Constitution, Democracy and Citizenship | Circa 2020

Dr Ajay Gudavarthy and Dr Simi Mehta

Amid the contemporary political scenario when there has been a global rise of populist forces, it seems to be the quintessential moment to dwell upon the question raised above. There is a need to engage with this issue through various dimensions ranging from political, constitutional, ethical and legal to the movements, protests and struggles taking place at the ground level.

In the Indian context, the issues surrounding Constitution, Democracy and Citizenship have taken up a significant amount of space in policy making of the government, in public debates held by media and most importantly within the mass movements, protests and mobilizations organized by citizens against those constitutional amendments and policy changes.

With this background, a special panel discussion on Constitution, Democracy and Citizenship was organized by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on December 17, 2020. This lecture was chaired and moderated by Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. The panelists included Prof Nyla Ali Khan, Rose State College (RSC), Oklahoma, USA; Dr Samir Gandesha, Director and Professor, Institute for the Humanities Simon Fraser University (SFU), Canada; Dr Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi and; Pragya Singh, Senior Journalist, Newsclick.

Panelists-Panel Discussion on Constitution, Democracy and Citizenship_Circa 2020
Panelists-Panel Discussion on Constitution, Democracy and Citizenship_Circa 2020

Dr. Gudavarthy began the discussion with an argument that how constitutional morality was not readily available in society and in Indian politics but something that needs to be really built. Gudavarthy argued that one needs to focus on this interface between constructing a certain morality of constitutionalism as against the available provisions to provide an entry point into understanding of democratic institutions, their performance and working today.

He raised another concern that, “This conjoint relation between liberalism and democracy which we thought to be a comfortable co-habitation is witnessing a decline. And we are at odds in terms of defining this new cultural majoritarianism with a certain kind of a popular support, which signifies a certain kind of democracy but its tendency seem to be deeply illiberal.” 

He further argued that, “Constitutional mode today has also come to refer to a certain kind of a regulatory framework. While certain modes of constitutional intervention on one hand look like the surveillance, they are originally envisaged to be in terms of expansion of social and economic issues of justice and equality.”

Gudavarthy ended with an observation that the principles inscribed in the constitution might work differently on ground and hence allow building an authoritarian, regimented, monolithic Hindu Rashtra without breaking down the constitutional framework. He argued, “Secularism meant a unity between various social groups, dialogic culture, inclusion of minority rights but the way it worked in Indian context lead to a certain kind of ghettoisation of various groups (secular sectarianism).” This was exploited by the regime to further deepen the differences.

The panel discussion began with Prof. Nyla Ali Khan shedding light on the significance of Article 370 and argues that, “The revocation of this article which guaranteed special status to Kashmir without consulting with the state legislative assembly made it amply clear that parliamentary democracy in India had been unable to protect a genuine democratic setup in Kashmir and have jeopardised the federal structure of India by setting an unhealthy precedent in a country as diverse as India. Head of governments cannot avoid their ethical and moral responsibilities towards the peoples of states in a federal country.”

She then historicised Article 370 and argued that “the reason autonomy was guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 was due to the landmark decision between 1950-52 when 700,000 landless peasants, mostly Muslims in the valley but including 250,000 lower caste Hindus in the Jammu region became peasant proprietors.

The political logic of autonomy in Article 370 was necessitated by the need to bring about socio-economic transformation at the grassroots level.” Prof Khan rejected the current government’s claim of reviving Kashmiriyat through this recent constitutional amendment and concluded by eloquently stating that, “In a diverse country it is not only for the majority community to approve laws but the minority community to also feel that constitutional amendments and laws will bring peace, security and honour to them as well.

She resented that the diversity of India is in danger of being neutralised within a nationalist polity that destroys the nuances woven by religious, cultural and linguistic differences.”

Dr. Samir Gandesha began his argument with two propositions on the global political scenario, first, “the thrust of the authoritarian movements and populist movements is to orient itself to an abstract negation of the principles of rule of law, constitutionalism.

A left response to it should be like a determinant negation of this order” Second, he argued that, “on the one hand liberal democracy offers a kind of promise of autonomy. The idea that we can live a self-directed life but on the other hand the neo-liberal dynamics that we’ve unleashed over the past 30 years have created increasing forms of heteronomy and people have less and less control over the forces they can barely understand.”

Gandesha next focused specifically on Canada and argued how this tendency towards authoritarianism was not unique to the US, UK and India but also in his country, Canada, which is often held up as ideal, multicultural, liberal democracy that should be emulated in other countries. He argued that both former (Stephen Harper) and present (Justin Trudeau) Prime ministers of Canada have not engaged constructively with nation’s first peoples who in the constitution of 1982 were guaranteed provisions for self-governance.

The former showed this tendency openly with his discriminatory bills like C-45 and the latter’s hypocrisy was revealed by the way his government handled the relatively long standing antagonism between the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en first nation and trans-Canada owned Coastal Gas Link.  Gandesha cites this example as “a crisis of the constitutional order which has to do with the past and present of certain colonialism and this rift has only been deepened by the dynamics of neo-liberalism and extractivist capitalism in the country.”

Dr Niranjan Sahoo expressed a need to protect and safeguard the Constitution which remained the mother of not just Indian democracy but also seen as the bible to understand the working of democracy worldwide. He explained how CAA and NRC have become a serious threat to the citizen and idea of citizenship.

He argued, “The citizenship idea will not wither away or be deleted from Constitution but the very notion of its day to day affairs of the Republic is witnessing a sort of systematic erosion. And it is not largely through the constitutional changes but through the politics on street. The mobilisation of politics is happening in a manner that today we are witnessing a new lingua franca kind of toxic political rhetoric which creates a fear-based politics, where prejudices are thrown, groups are demonised and insulted. It is worsened by the fact that this behaviour is tolerated and accepted by majority of population who knows this is wrong.”

So, there is not just an elite silence but also a normalisation of these violations and politics. The media, civil society and citizens are not raising their voice against these deteriorating conditions.

Sahoo ended with an appeal that, we need more collective action and mobilization as happened in case of farmer’s agitation and anti-CAA protests. These unprecedented ideological transformations and unprecedented mobilisation can challenge the majoritarian state not just in terms of ideas but also in terms of politics on the streets.

Senior journalist Pragya Singh shared her lived experiences from anti-CAA, Delhi riots and the ongoing farmer’s protest. She began with how people understood the concepts of Citizenship and Constitution and the reason for the rise of anti-CAA protests and why the protestors have been against this law and how they find it to be based on discrimination.

She highlighted how the government dealt with the 2018 Dalit protest against the Supreme Court order on Atrocities Act, the anti CAA- NRC protestors and the current farmer’s protest in a similar fashion, i.e. by branding them either as urban-naxals, terrorists, or being funded by terrorist. Singh highlighted that, “the attitude of the state is same towards all three protests but the goals are different.

Muslims are used to polarise and then win elections, dalits’ rights are squashed to crush the subaltern assertion and the farmers are treated as last blockade to the economic agenda of this government.” She argued that people do look for alternatives when they are treated in a discriminatory manner by the state and concluded the panel discussion with a viewpoint that, “Even after an incident like Delhi riots where so many people died, both the Hindus and the Muslims who fought during riots turn around and accept that this was politically motivated, so people do understand that certain things are political but when it comes to the nationalism of the BJP kind they still get swayed.

After the presentations there was an in-depth discussion between the Chair and Panelists this shed some more light on the given theme. Towards the end Vote of Thanks was given by Dr Arjun Kumar, Director of IMPRI to the panelists for sharing their enlightening view on the issues relating to Constitution, Democracy and Citizenship with special focus on India. The attendees were praised for being a part of the session and raising important questions.

Acknowledgement: Shivani Choudhary, Junior Research Fellow and M Phil Candidate of Political Science at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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Picture courtesy: India Legal