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Mainstream, VOL LIII , No 38, New Delhi, September 12, 2015

The Future of the Indian Republic

Sunday 20 September 2015, by Barun Das Gupta

The Preamble to the Constitution says that India is a ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic`. The Preamble is part of the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution, which—as the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment in the Keshavananda Bharati case ordained—cannot be altered. It conceptualised the ‘basic structure doctrine’ and recognised the inherent power of the judiciary to review and, if necessary, strike down any amendment to the Constitution enacted by Parliament which seeks to alter the basic structure of the Constitution.

But what we have been observing for the last year-and-a-half is a slow and subtle but sure process of altering the basic structure. Elected representatives of the people—who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution—are openly challenging the ideals of secularism and socialism, violating the oath they have taken. But they are going scot-free. In the name of ‘Indianisation’ government and semi-govern-ment bodies are being targeted and pro-RSS men are being appointed as the heads of these institutions. They include some of the most prestigious institutions of learning and research.

To name a few: a film-maker who made videos on Modi was made the film Censor Board chief; a BJP supporter was appointed chairperson of the National Film Development Corporation; a busisnessman close to the BJP was appointed chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University. Then there is the Indian Society of Historical Research. The Film and Television Institute of India is the latest but certainly not the last in the list. Even the Indian Science Congress is being sought to be brought under saffron control. Selected targeting and murdering of eminent rationalists by bigots of different communities is taking place regularly. The latest victim is M. M. Kalburgi of Karnataka. Some others before him were Narendra Dabholkar of Maharashtra, CPI activist Govind Pansare, also of Maharashtra, and T. J. Joseph of Kerala. Perumal Murugan, a noted Tamil writer who campaigned against caste and patriarchy, was not killed but was forced to stop writing and take sanyas from the literary field.

To top it all, now comes the shocking news that the Maharashtra Government has issued a circular which makes any adverse criticism of Ministers, bureaucrats and elected people’s representatives an act of sedition, liable to be prosecuted under Section 124A of the IPC and convicted for the offence. Caught on the wrong foot and facing a barrage of criticism from legal luminaries and social activists, embarrassed BJP spokespersons are taking shelter behind the excuse that the impugned circular is not a government order but the Marathi translation of a court order in English. But none of them has decried the move or assured that the circular will be withdrawn or treated as non est. 

As the text of the court order in question has not been published it will not be proper to comment either on it or whether the Maha-rashtra Government circular is in pursuance of the court order. But one thing can be said without any fear of contradiction. Under Article 19(1(a) of the Constitution, ‘freedom of speech and expression’ is a fundamental right of every citizen. Fundamental Rights are part of the basic structure of the Constitution. Therefore, if any court gives any ruling or issues any order that impinges on this freedom, it will be ultra vires of the Constitution and therefore void ab initio. If Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis insists on retaining the circular and giving effect to it, it is bound to be challenged in the Supreme Court.

The cabinet form of government is also undergoing a slow change. Without amending the Constitution, the cabinet form of government is slowly giving way to a presidential form of government, with all powers being concentrated in the Prime Minister’s hand. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has practically become a super-cabinet, with senior officers of every Ministry taking orders from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has himself assured the bureaucrats that they are free to communicate with him directly whenever they think it necessary. This has devalued the position of the Ministers in charge of their respective Ministries.. For example, Sushma Swaraj has become a non-entity as the Prime Minister has become the de facto External Affairs Minister, handling foreign affairs and visiting different countries. Swaraj is conspicuous by her absence.

The Sangh Parivar is repeatedly asserting that India is a Hindu Rashtra. Those running the government are not contradicting it but silently acquiescing in this. Intolerance has reached such levels that the holders of high constitutional offices, who were always kept above controversy and criticism, are being targeted. Vice-President Hamid Ansari has been accused of a ‘communal bias’. In fact anyone not conforming to the ideology or ideals of the Sangh Parivar is fair game for the saffron brigade. The hounding out of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen from the Nalanda University gives a clear message to the heads of academic institutions: either fall in line with us or else...

Judging by the reaction — or the total lack of it—of the Opposition parties and the intelligentsia in general, the future indeed seems to be gloomy. Just as Indira Gandhi promulgated internal Emergency and took away fundamental rights without formally amending or abrogating the Constitution, the Modi Government is nibbling away at the people’s rights slowly, little by little.

It is reminiscent of Hitler’s notorious Enabling Act (Gesetz Zur Behenbung der Not von Volk und Reich) (the law to remedy the distress of the people and the State), passed in March 1933, immediately after his becoming the Chancellor of the German Reich. The law said that in addition to the procedure prescribed by the Constitution, the law of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich and that laws enacted by the government “may deviate from the Constituion as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat”. This law was the epitaph of the Weimar Republic.

The India of the 2010s is certainly not the Germany of the 1930s. The situation in Germany then and that in India today are not comparable either. But what the enactment of the Enabling Law exposes is that a power-loving dictator driven by an ideology (the supremacy of the Aryan race as symbolised by the Germans) can find devious ways of circumventing the written Constitution and establishing a personal dictatorship or the collective dictatorship of a party. The concept of the supremacy of the Hindu race and that India is a Hindu Rashtra forms the ideological basis of the Sangh Parivar. Its representatives at every level are committed to translating that concept into a reality. The Constitution be damned! One shudders to think of the future of our Republic.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.