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February 05, 2020 Wednesday 02:59:43 PM IST

A Republic at Crossroads

Cover Story

This piece is being written in Delhi with a ringside view of the massive student-led protests against the Constitutional Amendment Act and the violence perpetrated in university spaces across the country. As we celebrate the70th Republic Day, the nation is going through uncertain times. The economy is facing a slowdown, the social fabric of the country is under tremendous strain, and the polity has assumed undemocratic tones. India remains one of the countries with immense growth potential and is expected to have 34.33 percent of its population between the ages of 19 and 24 by 2020. 

Economist Dr. Kaushik Basu has argued that though China maybe much ahead of India right now, there remains a certain value, both moral and economic, to being a democracy, and that in the long run, we shall reap the benefits of remaining a democracy. Being democratic is not only about universal adult franchise, but ensuring the sanctity of our Constitution and the independence of its institutions.

As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment; it has to be cultivated.” We have seen the exercise of executive control, backed by a brute legislative majority, on the functioning of various institutions to the point of making them subservient to the whims of the government, such as the Election Commission, the Central Information Commission and the National Statistical Office. The media too acts as a propaganda machine of the ruling regime. This is antithetical to the idea of India as envisioned by our Constitution makers. For the country to progress, our institutions need to be strengthened. This means not only the separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary, but also the rejuvenation of the various constitutional, statutory and regulatory bodies of the country.

Suppressing Dissent

Contentious laws and amendments need to be discussed in detail in the Parliament and examined by its committees, rather than being bulldozed through. Parliament should never bypass democratic conventions and sacrifice the right of the people to be consulted, at the altar of electoral and majoritarian politics. The RTI amendments, the abrogation of Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir, and the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act are prime examples of our democratic process in decline. After all, the people of India are sovereign, not the Parliament. An extension of this is the clampdown on dissent and the brutal repression of protests across the country. Dissent is necessary in a democracy, and the arguments of dissent should neither be ignored nor be repressed. For the autonomy of our institutions, many of them require Constitutional backing. The Central and State Information Commissions are products of the crucial Right to Information Act, and can truly serve the interests of the people only if they are beyond the overarching control of the executive. Colonial laws like IPC Section 124A on sedition should be repealed as per the recommendations of the Law Commission. 

Getting Priorities Right

The primary education system witnesses various disparities across the country and learning outcomes of our students are poor. The state needs to invest heavily in building infrastructure, enhancing the quality and incentives of public school teachers, and ensuring a system that makes students, especially from marginalized communities and girls, stay enrolled in schools and achieve better learning outcomes. Accessible, affordable and quality healthcare to all people of the country is another goal we need to aspire for.

We spend only 1.28% of our GDP on healthcare which is meager when we face numerous nutritional and epidemiological challenges. It should be raised to atleast 3% and the focus should be on building a reliable and accessible primary healthcare system. We seem to be carried away by health insurance schemes that address our in-patient healthcare expenditure, but any scheme that does not address the out-of-pocket expenses of the poor on out-patient care, will not radically improve our healthcare outcomes.

As a citizen founded on powerful universal values of justice, equality, liberty and fraternity, I wish for an India that prioritises the last man standing in the queue of poverty, and works towards addressing the rising economic and social inequalities. I wish for our country to be able to detoxify the poison of communalism and casteism from its soil. I wish for our country to not judge people by the ‘clothes they wear’, and to accommodate the voices of dissent. I wish for safe university spaces for students to learn and protest, and secure public spaces for women and the vulnerable. I wish for a country where one is not branded anti-national due to unpopular opinions. I wish for our country to be able to become a democratic superpower with excellent human development indices, rather than merely one with a phenomenal growth rate. I wish for a country that does not forget to be a moral republic, even as it aims for the moon. It is not enough for us to be electors only; we need to be active participants in the struggle for development and constitutional values, even if it warrants being labeled unpatriotic. Quoting Rabindranath Tagore, “I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”

Arshad Muhammed

Arshad Muhammed is an Alumnus of Rajagiri Public School, Kalamassery and holds a B.A (Hon) Economics, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi .

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