Republic Day 2023: Holy Book, North Star

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Every Republic Day brings an important reminder for “we the people”. Of the rules for both the government and the governed, and of the shared commitment to follow them. Today, R-day, is a commemoration of the quiet framework that holds a noisy, sprawling and diverse democracy up, and together. That framework, this Constitution — which Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the “holy book”, and whose “basic structure”, Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud more recently described as the “north star” that guides — embodies, most of all, the need and necessity for power to be humble. In a constitutional democracy, it dare not be unbridled, or act in arbitrary ways. It must be accountable and circumscribed by the checks applied by countervailing institutions. It must not transgress individual freedoms. It should not be an end unto itself, but constantly in service of a shared purpose and larger goals. As the nation celebrates this Republic Day, then, it must take a step back from the unpleasantries currently being exchanged between the government and the court over the “basic structure” and the Collegium. This is a moment, instead, to recall the founding pact and to acknowledge the marvellous balance of its intricate mosaic.

In the run-up to this Republic Day, the Constitution has increasingly looked like the bone of contention between a domineering Executive and a Judiciary that appears compelled to re-stake out its ground in changing political terrain. But the Constitution itself is resilient and capacious enough to take showdowns like these in its stride. In fact, the ongoing pull and push over whether or not Parliament has the power to amend its “basic structure” has only brought home that the key to its endurance is its essential openness to change. That its basic features are identified so broadly is design, no coincidence. In CJI Chandrachud’s list, they are: Supremacy of the constitution, rule of law, separation of powers, judicial review, secularism, federalism, freedom and the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. With deliberateness and care, the founding fathers and mothers wrote an open-ended document with ample room to adapt and evolve.

What cannot be touched, what must be protected, is that without which the republic will fail those who are powerless, those in the minority and those who count on its promise of freedom and equality and justice the most. The woman who wants the freedom to step out into public spaces that are enabling and safe. The student who has a right to watch a documentary on the university campus. The right to eat and dress the way you want. The liberty to choose the one you love. When we the people recognise that the rights of a few are interconnected with the freedoms of all, it is the Constitution that triumphs in letter and spirit. Happy Republic Day.