The Congress’ recent ‘Save the Constitution’ campaign is premised on fears that the BJP is subverting the Constitution and is about to revise it. Both fears are warranted. The BJP’s vision of a dharma rajya and its Constitution, as described by its chief ideologue Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, is very different from our current Constitution, and it is dangerously flawed. Yet some BJP stalwarts are quietly working to make it happen.
Upadhyaya was critical of our Constitution all his life and presented his plans to change it in 1965, under his philosophy of ‘integral humanism’. His thoughts about a new India, a dharma rajya (rule of innate law), were adopted by the BJP as its official philosophy. To this day, the party aspires to rebuild India according to Upadhyaya’s vision.
Some party thinkers are already working to draft a new Constitution. In 2016, KN Govindacharya, RSS ideologue and once-powerful general secretary of the BJP, declared in an interview: “We will rewrite the Constitution to reflect Bhartiyata.” Last December, BJP Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde announced: “We are here to change the Constitution and we'll soon change it.”
Govindacharya has said that a new framework would be available by the end of this year, and that his team is now working on it “very silently”.
While Upadhyaya’s ideas may be inspiring, they are not practical. They are the dreams of an ideologue who had little experience with actual governance. They also suffer from the drawbacks of one-man thinking.
No single person can know all that is good for a country, especially one as diverse and challenging as India. Many nations have gone down that road, only to learn that one person’s ideology is no way to govern a large, diverse country. And no democratic nation’s Constitution should be formulated behind the scenes, without public debate.
Can Dharma Rajya be Secular?
The chief impracticality in Upadhyaya’s thinking is the same as that in Savarkar’s concept of Hindutva. Both want the world to believe that a majority Hindu nation will not be sectarian, because Hinduism is inherently secular. In fact, Upadhyaya avoided the terms Hindu and Hindutva altogether.
Instead he spoke of a Bhartiya culture; of seeing man as an integral part of nature, society, family and mankind. “Dharma rajya does not mean a theocratic state,” he wrote, “where a particular sect and its prophet or guru rule supreme. All the rights are enjoyed by the followers of this particular sect. Others either cannot live in that country or at best enjoy a slave-like, secondary citizen’s status.”
But how can a country make this notion of dharma rajya work on the ground, when people equate dharma with the Hindu religion? A system of government where most officials are Hindu cannot be truly blind to religious considerations in its decisions. Also, it is impossible to restrain communities from responding to others' sectarianism. There is also the problem of government doles: In a non-theocratic nation, how would a government decide which religious activities to sponsor and which to deny?
The only way to truly avoid religious bigotry in governments is to bar them from engaging in any religion’s activities. In other words, adopt western-style secularism. But Upadhyaya and his followers didn’t want anything western in their Constitution.
He said, “A state can neither be without dharma (nee-dharma) nor can it be indifferent to dharma (dharma-nirpeksh) just as fire cannot be without heat… the state can only be dharma rajya (rule of dharma) and nothing else.”
Can Dharma be Codified?
This brings up the second unworkable approach in Upadhyaya’s vision. How would dharma be determined, and by whom? He described dharma, variously, as principles of ethics, laws of life, principles which bring harmony, standards for deciding the propriety of behavior, and so on.
These are certainly fine ideas, but too vague for governance. He gave some examples: Truthfulness; not yielding to anger; honesty. “The English word ‘religion’ is not the correct word for dharma,” said Upadhyaya. “The nearest equivalent can be ‘innate law’.”
But what constitutional provisions can codify such laws, especially when, as Upadhyaya said, they are “discovered” by each individual and not “arbitrarily framed”? If they would be listed as duties, how would a Constitution make them justiciable? If they are to flow from a national guru, how would this guru be chosen? And if they would come from a guild or a legislature, how would principles without any legal basis be enforced? These questions boggle the mind.
Would One Person Have One Vote?
Upadhyaya’s vision was impractical in another way. It negated the individual as the basis of India’s new Constitution. It would give sovereignty to groups within society, such as the family. It denied the western concept that governments are an outcome of a social contract among individuals, whereby they exchange some freedoms for a common good. Instead Upadhyaya said, “The individual comprised of body, mind, intellect and soul is not limited to singular ‘I’ but is also inseparably related to the plural ‘We’. Therefore we must also think of the group or the society.”
So “we the people,” in Upadhyay’s Constitution, would have a meaning very different from that of its American inventors. It would apply to a community where social or family groups would have rights above those of individuals.
The next logical question would be about that fundamental democratic device, the vote. Who would be the primary voter, the individual or the family? Would one person have one vote? Would each vote have the same value? If “we the people” represents groups instead of individuals, then would India still be a republic in the true sense?
Can Decentralisation Work Without Local Govts?
Another impracticality relates to the structure of the Indian Union. Upadhyaya favoured a truly decentralised government, down to the level of village panchayats. He objected to the entire federal structure. “It runs counter to the unity and indivisibility of Bharat,” he said. “According to the first paragraph of the Constitution, ‘India, that is Bharat, will be a federation of States’, ie., Bihar mata, Banga mata, Punjab mata, Kannada mata, Tamil mata, all put together make Bharat mata. This is ridiculous. We have thought of the provinces as limbs of Bharat mata and not as individual mothers. Therefore our Constitution should be unitary instead of federal.”
But who in a unitary Constitution would hold local governments to account? How could we make a decentralised structure work, without giving local people control over their own governments?
If we don’t want to rely on people to know what is best for themselves, what sort of Republic would be created by this new Constitution? And how would a unitary Constitution compel any group to stay in the Union, if they really don’t want to?
Trying to use the Indian Constitution as a tool for an ideology would be a colossal mistake. We are already suffering the consequences of such shenanigans that have been tried before. So while a strong case can be made, that our Constitution needs amendment, let’s ensure that this time we change it to improve governance, by dividing and balancing powers, and not by enforcing one man’s unworkable ideology.
(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija .This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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