30 Jan-5 Feb 2015 #743

The statute of liberty

The Indian experience with constitution drafting post-independence holds valuable lessons for Nepal
Anurag Acharya
This week, the world’s largest democracy celebrated the 66th year of promulgating its constitution, the longest written guiding principle of any nation on earth.

The celebration that showcased the military might and cultural richness of this emerging power was witnessed by the most powerful man in the world -- indicating India’s rise to the global pedestal. We in India’s backyard watched with envy.

The Indian constitution took 165 days of intense debate spread over 11 grueling sessions in the Constituent Assembly (pic), out of which 114 were devoted to discussion on the draft constitution. Today, 65 years later, the Indian Constitution contains 448 articles in 25 parts, 12 schedules and 5 appendices with 98 amendments made so far.

Despite huge differences in size, economy and political history we in Nepal can learn some lessons (and pitfalls) from the Indian constitutional exercise. After all, the Indian union (they deliberately didn’t want to call it ‘federation’) has been grappling with its own share of constitutional fault lines.

In its final session before the promulgation, the chief architect of the Indian constitution BR Ambedkar had warned: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of ‘one man one vote and one vote one value’. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of ‘one man one value’. If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.” 

Over the years, these fissures widened as the Indian union faced identity movements in its southern states demanding linguistic rights, while nationalist insurgencies in Telengana, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland dragged New Delhi to war against its own people. 

Ambedkar saw it coming. In his view, without social democracy at its base political democracy has little chance of succeeding. If anything, the custodians of the Indian constitution seem to have ignored the words of this Dalit intellectual who had no illusions about the limitations of the document he had penned.

Making a scathing critique of patriotic nationalism, Ambedkar had warned: “I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us. For then only we shall realise the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realising the goal.” 

The Indian experience and Ambedkar’s words hold valuable lessons for Nepal’s Constituent Assembly which is also grappling with federalism, nationalism and minority rights. For the last seven years, the political parties have been at loggerheads over these issues, making their own petty electoral calculations, ignoring the fact that they are only political stakeholders to the process and not the ultimate beneficiaries. Their narrow partisan and personal interests have overridden the interest of Nepal’s diverse population and its divergent aspirations.

After consensus among parties became impossible, CA Chair Nembang took a controversial decision earlier this week by forming a Proposal Drafting Committee amid opposition protests, allowing it ten days to prepare a questionnaire on disputed issues. This signals the initiation of the ‘process’ that is supposed to kick-start the stalled constitution drafting.

To its credit, the UCPN(M)-led opposition alliance isn’t boycotting the CA and has kept the doors for talks open. They claim the NC and UML aren’t showing the same commitment to consensus that they did when they commanded the majority. But they must also understand that the constitution is a work in progress, and they can always go back to the people for a new mandate in the next elections. The ruling coalition, on the other hand, must know that a constitution is only as good as it serves the people who grant it legitimacy.

In the final years of his life, Ambedkar was thoroughly disillusioned with the document he had so passionately drafted. He was sad that despite constitutional safeguards including the reservation policy, there was no qualitative change in the lives of Indian Dalits because the existing socio-political structure severely impeded their capacity to access those safeguards. 

In one of his speeches he said:  “My friends tell me that I drafted the constitution, but I am quite prepared to say that I will be the first person to burn it.” Nevertheless, his lifelong belief that a constitution should not be a mere legal document, but a vehicle of life that reflects the spirit of the age, holds a valuable lesson for our own drafters when they sit to finalise the statute in the coming days.


Read also:

Solutions from within, Editorial

Maoists hope hinges on NC, Om Astha Rai

Better later than never, Om Astha Rai

Some are more equal than others, David Seddon

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