“The constitution is not for the exclusive benefit of governments and states; it is not only for lawyers and politicians and officials and those highly placed. It also exists for the common man, for the poor and the humble, for those who have businesses at stake, ‘for the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker'”Justice Vivian Bose, 1956
While I was reading the book that celebrates the contribution of ordinary people in shaping the constitution of India, a heinous and brutal crime was being committed in the largest State of India. A Dalit girl was brutally raped by upper caste men in the Hatharas district of UP and she subsequently succumbed to her injury in a Delhi hospital. But the Orwellian thing about the incident is that the girl was denied dignity even in her death. Her body was cremated in mid-night without informing her family. Her family couldn’t even see her one last time. The police barricaded the area restricting the access to the family. It shows that even after the seven decades of the enactment of the Constitution of India, justice seems distant for the marginalized sections of the society. However this book paints a different picture adding that common people played an important role in transforming the Indian constitution to people’s constitution.
People’s Constitution turns out to be a unique book for me. Because I used to think fighting for constitutional rights and going to Supreme Court has always been the prerogative of the educated and the elites of our country. Rohit De changed my perspective about this fact. The book gives the subaltern perspective on Indian Constitutional Law and constitutional rights and how the Constitution of India was shaped and transformed by the marginalized sections of the society. As De puts it, ” the Constitution didn’t descend upon the people; it was produced and reproduced in everyday encounters.”
The book narrates the cases of constitutional significance led by ordinary people during the first two decades of the enactment of the Indian Constitution. It shows how the honest prostitutes, invisible butchers, Marwari merchants, vegetable vendors, and other ordinary citizens showed exceptional courage and also ‘constitutional consciousness’ in those days itself. They took the legal route to fight for their fundamental rights. The idea is that constitution was interpreted in different ways by the ordinary people of the country and it was not the only prerogative of the elites.
And the most fascinating thing about this book is that the author has taken special effort to sit in the Supreme Court archive room and go through the important government orders, notifications, documents and the arguments exchanged between both the parties and showed in his book that various things happen around a case when it is being heard in the Supreme Court.
As shown in the book, the litigation/case in the court should never be seen in terms of winning and losing. The arguments exchanged in the courtroom and the discussion outside in media and in the public have a huge significance because it brings out all the nuances of that particular issue and what was the public sentiment about it and how it was played around in the public memory.
Also, I noticed one more interesting pattern, how the Indian Constitution was being used by both the parties who were asking for their rights and other who were trying to prohibit or ban the particular activity. For instance: if Husna Bai was asking from the Court to protect her freedom of trade and profession of prostitution, at the same time, her critics and also Durga Bhai Deshmukh & Rameshwari Nehru had been instrumental in enactment of prohibitions laws on human trafficking and forced labor based on Article 23 of the Constitution. And also in the case of banning cow-slaughter on the basis of Article 28 leading to The Hanif Querishi Case displayed that proponents and opponents of the ‘cow slaughter ban’ chose the constitutional methods to fulfill their goals.
The author claims that the Indian constitutionalism is still unexplored and understudied because it defies easy explanations. The constitutionalism as a concept is based on the desirability of the rule of law rather than the arbitrary rule of men, but the irony is that both simultaneously exist in India as we can see the ordinary people going to court to fight for their fundamental rights and at the same time there is no rule of law in many parts of the country.
The important argument of the author is that these cases filed by ordinary people were mostly related to their daily lives. And they belonged to minority communities or subaltern groups. And the final argument is that these people went to court to secure their economic rights which were getting hampered as the new Indian State was trying to regulate the market.
In 228 pages the author has shown the remarkable stories of marginalized and deprived sections of the society that have already been started striving for their constitutional rights after the enactment of the Constitution of India. The book is quite comprehensive, and most of the time feels like an academic research paper 😉 However, the book is one of the unique attempts to recognize the study of constitutionalism from below and how the constitution created a platform through which the citizens and the State can communicate with each other.
However, the reach of the Indian Constitution for the marginalized sections of the society has not been substantive enough till now. Though the author celebrates the contribution and participation of the marginalized sections as well as minority communities of the Indian society in using the newly enacted Constitution to empower themselves. However, I still believe what has shown in the short story of “Naya Kanoon” (The New-Constitution), also mentioned in the book, by one of the greatest Urdu writers Sadaat Hasan Manto written in the context of the Government of Indian Act 1935. This story is still relevant because the ordinary poor people, (remember the migrant crisis during the lockdown), still treated in the same way by the State as the Ustaad Mangu, the tonga driver in this story was treated by the policeman. So the Kanoon is still the “old one”.