CHOICES: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policyby Shivshankar Menon. Penguin Books, Delhi, 2016.
READING Shivshankar Menon’s Choices, Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy is rewarding in the matter of a practitioner’s ringside view. The five topics chosen by the author (Panchsheel in our times?) are obvious contenders for the top slot in any contemporary understanding of India’s engagement with the world, but the book is a clear precursor of more to come from India’s leading diplomat. I had the opportunity of interacting with Menon when he as the Foreign Secretary briefed UPA ministers on Sharm El Sheikh and, of course, later when he was National Security Adviser and I the External Affairs Minister. Interesting that he should continue to hold his ground on the Sharm El Sheikh declaration (albeit with a cursory acceptance of loose drafting). Even more that the successor NDA government continues to question the wisdom of our willingness to discuss Balochistan even as the prime minister nonchalantly used the ramparts of the Red Fort to question Pakistan on the disturbed province in the same breath as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Not surprising that the cheerleaders of Prime Minister Modi see neither irony nor lack of political adroitness as domestic politics intrudes into areas hitherto a reserve of nuanced diplomacy. But Menon’s opinion that Sharm El Sheikh was yet another missed opportunity is an indication that the Foreign Office under him had given the matter serious thought with a view to break the logjam of pious incantations between India and Pakistan.
Sticking with Pakistan, the author was reported in the media of having expressed disappointment at India not having retaliated after 9/11. This little snippet served the present establishment well in the aftermath of the surgical strike across the Line of Control (LoC). But the truth is quite different: ‘As foreign secretary, I saw my task as one of assessing the external and other implications and urged both External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that we should retaliate, and be seen to retaliate, to deter further attacks for reasons of international credibility and to assuage public sentiment. For me, Pakistan had crossed a line… Mukherjee seemed to agree with me and spoke publicly of all options being open…
‘But on sober reflection and in hindsight, I now believe that the decision not to retaliate militarily and to concentrate on diplomatic, covert, and other means was the right one for that time and place.’
Curiously that remains a dilemma for all public figures in the country with a growing jingoist sentiment oblivious of the dangers of two nuclear powers locking horns militarily. The analysis that follows in the Pakistan chapter is an admirable account of much that was done (most of it quietly), much left undone sadly, yet understandably, little of what can be done. Brilliant minds like Menon remain perplexed in the knowledge that the borderless world we aspire to remains hostage to ‘the lack of an international doctrine or consensus on how to prevent harm.’ India’s problem lies as much with a rogue state next door as indeed with a world system not being able to draw clear Laxman rekhas.
The chapter on China makes more sense; after all, the author is a recognized China expert. As he himself explains, it was his preoccupation with China that brought him into the Foreign Service in the first place and I doubt if he ever regretted it. Certainly the Indian foreign affairs establishment has a great deal to celebrate that Shivshankar Menon chose to be in the IFS. The meticulous recording of the gradual breakthrough with China, and the cautious step by step move to the signing of the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement and its success over the years, including the building blocks of confidence and conflict resolution through the Special Representative dialogue between Menon and his Chinese counterpart, has ensured that our mutual relationship has remained on a steady course.
The strategy has been validated by the growing trade between our two countries (even though with an imbalance in favour of the Chinese) and with more than 11,000 Indian students studying there. Although there is the periodic irritation of intrusions by the People’s Liberation Army (ironically described as an incursions by the Indian media!) there is seldom a prolonged stand-off. What is more, the last fatal incident goes back to 1975 unlike the border and LoC with Pakistan where we continue to loose brave soldiers to skirmishes and shelling.
Menon has, of course, indicated that China is stirring the pot in different ways, in part due to internal pressures and the geopolitical developments in the world and more so in Asia. There are also the growing asymmetries with Indian aspirations and concerns. Nevertheless, without any consensus on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and no real immediate possibility of resolving the border issue, we need to be careful with the lull, although it is most unlikely that there may be a storm brewing somewhere. We had a preview of it in the Gwadar economic corridor sensitivity of China, the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, the increased restiveness in the South China Sea and, above all, the competitive encirclement theories that are periodically floated in informed circles of the diplomatic world. We have our task cut out to manage contradictions and convergences between the US, Russian Federation, China, Japan et al. More than ever, the likes of Shivshankar Menon are needed by India today. We took a conscious decision to live in peace with China when Rajiv Gandhi went to Beijing in 1988. Fortunately, the emotional baggage of 1962 has so far posed little problem to our efforts unlike the vacillations that plague the stop-start-stop relationship with Pakistan. One wishes that the author had spent some more time and space on the strands of events that are now taking place to make the book more useful for putting the present in context. But, of course, events happen at a speed that exceeds stop-press additions.
The account of India negotiating space for itself from sanctions imposed on it after its nuclear tests to becoming a ‘natural partner’ of the US with the Indo-US Nuclear Initiative, and the seemingly more complex and protracted 123 Agreement, is a tribute to the silent Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. It virtually meant a rewriting of the rules of the nuclear game just for India. The blow by blow account of how the impossible was achieved will remain a veritable citation for the gentle prime minister’s steely resolve in a defining moment for India. In a political landscape where credits and debits are far too easily attributed, sober reflection and history will record the Civil Nuclear Agreement as truly monumental. The author too will find his laurels. The moral and psychological impact of the ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine, though not entirely a part of the agreement backdrop, can hardly be ignored. It is, therefore, distressing when one hears an incumbent defence minister question its validity.
Finally, the account of India’s extremely difficult engagement in Sri Lanka highlights the dilemmas of statecraft. ‘In Sri Lanka in 2009 the Indian government and the world were faced with an impossible choice between reasons of state and humanitarian instincts, between idealism and self-interest, between intervention and allowing a war to run its course.’ Along the way tragic incidents extracted a heavy price from India, including the horrific assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Difficult choices had to be made at each step, and the author tells us how they were made. Decades of killings were brought to an end but not without more killings one last time. Fortunately, none can hold India responsible for direct involvement in the final, brutal hours of battle to vanquish the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan Army. Could and should India have intervened more effectively to prevent the massacre of those responsible for the killing of India’s former prime minister and 1,155 Indian troops? Would we not then have had to take on responsibility of the remnants of the LTTE cadres and possibly Prabhakaran himself? The last word is best left to the author: ‘Sri Lanka today is a better place without the LTTE and the civil war. And India contributed to making that outcome possible.’
Any citizen in search of how and why some choices were made in Indian foreign policy must read this book. It will without doubt help us make better and more informed choices in the future.
Former Minister of External Affairs, Delhi
AURANGZEB: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke. Penguin Random House India, Delhi, 2017.
IT is ironic that although Aurangzeb-the-Emperor happens to be perhaps the best documented, we know little about Aurangzeb-the-man who ruled over almost the entire subcontinent for nearly half-a-century. Colonial historiography, which would include the monumental work of Sir Jadunath Sarkar, paints him as a bigot who oppressed the Hindus, demolished their temples and converted them en masse to Islam. This school of historiography describes and explains the sixth Mughal emperor’s actions on the basis of the modern-day binary of Hindu-Muslim conflict as if fomenting it was the cornerstone of his state policy. Little wonder that he figures prominently in the Hindutva narrative and remains an object of hate. In August 2015, his name was erased from a road in Lutyens’ Delhi and it was rechristened as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam road to fulfil a Sikh group’s demand which many leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had supported.
Audrey Truschke, whose earlier book Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court has drawn attention to the cultural synthesis that was being successfully attempted at the court of various Mughal emperors, has come out with a slim, 189-page biography of Aurangzeb to offer us a picture of the man and the ruler, disregarding the currently held notions about him. Her endeavour is to judge Aurangzeb on his own terms, not on the basis of modern-day values and attitudes. She finds the Hindu-Muslim binary not only utterly useless to a historian but also grossly misleading. Her book, written by a specialist for lay readers, breaks many myths about him and familiarizes us with quite a few little known facts.
In recent years, Dara Shukoh has been extolled as a counterfoil to Aurangzeb and a champion of religious and cultural synthesis in contrast to the latter’s bigotry and cruelty. Nevertheless, the way Aurangzeb treated his brothers and murdered them after humiliating them in public was not exceptional. Since the Mughals did not follow the law of primogeniture, wars of succession were common among rival brothers. ‘Ya takht ya tabut’ (Either the throne or the grave) was the maxim followed by Mughal princes. Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci reports that on the day of his death, Dara Shukoh was asked by Aurangzeb what he would do if their roles were reversed. Dara replied that he would have cut Aurangzeb in four pieces and displayed them on Delhi’s four main gates. However, Aurangzeb buried Dara’s corpse at Humayun’s tomb. Nevertheless, to signal a clear break with his intellectual legacy, he put an end to Dara’s cross-cultural activities. Equally, it is a fact that his maternal uncle Shaysta Khan wrote poetry in Sanskrit.
Truschke argues that Aurangzeb’s supposedly anti-Hindu or anti-Sikh actions were not inspired as much by his religious zeal but much more by political factors. Whosoever opposed imperial authority or sided with the empire’s opponents was crushed. If he put the Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, to death for taking up arms against him, he also beheaded a Sufi freethinker, Sarmad Fakir, ostensibly for his heretic beliefs but really for his support to Dara Shukoh whom he had declared as the future emperor.
For more than a century, Shivaji has been a hero of the Hindu nationalists who project him as a saviour of the Hindus who fought the bigoted and oppressive Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. However, Truschke reminds us that the tussle between Shivaji and Aurangzeb was purely of a political nature and had few religious overtones. In May 1666, Shivaji visited the Mughal court at Agra, offered Aurangzeb gifts and bowed in submission as he had turned a friend from foe and had been accepted as one of his nobles by the emperor. However, unlike many Rajput nobles, Shivaji could not adjust in his new role and soon rebelled. Thus, it is clear that the Shivaji-Aurangzeb conflict cannot be reduced into a Hindu-Muslim one. Just as Aurangzeb had many Hindu nobles and army commanders, Shivaji too had many Muslims in his army and state administration. In fact, the number of Hindus occupying senior positions in the Mughal bureaucracy was never as high as it was under Aurangzeb.
Truschke underlines the fact that even in his later years, Aurangzeb firmly maintained that ‘there ought to be no religious litmus test for Mughal employment.’ When a Muslim from Bukhara urged him to deny imperial advancement to Persians as they were Shias, the emperor rejected the proposal saying, ‘What connection have earthly affairs with religion?’
Aurangzeb is regarded as a very pious and orthodox Muslim and it is popularly assumed that he had banished music from his empire as music was prohibited in Islam. However, scholars such as Katherine Butler Schofield have conclusively shown that this was not the case at all. Truschke cites her work approvingly as Schofield, in her well researched paper titled ‘Did Aurangzeb Ban Music?’ (2007), establishes that Aurangzeb was himself a skilled musician who understood and appreciated the intricacies and nuances of music and had banned the playing of musical instruments in his court only in the last decades of his life as he wanted to abstain from pleasure as an act of piety. Schofield quotes from contemporary records that Aurangzeb himself maintained that music was ‘permissible’ in Islam. Therefore, he did not place restrictions on singing or playing music in the public domain. More Indo-Persian treatises were written during Aurangzeb’s reign than in the prior five hundred years. To quote Truschke, Aurangzeb ‘was a connoisseur of music and even fell in love with the musician Hirabai, but, beginning in midlife, deprived himself of the pleasure of the musical arts. Nonetheless, he passed his later years largely in the company of another musician, Udaipuri.’
In her book Poetry of Kings, Allison Busch has brought out the great contribution made by the Mughal court in promoting literature in Braj bhasha. A large number of dhrupads composed in Aurangzeb’s honour are still found. Moreover, in Braj bhasha poems that either he or his court poets wrote on the occasion of his coronation, one finds an invocation to Hindu gods and goddesses, thus making it clear that even Aurangzeb’s court had not completely given up the syncretic and assimilative trends that had firmly set in by his time.
Not many people would know about Raja Raghunath. Truschke tells us the fascinating story of one of Aurangzeb’s most cherished officers. Although he was the chief financial officer, French traveller Francois Bernier described him as the acting vizier of the empire. Raja Raghunath served Aurangzeb for a mere five years as his life was cut short in Kashmir, but so great was his influence on the emperor that even in his final years, Aurangzeb often cited Raghunath’s advice in his letters to his officials.
In Truschke’s view, Aurangzeb was ‘a man of his times, not ours’ who acted ‘according to his ideals of justice, commitment to political and ethical conduct (adab and akhlaq), and the necessities of politics. Aurangzeb’s worldview was also shaped by his piety and the Mughal culture he inherited. He was not interested in fomenting Hindu-Muslim conflict – a modern obsession with modern states – but he was fixated on dispensing his brand of justice, upholding Mughal traditions, and expanding his grip across the subcontinent.’
During the nearly half-a-century of his rule, Aurangzeb expanded the Mughal empire to its greatest extent but his last years were full of remorse at his deficiencies. A believer, his conscience pricked as the Sharif of Mecca did not consider the first seven years of his rule as ‘legitimate’ because his father Shah Jahan, whom he had imprisoned, was still alive. In a letter written in his final days, the dying emperor rued: ‘I came as a stranger, and I leave as a stranger.’
Columnist and political commentator, Delhi
MEMOIRS OF ROADS: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization by Sumanta Banerjee. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2016.
Rashbehari Avenue in South Kolkata is often described as ‘one of the most prestigious and important avenues’, and Gariahat market (at the centre of the avenue) as the ‘prime shopping and aristocratic residential neighbourhood’. Curiously though, this premier road had its birth in the 1920s as an ‘obnoxious conduit for transport of waste’ when a sewer was constructed through the marshy jungles from Ballygunge railway station to Kalighat for the disposal of the city’s waste into the Hooghly. The region around the sewer remained largely uninhabited until the 1930s except for plots that were bought by upper class Europeans and Bengalis (partly because of access to the sewer and a ‘clean’ neighbourhood), and on which several basti clusters housing labourers and artisans emerged as a source of revenue for the owners. A decade later the Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT) reconstructed the surface over the sewer into a road that was, appropriately enough, called Main Sewer Road.
As Europeans built cottages with red tiled roofs and flower decked gardens, and middle class Bengali families began buying plots near Ballygunge because of the tram lines and railways offering convenient transport to the business centre in the north, their sensibilities demanded that the name be changed to genteel Ballygunge Avenue. Streets and civic facilities were built in response to the grumbling of middle and upper class residents, and the steady urbanization opened up avenues for the rural economy to market their produce at weekly and daily markets, while a nearby lake provided recreational space for residents. Eventually, the road was renamed Rashbehari Avenue after well known advocate, philanthropist, and councillor Rashbehari Ghose, CSI, CIE, and it developed into a middle class bhadralok neighbourhood by the 1940s, where litterateurs flocked to occupy the cosmopolitan space it offered. Yet, the underbelly of the city continued to survive next door in the slums of labourers on whom the bhadralok depended, even though episodic evictions were attempted as part of the efforts at gentrification. Currently, multi-storey housing is coming up on both sides of the avenue, and commercial complexes are entering residential neighbourhoods, signalling a changing language of architecture of shops, malls and billboards. In short, the story of the road conveys the entire history of both how Kolkata has changed over the last century, and continues to do so.
This is only one of the stories that Sumanta Banerjee recounts in Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization in the inimitable style of the 19th century flaneur, but solidly grounded in painstaking research into street directories, journals, letters, newspapers, and archival material. The other roads that Banerjee traces in similar fashion in this insightful volume are Bagbazar Street in the north and Theatre Road in central Kolkata. These roads lie in what he characterizes as the Black Town and White Town of the growing city, the thick dividing line between the rulers and the ruled in colonial India. Rashbehari Avenue, on the other hand, represents a mixture of the two as the aspirational native ruling class merges with the boxwallahs of yore and yet, in the words of Banerjee, ‘the tensions between rich and poor, middle class and upper class, old and new, past present and future continue.’
This trajectory further wends its way outwards into the marshes in the east where first, Salt Lake City (Bidhannagar) and subsequently, New Town emerge as the sites for a neo-liberal urban development which can no longer be accommodated within the confines of Black Town, White Town, and South Calcutta. In these new urban conurbations, the space around the roads is occupied by golf courses, swimming pools, hotel chains, shopping malls and other exclusive activities that debar the pedestrian and negate the possibility of public gatherings and mass demonstrations. Banerjee sees these developments as being similar to the White Town in reproducing the same neo-colonial pattern of territorial monopoly of dominant interests, denial of rights to subordinate groups, and deprivation of underprivileged groups; but within the context of a competitive global neo-liberal market economy where the wider dimension of social welfare is completely missing.
In conclusion, Banerjee calls for a third, alternative model of urban planning based on democratic consensus, equitable sharing of space, and ecological balance. Interestingly enough, the traces of such an innovative model are scattered through the pages of his own critical observations. There are, for instance, those who treat city roads as home, the pavement dwellers, domestic help, rickshaw pullers, vegetable vendors, hawkers, press-wallahs, who contribute to the changing patios, the street life that still caters to the lower orders on the pavements. Then there are those who compose the lower orders of the city, tucked away in their bastis between apartment blocks, surviving in spite of all odds, even when systematic demolition takes place again and again to make way for the new city of gardens, squares, streets, hospitals, social institutions, and the like.
Every avenue and street and sewer that is constructed also accelerates the proliferation of galis and lanes on the pattern of the old village where all manner of people rub shoulders and the rural market economy creeps in. Thus, the neo-rich and middle classes continue to drive down to the local markets to purchase their fresh vegetables and fish. Even the road witnesses a transition from bullock carts and palanquins to the hackney carriage, trams, railways, motor cars, and the underground metro, which attempts to preserve the cultural history of the city through the names of the stations. And these modes of transport also become the sites of protest for those who construct, manage, and repair those modes. The one, two, or three-storeyed old houses and shops persist in all corners of the city, as do the open terraces on the top floor, covered verandahs on the first floor, and shops on the ground floor. Finally, there are the cultural and political influences that have marked the history of the city and the region and have persisted despite the penetration of the global market.
As Banerjee states, roads are characterized as both transportation as well as an intervention in the natural landscape. They ‘do not remain partisan or neutral for long’ as they subserve different political masters. Hence, when the political economy changes, as it has done from colonial urbanization through to global modernization, the road too will change and those who live their lives in and around it will equally become a part of the politics of change. In that context, it is curious why Banerjee has chosen not to engage with the icon of Kolkata, the Howrah Bridge of 1943, that was preceded by a pontoon bridge in 1874 connecting Kolkata with Howrah and the Grand Trunk Road that was itself upgraded by the British in 1860 to connect Kolkata to Peshawar across the breadth of the Empire. He has also sidestepped any engagement with the buses that scurry from one corner of Kolkata to another as well as the Metro, both of which indisputably remain the most egalitarian form of transport in the city and impact minimally on the landscape. Nevertheless, this book remains a beautifully crafted essay with many insights which will be of great benefit to future scholars of the urbis.
Director, Hazards Centre, Delhi
THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION edited by Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2016.
JUST over seventy years have passed since the Constituent Assembly first met on 9 December 1946 and within a week passed the objectives resolution to ‘proclaim India as an independent, sovereign republic and to draw for her future governance a constitution.’ This was even before the transfer of power when the shape of the future state or states was not fully discernible and one-third of India was under the formal rule of what were termed as ‘native states’.
The prevailing difficulties have been summed up in one of these essays by a foreign observer that ‘despite grave challenges to the democratic nature of the process – beginning under conditions of limited sovereignty, partition of the country in the midst of the drafting process, great need for economic development, and immense internal diversity along ethnic, linguistic, religious and socio-economic lines, the Indian Constituent Assembly managed to lay down the legal foundation for the largest and one of the most stable democracies in the world’ (p. 55). The Constitution was adopted on 26 November 1949. Since ‘We the People’ adopted the text of the Constitution, it has undergone a slow transformation by amendments, by practice, and by judicial interpretation.
The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution fulfils a real need both to record the narrative of the changes and to set out clearly where the Constitution stands today. More than fifty scholars, most of whom are practicing lawyers and teachers of law, have contributed to it. Unlike a normal textbook which sets out the articles and lists a string of cases, the handbook provides a more comprehensive picture. The essays provide a narrative of how various aspects the Constitution have developed beyond what was originally intended, both by the actual wording of the law and as discussed in the debates. The standard of the essays is uniformly high, making it all the more difficult to single out specific authors.
The Constituent Assembly debates demonstrate that despite the absence of adult suffrage or representation of native states or the non-participation of the Muslim League, there was a conscious and concerted attempt to accommodate differing views. All democratic constitutions face the basic problem of controlling state power and guarding individual liberty. It is a matter of some satisfaction that our Constitution has survived and even flourished in spite of the vicissitudes of three border wars, the problems of secession arising in the case of Junagarh, Hyderabad and Kashmir, and regional and religious discord.
The aspirations of the Constitution are articulated in its Preamble. Although we did not have the prior experience of fundamental rights (nor incidentally had Britain at that time), the objective resolutions passed on 13 December 1946 before the transfer of power, foretold of drawing up a constitution ‘wherein shall be guaranteed and secured to all the people of India justice, social, economic and political; the equality of status, and opportunity before the law; freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action subject to law and public morality.’
The Constitution is a living document and has to meet the pressing needs of the society as they develop from time to time. Many of the changes are a result of amendments to meet emerging issues like the problems of zamindari (1st and 4th Amendment), abolition of the privy purses (26th Amendment), the striking down of the Bank Nationalization Act (38th Amendment) and the problem with a very local flavour, viz. the aaya rams and gaya rams in legislatures (52nd and 91st Amendment). Others, like the 44th Amendment, also had to be pushed through to prevent some of the excesses of the Emergency.
A special aspect has been the far-reaching change brought about as a result of judicial interpretation. The text of each constitution is a result of the concepts and the language of the period when it is drawn up. But many judges, for instance in the US, take the view that the text must be enforced today by construing it as on the day when it was enacted. This is the originalist view that we too adopted in the earlier cases. Subsequently, the concept has been eroded and now stands almost abandoned, particularly after the Emergency.
For example, Article 21 regarding ‘protection of life and personal liberty’, enjoins that no person shall be deprived of life and personal liberty except according to ‘the procedure established by law’. These are words of limitation and were introduced after a detailed consideration whether the familiar concept of ‘due process’ used in many other constitutions should be adopted. When our constitutional advisor, B.N. Rau, held discussions with Justice Felix Frankfurter of the American Supreme Court, he was advised against adopting the term and concept of ‘due process’. This was because the judges had found ‘due process’ to be a burden on the courts besides being undemocratic. Not only did it confer on the judges the power of vetoing legislation, it also placed a burden on the judiciary which had to work out ways of negotiating political controversies.
In the earlier cases, the Supreme Court accepted that the requirement of Article 21 was satisfied if there was some procedure established by law. This narrow view was affirmed in Gopalan’s case where Justice S.R. Das (incidentally a kindly judge) used the drastic illustration of the cook of the Bishop of Rochester who tried to poison his master and was ordered to be boiled in oil. He held that the relevant legal question would be whether (or not) there was adherence to procedure as laid down by the law. This view has now been stoutly rejected. Our judges have extended the concept of protection provided by Article 21, not merely to procedure but also to substance. Moreover, they have extended the concept of personal liberty to incorporate quality of life itself in an enlarged meaning to include various aspects of human liberty, including prompt trial and the right to purity of air.
Even more sweeping has been the change brought about by enlarging the constitutional power of the court itself. In Kesavananda Bharati, the Supreme Court held that even Parliament did not have the right to amend the Constitution in a manner where ‘the basic features’ of the Constitution are violated. Ironically, the Supreme Court has also appropriated the power (or accepted the burden!) of deciding what such basic features might be from time to time.
These changes have followed historical trends. During the Emergency, the court was deferential to the executive and willing to uphold not merely laws but even drastic executive action even if it violated fundamental rights which had been ‘suspended’. This approach has been reflected in the detention case of ADM Jabalpur and the election case of Indira Gandhi. After the Emergency, the Supreme Court became more sensitive to widespread public criticism. In an interesting change of gears, it moved to emphasize social and civil rights. These changes in the substance of rights and the procedure to enforce them has also led to what is called public interest litigation jurisdiction, which enables citizens to ventilate grievances in matters like environment or ill-treatment of groups of people, and to insist on transparency and probity in public life.
It is instructive how in the field of constitutional development, controversies raging at one period like zamindari or linguistic states have been muted and new issues like judicial activism and common civil code now occupy our attention. It calls for special skill and arrangements of the various themes to be discussed in such a handbook. The handbook deals with some of the expected areas like ‘history’ or ‘federalism’ and rights, both as regards ‘structure and scope’ and in the area of ‘substance and content’. It also has other thought provoking areas like the theme of ‘negotiating constitutionalism’, ‘separation of powers’ and the ‘government’s legal personality’. The treatment in the essays is not merely about the present state of law but the flux involved in what the editors have called the extraordinary capacity of a living constitution like in India to rearticulate – some would say domesticate – social struggles in the language of constitutionalism.
The essays show that the Constitution has been able to provide a framework for society where changes are slowly but inexorably taking place. It does appear that if we look at the aspirations enunciated in the Preamble, as a society we have progressed far too slowly in the direction of equality, and even more sluggishly in giving substance to the concept of fraternity. But the Constitution has provided a remarkable framework for a federal government enabling a peaceful transition of power from one party to another after elections based on adult suffrage. The unity of India, which was a matter of such grave concern in the early days of the Republic, has been maintained. The states, which were called native states, and areas with different ethnic and regional characteristics, have been assimilated relatively successfully. This handbook is an excellent guide not merely for scholars and lawyers but also vigilant citizens who want to read an interesting exposition of the various aspects of our basic law. In the final analysis, it is the Constitution that has helped to maintain the plurality of our society, no matter how noisy or argumentative it may be.
Ashok H. Desai
Senior advocate; former Attorney General of India