26/11/2016 5:47 PM IST | Updated 29/11/2016 11:50 AM IST

Let's Go Back To The Constitution To Recall What It Means To Be Indian

It was Constitution Day on 26 November

On 26 November 1949 the Constitution of India was adopted. For two years, 11 months and 17 days, 389 members of the Constituent Assembly gave shape to what we see as the Constitution. Sixty-Seven years after its adoption, the Constitution continues to define the idea of India and what it means to be Indian. However, the increasing trend towards polarisation along religious, caste and linguistic lines in the past few decades is testimony to the fact that we have muddled up our understanding of what it means to be an Indian.

At the time of independence, the question of "Indian identity" was particularly difficult to answer in the context of the linguistic, religious and cultural diversity that we find in India. In fact it can be reasonably argued that the British doctrine of divide and rule rested, as Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, on the proposition that India was not a nation with any sense of corporate identity and hence was incapable of self-governance because it was not "a people."

Any deviation from the democratic identity is antithetical to the idea of India.

In fact as far back as 1888, John Strachey, a civil servant in British India wrote that India could never exist as a united body, comprising provinces as distinct as Punjab and Madras. The audacity of the Indian democratic experiment was such that even after 20 years of Independence it remained inconceivable to many that India could survive as a democracy with its ethnic divisions and a large poor and illiterate population. In 1967, the first national election after Nehru's death, Neville Maxwell of The Times of London went as far as to call it "the fourth—and surely last—general election" and India "a failed democratic experiment."

The leaders of the Indian freedom movement and the Assembly that drafted the Constitution understood this reality and hence tried to appeal to a new social construct—the "Indian people." Dr. BR Ambedkar, in his last address to the Constituent Assembly talked about the challenge of building an Indian identity when he said:

"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 realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For then only we shall realize the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realizing the goal."

The idea to create a national identity that encompasses all traditional identities required "privileging the status of people as Indian citizens over more restrictive identities such as caste or religion." It is remarkable as to how this new identity was created without erasing the traditional identities that existed before.

The freedom movement and the Constitution recognised this challenge, thereby seeding the ideas of political negotiation and participatory democracy as essential features of the Indian democratic experience. It is therefore safe to argue that "India can be a nation only so long as it is a democracy; there is no nation building project outside the democratic framework."

Any deviation from the democratic identity is antithetical to the idea of India. Dr. Mehta puts it succinctly when he says, "The spectre of authoritarianism towards particular groups rises often when there is an attempt to benchmark Indian identity outside of the space of politics, to see it not as a product of ongoing democratic negotiation, but to locate it in a particular 'ethnic' characteristic like religion or race."

The Constitution is not just a set of rules and rights... but is a philosophy, it is the founding principle through which the Indian identity flows.

We must be ever-vigilant to any attempts to tamper with our democratic identity. For instance, the high rate of economic growth in China is often cited as a reason enough for India to dump democracy and become an authoritarian state. This argument against democracy misses a subtle point—governments in China derive their legitimacy by delivering economic growth; in contrast, governments in India derive their legitimacy through the process of free and fair elections. This democratic process creates space for political negotiation that is necessary in a country as diverse as India. The challenge of economic growth is that of holding governments accountable, which can be accomplished by the use of constitutional tools available for the same.

We must never forget that the Constitution is not just a set of rules and rights that governs our daily life but is a philosophy, it is the founding principle through which the Indian identity flows. The principles of a secular, democratic republic are not just stuff of semantics but are the idea of India and the identity of Indians itself.

The article is a modified version of a speech delivered by the author at the Indian Embassy in Paris as part of the Constitution Day Celebrations.