By Dilip Bobb
The most famous line in the preamble to the Indian Constitution reads: “We, the people”. It was actually borrowed from the American Constitution which carries the same inspiring words at the start of their document. America unveiled its constitution in 1789, becoming the oldest democracy in the world. India became the largest when its Constitution became effective in 1950 – three years after colonial rule under the British came to a bloody end. In fact, B.R. Ambedkar, the principal author of the Indian version, borrowed heavily from various constitutions in existence then. Ultra-patriotic Indians are quick to extol the Indian Constitution as the finest in the world, ignoring the fact that there are other claimants to that particular throne.
Constitutional experts rate the South African Constitution as the most progressive in the world, with a Bill of Rights that is considered superior to the American version. The South African document is the result of detailed negotiations that came in the backdrop of the country’s racist and non-democratic past and only came into being in February 1997, barely 22 years ago.
The other Constitution considered among the most enlightened and people-oriented in the world is the Canadian one. It is also among the oldest—first written in 1867, and subsequently amended and updated. The current form is based on The “Charter of Rights” a 1982 addition that outlines the civil rights of every Canadian citizen. The document can only be amended with the approval of the 13 provincial governments. It is one of the oldest working constitutions in the world, with a basis in Magna Carta, the charter of rights agreed to by King John of England in 1215. The Magna Carta still forms an important symbol of individual liberty today, and is held in great respect by legal communities all over the democratic world.
Along with “We the People’, the other slogan that defined individual liberty and democratic values was “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), the motto of the French Republic. These words also appear in the preamble to the Constitution of India. “Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood” has been the leitmotiv of the Social Democratic Party of Denmark. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats refer to “the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community” in the preamble of the party’s Federal Constitution, while the Philippine national flag has a design that symbolizes liberty, equality, and fraternity. The slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” has also influenced the First Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The Indian Constitution borrowed quite substantially from the American and British versions. The British Constitution has a Constitutional head of State (The monarch), a Lower House of Parliament which is more powerful than the Upper House; a Parliamentary system of Government and prevalence of the Rule of Law. The UK Parliament, like India, can make any amendment by passing it by majority vote and then sending it to the President (or monarch) for assent, which is mostly a formality. However, in America, each state has its own constitution whereas India is a federal structure but with one constitution for the entire country.
The last word on Constitutional stability comes from Ambedkar himself, who said that: “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depends are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?”
We have seen the wisdom of his words on numerous occasions, the latest being Maharashtra. He also added that if India wished to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, three things were necessary. First, we should reject unconstitutional methods (they are the “grammar of anarchy”); Second, be cautious of putting our faith in charismatic leaders (“Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”); and third, strive to achieve social democracy (“means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life”). Prophetic words, now coming so tragically true in every respect.