Intro to the Indian Constitution

In a journey towards understanding health, healthcare and their distribution, one can rarely stray too far from the social determinants of health. Despite various biomedical, genetic and environmental determinants of people’s health, the underlying modulatory effects that social determinants can have on all other determinants is staggering. And a quest towards understanding social determinants of anything eventually leads to the journey towards unpacking the norms, values, traditions and such that have shaped society. After all, many of these social determinants are deeply rooted within political, social, cultural and various other historical processes that shape a given society/community. A foundational document that shapes India’s political-legal-social tradition is the Constitution. And India’s post-independence history and certainly current events are reason enough to critically understand our Constitution.

Basically, I was looking for good videos/books introducing the Constitution. For instance, wonderful courses exist on the US government.  Given the recent spate of political turmoil in the US, and the resulting playing out in public hearings within their Senate and House, my interest in the concept of separation of powers doctrine as practiced in the US caught my attention. Nowhere else does there appear to be this obsession in careful separation of powers between branches of government: executive, judiciary and the body of elected representatives. The ceding of various powers by the US Congress over the last decades to the executive and the relative weakness of the US judiciary (vis-a-vis ours in many respects) were intriguing. There are some interesting videos out there on Youtube, especially a few by Aakash Rathore and several lovely lectures put together under the Vidya-Mitra programme of the Ministry of Human Resources Development. Sadly, they are poorly curated, interpreted and presented as a coherent course.

Having survived through reading just over half of the bare text of the Constitution, I realised that I need a critical interpretation of its origins and the debates that have surrounded its modification over the decades rather than the bare text itself (and the often undecipherable footnotes with hindu-arabic and roman numerals in close consonance).

Madhav Khosla’s introduction does not disappoint. The Oxford India short introduction series has a lovely book introducing the Indian Constitution written by Madhav Khosla. The book is written in a very oratory style as if one is listening to the author. Although largely the book does not make huge assumptions on legal knowledge, some basic understanding of high school civics (does it still exist?) may be useful.

The discussions on the Indian constitution’s understanding of Federalism was illuminating. The chapter gives a very good comparison with federalism and separation of powers in Western countries when compared to India. Similarly, the discussion on how (due) process for suspension of any of the fundamental rights and the overall direction in which the Indian judiciary has moved in terms of diluting the “due” in due process, and how our judiciary has rather privileged the following of process as laid down by law, as opposed to ensuring “due process” in every individual instance where rights have to be diluted/suspended is quite illuminating. Loose comparisons with the US system where the due process is often a powerful defence against ANY government action is rather stark. This is quite pertinent to the current debate over the implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the recent rather uninformed/unfortunate order by the Supreme Court calling for eviction of various forest-dwellers (mostly tribal communities). A similar parallel is mentioned with slum-dwellers’ eviction and such instances where vulnerable communities find themselves at the wrong end of the law, often due to poor implementation of various social obligations of the state. In such instances, Indian courts have often stuck to the literal text of whether the “process established by law” was being followed in ordering their eviction, rather than examine the overall conditions surrounding the current situation, indicating a relative weak understanding of the obligations of the State (Khosla illustrates this with a case of eviction of slum-dwellers and conditional nature of our social rights). The influence of the relatively new South African Consitution, although brief, is also very informative.

The dilution of the locus standi of an aggrieved/injured individual in the case of India’s public interest litigation is also narrated well and serves as a wonderful example of how – despite global/western influences – the interpretation and its evolution has been quite rooted within our own practice and context.

Various other very interesting debates, events and judgements are explained, which themselves open up long reading lists by themselves. All the more inspiration for me to join an evening law college and improve my legal literacy. Sadly, law councils do not recognise degrees from evening college, which is quite unfortunate in a country such as ours which can only benefit from widespread investments in legal education.

2 responses to “Intro to the Indian Constitution

  1. Reading the Constitution assembly debates has been on my bucket list for a long time now.

    Recently came across which might be useful for you as well.

    Recognition of alternate streams of education is a cultural shift that will inevitably occur in a few years.

  2. Thanks for the link. Lovely resource this indconlawphil! Thanks. Agree on the cultural shift part; possibly happening to some extent (only recently UGC has “allowed”/”recognised” elearning courses under their credit scheme). But the general approach of making law more and more inaccessible by removing the ability to graduate through evening colleges is for me absurd. I can understand if people frame study of medicine (leave alone health) as being too technical to be diluted through evening diplomas. Legal education on the other hand appears much more fundamental to empowering people and hence bar councils ought to strive for more, not less, legal education!

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