Thursday, January 17, 2008

Should India continue to be socialist?

Should we continue to hold that socialism as one of the cherished Constitutional goals of the Indian Republic? In this article, I discuss how "socialism" was discussed at the time of the making of our constitution, and why it was rejected. And then, I look at how it crept in to the constitution during the Emergency Days in 1976, and ask, what is its relevance of this anachronism today? A version of this article appeared in the Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali) on 17 January 2008, under the title "Should we be tied to socialism?"

Last month, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Government of India and the Election Commission in response to a petition questioning the constitutionality of India being a socialist state. The judges wanted to hear about the practical and legal implications of having a socialist intent in the preamble which has led to the changes in the Representation of People Act, making it mandatory for all registered political parties in India to affirm to socialist ideals.

In 1976, the preamble to the Constitution was amended to make India a "sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic republic". Thirty years later, a new generation of Indians, want to undo that historic mistake.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar specifically explained the reason for the non-inclusion of the word "socialism", when it was sought to be inserted into the preamble by another member. He stated in the Assembly on 15th November, 1948:
"What should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether. If you state in the Constitution that the social organization of the State shall take a particular form, you are, in my judgment, taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organization in which they wish to live. It is perfectly possible today, for the majority people to hold that the socialist organization of society is better than the capitalist organization of society. But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form of social organization which might be better than the socialist organization of today or of tomorrow. I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves to decide it for themselves."
[Source: Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VIII, pp.401-402]
In 1950, when the people of India adopted the Constitution, the Preamble read:
"We, the people of India , having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens:
o Justice - social, economic and political;
o Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
o Equality of status and of opportunity before law."
A quarter Century later, the Congress government under Prime Minister of Mrs Indira Gandhi, during the dark days of emergency rule, passed the 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976. Among many other things, the Preamble to the Constitution was amended to include - secular, socialist, - to state India to be a "sovereign, secular, socialist democratic republic".

The purpose of the amendment to include "socialist", was stated in the Statement of the Objective -
Addition of the word 'socialist' indicates incorporation of the philosophy of socialism in the Constitution and may enable the courts to lean more and more in favour of nationalization and State ownership of industry.
Thirty years later, a PIL is seeking to question the constitutionality of amending the Preamble. There are major legal grounds for such a question.
  1. Inclusion of "socialist" in the Preamble is against the original intent of the founding fathers
  2. By including socialism, democracy, which has been accepted as one of the "basic features" of the constitution is being violated.
  3. Democracy gives the people the freedom to choose the nature of social organisation of the state under which they want to live, and change that order if they deem necessary. So it unconstitutional to tie the future generations to only a particular type of social organisation - socialism.
  4. If the objective of the 42nd amendment is to be accepted, then either the Indian state, which over the past two decades, has been trying to withdraw from many economic activities, is no longer following that socialist objective; or that times have changed, and that objective is no longer desired by the people, and has become obsolete.
  5. All most all the major countries of the world, which had incorporated "socialism" as the only political ideology of the state, had turned in to one party, dictatorship. This could not be the goal of the world's largest and most vibrant multiparty democracy.
This is no longer an issue of political semantic. If the preamble was a mere statement of intent, without any particular legal force, one could perhaps ignore this aspect. Many people have legitimately different perspective on different aspects of the Indian constitution, yet the basic structure of the constitution is acceptable to most. But the socialist intent of the preamble has been extended as a law in to the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951, through an amendment in 1988 by the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi, which enjoyed unprecedented majority in Parliament. The bill was passed without a single dissenting vote.

Section 29A of the RPA, requires that any political association that seeks to register itself with the Election Commission of India, needs to file an affidavit affirming to socialism. This in effect means that only political parties with socialist ideology can undertake legitimate political action, and campaigns in India . On the other hand, independents and non-registered political parties can promote any ideology, and if elected, can join the ranks of the legislators.

This provision in the election law could easily be found to violate of the freedom of association, as well as freedom of thought and expression, some of the fundamental rights guaranteed under our constitution. Clearly, this affirmation to socialism goes much beyond the "reasonable restriction" doctrine that circumscribes the fundamental rights.

An historic opportunity has come our way to focus the spotlight on the political ideologies and principles, one of the legitimate purposes of democratic governance. Even more importantly, this is an opportunity to appreciate our constitutional structure that provides legitimate space to all ideologies to compete for the attention of the people, without legally restricting that space to any one preferred political theory.

A time comes for every generation when they have to face test of history. Sixty years after India gained its Independence from British colonial rule, We the People, have to decide, whether we want to be in the dustbin of history by continuing to align ourselves with a failed political ideology, or be shown to be hypocrite declaring a principle, and then rejecting it in practice. Or, do We the People have the freedom to chart our own destiny in the democratic miracle that is India. Today, We the People need to judge our past, so that we can come out with our heads high, when the future generations sit on judgement over us. On the sixtieth anniversary of our Independence, this would be the most appropriate reaffirmation of our faith in constitutional democracy.

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