The Progress-Prone Preamble of India’s Constitution

When the Constituent Assembly approved its new Constitution on 26 November 1949, they set the development agenda for decades to come—one which demands concrete expression

21 February : Draft of Constitution presented by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

THE SUMMARY OF THE CONSTITUTION

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution is the single most significant sentence for understanding the path for India’s development. It serves as a summary of the entire Constitution and the very goal for which the nation of India was constituted. Every Five Year Plan, every government social scheme and every grassroots NGO initiative, ultimately, springs from and must reference back to this single sentence.

It reads, “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation; in our Constituent Assembly this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949,do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.”

With five words (sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic and republic), the Preamble summarises India’s political structure and ideology which is unpacked in the remaining Parts 1-2 and 5-22 of the Constitution. In four words, it summarises its goal (justice, liberty, equality and fraternity) which is further unpacked in Parts 3-4 of the Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles and Fundamental Duties.

What is surprising though, in light of Thom Wolf’s recent series on progress prone cultures, is the exact alignment between the eight progress prone factors and the four goals promoted by the Indian Constitution. In hindsight, one might say that the Constitution describes—and even prescribes—a progress prone culture, similar to the one described by Thom Wolf in his series. Let’s unpack it further.

THE APPLICATION OF THE PREAMBLE

Although the Preamble is not limited to the eight factors, the Preamble broadly defines the nation’s development goals out of which strategies are developed. The eight factors, then, might be seen as the concrete application of the Preamble’s goals.

“Equality in status” : Women

In addition to caste and class, what does equality of status mean? It means women (half of any country’s population) would have equal status—formally and informally (in terms of respect)—with men. To be clear, equality of status does not mean sameness of roles, but it does mean universally upholding the value of all women—from the unborn girl child to the widow.

“Equality of opportunity”: Education + Merit

What is the quickest way to give equal opportunity to all children? Provide quality education for all. India has taken gigantic steps in this regard. Two-hundred years ago, no Dalit or girl child was educated. Since 1949, India has written into its Directive Principles for State Policy that every state should “provide education for all children” (Article 45). This has now become a fundamental right of every Indian child through the Right to Education Act 2009, which guarantees quality education not just for some, but for all – though, admittedly, we still have a long way to go to turn this Act into reality.

Besides lack of education, what is the most common way that equal opportunity is undermined? Favours. In securing a good job, it is often said, “It’s not what you know that counts, it’s who you know.” That may be practically true, but it is opposite to the spirit of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution is advocating a system—as far as possible—to be determined by achievement, where people are rewarded for their efforts and talents and not for their connections in high places. Anytime someone accepts a bribe or favour to secure a position or post, the Constitution is undermined. Anytime someone is not chosen because of caste, community, or class, the Constitution is undermined. The Constitution is clear: a progress prone society is a merit-based society.

“Liberty of thought”: Time

Liberty of thought is the internal empowerment to question and critique old ideas, and to pursue and apply new ideas, or vice versa. Generally, this does not mean throwing out one and accepting everything of the other, but rather fostering a thinking society and a “spirit of reform” (Article 51h) that can continuously improve itself. In the language of the Constitution, this means endeavouring “to develop a scientific temperament” throughout society (Article 48). In the language of the eight factors, it means one is not—only—controlled by the past (whether good or bad) but has the capability to shape and change the future.


“Liberty of expression, belief, faith and worship”: Worldview and Civic Pluralism

At the root of these four liberties is the freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience, in the words of sociologist Os Guinness, is the freedom to believe whatever one wants on the basis of one’s conscience, while respecting that everyone else also has that right and should be given the freedom to enter the public sphere (media, politics and business) on the basis of those convictions. The result of well-practiced freedom of conscience is three-fold: (1) It creates a culture of persuasion and debate, not power and dictate. (2) It creates a public sphere that is safe for diversity. (3) It prevents the inevitable backlash that is the result of any faith ruling by monopoly and power—versus persuasion. In terms of the eight factors, this is called ‘worldview and civic pluralism’.

“Justice— social, economic and political”: Ethics

Justice requires much more than either equality or liberty. Whereas equality and liberty empower, justice and fraternity requires empathetic responsibility. Justice is the social harmony which bonds society together. There are three progress prone factors that bond society together: ethics, work and sense of community, but the foundation is ethics—a consistent code of conduct. Without a widespread, internally-upheld sense of ethics, it is impossible for a society to remain bonded together for long. Every breach of ethics is a breach of trust, and trust is foundational to any relational bond needed for a healthy society. This explains why the Constitution’s Directive Principles seeks “to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code.”

“Fraternity assuring the unity and integrity of the nation”: Work + Sense of Community

With the foundation of ethics established, it is possible to build a society that is bonded together through its work. Most of us miss the Constitutional meaning of our work. The Constitutional meaning of our work is not that I and my family make enough money to survive (or perhaps get rich!). The purpose of work is this: the practical, everyday expression of how I love and serve my neighbour, and thereby build the unity and integrity of the nation. Or as the Constitution’s Fundamental Duties prescribes: the purpose of work is “to strive towards excellence… so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.” Ask yourself: Am I doing my job to survive or to serve? If we choose the latter, we build a progress prone culture. If we choose the former, we may get our pay-cheque, but we undermine the aim for which our nation was established.

Finally, we’ve reached the apex of progress prone cultures: its sense of community. Is it particularistic (i.e. me + my community) or universalistic (i.e. me + my community + others)? Ambedkar called this a “sympathetic feeling” for our fellow man. The pledge of allegiance describes it with the oath that “all Indians are my brothers and sisters.” By application, it is expressed in tangible acts of mercy for our “brothers and sisters” who are outside our own community. In contrast to work which is our ordinary duty in service to our neighbour, sense of community is the above-ordinary expression of service to our neighbour. In work, I am repaid for my service; sense of community is sacrificial. But it “promote[s] a spirit of common brotherhood” which is the fundamental duty of every citizen in India.

When the Constituent Assembly approved its new Constitution on 26 November 1949, they set the development agenda for decades to come—one which demands concrete expression. While the eight factors may not capture the entirety of the Preamble, they give eight strategies to achieve India’s highest aspirations.

Published in the February 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine


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