Indian Republic in 2023: Can We Get Over British Ways and Address Modern Issues?

The core values need to be revisited to deliver on egalitarian, progressive promises made in the Constitution.

5 min read

(This is Part 1 of our special series on the occasion of India's 74th Republic Day.)

In his 15 August speech in 1986 from the ramparts of the Red Fort, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi got his Hindi words mixed up, inviting much ridicule and humour. He said more than once that this was the day India got 'Ganatantra'—the Hindi word for republic, instead of 'Swatantrata' (Independence).

While he was the butt of jokes at that time, in hindsight, it is possible to revisit the speech as a Freudian slip to assess the true value of the movement led by the Indian National Congress that led to freedom at midnight on a monsoon day in 1947. If anything, the meaning of independence as seen from the eyes of ordinary subjects of the British empire was a new republican order that would bring in a democratic, egalitarian republic.


Status of The Indian Republic

The Congress-led movement was built from 1885 when a Scotsman founded the organisation patronised by Brown Sahib petitioners looking to join the British Raj's Indian Civil Service. Along came disgruntled industrialists upset with the discriminatory practices of the British, disenfranchised royals who saw their power lapse to foreigners and socialists who dreamed of an India that would change the status quo that favoured inheritors, feudal lords, and oppressive business owners to help labourers and peasants.

The republican constitution ushered in on January 26, 1950 aimed to bring the dreams of a variety of people come true—and some indeed have. Yet, we see unfinished tasks all around in fulfilling the promise of the republic. Meanwhile, some old wounds that we thought were gone have come back to haunt us. In simple terms, some involve tensions between institutions that hold up the republic's values in tangible terms—the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary and the unofficial fourth pillar, a free press/media.

A deeper look reveals that there are paradoxes inherent in the republic and indeed, its origins, that leave some issues unresolved. The biggest one haunting India now is the idea of a 'Hindu Rashtra' that assumes, imagines and strives for the values of an ancient society that rests on the Sanatana Dharma (the Eternal Order) that for all practical purposes is a religious order that is focused on worship while the republican order that promises equality, freedom and justice (social, economic and political) is a modern, material dharma that likes to take a clean break from the past except in broad tributes to a civilisation that has historically favoured peaceful coexistence and the greater common good.

The Constitution as a binding force seems to be under stress from an ancient tribe that was not much in sight during the Independence movement but is now politically popular.


The Colonial Hangover Lingers On..

Another peculiarity is the fact that India threw out the British but kept their institutions with itself to sustain a process of governance. The legislature, executive and the judiciary; the Lok Sabha fashioned after the House of Commons and the Rajya Sabha, repurposed from the House of Lords to become the Council of States; the idea of a President reinvented with the regal splendour of the British monarch...the list of inherited or creatively modified institutions are many. These have indeed helped India join the comity of modern nations as the world's largest democracy. But the catch lies elsewhere.

The office of the governor is one such institution. Recent skirmishes in Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Delhi show that the office of the governor or lieutenant-governor have become controversial and undermine the constitutional value of cooperative federalism.

Conflicts between elected state governments and governors appointed by the Union government are not exactly new, but we thought we had left them behind in the 1980s or maybe the turn of the 1990s. The hard and harsh reality now is that the role of the governor as a facilitator whose backup duty is to enforce constitutional values in legislatures and inform the Union government to manage the occasional breakdown of the constitutional machinery is now being increasingly interpreted as a super-political one by BJP-appointed governors.

These involve the use of loopholes and grey areas left by the British Raj. The governor has often become a de-facto British-style resident or a viceroy of sorts.

It pays to remember that the Government of India Act of 1935 enacted by the British to mostly serve their own interests while boosting self-governance in India was a key backbone in the drafting of the Constitution. Large chunks of the Constitution take inspiration (and verbatim guidance) from the GOI Act and hence, conceal whispers of authoritarian empowerment that need to be revisited and fixed. The office of the governor is a key one on this checklist.


How Dated & Draconian British-Era Laws Guide Legislature Till Date

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which is still the everyday guide for policemen and lawyers in India, seems more outdated and draconian than the much-abused office of the governor. Section 377 of the IPC that criminalised homosexuality was thrown out 71 years after independence while other questionable provisions still hang fire.

Among these is the law against sedition that cuts into the very heart of democratic practices. Civil, constitutionally legitimate dissent against a government or its practices can be described as sedition under this provision. Section 124A of the IPC which makes "sedition" a non-bailable offence with upto three years of imprisonment for those found guilty under it dates back to 1860. Enough said.

In brief, "national unity" or "internal security" are now proxies under which outdated laws can be invoked for political purposes. This often blurs the gap between imperialist rulers and elected autocrats.

We can go deeper into the Union, state and concurrent lists of the Constitution to find nuggets of autocracy carefully smuggled into the fabric of what is essentially a multicultural democracy that respects federalism and regional autonomy. Recent slogans such as "One Nation, One Election" or mob protests against new movies that offer alternative narratives of history show that India maybe a political democracy but is not yet a cultural one.


Can the Idea of Modern India Be Restored?

The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act(CAA) that links citizenship principles to religion and the Abrogation of Article 370 that conferred a special self-governance status for Jammu & Kashmir are among other issues that walk the fine wedge between a modern idea of India envisaged under the Constitution and one that emphasises a simplistic view of national idenity based on ethnicity, religion or origin.

Meanwhile, the world has moved on. Gay rights are now mainstream in the West. Human rights and emphasis on health and education are increasingly important in governance.

A lot needs to be done to revisit the republic's core values so that the promise of a modern, egalitarian, progressive republic promised in the preamble of the Constitution becomes a reality for a country whose population is nearing 1.5 billion, a majority of whom are still struggling for a decent living.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity.)

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