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On the eve of the 66th Independence Day Enduring Significance Of Indian Parliament

Updated: August 18, 2012 11:57 am

The commencement of the functioning of Parliament of India on May 13, 1952 was not only historic but also an unprecedented event in the annals of representative government in the world. Never ever any country as vast and diverse as India and with widespread illiteracy and mass poverty attempted to introduce democracy for nation building. The fact that Indians consciously did so proved the point that they always were in favour of shaping their destiny by employing democratic means. In fact one of the demands put forth by Indian leadership before British authorities, during freedom struggle, was introduction of more representative institutions. Even a scholar saint like Swami Vivekananda in one of his speeches in 1898, compiled in the famous book Lectures from Colombo to Almora, referred to the need for more legislative institutions for India to change its society. The distinguished leaders from all fields were unanimous in their opinion that India could be governed, and more importantly, its society could be changed along progressive lines, only by making use of democratic methods.

But, has the Parliament lived up to the expectations of Indians as we prepare to celebrate the 66th Independence Day? If today India is proud of the fact that it has survived as a parliamentary democracy without sacrificing the rights and liberties of our people it is due to past struggle of our people to set up parliamentary institutions which date back to 19th century. And finally it has marched ahead as a democracy primarily because of the strength and support of ordinary people of this country.

Sixty years in the context of an ancient civilisation like India is not too long. A leading French intellectual Andre Malraux and a great lover of India once asked Mao Zedong a question: “What is the impact of French Revolution on the world?” Mao famously replied: “It is too early to say anything.” Mao Zedong gave that answer more than hundred and fifty years after the French Revolution. Shall we say that it is too early to assess the impact of sixty years of parliamentary democracy on India?

Parliament: A mighty substitute for a bloody revolution

By embracing parliamentary democracy we have avoided violent methods for social change. The then Chairman of Rajya Sabha Shri KR Narayanan described Parliament “as a mighty substitute for a bloody and violent revolution”. Truly an extraordinary statement to explain the deep significance of Parliament for our society and body polity! Take away Parliament and we have a bloody and violent society. So by preserving parliamentary democracy we preserve the peaceful methods of social change.

In fact, the Parliament of our country evolved through our freedom struggle. If we look at the origin of Parliament in Britain we come to know that it was created to give approval to the military expenditure of the King of that time. This means that the British Parliament had an unenviable history of sanctioning the war expenses of the British monarch. Slowly it emerged to become the true representative of people. While reaching the present stature it committed many errors. In fact, blunders were committed by it. It was Mahatma Gandhi who while speaking in a meeting in Gujrat in 1917 said that the “History of Commons is a history of blunders”.

Uphold Constitutional and Parliamentary Methods for reddresal of grievances

But look at the history of our Parliament. It embodied the vision of our leadership to peacefully transform our country which was plundered by colonial rule and which suffered irreparably due to hierarchical caste structure described by Dr BR Ambedkar, the principal architect of our Constitution, as “the graded social inequality”. It is a by-product of the vision of our leaders who sacrificed for our freedom. It combines the vision of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr BR Ambedkar. In fact it was Mr KR Narayanan as the President of India who brilliantly combined the vision of these great personalities of modern India and explained the meaning and significance of our freedom struggle. He said that if Mahatma Gandhi gave our freedom movement a moral and mass dimension, Jawaharlal Nehru gave it a economic and socialist dimension and Dr BR Ambedkar gave it a challenging social and democratic vision.

We should ask ourselves whether the challenging social and democratic vision which Baba Saheb Ambedkar gave to freedom struggle has been fulfilled or not. The mass and moral dimension given by Mahatma Gandhi brought the ordinary citizens particularly women to the fold of freedom movement. The economic and socialist dimension of Nehru modernised India. But what about the social democracy which Ambedkar talked about? Even the moral dimension of Gandhi has been tarnished by decline of values and mounting scandals and corruption cases. When we adopted our Constitution Ambedkar had stated that India with its new Constitution recognised one man one vote. Then he added that we would have to realise that there is one man and one value. Sadly in spite of law and Constitution and even after sixty years of Parliament we have not come to a stage when one value is there for each human being.

That is why there is a need to follow Ambedkar who had prescribed the methods of education, agitation and organisation. In fact what he prescribed was the constitutional and parliamentary method.

Terrorist Attack on Parliament

On May 13, 1952 Indian Parliament started functioning. During sixty years of its work we have deepened the roots of democracy. There is another 13th day of December 1946 which is extremely significant for our Parliament. While celebrating sixtieth anniversary of our Parliament on May 13, we need to be mindful of the December 13. On December 13, 2001 the Parliament was attacked by terrorists. The attack began on the Rajya Sabha side. It is important to know the significance of December 13. It was on December 13, 1946 that the real work of the Constituent Assembly began when the Objectives Resolution was introduced by the first Prime Minister of India Shri Jawaharlal Nehru to set the objectives for the Assembly to establish, among others, parliamentary democracy. It was on the anniversary of the introduction of Objectives Resolution that we became the victims of the terrorist attack. The nation was educated about the significance of December 13 for our Constitution and Parliament by the late President of India KR Narayanan when he addressed the nation on the eve of the Republic Day on January 25, 2002.

There are several factors which have contributed to the success of parliamentary democracy which could not succeed in many erstwhile British colonies. The firm faith on democracy and parliamentary institutions expressed by political parties, be it of the rightist, leftist or centrist ideology, underline the consensus and near universal acceptance of institution of Parliament across the political spectrum. The strident protests of the political leaders professing both rightist, leftist and socialist ideologies and the imprisonment suffered by them on many occasions in defence of fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution testify to the strength of our Parliament which represents the people’s sovereign authority and will at the highest level of our nation.

Consolidation of Left and Democratic forces enriched parliamentary democracy

It is well documented that non-violent method adopted by Mahatma Gandhi for our freedom from colonial rule created conditions for sustenance of democracy in India. The resounding success of parliamentary democracy in India can be attributed to, among others, the consolidation of left and democratic forces. These forces have always stressed on certain ideology based on common humanity cutting across faiths, castes and regions of our country. It is primarily because of this that people have got more space to participate in politics and public life of our country going beyond boundaries determined by primordial identities. The mainstream left parties—be it the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist) or Forward Block always swear by the proposition that there is no alternative to parliamentary democracy in India. It was through the left parties that India got the vital lessons of managing a coalition politics and government. Today when India has decisively entered the era of coalition politics and government we need to recall that culture which was shaped and enriched by left parties.

Yet again a reference may be made to the late President KR Narayanan who had uncanny understanding of the Indian political situation. He while addressing the Kerala Assembly outlined the role played by Shri Achutya Menon of Communist Party of India and who headed the coalition government. He quoted Mr Menon who expounded the reasons behind the success of the coalition government. According to Mr. Menon a coalition government could be successful if there was a Common Programme before the government, a Code of Conduct for the ministers of the government and above all the allocation of the portfolios for the ministers to be done by the Chief Minister in consultation with the leaders of the coalition government. How true and valid are his articulations for the twenty-first century India which is passing through the coalition era!


India’s founding leaders were determined to create a democratic state when the country became independent in 1947, but becoming and remaining a democracy was by no means inevitable.

The difficulties were daunting: the mass killings and violence unleashed by the subcontinent’s partition, widespread illiteracy, dire poverty, and the country’s profound religious, ethnic and social diversity. How, in such adverse circumstances, were democratic citizenship and practices institutionalised in India? And how has India’s emerging framework for membership in the nation, the essence of citizenship, enabled the endurance of its democratic polity?

Key to the making and endurance of democratic nationhood in India was the evolving conceptions of the relationship between the state and its would-be citizens in the process of constitution-making and institution-building. In practice, these relations function through the concept and institution of citizenship, which defines the terms of engagement between individuals, social groups and the state. It forms the basis for attaining membership and a sense of belonging in the social body and the state, as well as delimiting and excluding people from membership in the nation.

To a considerable extent, it is because different conceptions and practices of citizenship were articulated and could co-exist within India’s constitutional framework that India’s constitution and democracy struck roots and endured against the odds. The constitution’s drafters, in the long process of its creation, gave enough space for different, even contradictory, views of the relations between the state and its citizens to exist, compete and legitimately make counter-claims of the state, while still remaining members of a unitary nation. Indeed, there are four dominant and competing conceptions of citizenship in India, representing different views on the nature of relations and resource allocation between the state and various social groups. These are the liberal, republican, ethno-nationalist and non-statist Gandhian conceptions.

The liberal conception of citizenship views the individual as the bearer of a package of rights, designed to protect personal liberties. Individual freedom is ensured by minimum external interference, in particular from the state. The republican conception of citizenship is based on the notion of a pre-existing common good. Republican citizenship emphasises the civic virtue of citizens as active participants with a sense of public rather than individual responsibility. The ethno-nationalist conception of citizenship views membership in the nation-state as being defined, above all, by a ‘descent’ group which can be based on blood ties, religion, or on cultural or linguistic affiliation. In these three conventional conceptions, citizenship is defined from the viewpoint of the state, and becomes an end in the making of the state.

In India, it is also possible to distinguish a fourth, and paradigmatically different, conception of citizenship, identified as ‘non-statist citizenship’. Its ideational and institutional basis is derived from Mahatma Gandhi. Citizenship, in this view, implies a notion of membership of the state in the society (rather than membership in the state). This should make the state subservient to the society, guaranteeing that power is invested in the people. The state is viewed above all as a coercive entity, owing its very existence to violence. To ensure genuine self-government, minimal interaction and control by the state is desired. In this conception the individual plays a critical role in the pursuit of true self-rule. In Gandhi’s notion of the self, true freedom is derived from the self-disciplined, self-realised individual, liberated from attitudes of exclusivity, absolved from any particularistic identity. The spatial structure underlying the relationship between the individual and the state is composed of an ‘oceanic circle’ of villages, referring to a social order with ever-widening, non-hierarchical and self-sustained autonomous villages. At the centre of this structure is the individual who is prepared to defend his village and the next. This, according to Gandhi, is the road to true democratic self-rule. And true democracy is what promotes the welfare of the people and brings uplift for all (Gandhi called itsarvodaya). The notion of a harmonised caste-based social and moral order that created unity of cultural diversity formed part of Gandhi’s vision of ‘perfect democracy’. For Gandhi, the citizen’s duties, particularly the duty to dissent in the face of injustice, took precedence over individual rights, and were primarily tied to non-violence as a core value, as well as to the notions of self-help and moral conduct.

While the Gandhian notion of citizenship was poles apart from the other conceptions, it was also inextricably linked to each of them. Paradoxically, the Gandhian conception simultaneously facilitated and impeded some aspects of the other conceptions of citizenship, and their prospect for dominance. For example, Gandhi’s emphasis on the freedom and responsibility of the individual fed into a liberal citizenship order. But his non-stateism and notion of dissent, which neutralised the need to identify with the nation state, represented a radical form of liberalism that in effect negated the state altogether. Gandhi’s notions of uplift for all and self-help served to legitimate the republicanism that evolved in India at independence, which defined the common good as development within a framework of equality.

But the ultimate pursuit of such a common good required sturdy measures of redistribution that would curtail basic civil and political democratic rights. This happened in India during the spell of emergency rule between 1975 and 1977. The Gandhian conception of citizenship dented communal sectarianism, but it shored up ethno-nationalism in relation to caste, as it conceived of caste ‘upliftment’ solely within the Hindu framework of the moral social order. Caste conflicts can challenge an ethno-Hindu conception of the nation and therefore impede Hindu ethno-nationalism. It was chiefly Gandhi’s idea of non-statist citizenship that guaranteed the dynamics of a continuing interplay and shifting balance between the four conceptions of citizenship, and ensured that Indian citizenship was never fully dominated at least not for long by any one conception of citizenship.

In effect the evolving constitutional framework, informed by different conceptions of citizenship, allowed for multiple social conflicts and different notions of belonging to coexist within the Indian polity. This citizenship framework also allowed for a non-rigid adjudication on matters of the state and its relations to the various social identities of its human constituencies. The nature of the interconnections between the four competing conceptions of citizenship created a dynamic wherein an ongoing interplay and shifting balance between these conceptions resulted in the sustainability of some conflicts while excluding other more threatening divisions. This dynamic has ensured the resilience of India’s democracy. (EAF)

By Ornit Shani

(The author is a senior lecturer and the head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa)

It is the legacy of the left and democratic forces which need to be strengthened for making democracy more meaningful for the lives of our people. It is necessary for the defence of secularism, economic upliftment of ordinary citizens and above all for deepening parliamentary democracy. Some years back when a leader from Pakistan visited India he was interviewed by some of our correspondents. They asked him a question to ascertain if repeated military intervention in public life of Pakistan could be due to absence of left parties in that country. The leader concerned said in so many words that absence of left parties in Pakistan weakened democracy in that country. So in our neighbourhood people are acknowledging that deficit of left politics is one of the reasons behind the repeated failure of democracy in those countries. It is in this context that we must realise the value and significance of left and democratic culture in this country. The existence of left parties are woven around certain basic values and ideologies which are much more important than offices and positions in the government se-up. If these values and ideologies would decline then the edifice of parliamentary democracy would collapse.

Social movements strengthened democracy in India

Apart from understanding the success of parliamentary democracy from the perspective of left and democratic forces, it is extremely important to understand its growth and development from the perspective of social movements the paramount concern of which were to achieve social equality by putting an end to entrenched privileges based on birth. The movement launched by Justice Party in Tamil Nadu under the leadership of Periyar was a movement for social equality which remained at the heart of our democracy. The central theme of Justice Party was expressed by Dr Ambedkar when he said that social and economic rights of people had to be ensured while guaranteeing civil and political rights to them.

The mouthpiece of the Justice Party was named as Justice. Some of the editorials of the mouthpiece written in 1927 are worth mentioning here to underline the point that movements for social justice launched in many parts of the country actually nourished our grand struggle for democracy during freedom movement.

The French Revolution has been referred to earlier. In fact people of France launched the French Revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity. We in India were deeply impacted by the French Revolution which electrified the whole world. In one of the editorials of Justice its editor A Ramaswami Mudaliar wrote in 1927 that “…despite all the upheavals of passing unimportance the democratic daily will keep aloft the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity”.

A democratic society is marked by equality and equal opportunity. Right from the time of Lord Buddha this struggle is on to establish equality by going against the entrenched interest who uphold their privileges at the cost of the rights of ordinary people. In fact during the struggle of Justice Party it was loudly proclaimed by its mouthpiece: “The progress of the race has always been in proportion to this breaking down of privileges.” It regretted: “It is this idea of privilege, of superiority, that has led to the troubles of the modern world. Race privilege, colour privilege, and caste privilege have torn the bonds of union, have made men animals, have turned into seething cauldrons of hate, what ought to be the blissful state of love and unity.”

The struggle of Justice Party was greatly influenced by the ideals of Swami Vivekananda who had perceptively stated: “Men will be born differentiated; some will have more powers than others; some will have natural capacities, others not; some will have perfect bodies others not. We can never stop that. The sameness as regards external forms and position can never be attained. But what can be attained is the elimination of privilege. This is really the work before the whole world. ….The enjoyment of advantage over another is privilege, and throughout the ages, the aim of morality has been its destruction. This is the work which tends towards sameness, towards unity, without destroying variety.”

The editorial of the Justice was quoting Swami Vivekananda, whose hundred fiftieth birth anniversary was celebrated, in the context of its effort to stress on equality and liberty. Even it interpreted Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent reform as a basis for the destruction of privileges. It observed: “Violence merely substitutes one set of privileges in place of another and victor and victim alike lose something in such violent conflicts. That is where ahimsa (non-violence) triumphs over force”.

Such creative interpretations of thoughts enabled the Justice Party to spread the ideals of equality and equal opportunity. In doing so it was deriving inspiration from spiritual leaders whose world view was in harmony with modern notion of a fair and just society. Such ideas which took root in different parts of India actually shaped the democratic society at the head and front of which remain the present-day Parliament.

Such commitments of the Justice Party gave fodder to the struggle for democracy. One of the finest products of that struggle is this Parliament which has now completed sixty years.

Social and Economic Democracy to Arrest Violent Trends

In fact the moral dimension which Mahatma Gandhi gave to our freedom struggle has considerably weakened. This spells danger to our system. In the absence of these values we are certain to face a bleak future. People are restless. They are yearning for high standards and conduct from leaders of parliamentary democracy. We have to set the standards before people. The phenomenon of Naxal violence is a by-product of decline of values and crisis in standard of behaviour. Long years back, I think in 1970, Mr NC Chatterjee while speaking in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and giving an explanation about the reasons behind Naxal violence had stated that widespread practice of untouchability triggered Naxal violence.

      The social evil of untouchability has been compounded by gathering crisis of economic deprivation and exclusion. The exploitation of people and the violent appropriation of the resources of tribals have alienated them and forced them to choose the path of violence. It is a huge challenge before parliamentary democracy to win them and generate a sensation among them that they are the equal participants in the architecture of parliamentary democracy. If we cannot do this then the words of Dr.Ambedkar that parliamentary democracy without social and economic democracy is like a palace built on the foundation of cow dung would become a reality. Cow dung might be sacred for some. But it cannot provide firm foundation to the edifice of democracy if we lose sight of social and economic rights of people.

Issues raised in the First Session of Rajya Sabha resonate in Twenty-First Century

If we examine the contents of the speeches delivered in the first sitting of Rajya Sabha in 1952 we realise that the issues raised by the Members of this House sixty years back are being debated now across the world. Can any body imagine that a Member of the Rajya Sabha Mr Krishnamoorthy Rao raised the issue of environmental degradation, change of course of rivers, deforestation, loss of top soil of earth and above all harmful consequences of excessive industrialisation on nature? Can any body imagine that another Member of the House raised the issue of climate change which he said occurred in the Southern India and it was so permanent in nature that he wanted Planning Commission to take measures to remedy the situation. The issue of water scarcity was raised by yet another Member.

All those issues which were raised in 1952 have become global issues. This is where we realise the significance of Rajya Sabha as a deliberative Chamber of Indian Parliament. It is sad that problems taken up by the Members sixty years back continue to persist defying solution. It is unfortunate that the House is not meeting for enough number of days. It is unfortunate that so many sittings are being lost due to disorder and pandemonium. We need to reflect on this. Let us resolve to make parliamentary democracy more sound, vibrant and responsive to the needs of people.

Greater Representation of Women in Legislative Institutions will strengthen Democracy

One of the methods to make parliamentary democracy more strong and vibrant is to ensure greater representation of women in politics and public life. When Dr. Ambedkar drafted the Hindu Code Bill he wanted to empower women. That Bill could not be enacted due to determined resistance from certain quarters. Nehru had written in so many words that even though majority of the parliamentarians wanted to pass it, they were helpless before a small number of MPs who opposed it. Eventually, the Hindu Code Bill was broken into small pieces of legislation and most of those broken pieces were first introduced in the Rajya Sabha. It was done so to keep the legislation alive. Being a permanent Chamber, it is not subject to dissolution and any legislation introduced here would not lapse. Again in 2010 the Constitution (One hundredth eighth amendment) Bill for political empowerment was introduced in the Rajya Sabha and passed by the House after its repeated failure in the Lok Sabha. On the sixtieth anniversary of the Parliament let us take forward the cause of democracy by ensuring gender equality.

Parliamentary outreach Programme to restore faith of people on Parliament

The challenges are here before us in the form of poverty, corruption, underdevelopment, backwardness, communalism, terrorism, environmental degradation, etc,. The loss of faith of people on Parliament is worrisome. It is not confined to India alone. In the United Kingdom there is a huge disconnect between people and Parliament. Particularly the youth has no understanding about the functioning of the apex legislature. The Speaker of the House of Commons has adopted a programme called Parliamentary outreach programme where the Parliament reaches out to the people and youth and thereby bridge the gap between Parliament and people. The Chairman of Rajya Sabha can also consider adapting such a programme to reach out to our students in schools, colleges and universities.

There is greater need to make the work of Parliament and parliamentary committees more research oriented. We do not get enough research support. The routine work done by the officials is not supportive of quality output. They have to be creative. The culture of reading and writing has to be cultivated by those who are in Parliament.

Democracy of our country of which we all are justly proud has to be directly beneficial to the citizens of our country. The movement for enriching democracy is all round us. The parliamentarians have to be mindful of the right conduct. They have to establish high standards of behaviour. Time is ripe for course correction. The Parliament has to reclaim the faith of our people in the democratic process.

In 1917 Mahatma Gandhi wrote about Parliament and said that when Indians would have a Parliament they would commit blunders in initial stage. He added that they being the son of the soil would soon rectify those blunders and find remedies against poverty. By completing sixty years we have passed the initial years. The time has now come to rectify the blunders.

By Sn Sahu

(The author is Joint Secretary, Rajya Sabha Secretariat, Parliament of India, New Delhi)





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