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regular-article-logo Thursday, 23 May 2024

The Preamble prevails: House concludes debate with narrow vote for retaining the Constitution's basic structure

Speaker after speaker at the Sister Nivedita University presents Calcutta Club The Telegraph National Debate 2024 confined themselves to the code of civility laid down by moderator Sandip Chatterjee at the onset, without taking anything away from their compelling contestations

Meghdeep Bhattacharyya Calcutta Published 18.02.24, 06:24 AM
(From left) Alka Lamba, Prasenjit Bose, Roopen Roy, Sanjib Banerjee, moderator Dr Sandip Chatterjee, Arghya Sengupta, Vikramjit Banerjee, Sugata Bose and Tathagata Roy at the Sister Nivedita University presents Calcutta Club The Telegraph National Debate 2024 on Saturday.

(From left) Alka Lamba, Prasenjit Bose, Roopen Roy, Sanjib Banerjee, moderator Dr Sandip Chatterjee, Arghya Sengupta, Vikramjit Banerjee, Sugata Bose and Tathagata Roy at the Sister Nivedita University presents Calcutta Club The Telegraph National Debate 2024 on Saturday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal

In the end, the House played it safe, and the motion against India needing a new Constitution survived the evening’s to-and-fro duelling by a bare breath.

The invisible elephant on the dew-fed Calcutta Club lawns — the looming threat of the sacred Preamble of the secular, essentially pluralist, nation being replaced to pave the way for a Hindu Rashtra — had to be eventually dragged onto the stage by economist-activist Prasenjit Bose, defending the motion, who was the first to pointedly declare the chatter about a new Constitution was really about the declaration of Hindu Rashtra by the powers.

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Speaker after speaker at the Sister Nivedita University presents Calcutta Club The Telegraph National Debate 2024 confined themselves to the code of civility laid down by moderator Sandip Chatterjee at the onset, without taking anything away from their compelling contestations.

The motion — This house believes India does not need a new Constitution — was carried by slim margin, in a vote by a show of hands. Those in favour of the motion had
the advantage of a fifth speaker in the form of the firebrand Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who delivered a keynote address before the debate began, advocating strongly against the need for a Constitution other than the one ratified on November 26, 1949.

But persuasive arguments were made by most on either side of Chatterjee, such as by Harvard historian Sugata Bose against the motion, and Left-leaning economist-activist Prasenjit Bose, who spoke for it.

“What we have argued on this side of the house is that this is a colonial inheritance. That all of the worst features of authoritarianism under British rule, we have kept and preserved in the post-Independence Indian republic. But I would also like to directly address the elephant in the room that Mr Prasenjit Bose spoke about,” said Bose, the Gardiner Chair of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University.

He acknowledged that there exists the fear that if we call for a new Constitution, or if we even acknowledge the need for one, we could be playing into the hands of those who believe in religious majoritarianism and centralised authoritarianism.

“To that, I would say that we from this side of the House are not talking about a new Constitution tomorrow. All that we are saying is let us be bold enough to engage in a battle of ideas,” said Bose, a grandnephew of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and a grandson of Sarat Chandra Bose, going on to argue that the motion was defeatist, because a post-colonial Constitution, retaining numerous states of exception to the rule of law, does not provide sufficient safeguards against either.

The Bose on the other side of the moderator, the Left-leaning economist-activist, was the one to take the proverbial elephant by the tusk.

“Don’t be evasive. Please come to the point…. Despite their very many differences within, every freedom fighter sought that this fight for our country’s freedom is for everybody. Irrespective of your religion, your caste, your creed, we will create a country that is for everybody. That is at the core of the debate,” he said, adding that the basic structure, the fundamentals of the Constitution were at stake.

He argued, often fiercely, that the Constitution had been changed many times, and one could keep on changing it, but what cannot be changed is the fact that this is a secular nation. “This is a country that belongs to all. This is a multi-party democracy. What happened to the Soviet Union? What has happened to China? Learn from their mistakes,” he said.

Others on his side — the Congress women’s wing chief Alka Lamba, Roopen Roy (CEO and founder of Sumantrana, a strategy consulting firm for start-ups), and Justice (retired) Sanjib Banerjee (formerly the Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court and Madras High Court) — all made equally convincing arguments in favour of the motion.

“This is to accept defeat, if we accept that Narendra Modi and the forces of Hindutva want to go forward on their authoritarian root and establish a de jure Hindu Rashtra. Then I will have to say that you are giving him a walkover. They don’t quite need a new Constitution to go on their journey of majoritarianism and authoritarianism. All that they need to do is to translate the worst clauses that are still retained in the Constitution into Sanskritic Hindi and deploy that,” Sugata Bose added, to rousing applause from the audience. “That is why we need a new Constitution for the future, to be crafted by a new generation of Indians who are committed to egalitarianism, federalism, and religious harmony.”

On his side, the likes of additional solicitor-general of India Vikramjit Banerjee, Arghya Sengupta, founder and research director of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, and former Tripura and Meghalaya governor Tathagata Roy all fervently demanded answers to why the Constitution given to the people by themselves ought to be sacrosanct, why that could not be replaced by the people again to cater to the needs and address the challenges of the 21st century, many of which were unforeseen, in the 11 sessions over a 165-day period nearly eight decades ago, by the 299-member (post-Partition) Constituent Assembly.

“Does this House truly believe this Constitution is perfect?” asked additional solicitor-general Banerjee.

Sengupta pointed out the replication of numerous elements of the Government of India Act, 1935, passed by the British Parliament, with no Indian representation. Former Tripura and Meghalaya governor Roy referred to the 106 amendments that the Constitution has already required to argue that there were things essentially wrong with it.

Lamba brought up instances of the treatment meted out to her leader Rahul Gandhi and their party by the current regime, asserting that it was largely the Constitution that was still providing fundamental safeguards to the Opposition in this nation to keep fighting what they believe is the good fight.

Roopen Roy said the colonial roots of the Constitution couldn’t be the sole cause for it to be summarily discarded now.

“The basic structure doctrine, which states that there are some fundamental features of the Constitution that are immutable, inviolable, in that one could alter other parts but not change the basic tenets,” said Justice Banerjee, referring apparently to tenets such as secularism.

Economist-activist Bose brought up the contentious ideological past of the RSS-BJP parivar, which he insisted could not be overlooked in this debate.

“Those who are talking about a new Constitution, what did their ancestors do? They never believed in the secular vision of composite nationalism. They have been talking about a Hindu Rashtra for almost a hundred years, and they were saying that because this is a Hindu majority country, the minorities should not have any rights,” he said.

“They were eulogising (Adolf) Hitler. I am quoting (RSS patriarch M.S.) Golwalkar… they said we should learn from Hitler and his treatment of the Jews, that is what we should do to our minorities. This is the ideological vision of those who are in power…. Please take a position on that debate and don’t bring in these side issues. Where do you stand on that?” he asked, to loud cheers.

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