The Constitution as the ‘Social Contract’ of Modern India



The  Constitution of India should be seen as a work-in-progress – not because it has been amended ever so often by different governments but because it has been taken over by ‘we, the people’, repeatedly, especially since the 1990s. The ‘authorized’ interpreters of the Constitution and Law are no longer its sole interpreters. The continuous battles over its interpretation in the courts of law are only one way in which meaning is contested. But from the dalits reclaiming it as “Babasaheb’s Constitution” to the pathalgadi movement  of the Jharkhand adivasis and finally as the banner of citizenship movement today, its meaning has been contested time and again in the streets and in villages.

It is customary, in most secular-nationalist and left-wing circles, to invoke the “great values of the national movement”, which is seen as synonymous with the “freedom struggle”, which in turn is reduced to the “anticolonial struggle”. On 15 August 1947, India attained Independence from colonial rule and on 26 January 1950, “we, the people of India” gave to ourselves the Constitution of India. The anticolonial struggle came to an end in August 1947 but that did not mean that all the currents that  comprised the larger “freedom struggle” – the jang-e-azadi – got their freedom. We perhaps need to make a distinction today between the “freedom struggle” (that is still ongoing) and the “anticolonial nationalist” movement.

We need to state emphatically that the “freedom struggle” of different social groups is not – and never was – reducible to the “anticolonial struggle”. There were many different strands and currents that  either functioned at a distance from mainstream nationalism , or even worked in opposition to it.

On the one hand there were movements of peasants and workers which were seen with suspicion by the nationalists because they sought to challenge the dominance of the landlords and capitalists over the movement; on the other hand, there were movements of lower caste groups – dalits/ bahujans in our contemporary language – who did not hesitate to make use of the presence of the colonial power to extract a better deal for themselves. The leaders of the latter – Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar, Sri Narayana Guru – all knew that if the British withdrew without the balance of power between the upper castes and them changing, they would be yoked back into slavery. There were also the adivasi movements in different parts of the country, many of which preceded the nationalist movement by many decades. All these embodied different aspirations for azadi – for freedom.

Then there was the “Muslim question” but to frame the question in this fashion and thus make it synonymous with the Muslim League, is to give the impression that “separatism” is all that all Muslims were interested in. Muslim presence was prominent in all movements from the Congress/ Gandhian to the communist, from the movements of workers and peasants to those of writers and artists. More importantly, even the quest for Muslim identity did not always end with the  demand for Pakistan. Indeed, the more devout and pious of the Muslims, such as those associated with the Deoband school, stood opposed to the demand for Pakistan.

Is it possible to reduce all these aspirations for different kinds of freedom to the “nationalist” or “anticolonial” movement? Why could the anticolonial struggle not accommodate all these diverse strivings for freedom within itself?

The answer to this question is best given in the words of BR Ambedkar. In his memorandum, States and Minorities, presented on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, he stated without mincing words:

“Unfortunately for the minorities in India, Indian Nationalism has developed a new doctrine which may be called the Divine Right of the Majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority. Any claim for the sharing of power by the minority is called communalism while the monopolizing of the whole power by the majority is called Nationalism. Guided by such a political philosophy the majority is not prepared to allow the minorities to share political power nor is it willing to respect any convention made in that behalf as is evident from their repudiation of the obligation (to include representatives of the minorities in the cabinet)… “

In this memorandum, Ambedkar was talking of mainstream “Indian nationalism” and not Hindu nationalism  of any variety. In this sharp and pithy formulation, he puts his finger precisely on the point where the problem lay then and continues to lie today.

That was why Ambedkar had to emphasize that as far as the rights of the scheduled castes was concerned, there was no other way left but to have them “embodied in the Constitution.” It could not be left to the goodwill of the nationalist leaders to ensure that their rights as indeed, the rights of other minorities, would be safeguarded.

The Constitution that was still in the process of being drafted and debated in the Constituent Assembly was for him a toughly negotiated and contested document. He was acutely aware  of the fact that every word, every provision that he wanted inserted had to be fought for – and in the inclusions of those provisions alone lay the guarantee for the future. The second thing that needs to be underlined is that in this passage, as in States and Minorities as a whole, Ambedkar is not concerned with the fate of the “scheduled castes” alone but with minorities as such. In fact, his use of this term to designate the dalits is his way of asserting that the dalits are like any other minority and cannot be considered to be parts of Hindu society.

This actually brings us to the question of the Constitution itself and what this document has come to mean today – a charter of azadi as it were. It stands as a charter of azadi from Manuvaad for sure since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had once vehemently attacked the Constitution as a document that is based on “foreign ideas”, against which it upheld the Manusmriti as an authentically indigenous law book. In a sense, they knew exactly what the Constitution meant.

At this point we must pose the question of the precise relationship between the “national movement” and the Constitution. It is often carelessly claimed that the Constitution was the “logical outcome” or “culmination” of the nationalist movement and simply came to embody its values. As a matter of fact, had that been the case, we might have had something more like a Hindu Mahasabha produced Constitution, given that most Congressmen were Hindu Mahasabhaites and people like Nehru were in a woeful minority.

The fact of the matter is that the Constituent Assembly that appointed  Ambedkar as chairperson of the drafting committee and produced the Constitution, constituted a break in the logic of the nationalist struggle. The Constituent Assembly, for the first time, saw people from different currents all sit together to negotiate and hammer out a vision for an independent modern India. Congress secular-nationalists, Congress Hindu Mahasabhaites and Gandhians certainly, but also a Jaipal Singh Munda, a BR Ambedkar, the communist Somnath Lahiri, a Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur, a Dakshayani Velayudhan, and after the Partition, the Muslim League as well. If the Constituent Assembly picked up threads from the past, they were those where mainstream nationalism had clashed with people like Ambedkar and the Muslim League, for instance in the various phases of the introduction of franchise and “responsible government” by the British – the Southborough Committee, the various Round Table Conferences, the Communal Award and finally the Poona Pact.

What is crucially important therefore, is that the Constituent Assembly became the arena for the hammering out of the social contract of modern India – thanks to the presence of practically all the currents of what we might call the “freedom struggle” as distinct from the national/ist movement. If there was one current that was not part of the work of the Constituent Assembly it was the current that was eventually responsible for the killing of Mahatma Gandhi, namely the RSS. This current had not only studiously stayed  away from the freedom struggle, its leaders are known to have often aided the colonial government by acting as its informers.

What do we mean when we say that the Constitution should be understood as the social contract and the charter for a modern India? Well, first and foremost, in the sense that Granville Austin saw it – primarily as a ‘social document’ and not simply a legal one. It embodies a transformative vision that is as much evident in its legal provisions  as it is in Part IV, namely Directive Principles of State Policy. But the ‘social contract” here should not be understood in the sense of the fictive contract that so much of modern political theory relies on. For that “social contract” is an imagination of a move from a state of natural existence to a “society”, where some rules and laws are or have been put in place and everyone abides by them in their own best interests. This is a social contract that was effected by people living in society, where a myriad different forms of oppression have been in existence for ages. These oppressions have not been overthrown through any violent revolutionary upheaval; nonetheless, the social groups at the power-end of the oppression-relation figured out that things are likely to change very radically in future and the best bet for them is to agree to give up at least some of their privileges in order to be able to preserve some power within a new dispensation of electoral democracy. The fact that they – and the nationalist leaders representing them – agreed to reservations/ affirmative action or safeguards is evidence of the fact that they had realized that they alone would not be calling the shots in the emerging new dispensation. At least in that sense this social contract was not about the move from a pre-social, natural state to a social one, but of a move from one kind of relation of oppression to a situation where the oppressors’ position could be far more vulnerable and would have to yield space to subordinate caste groups.

This social contract stands threatened today by the one political force that had rejected the Constitution from the very beginning – Hindutva and the RSS. That is where the seeds of the present struggles can be found, where in a strange and unexpected way, the Preamble to the Constitution has become an insurgent text.

One thought on “The Constitution as the ‘Social Contract’ of Modern India”

  1. Constitution is a ‘utopian ‘ document which shows the way for attaining welfare state. It is people who must strive to achieve the goal of ‘utopia’ despite all odds.
    Present trying conditions are causing immense impediments through strong right win hindutva manuvadi resistance.
    Need of the hour is strong mobilization of people to counter these odds and reach the ultimate goal …


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