A Republic at Crossroads
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.
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.”