Round-Up: ICLP Book Discussion on Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution”

In the first half of January, the ICLP Blog organised a book discussion on Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution. The essays, in chronological order, are below:

  1. Introduction (by Gautam Bhatia).
  2. The Search for Truth in the Republic of Writs (by Suhrith Parthasarathy)
  3. Husna Bai, Sex Work, and the Constitution (by Ratna Kapur)
  4. Always of the People? (by Namita Wahi)
  5.  We (are also part of) the People (by Bo Tiojanco)
  6. The Author Responds (by Rohit De)

ICLP Book Discussion: Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution” – VI: The Author Responds

(This is the concluding essay in our blog Round-Table on Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution.)

I am grateful to Gautam Bhatia for hosting this discussion on A People’s Constitution. I am thankful to Gautam Bhatia, Suhrith Parthasarathy, Prof Ratna Kapur, Dr Namita Wahi and Dr Bryan Tiajocano for their generous, thoughtful and deep engagements with the book. This has really been a privilege.

Response to Gautam

Gautam Bhatia offers a marvelous summary of my book and it’s core arguments, with clarity and precision that I am envious of. I have little to add, except address two of the points he raises, as they become relevant in the later discussions.

As Gautam states, at its core the book asks what makes the Indian constitution legitimate and worth defending. Both these propositions are truisms for most lawyers, indeed, the nature of legal practice requires lawyers, even in systems whose legitimacy is far more fraught than India, to take it on their own terms. The Indian lawyer’s burden becomes easier (particularly compared to their South Asian neighbours), as Namita Wahi points out, by the fact, that the Indian constitution was a rare postcolonial constitution which was authored by Indians through a representative process. While it is impossible to have an authentically representative assembly, it’s equally necessary to not reproduce the claims made by the Congress in 1946 to be the sole national voice representing all shades of opinion.

While the Indian constituent assembly was a remarkable experiment, which made efforts towards inclusion, it is important to recognize that both at the time and later, questions were raised about its representative capacity. The socialist leadership, including Jaiprakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardhan and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, who were a powerful force within the Congress refused to participate in an assembly that was not elected on adult franchise. As the assembly was based on the limitations of franchise in 1946, several influential groups like the Scheduled Caste Federation or the Justice Party had much lower representation than they would have in 1952 (or did in 1937) As the book shows, both the Communists and the Hindu majoritarian parties saw the constitution as an alien object, imposed from above without reflecting popular will or national culture. Furthermore, the constitution applied to territories and people who were not involved in its writing, including Hyderabad, Goa and Sikkim. Pooja Parmar has shown how the Constitution had limited participation and excluded representation from many tribal areas.

India’s constitutional legitimacy has been seen as being renewed through the largely uninterrupted practice of universal adult franchise and elections. As Ornit Shani shows, in How India Became Democratic, the creation of an inclusive electoral democracy went hand in hand with the making of the constitutional compact. This is why the Indian constitution did not face the kind of crisis of legitimacy that Pakistan’s early constitutions (which, like India’s, looks remarkably like the Government of India Act of 1935) or the Soulbury or Jenning’s Constitutions in Sri Lanka did.

My book addresses both these concerns, by showing how groups that did not necessarily participate in constitution making and were often written out of electoral logic and competition continued to engage and strengthen constitutional culture. At its most polemical, it argues that the constitution owed more to the engagement by those on the margins of democracy, for whom the courts and the text was the only resource in their moments of desperation or their basis for aspiring to inclusive citizenship.

Finally, critical constitutionalism in India, perhaps best articulated by Prof Upendra Baxi, has argued that the Indian constitution redeemed itself only after the adoption of PIL and engagement with substantive socio-economic rights in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a constitution for the proletarian instead of just the “propertariat”. As I discuss later, the book shows that even in the “so called conservative period”, the court could be a resource for the poor and disenfranchised. It mines debates framed in formal procedural liberalism, to show its roots in demands for substantive justice, socio-economic claims and community identity.

This brings me to the last point identified by Gautam i.e. a close look at the contexts of these cases pushes back against another dominant narrative – that of the Nehruvian governments being “anti-market.” Politics in the Nehruvian state is often understood through the lens of class conflicts, between agrarian elites and industrial capital, with a technocratic state playing a balancing act. In a recent review essay, Sudipta Kaviraj describes the early phase of politics in India as one in which the debates were carried out primarily in the language of familiar Western democratic discourse, in terms of conflicts between the political ideals of laissez faire and state intervention, between capitalist freedom and socialist redistribution. These politics visualized the movement between social classes as central to public life, while politics based on caste and religious identity remained underground and inarticulate. Almost nostalgically Kaviraj notes that it is in the 1970s that Indian politics begins to speak a political vernacular, when the politics of caste, region and religion completely erased an earlier vocabulary of class interests, capitalism and socialism. This curiously mirrors the narrative of constitutional litigation, which suggests the first two decades were dominated by formalist debates over liberal rights to property, but after the Emergency turned towards questions of substantive distribution.

The book aims to complicate this narrative in two ways: the first, by showing that the Nehruvian government was attempting to create a new set of market norms and reshape networks of circulation, whether of goods (alcohol, beef, and cotton), capital, or of bodies. This process led to the translation of some issues as economic while others were seen as political or cultural. Thus, sex work becomes a question of morality and public health, and cow slaughter one of faith and religion, though the legal challenges arise due to questions of livelihood. Similarly, cases that read as standard invocations of individual liberty were challenges to police powers to enforce cultural practices and protect individual interests.

Response to Suhrith

Suhrith through his crisp engagement, gets to the heart of the procedural legal puzzle in the book, one faced by many of the actors and perhaps best understood by the litigating lawyer. My research shows that assertions for “substantive rights” got less traction than assertions made over procedure. Suhrith argues that this is because the former required the court to engage with competing arguments over facts and testing claims which constitutional courts were not procedurally equipped to do. This comes through most clearly in the Hanif Qureshi cases, where faced with competing reports, figures and affidavits on the economic impact of a ban on cow slaughter, Chief Justice Das complained about being lost in the “labyrinth of figures”. The nefarious consequences of being unable to ascertain facts continued when the Supreme Court upheld an absolute ban on cow slaughter in 2005, relying largely on the BJP-led Gujarat Governments report that said that the value of cow dung and urine was sufficient to keep the cow economic after its milk had dried up.

 Suhrith alerts us to the limitations and dangers of the strategies that courts have used, relying on amici or setting up commissions, and underlines the inherent limitation in the republic of writs, i.e., a reliance upon the State for facts. As a historian, I would like to underscore that constitutional adjudication was new to lawyers, litigants and judges in the 1950s and their remained a great deal of uncertainty about procedure. Shanti Bhushan in his memoirs recalls an anecdote where he decided to challenge a traffic violation ticket through a writ petition, but this involved him educating the judge on how a writ worked.

The courts and the state in 1950s were unprepared by the consequences of writs. This is, for instance, why a municipality found itself praying for time to file a response as they had not budgeted. The institution of constitutional remedies in the 1950s was a radical act, which has often been underappreciated. Prior to the constitution, while a handful of High Courts could issue writs within a circumscribed geographic area, legislation sought to render the government immune from prosecution. Various indemnity clauses made it mandatory to acquire the consent of the governor-general before the institution of proceedings against government officials, and the courts were precluded from investigating the validity of government orders. All matters relating to revenue or its collection were excluded from the jurisdiction of the high courts, ensuring that the chief objective of the colonial government remained unhindered.

Constitutional remedies were profoundly disruptive in the 1950s and opened up spaces for resistance and cooption. Lawyers and litigants turned to it in droves, and this novelty is remarked upon in law textbooks, newspapers, bureaucratic reports and memoirs. Vikram Seth who wrote much of his Suitable Boy in the shadow of his mother’s law reporters, captures some of this when Justice Chatterji remarks “the law is changing everyday. One keeps reading about writ petitions being filed before the High Courts. Well, in my day we were content with regular suits”. While politician Mahesh Kapoor follows writ petitions filed by the princes against land reforms, young lawyer Firoz Khan is admonished by the Chief Justice of Brahmpur for filing a writ against the University, and is told “I see no reason for a writ at all, young man. Your client should have gone to a munsif magistrate. If he wasn’t satisfied with his decision he could have gone to a district judge on appeal and come here on further appeal. You should spend a little time choosing the appropriate forum rather than wasting the time of the court. Writs and suits are different things, young man, two quite different things”. A fuming Firoz marked presciently, “in a few years writs will be accepted method in such cases. Suits are too slow….I hope they will be flooded with writs soon.”[1]

Response to Ratna Kapur

I am grateful to Prof Kapur for her careful reading of chapter 4, which dealt with challenges by sex workers to the anti-trafficking law, and for making explicit the ways in Husna Bai’s petition intervenes in current debates on trafficking and sex work. In particular she argues that the partnership between Indian feminists and the postcolonial state to bring about a coercive anti-trafficking law in the name of rescue and rehabilitation mirrors contemporary critiques of alliances between “conservative religious groups, progressive-left, centre- liberal, progressive secular feminist groups as well as sex work abolitionists around issues of sex work and anti-trafficking”, as well as the emergence of what Janet Halley, Prabha Kottiswaran and others have described as “governance feminism”. I am humbled by her suggestion that this chapter provides “a crucial archive for marginalised women and sexual subalterns to draw upon in contemporary constitutional rights struggles” and that the legacy of Husna Bai’s struggle can be found in undercurrents of contemporary trans rights and LGBT advocacy. As Prof Kapur underlines, this episode of claim making and organizing by sex workers remains a largely forgotten history.

I wanted to briefly expand on this “forgetting” and the process of archival excavation. When I began my research in 2009, I had expected to find most of the figures who appear in the book. The court cases involving prohibition, essential commodities and cow slaughter had become part of the formal legal canon and circulated as precedents. I was consciously looking for engagements by women, but assumed I would find it around questions of personal law, an area on which the majority of work on gender and citizenship in the 1950s has focused on. I was also aware of a body of work that focusses on partition, and the creation of gendered forms of citizenship either through linking citizenship claims by marriage or through the process of recovery of abducted women.

Husna Bai’s case wrote itself into my project, as I was surprised by the volumes of anxious bureaucratic correspondence generated by a single judge decision of the Allahabad High Court, which did not give any legal relief. I soon realized the decision had become canonical for the interpretation of the Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act, and circulated among lawyers engaged in defending women arrested under it. As one of the earliest cases on the SITA, decided within two weeks of the act coming into force, the decision was reproduced in all leading commentaries on the act. Mazhar Hussein’s popular commentary on the SITA published in 1958 reproduced a newspaper article that described Justice Sahai’s decision, as the case had not yet been published in any law journals. In an introduction, Hussein noted that Justice Sahai had observed that sections 20 and 4(A) placed unreasonable restrictions and were hit by Articles 15 and 19 of the Constitution. I also found that similar arguments were being made by women engaged in sex work themselves, either in public protests or in their conversations with social workers and women activists.

Secondly, Husna Bai’s case helped me think about the complexities of the promise of freedom and liberty that the Constitution offered. For the women representatives in the constituent assembly, almost all of whom were active in the campaign to enact SITA, freedom in their view would not only mean formal equality between men and women, but include an active duty cast upon the state to intervene to bring about substantive equality and to free “unfree populations” like women trapped in sex work.

As the historian Daniel Botsman has argued, freedom needs to be understood as “an idea that has in modern times been used to reorder social relationships and constitute new frameworks for their management”. In making this argument, Botsman builds upon the idea of freedom as an integral part of the “reorganizing project of modern power”. The insertion of Article 23 into the Constitution and the STIA needs to be understood as facilitating the democratic state’s regulation of the sexuality of marginal women, the reimagining of prostitution as an economic problem central to the nation’s development, the replacement of the discourse of penalization with that of rehabilitation, and the legitimization of the role of welfare agencies and women social workers in the process.

Response to Namita Wahi

I greatly appreciate Dr. Namita Wahi’s rigorous examination of the arguments made in my book and pushing me to take some of the arguments further. She points out that my work rebuts the assumption that the pre-emergency court worked for the propertied by showing how it was open to and in some cases receptive of the claims of the “proletariat”. She suggests that a stronger rebuttal would be to engage with the Supreme Court’s formal property rights jurisprudence which would show that the state lost fewer cases over property rights than were “embedded in public imagination” and that these losses did not pose fundamental barriers to the state’s redistributive plans. I would concur, and look forward to reading Namita’s forthcoming history of the “Fundamental Right to Property” which I believe will fundamentally unsettle existing narratives on the court.

While my book does engage with insights on the court’s behavior, my emphasis was less on what the courts did but on why people came before the court. I see the court’s decision and final judgment as only one point, in a larger process through which a question gets constitutionalized. Lawyers are trained to treat the Supreme Court judgement as a final word on a question, to be pored over, analyzed, mined for extractable precedent and principles and in cases of unwanted results to be overturned through a judicial process. This is partly why the Chief Justice expressed great surprise at my desire to look through the entire case proceeding, when the final judgment was available. What I hope I was able to show was that for the litigations, or the people, the judgment itself was only a small part of larger process. For instance, despite the Supreme Court holding in Kaushaliya that Article 19 did not confer a right to prostitutes to practice their profession, sex workers continued to assert their right both before courts and in the public. Or in Mhd Yasin’s case, well before the Supreme Court reached a decision, the petitioner hired a drummer to announce to the public that in the case between the people and the town, the people had prevailed.

Property cases (particularly pertaining to agricultural land) made up the majority of cases before appellate courts in the 1950s, continuing a trend from the late 19th century where the majority of civil litigation was around agricultural land. This, and the existing body of work on land reform litigation, helped me decide to focus instead on other aspects of the postcolonial regulatory state. As Indivar Kamtekar has shown, the colonial state grew dramatically both in its ambitions and its personnel during the Second World War, a period when even the limited liberties and procedure available at the time were suspended. These coercive administrative technologies were eagerly embraced by the postcolonial state as part of its ambition to transform Indian society and economy, but had to be reconciled with electoral democracy and a republican constitution that promised a “community of political equals before constitutional law.”

Secondly, and again echoing Wahi’s findings, I too find that the right to property is a weak one and suggest that it’s the weakness of the right that leads to the recoding of property claims as those of free speech, equality or privacy. This innovation is particularly striking because the colonial order of rights was rooted in claims to property and custom, both of which were heavily circumscribed in the new constitutional order, and held to be morally abhorrent in public discourse. In the late 1930s, Parsis involved in the liquor trade had protested prohibition on the grounds that it destroyed their businesses   or interfered with religious practice, but in the 1950s cast their objections on the grounds of equality (the exemptions granted to various classes) or liberty.

 I appreciate Wahi’s invitation to explain what I mean by “the people”. As I mentioned, the dominant protagonists of my book include both figures like Parsi journalists and Marwari merchants who possess wealth and status along with figures like Qureshi butchers, vegetable sellers and prostitutes who are close to what the imagined figure of the subaltern would be. I would resist reading marginality merely by class status or economic wealth. Indeed, it’s not clearly evident that a vegetable seller or a prostitute would necessarily be destitute (though there are several petitions from refugees who had recently lost all their material means of support).

I argue in A People’s Constitution that independence produced a particular form of subalternity –electoral minorities who were unable to convince political parties and representatives to address their issues. The protagonists of the book had limited social capital against a state whose legitimacy was rooted in popular representation. They all belonged to groups that were vilified in public discourse- the Anglophilic Parsi, the corrupt Marwari, the cruel butcher or the immoral prostitute- and had limited opportunities for alliance building outside their own group. The basis for rights claims in colonial India had often been tied to claims to “ancient customary liberties.” For instance Muslims had argued for a long standing custom of cow sacrifice on Eid to challenge municipal regulations against cow slaughter or prostitute. However, with independence, electoral participation and representation became the basis for claim making. Unsurprisingly, these minorities were overrepresented in constitutional litigation. Constitutional law offered a way to frame their particular concerns as a generalizable problem for the broader public and private interests assumed public significance.

Wahi clearly identifies that all these groups largely live within urban areas, ranging from big cities to qasba towns, and leave out a large swathe of the Indian population. This represents the reality I found in the archive and I think offers some insight into how law and society operate in India. It is clear that the option of litigation was not available to all groups. In some ways, the ability to litigate was networked resource, available to groups that had access to capital and information. This was not determined solely by class, but was tied to the existence of informational networks, as can be seen by the sequential litigation that began to come from vegetable vendors from towns across Western UP challenging municipal licensing laws. Finally, it’s clear that legal consciousness was stronger among groups that were subjected to greater regulation and scrutiny by the state, which was often the case in urban areas. However, as work by scholars like Anand Vaidya shows, these options became available to groups like tribals, as they come under greater regulation through legislations like the Forest Rights Act.

Finally, Wahi suggests that my reading of the Nehruvian state as not being anti-market but seeking to create an alternate market ethics and forms of regulation needs to engage more seriously with American legal realism. This scholarship made a significant intervention in challenging the mythology of the “free market” and “free labour” in American public discourse and the idea that the market is distinct from the state. While appreciative of the suggestion and the scholarship, I find it less helpful to explain the situation in India in the 1950s. Living in a colonial economy, Indian politicians and thinkers, since the late 19th century demonstrated keen awareness that the “economy” that they functioned in was a bounded object created by colonial law. Dadabhai Naoroji in his “Poverty and UnBritish Rule in India” framed the existing political economy as one that far deviated from the “natural laws of the economy” and the promise of British governance. Historians like Ritu Birla and Julia Stephens have shown how vernacular merchants like Marwaris and Muslim mercantile groups were aware of how colonial law marked some of their activities as economic and others as “cultural”. By the late 1930s, when the National Planning Committee was set up, almost all shades of Indian political opinion saw an expansive role of the state in managing and developing the “national economy”. Rather than depicting the Nehruvian state as anti-market, I argue that one needs to pay attention to the kind of market and market ethics the state sought to promote. This comes out most explicitly in the chapter on commodity controls, where the state targets the petty merchant as a hoarder/usurer and an “uneconomic capitalist”, unlike large industry. In a caste society, economic activities were closely connected to ascriptive identities. Thus, the Nehruvian states attempts to reengineer production, distribution and consumption were often resisted through caste networks. This challenges conventional distinctions between “economic” and “cultural” rights as well as individual and group rights.

Response to Dr Brian Tiojanco

I am grateful to Dr Tiojanco for putting my book in conversation with the scholarship on popular constitutionalism. In particular, he notes an apparent tension in my reading of roots of Indian constitutionalism with that of Prof Bruce Ackerman’s, a scholar who both of us owe an intellectual debt to.

In his forthcoming book on world constitutionalism, Prof Ackerman argues that the Indian constitution’s durability can be attributed to the “ textual enshrinement of the principles that the founding generation had so valiantly won” and the popular legitimacy enjoyed by Nehru and the Congress party due to the memory and participation of thousands of people in the Congress led freedom struggle.

Tiojanco carefully shows how, despite the apparent contradiction, our arguments are complementary. As I show elsewhere, with their opposition to the Simon Commission and the writing of the Nehru Report and the Karachi Declaration on Fundamental Rights, the Congress had made it clear than any future constitution of India would be authored by Indians. Through successive demands for a Supreme Court, a bill of rights and the separation of the executive from the judiciary, they had made explicit a commitment to constitutionalism. However, with independence and the challenges of office, while the Congress was committed to constitutionalism in form (as demonstrated by the relative lack of interference in judicial appointments in the 1950s in contrast to other postcolonial states), they were less concerned about the content. Thus, when the constitution became an obstacle, the ruling party followed legal process and amended the constitution. In contrast, partly because they were outside the electoral game, the protagonists in my book sought shelter and fidelity to the constitutional text and constantly held the government accountable (taking seriously Zairul Hasan Lari’s plaint that the government too should learn “constitutional morality”).

In this, I owe a debt to Ackerman’s foundational scholarship where he argues that only those who are politically mobilized form a part of the people. What I hope to show is that political mobilization, particularly after independence, included many groups and peoples who were outside the consensus of the ruling party, whose engagements reinforced the constitutional charter than the Congress had played a significant role in creating. This contradiction comes through most explicitly in one of the first cases before the Indian Supreme Court on preventive detention, where the leader of the Communist Party of India was defended by the President of the Hindu Mahasabha (both parties that were critical of the constitution at the time of writing). A People’s Constitution shows that even in cases of everyday life, that were less explicitly political, constitutional litigation was enabled not by enlightened individuals but due to the existence of energized associational groups be it the Qureshi Jamaat or the Tawaif’s Association.

[1] I am grateful to Manav Kapoor and Mythili Vijaykumar for reminding me of Seth’s references.

ICLP Book Discussion: Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution” – V: We (are also part of) the People

(As part of our blog round-table book discussion, this is the fourth – and final part – of the substantive responses to Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution, by Bryan Dennis Tiojanco. All page numbers in brackets are references to page numbers in the book. This post will be followed by a response from the author.)

bryan dennis tojianco
Bryan Dennis Tojianco

Constitutions usually live only about 17 years. Only one of five constitutions reach the age of 50, which is usually when they become stable. That the Indian Constitution remains strong after almost 70 years is thus a remarkable feat in itself. It is ‘the longest surviving constitution in the post-colonial world, and it continues to dominate public life in India’, (2). Moreover, the Indian Supreme Court, which many consider ‘the most powerful constitutional court in the world’, continues to enjoy ‘tremendous public support’, (3). Three circumstances make this even more impressive. First, a national constitution is usually sturdier when the process that led to its enactment was more inclusive. The Constituent Assembly that drafted the Indian Constitution, however, was not popularly elected; the draft itself was also adopted without a public referendum. Second, constitutions enacted after 1945 have on average lived shorter lives than others. The Indian Constitution came into force in 1950. Third, with a population that is overwhelmingly poor, illiterate, and socially stratified, as well as ethnically and linguistically diverse, India lacks many conventionally listed social requisites of an enduring constitutional democracy.

The longevity (despite the odds) of the Constitution of India, the world’s largest constitutional democracy, makes Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic a must-read book for constitutional scholars. It is ‘a social history of constitutional law’ in India during ‘the Nehruvian period, which begins with Jawaharlal Nehru’s appointment as prime minister in 1947 and ends with his death in 1964’, (22 & 26). Thus it covers the first decade of the Indian Constitution’s life. Because a country’s constitution needs to outlive its founding generation before it attracts enough ‘veneration’ to ensure it ‘requisite stability’, its first decade are the years when it is most fragile. How and why the Indian Constitution attracted sufficient support to survive this decisive decade is therefore an important question for constitutionalists. De’s account masterfully marshals many historical facts which help answer both in ways that enrich mainstream constitutional theories.

One such theory is that of Bruce Ackerman, who gives advance praise for A People’s Constitution:

This book offers genuinely original insights into the transformation of India’s Constitution into a living reality of social and economic life. Its emphasis on the role of ordinary citizens, and civil society organizations, provides a fascinating perspective ignored in standard accounts focusing on the statecraft of political elites in New Delhi, (back cover).

This praise is the equivalent of saying touché in a discussion—i.e., it is an admission that De makes a good point that complicates Ackerman’s own take on Indian constitutionalism. Indeed, De cites Ackerman when he refers to ‘Constitutional theorists’ who ‘have attributed the success of the [Indian] Constitution to its moment of founding, the installation of a popular nationalist movement that was led by farsighted leaders committed to the rule of law’, (5). In this ‘celebratory story of the Indian Constitution’, De writes, ‘the main heroes are its charismatic and dedicated founding fathers who enshrined the principles of the nationalist movement into the constitutional document and largely abided by it’, (6–7). It was only after ‘the sheen wore off the next generation of politicians’ that the Indian Supreme Court became ‘the site for strengthening constitutional values’, (7).

Ackerman summarizes the four stages of this intergenerational story in chapter two of his forthcoming book (on file with the author):

We begin…with Gandhi and Nehru transforming the Congress Party…into a mass movement during the first half of the twentieth century—and then turn to the…effort to constitutionalize Congress’ revolutionary politics [during the Nehruvian period], and then move to the bitter succession crises [after Nehru’s death] and finally the Supreme Court’s effort [after the crises] to establish itself as the leading defender of the constitutional principles left behind by the revolutionary Constitution established by the Founders.

What these four stages yield, argues Ackerman, is what he calls the constitutionalization of charisma: the Indian Constitution’s continuing legitimacy springs from its textual enshrinement of the principles that the founding generation had so valiantly won. American constitutionalists would routinely take this view for granted. In American constitutional culture, ‘the rule of law must appear to represent the people: law is authoritative because it is representative’.

Although De writes that A People’s Constitution ‘presents a contrary argument’ to this celebratory story, (9), I see it more as a needful complement. In several places, Ackerman seems to equate Nehru’s Congress Party with ‘We, the People of India’. Indeed, his previous work suggests that he is sympathetic to the view that only those who were politically mobilized at a republic’s founding were part of ‘The People’. In contrast, A People’s Constitution suggests that constitutional litigation enabled ‘groups that are marginal and have limited social capital amid a wider public’ and who ‘were vilified in public discourse’—i.e., ‘prostitutes, traders, or butchers’—to also gain representation as part of ‘We, the People’ by reframing their claims to fit the constitutional text, (222). De says that determining whether these marginalized litigants actually saw the Constitution as representing them ‘remains a puzzle for further inquiry’, and indeed may be ‘impossible to prove’, (219). Indeed, analogical evidence from anthropological studies of religion show that whether this is so may in fact be ‘entirely irrelevant’ since resort to a court, much like resort to a diviner or shaman, may be likely more ‘an empirical bet, the expectation and hope that particular rituals will [help resolve] practical concerns’, rather than an indicia of ‘faith or commitment’ to the idea of popular sovereignty. Be that as it may, the story De tells in A People’s Constitution offers a riveting account that such may have very well been the case.

Ackerman argues that the Indian Constitution did not need ratification because its ‘claim to speak for “We the People” had been established only through the exercise of charismatic authority by Nehru and Congress’. Nehru was easily able to constitutionally amend away judicial resistance because, during the Nehruvian period, ‘it was the living memory of the great sacrifices made by millions during the period of insurgency [led by Nehru’s Congress Party], not the constitutional text…that was the primary engine of popular legitimacy connecting the Parliament in New Delhi with the Indian people’.

De also acknowledges that ‘[t]he postcolonial state drew its legitimacy from its democratic mandate and development agenda, making it particularly hard for electoral minorities to challenge its agenda publicly’, (11). This is why these minorities ‘resorted to the courts’, (11). But De also notes that courts ‘were careful about what they struck down’ because they ‘remained conscious of the fact that these laws had been enacted by a popularly elected government that enjoyed both democratic legitimacy and popular authority’, (220). This proved problematic for electoral minorities, considering that ‘[t]he ambition of the postcolonial state was to reshape both society and the economy’ and ‘[t]he Constitution created a powerful central government with vast revenue-raising powers and virtually blanket powers of legislation,’ (23). Thus ‘[t]he police powers of the state expanded massively at the same time that democratic processes were being implemented’, (24).

Here we encounter what Edmund Morgan calls ‘the central problem of popular sovereignty’: ‘the problem of setting limits to a government that derived its authority from a people for whom it claimed the sole right to speak’. While Morgan notes that it is impossible to empirically demonstrate this claim, his 17th–18th century history of popular sovereignty in England and America is a tale of intergenerational efforts ‘to bring the facts into closer conformity with the fiction’ in ways that ‘gradually transformed the very structure of society’. Because the idea of popular sovereignty ‘tended to draw more and more actual people into the political process,’ writes Morgan, it enabled more and more of them ‘to translate abstractions into practice’ and thus ‘give a plausible factual basis to the fictions of popular sovereignty’. This, in turn, worked to set limits on popular government—thus helping resolve popular sovereignty’s central problem.

Similar to Morgan’s history, A People’s Constitution shows that the Indian Constitution allowed ‘some of India’s most marginal citizens’ to lead a process that ‘profoundly transformed everyday life in the Indian republic’, (9):

the Constitution…came so alive in the popular imagination that ordinary people attributed meaning to its existence, took recourse through it, and argued with it…Much to the surprise of politicians and bureaucrats across the country, Indians from all walks of life began flooding the courts and the public sphere with claims based on the Constitution’, (9).

The Congress Party established judicial review partly because part of its crusade was against the colonial regime’s arbitrariness, and it had promised that the ‘new regime would set itself apart from the colonial regime by reclaiming and instituting the rule of law’, (15). Thus, as Ackerman also acknowledges, the Indian Supreme Court ‘was far from silent’ during the Nehruvian period, and ‘identified a host of issues on which it could speak authoritatively without provoking a parliamentary override’. For Ackerman the main implication of this for constitutionalism was to bring about ‘a cultural revolution within the legal profession’: lawyers started to accept judicial review as a matter of course, and with the gradual accumulation of precedents striking down legislative initiatives, ‘the legal order’s self-confidence increased, creating a supportive environment for the professionally disciplined development of constitutional doctrine’.

For De, the ‘central actor’ of this revolution in constitutional culture was not the lawyer, but ‘the citizen litigant’, (26). They were the

thousands of individuals who turned to the court…from groups that were marginalized both socially and economically in independent India. Although only a few could be considered to be absolutely poor, many participated in the informal economy or were rendered marginal because of their religion or their sex. This diverse group of litigants included prostitutes, Muslim butchers, Hindu refugees, Muslims who had been evicted from their homes, vegetable vendors, and even the occasional peasant rebel’, (27).

Thus De suggests that ‘the constitutional culture of the 1950s was shaped predominantly by the interventions of certain marginal groups’, (222). These interventions enabled marginal ‘citizens to insert themselves into an elite conversation’, and ‘compelled state authorities, including high-ranking bureaucrats and ministers, to come to court to defend their policies. It also required them to respond specifically to the claims made by the litigants’, (25).

Take De’s account of Prohibition in India, for example. Prohibition had been a central plank of the Congress Party since the mid-1920s, and it ‘enjoyed support from a wide cross-section of the party,’ (39). Moreover, ‘[a]s a favorite project of Gandhi’s, Prohibition gained a degree of moral sanctity after his death’, (72). The Constitution, however, provided ‘a structure within which Prohibition could be resisted and negotiated’ that ‘transformed the debate over Prohibition in ways that the Constitution drafters had not anticipated,’ (34). Because the Constitution provided both ‘a space where the state’s vision of social order could be contested, and…a neutral language to challenge the democratic legitimacy that was enjoyed by the state’, constitutional litigation ‘increasingly emerged as a means through which the state policy could be safely critiqued’, (72). This strategy proved successful. As Bhatia eloquently puts it in his introduction to this series, ‘the exceptions that the Supreme Court mandated to the prohibition regime – for instance, that of medicinal alcohol – ultimately grew so unwieldy, that they destroyed the regime from within’.

De bolsters his point by adding another crucial item to the conventional list of fundamental changes to its colonial past (universal adult suffrage, an interventionist government, a liberal rights regime, and judicial review) that the Indian Constitution introduced. The Indian Constitution made India a ‘Republic of Writs’, (9), says De, by giving every citizen ‘the right to constitutional remedies’, (10). This set of innovations

allowed any citizen of India to petition the Supreme Court for the enforcement of fundamental rights granted in the Constitution. The powers granted to the state and provincial high courts (i.e., the appellate courts) were even wider: they were empowered to issue remedies in forms of writs against the state for the violation of fundamental rights, legal rights, and “any other matter”, (10).


Thus these remedies ‘empowered citizens to challenge laws and administrative action before the courts and greatly enhanced the powers of judicial review’, (10). I italicized part of this quote to emphasize that judicial review is not the same as the right to constitutional remedies. Recall that Marbury v. Madison, the United States Supreme Court’s 1803 decision which established judicial review in that country, ultimately ruled that even though Marbury was entitled to a writ of mandamus, the Court did not have the jurisdiction to issue it. In contrast, the Constitution of India gives the Indian Supreme Court and every High Court the power to issue writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari for the enforcement of fundamental rights.

De notes that this broad right to constitutional remedies (alongside the other breaks with India’s colonial past) ‘led to a massive explosion of litigation before the Indian courts’ and ‘radically transformed the practices of governance in ways the Constitution drafters did not expect’, (10). In the Constitution’s first year, ‘the Supreme Court heard more than 600 writ petitions’, and ‘[b]y 1962 the Supreme Court had heard 3,833 such cases’, (11). A People’s Constitution can be read as a story of how this immediate impact of the broad right to remedies greatly bolstered the legitimacy of India’s Constitution during its decisive first decade.

(The author is a post-doctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore.)

ICLP Book Discussion: Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution” – IV: Always of the People?

(As part of our blog round-table book discussion, this is the third – and penultimate – of the substantive responses to Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution, by Namita Wahi).

namita wahi
Namita Wahi

Rohit De’s book, “A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of the Law in the Indian Republic” is a deeply informative, discursively deliberate, and delightfully entertaining, account, of how the “people” or “ordinary Indians”, often from minority or subaltern groups in India, not only engaged with the Indian Constitution but also transformed its application to their daily lives. In doing so, De argues that the “people” parleyed on equal terms with the state, which would not have been possible without the text of the same “Constitution”, that has been variously critiqued in scholarly literature as “undemocratic”, an “elite” project, and “an alien imposition” on the people of India. In focusing on the “individual litigant”, rather than “judges”, “lawyers”, or the “occasional politician” as the central actors of the story, De uses his elite access to the Supreme Court’s archives as law clerk to former Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan, to illuminate instead the lives and livelihoods, and trials and tribulations of what he describes as “non elite, marginalised” groups. These four groups include Parsi liquor business owners and operators, Marwari businessmen trading in state controlled commodities, Muslim Qureshi community butchers, and urban sex workers.

De’s unpretentious prose is interspersed with charming little details and newspaper cartoons about the motivations of policymakers and civil society groups who created the objectionable laws that were the subject of challenge from these four groups of “individual litigants”, and the mechanisms used by policy makers to build consensus amongst the “people” for such laws, which in turn provoked resistance from groups that De also terms the “people”.  Though loquacious at times, De tells a compelling story, and presents a textured analysis both of the processes by which laws were made in the first two decades post independence, and how they were sought to be unmade by “ordinary litigants”.

I applaud De’s scholarly excavations through the Supreme Court’s untouched archives, and find his arguments and claims in the book broadly persuasive. Below, I share some thoughts on these claims, not with a view to disagree with them, but in the hope of pushing De and other scholars to establish some of these claims more forcefully.

First, De claims, that despite the flaws in its drafting which have led some to label it as an “elite” or “alien” constitution, the Indian Constitution provided ample scope for “ordinary people” to litigate its guarantees before the Supreme Court, and in doing so, to indigenise and ordinarise it. Here, I must add, that as I have written elsewhere, the Indian Constitution was the first constitution of a commonwealth country drafted and adopted by its own nationals, which makes it more indigenous than most constitutions that came before, and most that came after. So, in my own scholarship, I have not strongly felt the burden of this criticism. But insofar as this critique of the Constitution’s legitimacy is deeply embedded within existing constitutional scholarship especially amongst historians, anthropologists, and political scientists, and continues to cause unease amongst legal scholars as noted by Gautam Bhatia in his introductory post about De’s book, it is important to take this critique head on and I welcome De’s attempt to do so in his book.

Second, De claims that, contrary to the entrenched conventional narrative about the Supreme Court, which regarded it as a Court for the “propertariat” before the emergency, and the court of the “proletariat” thereafter, in actual fact, the Court gave a voice to the “proletariat” even during the period that it was most vilified as the court of the “propertariat”. Again, I have sympathy with this claim, having sought previously to rebut it in my doctoral thesis “The Right to Property and Economic Development in India” (2014), which studies the constitutional property rights jurisprudence of the Court, that has been responsible in large part for the court’s infamy on this count. De’s painstaking description and analysis of the backgrounds of the “individual litigants”, some as religious, and others as gender minorities, and as coming from a lower social and economic status, go a considerable distance in rebutting the “propertariat” image of the Court.

Third, De suggests that the proof of the pudding is not always in the eating; it is also in the preparation of it. De demonstrates that ultimately, legal victories in the Supreme Court are not the only way of evaluating the success of the Constitution’s “fundamental rights” guarantees for Indian citizens. Sometimes, legal loss is but a step in building consensus towards a more long lasting social victory (as seen in the context of the s. 377 litigation in recent times). But if we trawl through the Supreme Court’s case archives, as De has done, it is quite possible that we will find many more such instances that substantiate this claim. At other times, the process of litigation helps to halt the governmental juggernaut, which gives the litigants enough time to transition to occupations or beliefs that do not fall afoul of the law (as seen in the four kinds of cases that De describes, as well as the property rights jurisprudence of the Court with which I am more familiar).

Now, I air my (mild) disagreements on some of these themes. First, the claim that the Supreme Court also protected rights of the “proletariat”, even as it protected the rights of the “propertariat” adds laudable complexity to the oft-repeated unidimensional view of the Court pre-emergency. It does not however, refute the deeply entrenched claim that the Court did stand for the “propertariat”. After all, the Nehruvian state’s painting of the Court as reactionary and anti poor was not merely because it lost the property cases that it did (though these are much fewer than what seems to be embedded in the public imagination), but its claim that these losses were fundamental barriers in reshaping the economy in a way that was essential to ensure economic development and social redistribution, which would alleviate poverty and misery. Therefore, in order to fully rebut the claim that the Court was reactionary and protective of elites, we cannot escape engagement with the court’s property rights jurisprudence.

Second, it is clear that there are many categories of elites. As Pierre Bourdieu has noted, there are many types of capital that help create social class: financial capital, social capital, cultural capital and symbolic capital. De’s “ordinary litigants” were not landowners. But insofar as these litigants were government officials (in a recent op-ed, Surjit S Bhalla has noted that India’s “jobs crisis” is in large part created by a demand for government jobs, thus providing some indication of the extent to which a government job confers economic and social capital to ordinary Indians today, even in a much more booming private market economy than that which existed during the period De interrogates), or owned businesses or participated in trades, or were taxpayers within a largely urban setting or “bazaar economy” as De calls it, at a time, when more than 70% of the Indian population lived in villages and the average life expectancy of all Indians was a mere 41 years, some of De’s “ordinary litigants” can be considered lesser elites. Of the four groups of litigants, Parsis though a religious minority, we know are, and have been a socially and economically empowered community in India, and the Marwaris, from the dominant Hindu community are also a socially and economically influential community in India. De’s claims are much more persuasive vis-a-vis the women sex workers, who both because of their gender and the “immoral” nature of their work, and the Muslim Qureshi community, who because of their “religious” minority status, and because of their involvement in a profession that was antithetical to the most sacred belief of the majority Hindu community regarding “cow worship”, can be considered truly marginalised.

De’s second argument, that the Nehruvian state was not anti-market but rather sought to reshape the market in accordance with certain social and economic goals, and used the law to achieve its goals of reshaping market relations, is also convincing. But, in my view,De could have engaged with this claim not just historically, but also theoretically. The claim in political science literature that the Nehruvian state was anti-market, stems from a pre- legal realist understanding of state market relations, according to which, the state and market are two separate domains, and it is possible for the state to choose whether to allow market forces to operate in freedom or to impose a statist vision on the economy. De’s response to this claim, insofar as he demonstrates that the Nehruvian state was not statist but actively involved in reshaping the market economy, though substantively robust appears pre- legal realist. Legal realist scholarship by scholars like Holmes, Hohfeld, Llewellyn, and Hale and further developed by Critical Legal Scholars, like Duncan Kennedy, Roberto Unger, and Morton Horwitz, has demonstrated that even in the most “free market” economy of the world, namely the United States, the state and the market are not two separate domains, but rather the state always creates the market economy through law. The reverse is not just a historically, but a theoretically untenable proposition.  De engages with the post realist literature in his description of Hendrik Hartog’s understanding that “law and legal practices were intrinsic” to the lives of ordinary Americans, noting that this understanding is missing from literature about India. Likewise, it would have been illuminating for us, if De had engaged with the post realist literature on state market relations.

But these are minor quibbles with De’s otherwise masterly account of how the Constitution empowered ordinary Indians to effectuate the promise of the Republic where all citizens, irrespective of caste, class, gender, or social and economic status, could enjoy the basic rights of life, liberty, equality, and property. Rohit De’s book is a seminal contribution to the recent body of scholarship that has sought to interrogate many conventional narratives about the Indian Constitution, and its self-appointed highest guardian, the Indian Supreme Court. It deserves to be read once for the sheer brilliance of the narrative, and its peek into the “everyday life of the law in the Indian Republic”, and reread many times for its discursive navigation across scholarly literatures, ranging from history, politics, sociology, anthropology and the law, and his insights that take our understanding further in all of those fields.

ICLP Book Discussion: Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution” – III: Husna Bai, Sex Work, and the Constitution

(As part of our blog round-table book discussion, this is the second of the substantive responses to Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution, by Prof. Ratna Kapur.)

Prof. Ratna Kapur

Rohit De’s very compelling archival and historical excavation situates the Constitution and the making of Indian constitutional law in the everyday lives of the people. But not just any people. It is driven largely by those who were left out, excluded or subordinated, both historically as well as from the postcolonial liberal democratic political space. De describes this process as “constitutionalism from the margins.” These are the subalterns whose rights claims produced a constitutional consciousness.

The `marginal’ citizens that have led this process include the sex worker. De’s chapter entitled “The Case of the Honest Prostitute: Sex, Work, and Freedom in the Indian Constitution” provides a refreshing insight into rights struggles that have informed the legal regulation of sex work and how these continue to resonate in contemporary discussions on sex work, anti-trafficking and sexual morality.

The chapter provides a close reading of the case of Husna Bai, who, in 1958, filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution challenging the constitutional validity of the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act1956 (SITA). Her central claim was that as a sex worker and citizen of India, her right to practice her profession as a prostitute under Article 19 of the Constitution was being infringed by the new anti-trafficking regulatory regime established by SITA.  She wanted the Act to be declared ultra vires as it struck at the means of her livelihood, and “frustrated the purpose of the welfare state established by the Constitution in the country” (p. 169). The case received extensive media attention and was supported by prostitute organisations throughout the country, triggering similar cases in other high courts, including Delhi and Bombay.

De’s narrative draws attention to three important features of Husna Bai’s intervention.  The first is how it led to a convergence of opinion amongst female members of the Constituent Assembly and parliamentarians as well as social workers who had driven the legal campaign for women’s equality rights under Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution to outlaw what they described as “immoral traffic”, and the emancipation of the prostitute. The campaign to have human trafficking and forced labour included under Article 23 of the new Constitution was led by one of India’s first female lawyers and a member of the Constituent Assembly, Durgabai Deshmukh and supported by Hansa Mehta, President of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC).  Deshmukh and her female compatriots were aghast that a petition could be filed for upholding the “right to carry on prostitution or the business of brothel keeping” (p. 170), which they determined would undermine the national progressive agenda in favour of women’s rights to equality and freedom. Article 6 of the AIWC’s “Charter of Rights of and Duties for Indian Women”, included the role of women in maintaining moral standards. Within this framing there was no recognition of the subjectivity of Husna Bai, either as a sex worker, or as a Muslim and a citizen of India in her claim for rights. Instead she was viewed as a victim and an abject subject, to be rescued, rehabilitated and incorporated into the dominant moral order. Her future in postcolonial India would be scripted by those who viewed themselves as the keepers and preservers of Indian womanhood and the moral dignity of the nation. The position of Deshmukh and other liberal female parliamentarians presaged the anti-sex trafficking and abolitionist position of Indian feminists that has been dominant in the contemporary moment. The construction of the identity of the nation as a sexually conservative, heteronormative, marital and reproductive arrangement was to constitute the normative scaffolding within which women’s subjectivity was to be recognized and women’s equality rights conferred in postcolonial India.

Second, Husna Bai is the first case to foreground the agency and presence of the female sexual subaltern in law. The prostitute had been constructed largely as a contaminant and a source of disease in colonial law. This construction erased the plural and varied categories of female sexual subjects in the Indian context that included temple dancers, concubines, sex workers, dancing girls, classical musicians and others.  Husna Bai’s intervention signalled the arrival of the female sexual subject, who challenged the vast bureaucratic and welfare apparatus established under SITA to manage and regulate the prostitute all without her consultation or participation. This exercise of governmentality was designed to ensure the female citizen’s compliance with the emerging conservative norms of Indian womanhood through which the identity of the Indian nation came to be established. Vast powers were conferred on local magistrates as well as the police to manage this `rogue’ subject into normative compliance or be evicted from the public arena and sequestered into protective homes and shelters that rendered her completely invisible and non-existent.

Husna Bai’s challenge, filed almost immediately after the promulgation of SITA, attested to her knowledge of its implications on a range of her fundamental rights.  It also triggered the mobilisation of sex workers in the form of both protests as well as similar legal challenges against the encroachment of the new legislation on their rights. In this struggle, women’s rights advocates were directly pitted against the rights of the women affected by the new law. While sex workers had managed to navigate their lives around earlier laws through techniques such as bribes, claiming to be married (pp.182-183), labelling themselves as dancing girls or singers to avoid prosecution as `public prostitutes’, they continued to be subjected to intense legal and moral scrutiny. Husna Bai chose not to continue with these methods, which denied her status as a prostitute. Instead she opted to fully confront the repressive nature of the laws as well as the categorisation of sex workers as immoral, criminals, or deviants.  In claiming the right to practice her trade and profession on behalf of her entire class of workers, Bai presented herself as a “labouring citizen claiming economic rights” (p.189) as well as a breadwinner for her family.  The implications of such a bold position were both legal and normative. Not only did Bai insert herself as a legitimate citizen entitled to rights claims, she also disrupted the victim/contaminant rhetoric in which the sex worker’s subjectivity had been embedded in law.

The third implication of Bai’s intervention involves the court’s response to her claims and its legacy for the female sexual subaltern as well as feminist politics in the postcolonial present. Husna Bai’s petition was ultimately dismissed but not before the court examined her substantive arguments. Justice Sahai of the Allahabad High Court was of the view that prostitution could be recognized as a trade under Article 19(1)(g), and that restrictions which totally prevented a citizen from carrying out her trade would be unreasonable and void. The fact that the act criminalised `living off the earnings of a prostitute’ was found by Justice Sahai to be unreasonable, given that the trade was usually carried on in the home of families living together, and where household expenses were also shared. Bai further challenged the provision permitting a magistrate to remove a woman from his jurisdiction if the court received information that she was a prostitute. She alleged that the provision impinged her right to mobility, violated her right to equality insofar as the prostitute was treated differently from all other women and this was an unreasonable classification, and infringed her right to freely practice her trade under Article 19(6) (pp.198-199). Justice Sahai supported Bai’s objections. He was of the view that the conferring of unfettered power on a magistrate to remove a woman from his or her jurisdiction for all time, was not only arbitrary, but only served to push her into another locality, and did nothing to liberate her from the trade. In the end, while Justice Sahai accepted the merits of Husna Bai’s challenge, he declined to entertain her petition because her specific rights had not as yet been violated, and hence the petition was premature.

In 1964 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the various provisions of the SITA that were the subject of the legal challenges brought by Husna Bai and others after her. In the State of Uttar Pradesh v Kaushalya Devi, Chief Justice Koka Subbarao not only upheld the classification of the prostitute as a separate category as reasonable, but also held that the power conferred on magistrates to remove her from the jurisdiction depended on the “values of life in a society… and the degree and urgency of the evil sought to be controlled” (p. 208). The case sought to push the sexual subaltern back into a normative box.  But De’s inclusion of Husna Bai’s case is not located within the logic of victory or defeat. It is to demonstrate the ways in which the subaltern could perform her rights under the new Constitution as an entitled citizen, challenging the dominant myth that the Constitution was a judicially driven endeavour. Bai’s case did not die with the dismissal of her petition. Justice Sahai’s reasoning has become a peg on which the sexual subaltern has fastened her subsequent rights claims. The legacy of Husna Bai thrives in the undercurrents of subsequent challenges, especially in contemporary trans rights and LGBT rights advocacy.

De’s foregrounding of Husna Bai’s petition is a crucial intervention in the debates on sex work and trafficking, which have moved rapidly to the top of feminist national and global agendas in the contemporary moment. The narrative he pursues through Bai’s case speaks to the dissonance and disruption that the female sexual subaltern brings to the legal arena, and to the neat and tidy prescriptions on how to be a proper/good Indian woman. And as De points out, the narrative also challenges the position of those feminist scholars who view the law as inherently patriarchal and incapable of accommodating the claims of women such as Husna Bai. De demonstrates how Husna Bai’s petition produced alternative understandings of female subjectivity in the legal arena that stood in direct contrast to those being promoted by (bourgeoisie) women’s rights advocates and female parliamentarians in the aftermath of freedom. The case not only triggered a series of rights claims and litigation by sex workers, it has become a part of the genealogy of sexual subaltern subjectivity that is echoed today in the rights advocacy of groups such as Calcutta’s Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee (DMSC). The case exemplifies how sex workers have talked back to middle-class women’s groups in the language of rights (p. 210) and continue to do so.

De’s excavation of the historical narrative is a vital contribution to the archive on the female sexual subaltern’s presence in Indian constitutional legal discourse. It complicates equality rights claims by highlighting the distinction between those women who were pre-selected (or self-selected) as entitled to equality rights in the nationalist and postcolonial liberal democratic order, and those subalterns who were excluded and compelled to battle through the courts for legibility through rights claims in the newly accorded space provided by the Constitution. This contribution pushes back against the often patronising and protectionist stand of nationalists as well as women’s rights groups who usurped the subaltern voice. Partnerships or alliances between conservative religious groups, progressive-left, centre- liberal, progressive secular feminist groups as well as sex work abolitionists around issues of sex work and anti-trafficking have become commonplace in the global politics of sex and gender.  De’s foregrounding of the subaltern voice not only signals the presence of the “resistive subject” in Constitutional rights making and adjudication, it presents a history of how this voice was formative in the emerging politics of women’s Constitutional rights discourse in the aftermath of independence. It provides a crucial archive for marginalised women and sexual subalterns to draw upon in contemporary constitutional rights struggles.

(Ratna Kapur is Professor of Law , Queen Mary University of London, and Distinguished Visiting Professor, Symbiosis School of Law.)

ICLP Book Discussion: Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution – II: The Search for Truth in the Republic of Writs

(As part of our blog round-table book discussion, this is the first of the substantive responses to Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution, by Suhrith Parthasarathy.)

Suhrith Parthasarathy

Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic” is an extraordinary book and demands engagement not only by lawyers and historians but by anyone who’s interested in the state of India’s polity. The book seeks to bust the myth that the Constitution represents a preserve of the privileged and the elite. It shows us instead how the document came to occupy a central place in the daily life of the citizen. De achieves this by framing each of his chapters around a distinct set of constitutional challenges—the idea behind this, as he writes, is to underscore three connected themes: “the process through which the Constitution emerges as an organizational assumption and a background threat for the state; the greater accountability of procedural over substantive challenges to government action and the origins of constitutional consciousness among certain citizens.”

In the present post, I’ll look to focus on the second of these themes, that is the higher judiciary’s—both the Supreme Court and the high courts’—greater receptiveness to claims made over procedural irregularities over claims made through an assertion of substantive rights. This proclivity, which is sometimes profoundly injurious to the Constitution’s guarantee of fundamental rights, I’ll argue, is a product of design, an inherent weakness in the nature of writ jurisdiction. Assertions for substantive rights tend not to enjoy an equal level of traction as assertions made over procedure, because they require the courts to engage with competing arguments at a deeper factual level, requiring a testing of the veracity of claims and counter-claims made both by petitioners and the state alike.

Indeed, the very cases that De has chosen to concentrate on, which have no doubt intensified the Constitution’s reach, making India, in the author’s words, “a Republic of Writs,” bring to light this limitation. Consider the slew of petitions filed in 1957 challenging the validity of laws banning cow slaughter, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s judgment in Mohd. Hanif Qureshi & Others vs The State of Bihar. One of the key arguments made by the Qureshi community was that a law banning cow slaughter altogether would only prove wasteful, and would, in fact, militate against the text of Article 48, which, as a directive principle, enjoins the state to “organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines,” and “take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

In seeking to further this argument, the petitioners in Mohd. Hanif Qureshi had cited a 1953 circular issued by the Union Ministry for Food and Agriculture, which read as follows:

“A compulsory ban on cow slaughter would lead to a lower standard of cattle life in the country. Nearly 40 million cattle in the country do not give milk and are a drain on available fodder and other cattle food. Their maintenance entails enormous expenditure, making it impossible to provide the care and nourishment to productive cattle that is required to improve their milk and capacity and traction power. The result is that even productive cattle gradually deteriorate and cease to be productive.”


Additionally, the Qureshis claimed in court that a ban on cow slaughter would result in depriving many people of a cheap source of food. What’s more, the measure, they contended, was economically faulty. To this end, they relied on data which showed that an increase in cattle between 1945 and 1951, on account of a reduction in cow slaughter, had not led to a concomitantly significant increase in the supply of milk. Further, a complete ban, they argued, would also substantially damage trading in leather apart from putting an end to a range of other industries, including gut making, glue making and blood dehydrating.

One petitioner, Mohammed Siddiq from Rampur, De points out, made a rather curious, but potentially compelling argument. Abandoned cattle, which went “unclaimed by anyone and which could be destroyed by no one,” he asserted, were roaming the countryside freely and were forcing cultivators to hire people to merely keep watch over the fields day and night to ensure that these cattle weren’t causing any damage to their crops.

On the other hand, one of the respondents in the Supreme Court, the Government of Uttar Pradesh, rebutted these claims by relying on the findings of the Gosamvardhan Enquiry Committee Report. The report, the state argued, had made it clear that the “absence of the ban on cow slaughter had been tried for years past with no appreciable results on the improvement of the cows, nor have uneconomic cattle been lessened with the freedom to kill.” An absolute ban on cow slaughter, the report had concluded, was the only way at achieving the objectives of Article 48.

Now, how were the judges to test the correctness of these clearly contradictory claims? After all, as a court of first instance, exercising original writ jurisdiction, the Supreme Court did not possess any clear power to call for witnesses, to take evidence from them, and to allow for cross-examination. As De observes, Chief Justice Sudhi Ranjan Das, who delivered the court’s judgment, was frustrated by these limitations. “It is difficult to find one’s way out of the labyrinth of figures,” he wrote, “and it will be futile for us to attempt to come to a figure of unserviceable agricultural animals which may even be approximately correct.”

This handicap (which isn’t present when courts of first instance exercise ordinary original civil jurisdiction, for example) has meant that the Supreme Court, and the high courts, when exercising their authority to issue prerogative writs have tended to see fact finding as lying outside the scope of their powers. Every time a court, despite claims of substantive rights violations being made, is asked to determine a question of fact it dithers. In doing so, the invariable consequence is a lending of credence to the state’s version of events. This was apparent most recently in the challenge made in the Supreme Court to the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act. Reams of affidavit evidence were submitted by the various petitioners highlighting the exclusionary characteristics of the programme. But these were brushed aside with disdain, and, instead the court placed enormous reliance on a “power-point presentation” made by the chairperson of the UIDAI, the nodal authority in charge of running the Aadhaar programme. Given that these facts were not supported by evidence on affidavit, ordinarily the court shouldn’t have so much as allowed the presentation to be aired. But this goes to show how far the court’s writ jurisprudence hamstrings its powers to determine disputed questions of fact.

Yet, constitutional challenges can never really be divorced from fact-finding. In the Aadhaar case, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion conceded that a test of “proportionality” ought to form the basis for judicial review when claims are predicated on a violation of a right to privacy. But, as Mariyam Kamil has pointed out in this blog, this is a test that demands an intense enquiry into facts. In the case before it, to apply the test of proportionality to the Aadhaar Act, the court would have had to answer a series of factual questions, including as Gautam Bhatia has written here, whether Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was effective at plugging welfare leakages (which was what the Act claimed as its purported goal)? Whether there were effective, alternatives to Aadhaar which can help achieve the same goal? If so, were such alternative measures less intrusive on the right to privacy? It is only in answering these questions could the court have really determined whether Aadhaar was the least restrictive measure available to achieve the legislature’s goals.

Over the years, when faced with conundrums over how to test contradictory claims, the Supreme Court has customarily either veered towards accepting the government’s statement of facts (we recently saw an extreme version of this in the Rafale judgment) or has appointed an expert (usually an amicus curiae) to file a report—in Qureshi’s case, for example, the court invited Thakur Das Bhargava, who, as a member of the Constituent Assembly, had been instrumental in drafting Article 48. But invariably the appointment of an amicus curiae has only resulted in dispensing with the standard rules of evidence in an adversarial proceeding. As S. Muralidhar, now a judge of the Delhi High Court, wrote in 1998, the upshot of all of this is that the petitioners are “entirely at the mercy of the amicus curiae who as the delegate of the court’s screening power can decide who can or cannot petition the court and what can and cannot be said by them.” [For a detailed discussion on the dangers of making petitioners dispensable, see Anuj Bhuwania, Courting the People, which was reviewed here].

De’s book shows us that on the making of the republic, writ petitions were new not just to litigants but also to lawyers and judges alike. Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan, India’s third chief justice, quite candidly admitted that his knowledge of constitutional law, when he was appointed to the bench, was rather limited, and that he spent his first couple of years on the Supreme Court reading American constitutional jurisprudence. But those early years, in which the Constitution transformed the lives of the ordinary citizen, what also became quickly apparent was the inherent limitation in using writ petitions as a means to further substantive rights. Almost right from the outset, both the Supreme Court and the high courts struggled to resolve what they perceived as a dichotomy between fact-finding and constitutional judgment. Even though the Supreme Court now recognises, in theory, that laws made by the state ought to conform to due process, both substantive and procedural, the limitations of the judiciary’s writ jurisdiction have meant that litigants, on the advice of counsel, have had to structure their strategy by predominantly grounding their arguments on procedure.

Hence, quite contrary to what the general theory of constitutional jurisprudence in India posits, adjudication continues to be centred on an assumption of legislative facts. But to conduct a meaningful judicial scrutiny of legislation, a disinterested and rigorous consideration of facts becomes essential. There is, therefore, an imminent need to think more carefully about burden of proof and rules of evidence in constitutional cases—relying merely on the filing of affidavits, counter-affidavits and affidavits in rejoinder has proved grossly insufficient. Now, no doubt, in principle, depending on the nature of the violations alleged and the nature of the scrutiny employed, the onus of establishing a set of facts tend to shift to the state. But the question of when this burden gets discharged remains. How must a court appreciate the different statements of fact made before it?

De’s book, like the best books on history, unearths events from the past by enlightening the present moment. In showing us how constitutional law can intersect with rules of evidence he presents an issue of substantial, contemporary importance. Ultimately, it’s imperative that courts establish a cogent and consistent approach to resolving disputed questions of fact. Only then will constitutional adjudication transform itself from concerns over procedure to concerns over substance.

ICLP Book Discussion: Rohit De’s “A People’s Constitution” – I: Introduction


(Over the next few days, the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog will run a book discussion on Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic. This is the introductory post.)

There is a standard – and long-standing – narrative about the evolution of the Supreme Court of India. In the first thirty years of its existence (or so this narrative goes), the Court was an elite institution, mediating conflicts between landowners and the State in constitutional battles over the right to property, and often taking the side of the former. All this changed after the Emergency, and with the advent of public interest litigation: now the Court began to take seriously the concerns of the vast majority of Indians, transforming itself – in the words of Upendra Baxi – from “the Supreme Court of India” to “the Supreme Court for Indians.”

A striking feature about this narrative is how firmly it places the Supreme Court at its centre. It is the Court that assumed a certain institutional posture in its first three decades, and its the Court – driven by heroic, individual judge-crusaders – that reversed itself after the 1980s. Perhaps ironically, this narrative fits easily with another account: that the Indian Constitution is a top-down imposition upon the People, that was – and is – culturally and socially at odds with it. These two accounts come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they unite in attributing to the Court the exclusive agency of shaping Indian constitutionalism, and denying any significant role to non-institutional actors – i.e., the People.

In recent times, a certain degree of self-satisfaction with respect to the PIL project has been questioned, with books like Courting the People (discussed here) pointing out that a project that is ostensibly about democratising the law, but continues to be driven by judges and lawyers, will likely come up short in fulfilling its democratic aspirations. Rohit De’s A People’s Constitution now questions our popular beliefs about the first half of the popular narrative: the first thirty years of the Court were not quite as undemocratic as we have been led to believe. It was not just economic and social elites engaged in a war of position with the post-colonial State, with the Court serving as the battleground; rather, it involved the People, in a much deeper and more meaningful way than is presumed.

Rohit De

The Questions

De frames this argument around four early Supreme Court judgments, that will be familiar to students of constitutional law: Behram Pesikaka v State of Bombay (concerning prohibition in Bombay), Hari Shankar Bagla v State of MP (concerning commodity controls under the Essential Supplies Act), Mohd. Hanif Qureshi v State of Bihar (concerning cow slaughter prohibitions), and State of UP v Kaushaliya (concerning the regulation sex work under the Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act). In each chapter – that deals with one of these judgments – De asks the following questions: who was the person – or people – who brought the case to Court (and, relatedly, who were the people who commenced litigation that led up to the Supreme Court judgment at issue – often, there would be prior cases, filed by other people, that would set the stage for the final adjudication)? What were the social, economic, and cultural contexts that triggered their decision to challenge the State in a court of law? Once in court, what legal strategies did the petitioners adopt to maximise their chances of success? How did the State and the broader society respond to the judicialisation of this particular conflict? And, after the judgment, what were the consequences – often going beyond what the published decision might suggest?

The Answers

Five themes emerge out of De’s study.

First – and this really is the core argument of the book – a close analysis of the discursive terrain around these cases suggests that, contrary to the caricatured account of the early Court – the Indian constitutional project was not judge-driven, or even elite-driven. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the framing of the Constitution, these cases show that once framed, the Constitution, constitutional idioms, and – dare we say it – constitutionalism percolated “downwards” very swiftly. Behram Pesikaka was a Parsi government employee, Hari Shankar Bagla a small businessman who was arrested while traveling in a train, Mohammed Qureshi one among three hundred qureshi butchers whose livelihoods were hit by cow slaughter prohibitions, and who came together to take the case to Court, and Kaushaliya a sex worker arrested under the SITA. Each of these persons elected to frame their conflict with the State in constitutional terms: that the prohibition law violated the rights to equal protection, free expression, and privacy, and that commodity controls violated the right to trade, as did the cow slaughter provisions and (strikingly) the prohibition of sex work. And each of these petitioners also framed their arguments in the constitutional language of limitations upon arbitrary State power, and the necessity of the State following the rule of law and a fair procedure. That is not all: as De shows, these cases did not appear in court out of vacuum. They required prior, public groundwork, where constitutional claims were raised and agitated in other forums – before administrative committees and town councils – before they were taken to Court. As De argues, therefore, it is facile to argue that the Constitution is received by the People as an alien imposition; the reality is far more complex, and shows that among many constituencies, affected people took the Constitution, and made it their own.

Secondly – not only were the Petitioners non-elite people, they were, in many ways, disadvantaged – in fact, De suggests that it was their very inability to influence policy that led them to turn to the Court for redress. The qureshis who challenged the cattle slaughter prohibition belonged to a religious minority, and were classified as such; small businessmen such as Bagla were (as De illustrates fascinatingly) subjected to particular scorn and obloquy in newly independent India; and sex workers, of course, were viewed as a moral threat to the character of the nation. What is particularly interesting is that these were people who had least to expect from participating in the formal channels of communication with the State. As De shows, there were other, informal options – of negotiation and accommodation – open to them; but instead, they chose another formal route to engage with – that of the Court and the Constitution.

Thirdly – this engagement mattered. On paper, the constitutional challenges failed: the Prohibition law was upheld (for the most part), commodity controls and the ESA were upheld, cow slaughter legislation was upheld, and the SITA was upheld. However, by exploring the context outside of just the published decision, De is able to show that the consequences are far more complex than is initially assumed. For example, the exceptions that the Supreme Court mandated to the prohibition regime – for instance, that of medicinal alcohol – ultimately grew so unwieldy, that they destroyed the regime from within. Similarly, the Court’s seemingly minor concession in Qureshi – that aged or infirm cattle could be slaughtered – actually provided a significant breather for the butchers whose livelihoods were affected, and forced other states to take a step back and bring their own (more stringent) laws in line with the judgment. The implementation of the SITA in a way that respected High Court pronouncements caused significant problems for the Police, and for social workers driven by ideas of moral purity and hygiene. And so on. Consequently, it is not just that the People used the Constitution as a terrain on which to defend themselves against the power of the State – it is also that they made tangible and non-trivial gains in doing so, and the State was forced – in De’s words – to “discipline itself.” This is a lesson that is particularly important for the present day – indeed, the very evening before amendments to the Aadhaar Act, in response to the Supreme Court’s judgment – are due to be introduced in the Lok Sabha.

Fourthly – the greatest successes came not through agitating substantive constitutional rights, but by insisting on fidelity to procedure. We are familiar with Justice H.R. Khanna’s famous words in ADM Jabalpur that “the history of personal liberty is the history of adhering to procedure.” De shows us how that worked in a far more quotidian set of contexts. So, judges might be reluctant to accept that sex work was constitutionally protected as a “profession” under the Constitution, but they were far more willing to consider the proposition that giving a Magistrate the power to expel a sex worker from a particular area was a breach of the Constitution. Judges may be hesitant to invalidate the prohibition regime per se, but they could be persuaded to accept that barging into an individual’s home by the police breached a constitutional boundary. And so on. Once again, at a time when fidelity to procedure is coming under the spotlight once more, this is a lesson we would do well to remember.

And fifthly, a close look at the contexts of these cases pushes back against another dominant narrative – that of the Nehruvian governments being “anti-market.” De shows through the judgments that what was actually happening was that “the new state was attempting to create a new set of market norms and reshape networks of circulation, whether of goods (alcohol, beef, and cotton), capital, or bodies.”


While one would not go so far as to call the moment of the framing of India’s Constitution as an “original sin”, there is little doubt that the manner in which the Constitution was framed caused – and continues to cause – a lingering unease. At the end of the day, the Constituent Assembly was not elected on the basis of universal adult franchise. The Draft Constitution was not put to the People in a referendum. The Constitution was written in English, the language of the coloniser. Members of the Constituent Assembly did protest that the concepts and vocabulary of the instrument was alien and foreign to Indian soil.

None of these are objections that can be dismissed in a cavalier fashion. And when we engage with them seriously, they present two disquieting questions: what is it that makes the Constitution legitimate? And is the constitutional project – as it stands today – worth defending?

A People’s Constitution helps us to answer both questions. The legitimacy of the Constitution stems from how its addressees – the People of India – use it to frame their claims and their interests, as a terrain on which they can shed social, economic, and cultural disadvantages, and face their opponents (often, the State) on equal terms, and as an instrument that puts them in an equal dialogue with power. De’s account of the raucous, polyvocal 1950s and 1960s shows us how the Constitution did just that. And as long as the Constitution does that, the Indian constitutional project will always be worth defending.

For that, A People’s Constitution is a profound and valuable intervention into an ongoing national conversation, and deserves to be read and studied closely.

(Three guest commentators will follow, commenting on specific aspects of the book. This will be followed by a Response from the author.)

ICLP Book Discussion – Ornit Shani’s “How India Became Democratic” – IV: The Author’s Responses

(In this concluding part of our Blog Round-Table on Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic, the author responds to the preceding three essays.)

I am grateful to Gautam Bhatia for initiating this round table discussion on How India Became Democratic. I am honoured that The Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog, which forms a valuable source for understanding developments in Indian constitutional and legal affairs is hosting this discussion. I am thankful to Suhrith Parthasarathy, Professor Anupama Roy and Gautam Bhatia for their thorough engagement with the book, and so soon after it was published.

Response to Suhrith Parthasarathy

Parthasarathy presents superbly the main themes and arguments of the book about how the preparation of electoral rolls on the basis of universal franchise, ahead of the constitution, engendered struggles for citizenship, driven from below by Indians of modest means; about the tremendous administrative efforts the making of the universal franchise for the largest electorate in democratic history entailed, and the rewriting of the bureaucratic imagination it necessitated; and how the preparation of rolls on the ground informed the process of constitution making. Parthasarathy rightly stresses the commitment to equality and to the right to vote that drove the making of universal adult franchise, not just as a constitutional vision, but also in practice, even before the constitution was finalised and came into force.

Parthasarathy focuses on a case where the government of Travancore refused to register on the electoral roll Tamilians who resided in the state but were not Travancore naturalised subjects of the state. In redressing the grievance of these Tamilians against the government of Travancore, the Joint Secretary of the Constituent Assembly, determined that the state had to register them as voters on the grounds that the state could not legislate or set qualifications that were inconsistent with the provisions of Part III [Fundamental Rights] of the draft constitution. It was inconsistent, in this instance, with the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of a place of birth. So, in this case, a fundamental right provision was inextricably interlinked with and protected by the draft (prospective) constitutional provision (289 B, and finally article 326), which entitled every citizen of India to be registered as a voter at elections to the legislator of the State.

Parthasarathy discusses this case to reflect critically on the Supreme Court’s decisions and reasoning on the status of the right to vote in recent law cases (In Shyamdeo Prasad Singh v. Nawal Kishore Yadav (2000), Rajbala v. State of Haryana, (2015), and in Javed & Others v. State of Haryana & Others). Strikingly, the legal status of the right to vote has been a subject of debate for some time.[1] The court has debated whether the right to vote is a fundamental right, constitutional right, or whether it is a right created by statute. Parthasarathy argues, on the basis of his analysis of the case of the Tamilians from Travancore, and the commitment to equality at large, which drove the making of the universal franchise, that it was ‘clear to the Constituent Assembly that the electoral process would in any event be subject to the larger guarantees in Part III’, and that ‘the fundamental rights enshrined in Part III cannot be isolated from the electoral process.’ I would like to make a few observations and some proposals to further strengthen Parthasarathy’s arguments. I will do so from both the perspective of the constitution makers’ intentions and their actions. I am not trained in the law, and therefore the proposals I offer below should be seen as based on my historical investigation and understanding of the actual making of the right to vote under universal franchise.

  1. The Constituent Assembly Secretariat undertook the preparation of the draft electoral rolls on the basis of universal franchise, thus implementing the right to vote, from November 1947, to ensure the holding of ‘fresh general elections as early as possible after the new Constitution comes into force’. (p. 91). They did so on the basis of the Constituent Assembly’s decision, while discussing the Interim Report of the Advisory committee on the Subject of Fundamental Rights, to adopt the principle that every adult citizen shall have the right to vote.
  2. Realising the idea of one women/man one vote – institutionalising equality for the purpose of voting – was fundamental to the building of a democratic edifice for India. The seriousness of purpose that was demonstrated in implementing this idea during the registration of India’s prospective voters, based on a deep commitment to procedural equality and on a comprehensive inclusive drive – attending, for example, even to the voting rights of vagrants living in huts erected illegally was fully aligned with the fundamental constitutional vision of creating a democracy for India. It is reasonable to argue that implementing the right to vote through the preparation of rolls was the first constitutional promise to be fulfilled by the new republic.
  3. During the preparation of the rolls, people grew to conceive of their voting right as a basic guarantee of the constitution. As I show in the book, a number of citizens’ organisations were established in order ‘“To safeguard the right of franchise as guaranteed by the new constitution”’ (p.64). Numerous others fought for a place on the roll to ensure their citizenship and voting rights.
  4. Most importantly, perhaps, as a result of the implementation of the right to vote through the preparation of rolls, especially the experience of distinct forms of attempted disenfranchisement on the ground at the state level, constitution makers agreed towards the end of the constitutional debates on a ‘radical change’ (p. 185) in the election provisions. It aimed to ensure and fortify the autonomy and integrity of the election machinery, and to safeguard and give an explicit expression to the notion of universal franchise on the basis of a single joint electoral roll. The new article stipulated that the election machinery for all elections to parliament and to the legislatures of every state would be vested in a single independent central Election Commission at the centre. The implementation of the right to vote, a perennial and iterative process in a democracy, was removed from of the purview of the states, as it was originally set to be.

In conclusion, constitution makers agreed in April 1947 to the suggestion of the Advisory Committee that the provisions on the right to vote ‘should find a place in some other part of the Constitution’, rather than in the part on Fundamental Rights, as was suggested by both the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee and the Minorities Sub-Committee. I agree with Parthasarathy that this was a ‘judgment founded on form’. The Advisory Committee unanimously supported the principle of adult franchise, free and fair elections and the management of these elections by a body that is independent of the government of the day. It is true that some of its members doubted whether franchise would ordinarily be part of fundamental rights, and whether dealing with franchise broadly was within the Committee’s jurisdiction. But in June 1949, on the basis of the actual implementation of the right to vote, constitution makers erected a constitutional fortress safeguarding the right to vote within the constitution. The Election Commission is the guarantor, in practice, of the right to vote. As some scholars have argued, the Indian constitution moved beyond the classic separation of powers in its creation of an independent Election Commission.[2] As an autonomous edifice within the structure of the separation of power, should it not be considered part of the constitution’s basic structure? Nehru’s insistence, when some doubts were raised about the universal franchise, that ‘It is one of the basic laws, according to me’[3], is a footnote to these observations, which I hope strengthen Parthasarathy’s arguments.

Response to Anupama Roy

Prof. Roy addresses two broad themes of the book: the making of democratic citizenship and the fashioning of a democratic political imaginary, which I suggest were driven by the preparation of electoral rolls and the contestations for citizenship that emerged in this process. Roy presents my broad arguments about these themes, and raises some important questions about each of them, and about the relations between the two.

Roy asks ‘how the big connection between a bureaucratic process [the preparation of electoral rolls] and democratic imagination could be made’, and asks me to think about the idea that Indians became voters before they were citizens, and about the preparation of rolls as a state building process.

The question of the connection between the bureaucratic process and the democratic imagination is very important. Three main interlinked processes, which together constituted the actual process of implementing electoral democracy, and which produced engagement with shared democratic experiences among civil servants and between people and administrators, played a role in connecting the two. These were the rewriting of the colonial bureaucratic imaginations and habits on franchise and voting rights; the way the universal franchise became a meaningful political order in which Indians would believe and to which they would become committed; and the ongoing numerous interactions between people and administrators about the preparation of the electoral rolls.

The task of the administrators was to operationalise the notion of procedural equality for the purpose of electoral voting. They had to imagine a joint list of all adults in the land – women and men of all castes and classes – each carrying the same weight as equal voters. Designing instructions for the preparation of electoral rolls on that basis required a rewriting of the pre-existing bureaucratic colonial imagination on franchise and voting rights. This process began over four months of consultations between and among administrators at all levels throughout the country, during which they were asked to envision how the lists should be best prepared, the difficulties they might encounter and how these could be overcome. This all-India administrative exercise in guided democratic political imagination imbibed the notion of universal franchise and of procedural equality for the purpose of voting within the administrative machinery. This process deepened in the context of the intense struggles for citizenship and for a place on the roll that arose once the registration of voters began. The commitment to procedural equality that was cultivated in the process of the preparation of the electoral rolls, and that went beyond a notion of efficiency in election management, was strikingly demonstrated when the collector of Bombay, for example, took in November 1948 proactive steps to ensure the voting rights of vagrants, servants and footpath dwellers.

I suggest in the book, that it would not have sufficed for a democratic vision based on adult franchise to become merely embedded in the institution of electoral democracy. The abstract principle of universal franchise also had to be embedded in the imagination of people. They had to find meaning in it, to own it, and to find a place for themselves in it. They had to make it personal. I argue that the storytelling about the preparation of rolls connected people to a popular democratic political imagination. Stories about the preparation of rolls were published in governments’ press notes and in the press. There was not a single ‘pervasive popular narrative’. Numerous different stories, which represented varying concerns, and fragmented reporting from across the country appeared in the press, press notes and in the correspondences between people and administrators. These disparate stories appeared in relatively regular installments. They represented different concerns related to the core plot of the preparation of the electoral rolls. This contributed to the dynamic of a serialisation of the story of making universal franchise. It was a story of a monumental historical significance, grand in scope, and therefore like an epic tale of India becoming a democracy.

These stories stimulated peoples’ engagement with the making of the universal franchise. People began thinking about the universal franchise and to imagine their place on the roll from their personal perspective. Their correspondence with administrators about the preparation of rolls evidenced that. That people also began recognising their power in ensuring the success of the operation was illustrated when a labour union from Madras port, for example, wrote to the government that ‘It will be a waste to the Government both financially and politically if we do not actively extend our co-operation in their attempt for reparation of electoral rolls based on Adult Franchise on which depends the fate of toiling millions…’ (p. 119) This was in the context of their employer’s notification that they would not observe the days declared as public holiday by the government for the purpose of conducting the enumeration. Indeed, the success of the bureaucratic efforts were heavily contingent on the participation of people and their sense of commitment to and identification with the normative vision the universal franchise entailed. To borrow from Parthasarathy’s discussion, the democratic principle this vision entailed had to rest in peoples’ hearts, and be embedded in their minds, before any law or constitution could save it. All this informed peoples’ struggles in pursuit of their citizenship and voting rights on the ground in the preparation of the electoral rolls.

In the context of the contestations for a place on the roll, people essentially already acted as engaged, even passionate citizens, while the constitutional citizenship provisions were still undecided and debated. Since a prospective voter had to be a citizen, the preparation of the electoral rolls at the time was the most concrete and inclusive means by which people could be Indians and feel a belonging to the new state. The first draft electoral roll on the basis of universal franchise was ready just before the commencement of the constitution. It was prepared on the basis of tremendous efforts to include all the adult population. As I state in the conclusion to my book, the all-encompassing national identity of Indians on the eve of the commencement of the constitution was that of being equal voters. ‘The institutionalisation of procedural equality for the purpose of authorising a government in as deeply a hierarchical and unequal society as India, ahead of the enactment of the constitution turned the idea of India’s democracy into a meaningful and credible story for its people’ (p. 5). It is in this sense that Indians were voters before they became citizens. And their identity as such has become, and remained, very meaningful to them. It was not about the legal affirmation of being voters before citizens. In fact, formally-legally that would happen later on when the rolls would be finalised after the enactment of the election law. I therefore agree with Roy that this was not a matter of sequential development. And as Roy shows in her important book Mapping Citizenship in India (Oxford University Press, 2010), the life of legal citizenship in India has remained a contentious matter, and in some respects a thorny issue from the perspective of democracy.

The preparation of the electoral rolls on the basis of universal franchise was indeed a large-scale democratic state building project. In contrast to other state building processes at the time, it was not based on state distinctions between, for example, good or bad refugees; displaced or intended evacuees. There was no distinction between good or bad voters. The principles that underlay the logic of this state building process were equality and universal inclusion. The production of a register of more than 173 million people that were bound together as equal citizens for the purpose of authorising their government rendered existent the idea of ‘the people’, even before they became ‘We the People of India’ with the enactment of the constitution. It concretised, and made real the fiction that is called the people.

I thank Roy for the interesting questions that she raised, and I hope that they have been successfully addressed.

Response to Gautam Bhatia

In his essay Bhatia discusses the implications of the arguments in How India Became Democratic for contemporary constitutional interpretation. In doing so, he expands Parthasarathy’s analysis of the impact of the book’s themes on Indian constitutionalism. Bhatia addresses the question of ‘how to accurately characterise the moment of constitutional creation’. This question lies at the heart of various issues that came before the Supreme Court over the years, including decisions pertaining to fundamental rights. The Court has debated whether the constitution represents a moment of continuity with past colonial constitutional frameworks and therefore a stage in a constitutional evolution, or whether it was a transformative moment. The former view has prevailed in India’s constitutional jurisprudence. This, Bhatia argues, ‘has a direct impact upon modern-day constitutional interpretation’, and clearly an adverse one, in his view.

Bhatia shows how the view of the transfer of power as incremental and evolutionary enabled the court on various occasions to uphold colonial law, endorse colonial practices and to maintain a restrictive interpretation on fundamental rights. Paradoxically, on the basis of a rather teleological understanding of the moment of the creation of India’s democracy as a stage in a process of evolution, the court sometimes reinstated autocratic forms of colonial rule.

Bhatia argues that the moment of constitution creation was transformative. And that the transformation in the constitutional structure ‘will inevitably affect the overlying substantive legal regime, even though, at the surface, the text of the laws might remain the same.’ It is not, then, simply the letter of the law, but the meaning with which it is imbued in the particular context of that transformation. This is a fascinating argument.

Bhatia suggests three ways in which ‘universal franchise marked a transformation that was not simply a question of degree, but of the very nature of the political society’: the leap in the size of the new electorate; its nature – unlike under all the colonial constitutional frameworks the individual was prior to the group; and its character as universal. To add a footnote to Bhatia’s point about the scale of the transformation in the character of the electorate, the franchise provisions in the Government of India Act, 1935 (Sixth Schedule), contained so many qualifications for being a voter for a divided and restricted electorate that this was sub-divided into 12 parts spread over 51 pages. Underlying his analysis, Bhatia picks up what to me is perhaps among the most, if not the most, revolutionary aspects of the moment of rupture from colonial rule and constitutional frameworks that the making of the universal franchise wrought (and which I already mentioned in my response to Roy): ‘The institutionalisation of procedural equality for the purpose of authorising a government in as deeply a hierarchical and unequal society as India, ahead of the enactment of the constitution turned the idea of India’s democracy into a meaningful and credible story for its people’ (p. 5).

I would like to attempt a small contribution to Bhatia’s arguments about the ways the making of the universal franchise marked a transformative constitutional moment. I will do so by thinking about the ‘constitution creation moment’ as a process. I will dwell here further on some of the points I made in more detail in my response to Parthasarathy.

The transformative nature of the making of the universal franchise also lay in the bold effort of undertaking it in anticipation of the drawing up of the constitution. The preparatory work started from November 1947. This was an extraordinary display of confidence in the fundamental principle of equality for the purpose of voting, and in the universality of the franchise, which marked the biggest rupture from colonial rule and its system of representation without democracy. Taking this leap resulted in a far more fundamental constitutional transformation. As I suggested in discussing the status of the right to vote, the experience of preparation of the electoral rolls on the basis of universal franchise, particularly the realisation of attempted disenfranchisement on the ground must be overcome, drove a radical change in the constitutional provisions for elections and their management. The new provisions, which set up an independent central election commission, was meant to supersede states rights over the universality of the franchise, and to create an institution that would protect citizens’ right to vote.

This roundtable and the questions raised by Bhatia suggest that a closer history of other constitutional provisions might throw more light on the question of ‘how to accurately characterise the moment of constitutional creation’?

[1] Also see Aditya Sondhi, ‘Elections’, in Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of The Indian Constitution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 196-200.

[2] See Bruce Ackerman, ‘The New Separation of Powers’, Harvard Law Review 113, no. 3, 2000, pp. 715– 16; Madhav Khosla, The Indian Constitution, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 38– 43.

[3] H. V. Iengar, Oral History Transcript, p. 146, Nehru Memorial Museum Library.

ICLP Book Discussion: Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic – III: The Transformative Constitution

(This is the third essay in our round-table discussion of Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic. In this essay, I discuss the implications of Shani’s argument for constitutional interpretation. Following this, we shall have a response by the author.)

In 1964, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether certain forest rights granted by the ruler of a princely state to some of his subjects continued to exist even after the accession of the princely state to the Union of India. Could these people continue to enforce the old ruler’s commitments against a new sovereign? A narrowly divided Court (split 4 – 3) held that they could not, agreeing with the contention of the State of Gujarat that the takeover of the princely states was “an Act of State” that automatically extinguished all subsisting rights, and that those rights remained extinguished unless specifically recognised by the new ruler.

To decide this question, however, the Court had to first answer another question: what was the nature of the transfer of power from the princely rulers to the newly-birthed Union of India? In his concurring opinion, Justice Shah characterised it thus:

“… [the] promulgation of the Constitution did not result in transfer of sovereignty from the Dominion of India to the Union. It was merely change in the form of Government. By the Constitution, the authority of the British Crown over the Dominion was extinguished, and the sovereignty which was till then rooted in the Crown was since the Constitution came into force derived from the people of India. It is true that whatever vestige of authority which the British Crown had over the Dominion of India, since the Indian Independence Act was thereby extinguished, but there was no cession, conquest occupation or transfer of territory. The new governmental set up was the final step in the process of evolution towards self-government. The fact that it did not owe its authority to an outside agency but was taken by the representatives of the people made no difference in its true character. The continuance of the governmental machinery and of the laws of the Dominion, give a lie to any theory of transmission of sovereignty or of the extinction of the sovereignty of the Dominion, and from its ashes, the springing up of another sovereign.”

The Respondents relied upon the judgment of Justice Vivian Bose in Virendra vs State of UP. Justice Bose had held that the Independence had been a transformative moment, ushering in a new legal order where the reign of arbitrariness and despotic power was replaced by the rule of law. Consequently, the “Act of State” doctrine – which placed certain actions of the State beyond the pale of the legal system – simply had no application in the post-Constitutional era. Justice Shah disagreed:

“These assumptions are not supported by history or by constitutional theory. There is no warrant for holding at the stroke of mid-night of the 25th January, 1950, all our pre- existing political institutions ceased to exist, and in the next moment arose a new set of institutions completely unrelated to the past. The Constituent Assembly which gave form to the Constitution functioned for several years under the old regime, and set up the constitutional machinery on the foundations of the earlier political set up. It did not seek to destroy the past institutions: it raised an edifice on what existed before. The Constituent Assembly molded no new sovereignty: it merely gave shape to the aspirations of the people, by destroying foreign control and evolving a completely democratic form of government as a republic. The process was not one of destruction, but of evolution. For reasons already stated it is impossible to hold that what were mere claims to property till the 25th of January, 1950, could be regarded as enforceable against any one. Till the Dominion of India recognised the right, expressly or by implication there was no right to property which the Courts in India could enforce.”

In our constitutional history, for the most part, Justice Shah’s views have carried the day. The argument is a familiar one: from the 1919 Government of India Act, which first introduced representative government under the colonial regime, there had been incremental progress towards Independence. Waymarked by events such as the 1935 Government of India Act, it is argued that this incremental progress almost imperceptibly culminated in the grant of Independence. The ruler changed; partial suffrage became full suffrage; the legislative assembly replaced the Office of the Governor-General as the supreme law-making body; and all of this was a logical evolution from what came before. Fundamentally, nothing changed: the old laws remained, the old governing structures remained, the old forms of rule remained.

This is not an academic debate. The question of how to accurately characterise the moment of constitutional creation has a direct impact upon modern-day constitutional interpretation. For example, it was on the basis of the evolutionary theory that the Bombay High Court, in Narasu Appa Mali, uncritically accepted the characterisation of “personal laws” by the colonial Courts; it was on this unstated basis that the Supreme Court, in Kathi Kalu Oghad, used colonial penal laws such as the Identification of Prisoners Act to narrow the scope of Article 20(3) of the Constitution, reasoning that, after all, the framers could not have intended to frame so wide a guarantee against self-incrimination that the Identification of Prisoners Act would be made redundant; and, until a long-overdue course-correction in Krishna Kumar, it was by invoking the Governor-General’s near-absolute powers of Ordinance-making in the pre-Constitutional era that the Supreme Court granted an almost unchecked discretionary power to the Executive to issue ordinances under the Constitution. The upholding of colonial laws, the endorsement of the continuity of colonial practices, and the restrictive interpretation of Part III of the Constitution – these three staple features of our constitutional jurisprudence are all founded upon the unarticulated premise that the Constitution represents a moment of continuity (or, at best, “evolution”), rather than transformation.

It is in this context that Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic is a work of great importance in thinking about the Indian constitutional tradition. As Suhrith and Anupama have demonstrated in their essays, in its granular and detailed elaboration of independent India’s first general election, How India Became Democratic challenges the simplistic claim that the grant of universal franchise was an easy or natural evolution from the representative institutions that existed under the colonial regime. As Shani points out in her Introduction:

“The institutionalisation of procedural equality for the purpose of authorising a government in as deeply a hierarchical and unequal society as India, ahead of the enactment of the constitution turned the idea of India’s democracy into a meaningful and credible story for its people.” (p. 5)

How did this happen? Shani writes about the preparation of the first electoral roll, the strenuous efforts that were made on the ground, and geared towards inclusion rather than exclusion, and the commitment of bureaucrats and officials towards realising the goal of universal adult franchise. At a more abstract level, however, what comes through Shani’s account is that there were three significant ways in which universal adult franchise marked a transformation that was not simply a question of degree, but of the very nature of the political society. First, sheer numbers: under the colonial regime, the extent of representation never crossed 10% of the electorate. From 10% to an aspiration of universality is not an “incremental evolution” – it is, more properly, a fundamental change. Secondly, consistent with the colonial practice of viewing Indian society as an agglomeration of groups that had normative priority over the individual, under the 1919 and 1935 Acts, representative government was conducted through separate electorates. This was repudiated in the Constitution, which envisioned a single electoral roll and universal adult suffrage – thus emphasising the priority of the individual ver the group. And thirdly, the colonial regime treated voting as a privilege, and threw up substantial barriers in order to ensure that only the “worthy” were able to vote. These included property and educational requirements, and for women, these requirements were linked to the status of their husbands. Consistent with Nehru’s observation that any procedural barriers towards exercising the right to vote would amount to a negation of democracy itself, the Constitution removed these disqualifications, placing instead universal adult franchise at its heart.

Therefore, in the size of the electorate, the nature of the electorate, and the character of the electorate, there was absolutely nothing “incremental” about what the Constitution did: it was a foundational and radical change. It is in this context that we can understand what Shani means when she writes that suffrage instituted procedural equality in a deeply hierarchical and unequal society.

We are therefore in a position to see that Justice Shah’s characterisation of the Constitution as creating only a “new governmental setup” and having nothing to do with a change of “sovereignty” is flawed. It is flawed because it puts the cart before the horse: from the fact that colonial laws and legal structures survived into the post-Constitutional era, it is extrapolated that the framing of the Constitution was more a conservative moment than a transformative one. This, then, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in a case like Kathi Kalu Oghad, where the existence of colonial legal structures imperceptibly mutates into a justification for them. The logic, however, works the other way: the character of the Constitutional moment should be judged on its own terms (as Shani does), and it should then be asked (as Justice Bose did) how, within the new democratic system, the continuing legal structures ought to be understood. Indeed, Justice Bose’s crucial insight in Virendra was precisely this: that a fundamental change in the constitutional structure (from autocracy to democratic institutions) must necessarily have an impact on constitutional rights (even though the content of the laws would remain the same).

The American legal scholar Akhil Amar provides a good example of this. He examines the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which guarantees “the freedom of speech.” Now, the freedom of speech, as it existed in English common law, was a very limited right in the late-eighteenth century, providing protection only against prior restraint. However, Amar points to the fact that freedom of speech in the British Parliament was virtually absolute, and this was at least partly because according to British constitutional theory, sovereignty rested in Parliament. Amar then argues that the American revolution marked a fundamental shift in this understanding, and in the new American republic, sovereignty was deemed to vest in the people. From this, Amar concludes that when the First Amendment guaranteed “the freedom of speech”, the fact that sovereignty had shifted from Parliament to People indicated that the (absolute) free speech rights enjoyed by Parliament now vested in the people.

I do not here want to comment on the historical accuracy of Amar’s argument. The point, however, is this: a transformation in the underlying constitutional structure (including the form of government) will inevitably affect the overlying substantive legal regime, even though, at the surface, the text of the laws might remain the same. Laws that had a certain meaning and content under an authoritarian regime must have a very different meaning under a democratic system (and this, precisely, was the reasoning of the Court in Krishna Kumar, when it rejected the colonial understanding of the Ordinance-making power).

For this reason, Shani’s demonstration that universal franchise was a transformative structural change provides us with a powerful argument to think through – and indeed, rethink – many of the features of our constitutional jurisprudence that have become virtually sedimented by the passage of time. Suhrith has written about the Rajbala judgment, but there are many others: for example, is it consistent with the framers’ commitment to prioritising the individual over the group through a common electoral roll for the Court to continue prioritising the group over the individual by excluding personal laws from constitutional scrutiny? Is it consistent with the conscious decision of the framers that women were to be treated as public citizens for the Court to continue to apply gendered stereotypes while deciding cases under Article 15(1)? And above all else, is it consistent with the Constitutional commitment to transform subjects into citizens for regimes of legal impunity (under laws such as AFSPA and the UAPA) continue to flourish with the blessing of the Court?

In his critique of Justice Shah’s judgment, K.G. Kannabiran notes that:

This interpretation ignores the social history of the period preceding the Constitution. It does not reckon with the struggles of the people who fought for freedom, the repressive legal structures on whose altars people were sacrificed and their dreams shattered. It ignores the aspirations of the people to build a better society for themselves. The rise of political democracy leading to liberation from foreign domination is not a mere matter of evolution. There can always be a break in the continuity, a severance from the past, without being preceded by violence and destruction. There cannot be, there should not be two social histories one for political theorising and another for legal theorising. The setting up of a Constituent Assembly and the passing of the Indian Independence Act, 1947 are a consequence, a culmination of the struggle for independence. It was the shared belief of a large section of the people that there was a political severance on August 15, 1947. and a severance constitutionally on 26 January 1950. If this aspect is lost sight of, the court disables itself from performing its assigned role under our Constitution. The people who met in the Constituent Assembly were nor mere technicians who had gathered there to prepare a handbook for running the government. They had participated in the struggles and, short of holding elections, every effort had been made to give their gathering a representative character. The historical background leading to the formation of the Constituent Assembly has nor informed our undemanding or interpretation of the Constitutio With that understanding absent, the institutions under the Constitution were looked upon as a continuation of the colonial system of administration.

In the continuing struggle to breathe life into Kannabiran’s constitutional philosophy, in the teeth of a judicial tradition that has too often treated the Constitution as an extension of what came before, Shani’s account of independent India’s first general election is invaluable: it is a point of departure for all of us to think more deeply about what 1947 meant, and how the transformative character of that moment ought to map onto how we think about our Constitution, our citizenship, and our rights.