Society that Indian Constitution envisions is one founded on freedom, drawing from historical resistance to oppression

If freedom is not practiced in society — in our structures and our institutions — the Constitution’s promises will remain promises only.

Gautam Bhatia January 26, 2021 09:58:38 IST
Society that Indian Constitution envisions is one founded on freedom, drawing from historical resistance to oppression

Reuters/File Photo

The following essay appears in 'Our Freedoms', a new anthology of essays edited by Nilanjana Roy and published by Juggernaut Books. It has been reproduced here with due permission.


The Preamble to the Indian Constitution speaks of liberty: liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. Scattered throughout the Constitution’s fundamental rights chapter we find the rights to freedom, to freedom of religion and to personal liberty. And if a constitution outlines a vision for society — a blueprint of what society could be — then the society that the Indian Constitution imagines is a society founded on freedom.

There are those who find this objectionable. They argue that this overemphasis on freedom is the result of colonised thinking. Indian society, they say, has always been founded on different values: on the primacy of family and society, and on a chain of duties and responsibilities. The Constitution, they say, is a Western import upon a people fundamentally at odds with its prescriptions. We have all heard these sentiments — or elements of them — expressed everywhere, including in the pages of the New York Times by its India correspondent, and sometimes even by judges of the Supreme Court.

It is tempting on some occasions to agree with this point of view. Watching the gulf between the promises of the Constitution and the realities around us, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that freedom is not something organic to the Indian soil, that it is something that has never really been valued by Indians, and to give in to the belief that those who advocate for freedom are a rootless, cosmopolitan ‘fringe’, out of touch with the realities of Indian social life.

This belief, however, has no basis in reality. It obscures a diverse and plural history, a history in which women and men framed, articulated and grappled with a vocabulary of freedom that was forged out of the many injustices and wrongs that plagued (and continue to plague) our society. These historical traditions go back many centuries, but here let us limit ourselves to our colonial history. As early as the 1810s, Raja Rammohan Roy argued eloquently for the freedom of speech and of the process, locating it within ideas of representative government. Such was Roy’s influence that, in faraway Spain, the 1812 Constitution of Cadiz — drafted by reformers — was dedicated to him (‘to the liberalism of the noble, wise, and virtuous Brahmo Ram Mohan Roy’).

In his time, Roy was attacked for being a deracinated not-quite-Indian, an attack that is quite familiar to us today. But his words and his writings would echo throughout Indian colonial history. Indian nationalists used the language of freedom to express — and then critique — their subjection by the British regime. From the late 1890s, Indians drafted constitutional documents where freedom was given pride of place. As the liberation struggle took shape in the early 1920s,
Congress presidents CR Das and Motilal Nehru delivered presidential speeches setting out the importance of civil liberties to social life and to the public sphere. The freedom of speech and expression was defended by no less a figure than Gandhi (and who would accuse him of being a deracinated Indian?): Gandhi (famously) condemned the sedition law while on trial and (less famously) penned a stirring defence of the freedom of speech in the pages of Young India, making the now-familiar argument that short of inciting violence, the only remedy for speech was counter-speech.

What united these individuals across more than a century was the basic understanding that wherever there was concentrated power, the individual was under threat and at the risk of effacement. The Indian Constitution was born encoding that simple wisdom: that no matter how benign or well intentioned those who held the reins of power might be, and no matter how convinced they might be that their actions were for the benefit of Indians, freedom was too important — and too precious — to be left only in their hands.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that the vocabulary of freedom came into being only in the context of Indians’ struggle against an authoritarian state. It was always understood that the state was not the sole locus of power and oppression. The vocabulary of freedom, thus, was excavated and put to use in what we now call the ‘private sphere’. In the late 19th century, this was spearheaded by women such as Pandita Ramabai, Rukhmabai (who fought a long legal battle against being forced to live with a husband whom she had not consented to marry), Tarabai Shinde and others.

Society that Indian Constitution envisions is one founded on freedom drawing from historical resistance to oppression

Juggernaut Books

In letters, epistles, memoirs and other genres of writing, these women subjected the life of the family and the home to searing critique, in the language of equality and freedom. The constraints that family structures placed upon women, their loss of liberty and comparisons of their situation to that of slavery — all this and more was the subject of public debate, bringing the langue of freedom into a space that, for centuries, had been defended upon the very basis that it reflected the natural inequality and subjection that existed in the world.

It was this sustained movement that ensured that, at least in formal terms, the Constitution granted freedom on equal terms to women and men. Unlike in many other countries, where the right to vote began by being limited to property-owning white men, and was won by women only after many decades of struggle, the Indian Constitution granted universal adult franchise in one sweep. Not only that, an attempt to tag on specific limiting provisions in the Constitution was expressly rejected. For example, in the Constituent Assembly, an attempt was made to specify that certain forms of work may be inherently unsuitable ‘on account of sex’. The attempt failed comprehensively.

While women were making the argument for freedom in the private and public spheres, so was the movement against caste oppression. Many centuries ago, the poet Ravidas had dreamt of the ideal city of Begumpura, where all citizens had the freedom to ‘walk where they may’. In Begumpura, Ravidas imagined a city that was not broken up into ghettoes and enclaves, where everyone had equal freedom to go where they wished. Unsurprisingly, from the 1890s, the earliest petitions to the British authorities against caste oppression framed their case in the language of the freedom of movement, pointing out how access to common roads was barred to the Dalits. Two decades later, BR Ambedkar’s movement was defined by its call to equality and to freedom — freedom from the strictures and dominance of caste power. In his numerous testimonies to various commissions, for example, Ambedkar stressed upon the prevalence of social boycott in Indian society (a practice that exists to this day) and pointed out how the freedom of individuals — to walk on roads, to live where they may, to draw water from the village well, to engage in the economic and social life of the community — was perpetually hostage to the arbitrary power of that very community. Once again, the Constitution reflected that simple truth in its abolition of untouchability, of forced labour and of discrimination in access to shops, wells and places of public resort.

The idea of freedom, therefore, shaped some of the most important social movements during our colonial history, in the years and decades leading up to political independence, and to the framing of the Constitution. The Constitution, indeed, embodies the best of those traditions in the language that it uses. This idea of freedom, as we have seen, was not simply an abstract one. It was grounded within the reality of Indian social life — not just in the public sphere, but also in structures and institutions such as the family and community.

For this reason, in Indian political and social thought, the idea of freedom was always linked with that of equality and of fraternity. In his speech in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar explained that liberty, equality and fraternity constituted a ‘trinity’. None of them would be meaningful without the other two: liberty to ensure that the individual was not erased by concentrated power, equality to address the systemic and institutional barriers that had undermined the liberty of so many for so long and fraternity to ensure that liberty and equality existed not simply in the relationship between state and individual, but also percolated deep into society, into those spaces that had so long been defined by their absence.

At the end of the day, a constitution is, of course, a document — nothing more. It is neither self-enforcing nor self-executing. If freedom is not practised in society — in our structures and our institutions — the Constitution’s promises will remain promises only. But even in such times, words matter: they matter because they reflect an alternative vision of society, and tell us that the reality need not be a permanent one. If an alternative can be imagined — with words — then it is an alternative that can be created. And also — as I have tried to show in this essay — these words anchor us to our past, to the traditions of freedom and equality that we are heir to. They tell us that we are not alone. They give us a treasure trove of resources to draw upon, and the knowledge that in far more difficult circumstances, Indians (like us) drew upon the language of freedom to shape a different world. And above all else, they tell us that — in the words of the Kenyan poet Christopher Okigbo — the quest for freedom has always been a ‘thirsting for sunlight’: that freedom is a destination that may be impossible to reach, but that the path must be walked nonetheless.

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