“All of us say we have a beautiful Constitution. I would say that we have a Constitution that enables the plunder of commoners. Indians wrote down the Constitution as told by the British.”
The Kerala culture minister, Saji Cheriyan, resigned from office after his remarks on the Constitution caused widespread furore. It is a testament to the prickly times that we live in that a discordant view about the Constitution led to a hullabaloo, ultimately resulting in a resignation. At a different time, perhaps this would have sparked a genuine debate on the merits of having a long and detailed Constitution and introspection on the provisions that have worked for the common Indian and those that have not.
Others before Cheriyan have made pejorative comments on the Constitution without any such repercussion — E.M.S. Namboodiripad famously said that the fact that he had taken oath as chief minister of Kerala to “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution” did not mean that he considered “every word and every clause in the Constitution is sacred”. For him, occupying elected office was a way of “wrecking the Constitution from within”. These were not cavalier statements. They were reflections of his deeply-held ideological belief that the Constitution enforced by the judiciary was an instrument of class warfare. Cheriyan, also a communist from Kerala, may have been similarly expressing what for him is an article of faith. His resignation appears to have foreclosed what ought to have been a deeper engagement with the track record of the Constitution.
When Cheriyan says that the Constitution enables the plunder of commoners, he presumably implies the failure of the Constitution to prevent the creation of a capitalistic society where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. “Enables” is a strong word — it is a tall claim to allege that the Constitution actively makes plunder possible. But the history of independent India has demonstrated that the Constitution has been a silent spectator to shocking disparities of wealth. According to the World Inequality Report 2022, particularly in the last three decades, India has become one of the most unequal countries of the world with the top 10% cornering over 57% of the nation’s wealth and the bottom 50% only making do with 13%.
One might say that it is not the job of a Constitution to actively correct economic inequalities. While this may be theoretically sound, the Indian Constitution consciously departed from this proposition to establish a socialist republic. The chapter on Directive Principles exhorts the State to minimise inequalities in income (Article 38), eliminate inequalities in status (Article 38), distribute ownership of material resources to subserve the common good (Article 39), and ensure that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of economic wealth (Article 39). These principles have unfortunately remained lofty declarations. While multiple governments may be held responsible for this state of affairs, so can the framers of the Constitution. Neither did they have the boldness nor the gumption to devise methods to ensure that these principles become enforceable. Today, in an avowedly capitalist economy, these principles appear like a cruel joke, a “dustbin of sentiment” as T.T. Krishnamachari had described them in the Constituent Assembly. They may not have enabled plunder, but they have wholly failed in preventing a woefully skewed distribution of wealth.
Cheriyan’s second statement that Indians “wrote down the Constitution as told by the British” is, of course, factually incorrect. But the Constitution does bodily replicate several chapters of the Government of India Act, 1935 passed by the colonial British government. In fact, with the exception of fundamental rights, Directive Principles and some aspects of federal division of powers, large portions of the Constitution have British roots. More than the provenance of particular provisions, the Constitution is premised, much like its colonial predecessor, on the need for a strong, central State. There were two clear alternatives before the Constituent Assembly — the Gandhian Constitution drafted by Shriman Narayan Agarwal was bottom-up with self-contained village communities serving as the lynchpin of the governance mechanism. Likewise, M.N. Roy’s Constitution of Free India vested power in People’s Committees that would be constituted to ensure, amongst other things, that land and underground riches would vest collectively in the people. But the Constituent Assembly ignored these radical departures, choosing instead to largely stick to the Westminster model tried and tested in Great Britain. It wouldn’t be incorrect to finesse Cheriyan’s statement to say that the Indian Constitution is heavily British-inspired.
The essence of Cheriyan’s arguments appears to be a rebuttal of the view that the Constitution is beautiful. The beauty of the Constitution, like other forms of the beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. The Constitution is certainly not an elegantly drafted document, given its length and complexity. In that sense, it is perhaps not beautiful.
But it is beautiful in a more profound sense. The reason why Cheriyan can trenchantly criticise it and others can disagree with him is because the Constitution itself guarantees every citizen the right to free speech. His own party, earlier avowed sceptics of the Constitution and its chief draftsman, B.R. Ambedkar, today embraces the Constitution and accepts Cheriyan’s resignation because the constitutional vision of a more egalitarian society that is committed to removing caste-based discrimination is a mantra shared by all political parties. That is the real beauty of the Constitution — that for seven decades, it has provided a value system of what it means to be Indian. It is with Cheriyan’s resignation, rather than his statement, that the real beauty of the Constitution is under threat. If it is to be restored, then let his statement serve as a prologue to a new chapter in the constitutional history of India where the document is debated, discussed and critiqued, rather than ritualistically venerated with no room for alternative views. After all, the Constitution is not a holy book frozen in time; it is the Book of India that Indians must continue to shape for themselves over time.
Arghya Sengupta is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal