principal drafter Dr B.R. Ambedkar, is also endangered, or at least risks being reduced to merely ink on paper

What’s caused this? 

Constitutional teaching and learning crisis in Indian education 

This author has earlier argued that somewhere, an institutional failure has occurred. India’s lower and higher education system failed to commit itself to decentralising and  de-hegemonising the linguistic and intellectual learnings of the founding constitution’s ‘living essence’. The essence found it hard to permeate beyond  the Indian intellectual elite (and that too, in  narrow, tunnel-visioned disciplines of legal education and law).

B.R. Ambedkar emphasized the need for making people believe in values enshrined in the preamble for the constitution to remain a living-breathing document. 

But, as distinguished jurist and professor Upendra Baxi argued once, “issue of the rights of sweepers and scavengers has never entered the mainstream legal (and civic) consciousness in the country”. 

There was, and still is, tremendous value in making ‘constitutional morality’ a yardstick for judging social, political developments, for a democracy like India to first survive, and maybe then thrive. 

The role of universities and other educational institutions is vital in this regard.

Lectures and classes on Indian constitution, or on constitutional morality, its history, have increasingly become limited to a cohort of students, pursuing legal studies in elite-law schools, whereas knowledge of one’s own constitution, the history of its formation and basic structure ought to be part of everyone’s core learning and enacting, as one becomes a more integral part of a society’s functioning. 

In recent years, India’s protest politics-especially during the CAA-NRC protest, for example, one saw how young men and women across the nation had the preamble in their hands, reading ‘We the People..’ out loud to the powers that be. 

Universities – not just social science colleges – must do more going forward in democratising the learning, meaning, and practice of constitutionalism, in allowing a civilization to advance and not regress as a ‘people’. 

Some might argue that it is pointless to discuss what function a university may serve in a constitutional learning crisis at a time when education is directly and only linked to requirements of ‘certification’. Teaching and research are becoming more and more constrained to serve the state’s need and for an intellectual elite to remain safe in ivory castles. 

The scope for first-time learners to access quality higher education is narrowing and growing more restricted by the day.  This is the opposite of what Noam Chomsky argued back in 1969, “one element in the unending struggle to achieve a more just and humane social order will be the effort to remove the barriers , whether they be economic, ideological, or political , that stand in the way of the particular forms of individual self fulfillment and collective action that the university should make possible”.

India’s deeply unequal education landscape faces a growing problem of elitism in academia (concentrated in some private institutions), as well as an acute deficiency of intellectual talent that also plagues other public institutions.

The encouragement to ‘mediocrity’ at a university, college, or even a school, personifies the state of India’s education system today. Students, scholars, and even young research enthusiasts are perfectly okay in devoting their entire learning cycle or career to trivial modifications of what has already been known, produced, and validated. 

In what classical Marxists would call a ‘social reproduction thesis’, they are doing the same thing repeatedly with minor tweaks and changes. The publication industry encourages it in a deeply entrenched, neo-liberal model of ‘educative’ commodification. Any hope for a widespread reform seems delusionary in the current political climate. This makes the constitutional learning crisis even worse.

Whether one is being trained as a corporate executive, a shoemaker, an engineer, an economist, or an architect, knowledge in constitutionalism must be part of one’s learning. 

This might not just help in one understanding elements of India’s founding constitutional charter, for the legal (and moral) value it may provide, but its knowledge may also enable an awareness of our own social, cultural, political, and economic state of being.

A misplaced reading of fundamental rights and duties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his last independence speech, remarked: “Friends, …. We (also) have to admit that in the 75 years after Independence, a malaise has afflicted our society, our nation and all of us. It is that we turned away from our duties and did not give them primacy. In the last 75 years, we only kept talking about rights, fighting for rights and wasting our time. The issue of rights may be right to some extent in certain circumstances, but neglecting one’s duties completely has played a huge role in keeping India vulnerable.”

In a conflation of rights and duties, a subject much debated and critiqued in moral philosophy too, it is important to make note of acclaimed philosopher and jurist, Thomas Scanlon’s advice i.e. centred on a better need to understand and study the role of interests, safeguarding both ‘rights’ and ‘duties’, and ascertain the interests of those who critique the normative significance of right or duties.

In context with the founding principles of the Indian Constitution, as Gautam Bhatia has illustrated in his book: The Transformative Constitution, there were two important concerns for the Constituent Assembly when it came to writing the two chapters in defining our fundamental rights.

The first was that under the colonial regime, Indians were treated as subjects. Their interests did not count, their voices were unheard and in some cases, they were treated as less than human. The key role of the fundamental rights charter  was, in Bhatia’s words, “to stand as a bulwark against dehumanisation”. 

Every human being, no matter who they were or what they did, had a claim to ‘basic dignity’ and ‘equality’ that no state could take away no matter what the provocation”. One needn’t perform any ‘duty’ to become eligible or qualify for having rights. 

The second role of rights, as Bhatia argues, was to stand against hierarchy. Through guarantees against forced labour, untouchability and discriminatory access to public spaces, among other things, fundamental rights were meant to “play an equalising and democratising role throughout society, and to protect individuals against the depredations visited on them by their fellow human-beings”.

Without the moral compass of rights, as enshrined in India’s constitutional charter, any language emphasising the role of  just ‘duties’, as Modi’s own speech and his government’s actions reflects, will damage the rights based discourse in India’s constitution.

Rights and corresponding duties remain two sides of the same coin. Prioritising just one, or pitting one side against the other, will not do. Unfortunately, what we see now is a kinship projection of ‘citizen duties’ being pegged higher than constitutionally safeguarded fundamental rights that have been systematically bulldozed by the state.

To understand the constitution and preserve it, in its living essence, universalising its teachings, and principles remains key. This will help in making the constitution more accessible to all of those who are part of the republic (especially the young). It is important that while celebrating its innate living essence every January 26, we refrain from turning it into a symbolic political event being utilised narrowly for inviting foreign dignitaries to serve foreign policy means and ends, while making the founding charter and its constitutional memory redundant. 

Unfortunately, this is what we see happening in today’s India.

Deepanshu Mohan is a professor of economics and director, the Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University.

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