Constitution Day: "Socialist" Needs To Be Dropped From Preamble, But They Won't Do It

Today, 26 November is being marked as Constitution Day. That gives an opportunity to reflect on the inclusion of the word “socialist” in the Preamble in ’76 by the Indira Gandhi government. Socialism is merely a system of economic management. There is no reason it should enjoy a sacred place in the Preamble to India’s Constitution. 

For two days starting today, our parliamentarians will be holding forth on the Constitution. Today is the sixty-sixth anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution (it came into effect on 26 January 1950) and the government has decided to celebrate it as Constitution Day, with several programmes. One of them is to have officials read out the Preamble of the Constitution.

But which Preamble? The one adopted this day 66 years ago? Or the amended one that came into effect in 1977?

The original Preamble read: “we, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic. . .”  The 42nd amendment of the Constitution, enacted in 1976 changed this to:

“we, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic. . .”  

After being deluged by criticism for putting out an advertisement on Republic Day showing the picture of the old Preamble, it’s a no-brainer that the government will insist on the amended Preamble being read out. So yet one more opportunity to question this egregious amendment will be lost.

The original preamble The original preamble

The issue of whether the word “socialism” should be included in the Constitution was debated in the Constituent Assembly. The exchange between K. T. Shah and B. R. Ambedkar on the issue is well known, but it is worth recapitulating.

Shah wanted Article 1, (“India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States”) to read “Federal, Secular, Socialist Union of States”. Ambedkar said he could not accept this on two grounds. One, the Constitution was just a mechanism to regulate the work of the various arms of the state. “What should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances.” The majority at a point of time may believe in socialism more than capitalism, but future generations may devise some other form of social organisation. “I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves to decide it for themselves”, he added.

Ambedkar (top-right) at a meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Ambedkar (top-right) at a meeting of the Constituent Assembly.

His second reason for rejecting Shah’s proposal was more of a lollipop. He pointed to the Directive Principles of State Policy, especially Article 31 (this later became Article 39) which spoke of the state directing its policy to ensuring the right to an adequate means of livelihood, that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good, that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment and that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women. “If these directive principles. . . are not socialistic in their direction and in their content, I fail to understand what more socialism can be. Therefore my submission is that these socialist principles are already embodied in our Constitution and it is unnecessary to accept this amendment”.

But Rajaji, another member of the Constituent Assembly, interpreted Article 31 differently from Ambedkar. Writing in Swarajya in April 1961, he said “there is not a word here to support the false doctrines of egalitarianism.” The principles enunciated in Article 31, he said, were to prevent cartels and monopolies. Rajaji was clear that “there is not a word in the Constitution recommending the socialistic pattern or socialism but everything was done in anticipation to prevent such mischief.” In this context, he referred particularly to the fundamental right to property (which the 44th Amendment removed).

Rajaji Rajaji

After the Emergency, the 44th Amendment undid various bits of the 42nd amendment, but left the adulteration of the Preamble untouched.

The issue of socialism in the Constitution would have remained just an academic exercise if it were not for the amendment of the Representation of the People Act in 1988. The amendment made it compulsory for parties to swear by the Constitution, the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy and uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India. Now this makes it impossible for a non-socialist party to get registration, rendering meaningless Ambedkar’s view that future generations should be free to change the system of social organisation if they wanted.

In 2005, Shetkari Sanghatan leader, Sharad Joshi, moved an amendment to the RPA as a private member’s Bill in the Rajya Sabha. In his speech while introducing the Bill, Joshi joined issue with the argument that the term socialism is vague and can be subject to varied interpretations and hence there should be no difficulty in adhering to it. Joshi found this line of reasoning flawed.

Three years later, the Supreme Court made a similar observation when hearing a petition challenging the 42nd Amendment by the Kolkata-based Good Governance India Foundation. Joshi said:

“The essential part of all brands of socialism is the notion of the paramountcy of society over an individual, of social decision making over individual behaviour.”

 What is the way out?

One way is to restore the Preamble to what it was in 1959. But this may not happen for three reasons. One, no government will have the guts to do this. Two, how can the current lot of party-affiliated MPs, who have sworn by socialism, vote to remove it from the Constitution? Socialism may be a discredited ideology but for some strange reason politicians refuse to reject it openly; they will find convoluted ways to show the most market-friendly action as being socialist. One only has to read the speeches during debate over Joshi’s amendment Bill to see the overwhelming support for socialism.

Three, even if this were to happen by some miracle, the courts will strike it down because it violates the basic structure of the Constitution, completely ignoring the fact that the 42nd amendment itself violated the basic structure as embodied in the original Preamble. The Supreme Court dismissed the Good Governance India Foundation’s petition against the 42nd Amendment as being of academic interest only. All that the late S. V. Raju of the Swatantra Party Maharashtra sought, in his 1996 petition before the Bombay High Court was to have the word `socialism’ dropped from the RPA. That petition has not been heard till date.

The apprehension that dropping the word “socialist” will lead to demands to drop “secular” as well is a real one. After the controversy in January, the Shiv Sena demanded that both “socialist” and “secular” should be removed from the Preamble.  The meaninglessness of the RPA provision is underscored by the fact that blatantly communal parties like the Shiv Sena get recognition by swearing by secularism. In fact, Joshi pointed out that the day after the party was allotted its electoral symbol, Bal Thackeray said at a public meeting that such tricks were par for the course and that “we are not secular and we stand for a particular religion”.

Her government inserted “socialist” and “secular” into the Preamble. Her government inserted “socialist” and “secular” into the Preamble.

Actually, Swatantra Party founder Minoo Masani had pointed out that the Constitution was pro-religion and not secular in the strict sense of the term. But he meant religion in a non-denominational manner.

Raju had a way out for this conundrum. He used to say, secularism can stay because it was a value, like democracy, but socialism was a system of economic management, and hence could not be treated as sacrosanct. Joshi too said that he only wanted socialism to be removed from the RPA, while secularism could stay.

Changing or challenging the Preamble may be an impossible battle. But perhaps the fight against the RPA needs to continue, if only to get unapologetically non-socialistic parties into Parliament.

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