I have been arguing for a while that the fountainhead of India’s troubles is the Indian Constitution. Recently I contributed a chapter to the CCS publication “Liberalism in India: Past, Present and Future“, and also wrote an opinion piece for LiveMint on the same topic “Why India Needs a New Constitution.” The question naturally arises: replace the constitution with what? Here’s my answer.
The constitution must be consistent with a free nation, not one that is colonized by a despotic government that imposes extractive and exploitative policies on an unwilling people. If India is to be a free nation, it can only be so if every individual is free in the most comprehensive sense. No individual is free if he or she is under the authoritarian control of the government. It is meaningless to talk of a free nation in which no individual is free. That’s the case for India although it is not generally recognized.
India’s constitution has to guarantee — indeed must guarantee — that the individual is free and is protected from government oppression. It must restrict the government to its proper role in a free society, namely, the protection of the life, liberty and property of the individual. Note especially that the entity of interest is the individual, not some group or some collective.
The government of a free nation is constituted by the free will of the individuals of the nation to protect each individual from every other individual. The constitution protects the people from a government gone rogue.
The basic set of principles that should govern a nation of free individuals is not very large. Guaranteeing individual freedom — political, civic and economic — can be done in a few sentences that are meaningful to any average person with no formal training in legal verbiage.
Another important principle is what is called “the generality principle.” In law, it means that all people must be treated equally before the law. That principle must be extended to the relationship between the individual and the government. The government must not discriminate against any individual. All must be considered equal in the eyes of the government. The government must be prohibited from treating different people differently.
That means, it does not so much matter what the government does to the people as long as it does so without discrimination. That is, it is only OK for the government to give a bicycle to one child if it also gives bicycles to all children; it is not OK for the government to give a bicycle based on a child’s religion, caste, sex, etc.
In a constitutional republic (which I believe India should be) the government gains its legitimacy through the consent of the people. That consent is granted by the people by agreeing to the constitution of the republic. It is impossible for the people to grant consent even in principle if the people are unable to read and comprehend the constitution.
India’s massive constitution is unread. It is unreadable. Even if you did take the time — perhaps weeks — to read it, it is unlikely that you would understand it without proper legal training. Go and try to read it. Do call me a liar if you read it in its entirety and find it acceptable.
Therefore I propose that the Indian constitution has to be very brief and has to be comprehensible to the average 10th grade student. All citizens must be required to read the constitution and give or withhold their assent to become eligible to vote. This requirement that citizens have the opportunity and the obligation to record their assent (or lack thereof) is critically important for the nation to understand where it stands as regards its foundational principles. If too many people record their dissent, it means that it is time to review the constitution.
Public debate and discussion of all matters public is an essential feature of an open and free society. Not just that, it is public debate and discussion itself that leads to an open and free society. India is not really free today in the sense that some topics are taboo and are not open to public debate and discussion. It seems merely looking cross-eyed at the Indian Constitution is tantamount to high treason. It is the holiest of holy books. Casting the merest doubt that it is not of divine provenance is the most heinous blasphemy. How dare you challenge the unalterable word of the Supreme Makers.
Here is a proposed Constitution for a free India. (PDF–click to read, right click to download.)
My submission is this: read this proposed constitution and compare it to the existing constitution. Which one makes more sense? Which one is likely to be read and understood? Which one is more consistent with a nation of free individuals? Which one encodes general principles and limits the power of the government? Which one leaves out the specifics of how the nation is to be governed to in-period political decision and only lays out the broad outlines of what the government must and must not do? Which one is not derived from the legacy of colonial British rules? Which one would you like to support?
It’s a great opportunity for us to build the foundation on which India’s prosperity can be built. That foundation is one of freedom of the individual. India became independent of British but Indians never became free of the colonial British rule and consequently India never became a free country. It’s true that the British no longer rule India but the laws made by dead Britishers are still imposed on India by their brown-skinned (with a few Italian exceptions) successors. The Indian constitution is a derivative work of British rules. India needs an Indian constitution that is universally applicable and of Indian origin.
It’s all karma, neh?