I was a young lad once and like most kids was susceptible to the perceived infallibility of the written word. To give a relevant example, it wasn’t apparent to me that our civics text-books were less fact and more a bunch of Nehruvian platitudes. But even then, I often wondered about the role of the Constitution in a democracy. It seemed to be – contrary to the importance my book seemed to give it – little more than just a symbol or a guidance, not of much more significance than Gandhi’s “My experiments with truth”. After all, if the real authority was the democratically elected government, what role could a bulky book which no one reads have?
I was both right and wrong. I was wrong because I failed to realise that a Constitution is intended to be a check on what the government can do; it is a well thought out document that lays down certain core values which no law can violate. By its very nature it is much harder to amend the Constitution than it is to pass a law. In the US and other Western democracies, many laws – passed by the government of the day – have been deemed unconstitutional and overturned. The American government will find it impossible to ban a controversial book – without repealing the First Amendment, an unthinkability. Indeed the Constitution is a device for freedom, a vital muscle that makes a democracy tick strongly and prevents it from turning into a tyranny by the majority. We all know that mobs can be manipulated and fooled, not all of them and not for all time, but certainly temporarily. The Constitution keeps the flag of freedom flying at those times – it prevents the passage of parochial laws by extremist parties, it curbs populism, it can arrest collectivism.
Unfortunately, I was right in that none of the above is true in the Indian setup. The freedoms granted by our Constitution were peppered with so many caveats as to render them almost useless and successive governments have further eroded it through amendments that have taken away much of what remained. Today our Constitution is truly what it once seemed to me and probably seems to most other Indians – a mere symbol. And the real tragedy is that most people are unaware it can be anything else.