Photograph of VT Joshi

LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

AND

DRAFT OF AN ALTERNATIVE CONSTITUTION

Author - VT Joshi


EVER SINCE the Justice Venkatachalliah Commission was set up nine months ago there has hardly been a dispassionate national debate on the need or otherwise for a thorough review of the 50 year old constitution of independent India until recently. The appointment of the commission triggered a fierce controversy in most political circles apprehensive of BJP led government's alleged intentions of "subverting" the constitution in pursuit of its "hidden agenda". The controversy merely emphasised the opposition parties's congenital allergy to the right wing ruling coalition, but failed to lead to a well reasoned animated national debate.

Interestingly however even before the appointment of the review commission a young man based in Bhopal took upon himself the task of preparing a draft for a new constitution for the country. It was an attempt at rewriting the constitution clause by clause rather than merely reviewing it as the commission is supposed to do, preserving its basic features as laid down by the Supreme Court somewhat vaguely. Initially it did not generate any interest and was viewed at best as an eccentric attempt. Although its author, Anil Chawla, wrote his draft early in 1997 he vainly looked for a publisher. Nearly two years later the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) agreed to print the manuscript as a base paper for a symposium held in Bhopal in September 1998, presided over by Justice G. M. Lodha and well attended by a cross section of people. The participants including a number of advocates and intellectuals representing all shades of political opinion, presented a wide variety of views and raised questions which led to an animated discussion of various aspects of the constitution. Yet, the Symposium generated little interest either in the national media or in political circles.

It is only recently that the national press seems to have discovered it as a "great secret" of the Sangh Parivar's agenda. Subramaniam Swamy, the ever green maverick of Indian politics, wrote in an article in a prestigious fortnightly magazine that Chawla's draft, if adopted, would make India a "cross between the Taliban and Vatican". V.N.Gadgil, a Congress leader, wrote an article in another leading daily while the party spokesperson, Margaret Alva, commented on it as a document circulated by ABVP. A leading national daily made it a front page story under the heading "The Constitution, As ABVP would have it", treating it as a document of "Sangh Parivar lineage".

Ironically enough the sangh parivar spokemen have disowned it totally while Anil Chawla himself vehemently denies that he is a member of the BJP or the RSS or any of its outfits. In an interview Chawla bitterly complained that the media attention has focused on his draft as if it was dictated to him by "Guru Golvalkar, Balasaheb Deoras, LK Advani and Sudershan. Nothing can be more ridiculous. Almost all media reports have either been based on hearsay or are intentionally biased." "It seems strange that no one seems to have ever bothered to read it. It is easily available free of cost on internet" (Download Now), he remarked.

A commentator has observed somewhat erroneously that Anil Chawla's draft suffers from "disdain for liberal democracy". It is necessary to make a distinction between "liberal democracy" and "literal democracy". A country that holds regular elections does indeed have a "literal democracy" but does not necessarily have a "liberal democracy". One must remember that almost all fascist dictators were duly elected. A "literal" democracy that does not have the elements of "liberalism" is close to ochlocracy rpt ochlocracy (mob-rule) and fascism.

The central theme of Chawla's thesis, which deserves to be considered dispassionately, is that the Indian Constitution is based on the ideals of 1789 French Revolution, which was a failure and led to devastation of Europe under Napoleanic ambitions. Its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were quickly trampled upon. The evolution of a truly "liberal" democracy after the French Revolution involved a role of universities in governance. Wilhelm Humboldt, who is considered as father of Classical Liberalism and who influenced thinkers like John Stuart Mill, founded the University of Berlin in 1810. His book "The Limits of State Action" became the turning point of the evolution of the concept of democracy as liberal democracy by providing for a role to universities in governance. It was virtually Humbodlt revolution.

In all western democracies, renowned universities -- the seats of learning or "think tanks", to use a fashionable modern day term -- play a key role in various matters pertaining to state policies. It can be even be said that the strength of democracy in a country is directly related to the position of its universities. In India universities have been treated as handmaid of politicians and bureaucrats or as shops selling degrees. Anil Chawla's draft aims at correcting this situation by assigning an important role to the educational establishment and attempts at building a liberal democracy from the devastation of a failed model of literal democracy. The concept of "Guru Sabha" as mentioned in his draft is not a religious concept as is being misinterpreted, and it is ridiculous to dismiss it a part of the RSS ideology. How to utilise the services of the great seats of learning or the extent of powers to accord to the so-called Guru Sabha may be a matter of debate and discussion, but the basic idea cannot be rejected out of court.

It must however be conceded that the decaying institution of universities must itself be reformed and freed from being dens political intrigues of the basest kind, before they are trusted with a role in the governance of the country which, unfortunately, is now entirely in the hands of discredited, self serving politicians.

Another unique though controversial feature of Anil Chawla's draft is the concept of "Raksha Sabha", a body exclusively concerned with matters of national security and having on it representatives of the armed forces. This has been criticized in some quarters as an attempt to "usher in army rule through the back door". In this context it is important to understand that the issue is whether we, as a nation, want to entrust our politicians exclusively with matters of national security or would like the ones, who risk their lives, to be heard before they are packed off to the battle field to die just to satisfy occasional whims and fancies of the party in power.

It is not widely known that India lost the war in 1962 partly because the then prime minister had, on the one hand, lofty notions of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai, and, on the other, casually announced that the Chinese would be "thrown out" of our territory, but at the same time would not allow the use of Air Force. In 1965 and 1971, what was achieved on the battle field was lost on the negotiating table at Tashkent and Simla. The misadventure of Rajiv Gandhi in Sri Lanka is of course very recent while Kargil too cannot escape blame for initial political blunders and intelligence blemish.

In the light of such experiences in recent political history of India, is it not strange that critics want to trust politicians, who cannot think beyond the next elections, with matters of vital national security but do not want even to consult those who have to lay down their lives for the nation's security. Chawla's draft aims at providing for an institutionalized role to the Armed Forces in matters of national security. It is no doubt a contentious issue but deserves to be debated and discussed threadbare. It is interesting to recall that in the sharply different situations that arose in Pakistan at different periods the ill-fated premier, Nawaz Sharif, sacked an army chief, Jehangir Karamat, for making a similar suggestion.

A key feature of the Chawla draft is to reduce the powers and burdens of the prime minister and to put in place a system of effective checks and balances, as no human being can be called upon to carry his onerous tasks and unreasonable expectations single handed, however capable he might be.

Chawla's draft is indeed controversial because it seeks to change the way one is used so long to look at the prevailing structures of governance. But then any suggestion that seeks to bring about a paradigm shift in social and political structures is bound to be controversial. Nonetheless the issues involved are serious and do not led themselves to political jingoism. Sooner the parties realise this better it would be for the nation.

Perhaps one of the reasons that give cause for minor misgivings is the nomenclature the author uses - like "Guru Sabha", "Raksha Sabha" etc. -- which evoke in some self styled secular minds the image of an outlandish, obscurantist past. The author calls his work a "Draft for the New Constitution of Bharat". (Instead of India in the English version). It is amusing to reflect that Pakistan has long been wanting to prevent India from calling itself India as it feels that it has equal claim to the legacy of India, and wants India to call itself "Bharat". In the light of this argument Chawla can as well be "accused" of playing into the hands of Pakistan!

VT Joshi

18th September, 2000



VT JOSHI (1925-2008) worked for more than fifty years as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.




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