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ICLP Book Discusion – Ornit Shani’s “How India Became Democratic”: Round-Up

Here is a Round-Up of the essays that form part of our book discussion on Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic:

  1. Laying the Foundations, by Suhrith Parthasarathy
  2. Constituting the People, by Professor Anupama Roy
  3. The Transformative Constitution, by Gautam Bhatia
  4. The Author Responds, by Ornit Shani

With gratitude to everyone who participated.

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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.

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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.

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ICLP Book Discussion: Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic – II: Constituting the People

(In this second essay in our Roundtable on Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic, political philosopher Professor Anupama Roy, author of Gendered Citizenship, examines some of the book’s central claims.)

It is not often that one comes across a book which is an outcome of meticulous spadework in the archives opening up for scholarly attention a lesser known aspect of the making of the Indian Republic and democracy. Ornit Shani’s book on the preparation of the electoral roll for the first general election in India, which followed for the first time, the principle of universal adult franchise, is remarkable – quite like the feat Shani has studied in the book – both in terms of the enormity of the task and fortitude in the face of the labour involved.

Through an examination of the bureaucratic processes of the preparation of the electoral roll, Shani seeks to establish two points, both of which are of significance to the way in which scholars have thought about citizenship in India. Shani argues that Indians became voters before they became citizens (p.5). Indeed, it was in the course of the preparation of the preliminary electoral rolls from November 1947, set in motion by the ‘the note’ sent from the Constituent Assembly Secretariat to the various provinces and states of India that the process of inserting ‘the people’ into the administrative structures of the state was initiated. Indeed, it was the quest for a ‘place in the roll’, argues Shani, which prepared the ground for ‘the conceptions and principles of democratic citizenship that were produced in the process of constitution making from above’ (p.7).

A second point that Shani makes is about the relationship between democracy and the political imagination of the people of India, arguing that it was the implementation of universal franchise that elicited ‘both a sense of Indianness and commitment to democratic nationhood…’ (p.2). Moreover, she argues that it was in the contestations and the language of interaction that was produced at the ground level, in the process of making the roll, that political imagination itself was democratised (p.6).

These points are made painstakingly through a study of archival sources drawn primarily from the Election Commission’s internal records, which Shani was fortunate to access for two years before they were shifted to the National Archives in Delhi, Constituent Assembly Debates, and other official sources along with newspaper archives and interviews with Election Commissioners. Each of the six chapters which comprise the book, work out an aspect of the preparation of the electoral roll, and together they cover roughly the period between 1947-48 and 1949-1950. This was broadly the period from the beginning of the preparation of the electoral roll to the time the Election Commission started functioning as an integrated institution, under Sukumar Sen, the first Chief Election Commissioner of India.

In my discussion of these points, I will tease out some of the broad arguments which emerge in the book to show their complexity, but also how in each case there could be space for another argument, or an argument different from the one Shani makes.

  1. Genealogy of the ‘people’:

The concept of the ‘people’ is central to the universalist imaginings of modernity. It is abstract but also historically specific and can be traced through many genealogies, in which it assumes diverse forms. If one were to trace a particular genealogy of the people, one has to work out its formation in specific historical contexts, the meanings that are attributed to it, and the manner in which it operationalises itself. In the postcolonial context in India, the people were constituted at a pan-Indian scale of anti-colonial struggles for self-determination, but also in, and through specific sites where struggles took place against local power formations. The people were also constituted as the repository of sovereign power when they gave themselves the constitution on 26th November 1949 – a Constitution that they had enacted (through the Constituent Assembly). That the people also held constituent power was stated emphatically in Article 395 of the Constitution, which repealed the Indian Independence Act, severed all relations with colonial authority, and rejected the chain of validation which required that the Indian Constitution be placed before the Crown-in-Parliament for validation. The electoral domain was another space where the people acquired meaning and form – the people were constituted through a collective act of voting ‘simultaneously’ in a manifestation of unfettered popular sovereignty, achieved through the deferral of political authority, which is concentrated in the apparatus of the state.

The meaning of the people communicated through these diverse forms is identified with a specific ‘action’, which when expressed, constitutes the people as a collective body – emblematic as well as physical and corporeal. Ornit Shani makes a significant argument about the way in which ‘universal’ franchise inserted the principle of equality in the electoral roll and consequently a democratic disposition (p.18) among the people who were responsible for preparing the roll. On the other hand, in the process of acquiring a ‘place on the roll’, adult franchise played a role in connecting the people to a popular democratic imagination (p.19). I was curious how the big connection between a bureaucratic process and democratic imagination could be made. If one were to read the documents and communications among the administrators as accounts of how they managed to achieve the impossible task of registering Indians as voters, as a prelude to the next step of actually voting in an election (described by Sukumar Sen as ‘a massive act of faith’), it could appear to be a problem of administering an election efficiently, rather than making people feel equal, and make the leap to a horizontal camaraderie of equals.

In chapter 3 on the electoral roll as a ‘serialised epic’, Shani suggests that preparation of the electoral roll on the basis of universal adult franchise became part of the ‘popular narrative’. This narrative played a role in connecting people to a popular democratic imagination, ‘referring to manner in which it became not merely a system of rules that were to be observed but also part of the normative world of people and the stories, individuals make of it themselves’ (p.86). In the conclusion (p.253) Shani takes the argument further to say that through a process of consultation, the Constituent Assembly Secretariat engaged public officials, people and citizens association in the details of voter registration and citizenship, mentoring them into both the abstract principle and practices of electoral democracy. so much so that ‘people and administrators began using the draft constitution to pursue their citizenship and voting rights, and they linked its abstract text to their everyday lives’ (p. 252-53). Most of the material Shani discusses concerns the humungous ask of enrolling the entire adult population, in which ‘awkward’ categories – the refugees, displaced persons and women presented challenges of different kinds. This took place in an absence of an electoral law on the modalities of elections, without a precise legal-constitutional framework on citizenship, and the provinces were beset with specific problems pertaining to registration. In this literature it is difficult to find a corresponding ‘pervasive popular narrative’ on franchise, which according to Shani was of an order which ‘communicated substantially and therefore convincingly, India’s movement towards becoming a democracy’ (p.89). One would assume that such a narrative did exist, but a tangible and substantial expression of that is not present convincingly in what Shani calls the ‘serialised epic’.

  1. Chronosophy of ‘citizenship’:

Immanuel Wallerstein cautioned against a linear narrative of historical change, to argue that historical transformations do not take place sequentially in ascendant or descendant forms, but are uneven and undulating, punctuated by conscious decisions made along the way. When Shani makes the point about Indians becoming voters before they became citizens, she is perhaps referring to the fact that the legal affirmation of citizenship happened only with the commencement of the Constitution. While there was a legal vaccum on who were Indian citizens (there were in fact two periods of such vacuum between 1947 and 1949 and then again between 1949 and 1955, when the Citizenship Act of India was passed by the Parliament), it did not mean that questions of legal citizenship were not being addressed in ‘problem’ cases through instructions from the CAS. Indeed, the questions of legal citizenship were coming up and were being addressed primarily in the context of preparing the electoral roll, since only citizens could vote. Indeed, rather then a sequential development, one could perhaps see them as overlapping and simultaneous, taking shape through documentation practices of the state, and alongside the development of the institutions of the state and their functional differentiation. Indeed, over the years, (and controversially so) resolution of the contest over citizenship in the preparation of electoral roll has come within the purview of the ‘superintendence and control’ of elections function of the Election Commission of India (under Article 324).

An important point that Shani seems to be making is that in the process of finding a place on the electoral roll, a political community organised on the principle of horizontal camaraderie of equals could now be ‘imagined’. We may see the imagination of a community of equals marking the transcendental moment of independence, the emphatic rupture from the past, and the ‘triumphal’ democratic imaginary, which is a component of democratic citizenship. This imagination can, however, exist independent of the constitutional/legal frameworks of citizenship, as well as the statutory frameworks determining who can vote. Indeed, the peculiarity of the electoral roll and the legal and conceptual association/dissociation of the two – voter and citizen – is evident in the contests over the electoral roll in Assam. In the National Register of Citizens being prepared in Assam, a citizen-resident of Assam is required to trace his/her lineage to the electoral roll of 1971 in Assam, and then buttress it with the legacy data going back to the 1951 NRC of the state.

  1. Constitutionalism, State Formation and ‘Anticipatory Citizens’:

The period 1947 to 1950 is replete with polyrhythms of the democratic imaginary, one of which Shani writes about, i.e., the preparation of the electoral roll. The framing of the Constitution was another rhythm of democracy being produced at the time. As a deliberative body which was entrusted with the task of making the higher order rules from which all future governments would draw their authority and legitimacy, the debates in the Constituent Assembly enacted a space for the public, where questions concerning the future polity were debated and resolved. Baxi sees this process as following the imperative of locating the legal sovereign amidst ‘prior [and continuing] histories of power and struggle’. These struggles shaped the project of writing the constitution, the ‘specific modes of governance and production of juridical norms’, and also the relationship between the constitution, law and the ongoing state formative practices (Baxi, 2008, 93). The process of enrolling electors broke free from the colonial practice of what Shani calls the ‘guided democracy’ disposition of the colonial bureaucracy (p.34) to instill a new set of bureaucratic attitude in the bureaucracy based on the ‘procedural equality of voting’. While agreeing that the enrollment practices marked a rupture from the colonial past, is it possible to see the registration of electors as part of another tendency, which has to do with state formation? Indeed, as a body framing the Constitution, the Constituent Assembly also alternated as the Legislature and the government, taking decisions, which were percolating down to officials at the local levels. The various flows of communication between the government functionaries, across Ministries and Departments, the Constituent Assembly and the Legislative Assembly, give an insight into the ‘innards’ of the state, the manner in which the separation of powers among institutions, their own understanding of these powers, the problem of drawing boundaries between and among institutions, and more generally the emergence of broad patterns of settling in of institutions and institutional practices, and the governmentalisation of the state was taking place through deliberations.

The governmental regime of enrolling voters, for example, involved working with a new principle of registration (procedural equality) but at the same time it was also a task of sifting and sorting, of devising administrative and legal categories e.g., displaced persons, refugees, evacuees, abandoned women, classifying and categorizing those occupying the liminal spaces of citizenship, to include them in different ways. The excision of ‘descriptive’ women from the universal roll is one example. The other example is how displaced persons continued to pose a problem for the Election Commission when the electoral roll was being finalised before the first general election, after the Representation of the People Acts came into existence. As Shani has mentioned, the Constituent Assembly had decided that the names of all displaced person be included in the voter’s list on the strength of their oral declaration. According to the narrative report of the Election Commission of India on the first general election, the states were instructed to enroll all such persons in the electoral rolls and a distinguishing mark be placed against their names, so that their citizenship status may be confirmed later after the Constitution came into force. In finalizing the electoral roll, the marked voters presented and also experienced problems. In Delhi, for example, which had a large number of displaced persons who resided in temporary shelters when the electoral rolls started being prepared, had by September 1951, when the rolls were published and publicized, shifted to colonies and townships set up for their rehabilitation. These voters were then not entitled to vote in the polling stations, which were set up in the localities in which they came to finally reside. The localities in which they were originally resident and had enrolled to vote, now formed a part of another constituency. The displaced persons experienced their enrollment as voters differently, therefore, and aspired for ‘natural constituencies’ based on shared interests, rather than constituencies following a territorial grid. On page 129 Shani does argue that ‘the preparation of the electoral roll was a state building project of the largest possible scale in terms of its population and territorial reach’. This argument would then indicate a logic of state building in terms of reaching to its population spread over a definitive territory (embracing and encompassing functions of the modern state, as John Torpey would say) pointing towards an imperative different from that of a democratic imaginary. Read with the earlier argument on enrollment practices contributing towards making a democratic imaginary of a people, this argument presents a paradox, which inheres in all democracies.

I learnt a lot from Shani’s work and I’m looking forward to her next work on the first general elections in independent India.

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ — Roundup

Over the last ten days, the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog has hosted a book discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s new work on PIL, titled Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India. The discussion has featured Aparna Chandra, Suhrith Parthasarathy, myself, and Anuj. Here is a round-up of the essays:

  1. A Radical Revision: An opening summary of the book, which aims to distil its core claim in the form of seven theses about PIL (the redundancy of the petitioner, the power of the amicus, no hearing of stakeholders, departure from the rules of evidence, unanticipated consequences of poly-centric disputes, incorrect conceptual framing of issues, and outcome-based reasoning).
  2. Swords, Shields, and Where Do We Go From Here?In my analysis of the book, I argue that PIL adjudication has bled into civil rights jurisprudence, to the detriment both of core civil liberties, as well as the development of a meaningful equality jurisprudence. I also argue that PIL has now become a sword that is being used to cut down civil rights, whether on the whetstone of the Directive Principles, or broader ideas of public good. Nonetheless, I’m not sure whether Bhuwania has successfully demonstrated that certain aspects of PIL – such as loosened locus requirements – cannot be separated and welded into a form of jurisprudence that is both progressive, and maintains constitutional fidelity.
  3. Substance and Process: In her critique, Aparna Chandra argues that the judicial populism which Bhuwania locates at the core of PIL, exists across the board in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Additionally, she points out that PIL was not simply a revolution in terms of judicial procedure, but equally a revolution in terms of substantive law – in particular, the vast expansion of Article 21 of the Constitution. Finally, she raises two methodological concerns: on the question of how and why PIL achieves the outcomes that they do, and on the applicability of John Hart Ely’s representation-reinforcement theory of judicial review, which Bhuwania endorses as a possible alternative to PIL jurisdiction.
  4. The Case for the Defence: In his essay, Suhrith Parthasarathy makes the important argument that, at least as far as the loosening of locus requirements goes, PIL has a strong textual foundation in the wording of Articles 32 and 226. Furthermore, in cases such as PUDR and Bandhua Mukti Morcha, where the State was engaged in blatant violations of rights, it is difficult to see what course of action was open to the Court apart from intervening; and indeed, a case like PUDR demonstrates that judicial intervention, through PILs, need not necessarily abandon fidelity to the Constitution. Parthasarathy nonetheless cautions us that these cases, while being founded on correct principles, nonetheless also exhibited disturbing signs with respect to the manner in which the judges framed the key questions at stake.
  5. The Author Responds: In the concluding essay, Bhuwania responds to our arguments. He points out that not only has the logic of PIL adjudication migrated to civil rights cases (e.g., the issuing of “guidelines”), but also, the Court rarely ends up adjudicating on the non-implementation of the guidelines that it itself has issued. Responding to Chandra’s critique, Bhuwania distinguishes between three modes of teleological (i.e., goal-based) arguments in the judicial discourse, and points out that what is unique about PIL teleology is not merely that the Court uses purposive arguments to creatively interpret the law, but invokes purpose to transform the judicial process itself. He argues, further, that the expansion of Article 21 cannot be separated from the rise of PIL, and that the two should be understood together. And lastly, responding to Parthasarathy’s textual argument about locus, Bhuwania concludes by distinguishing between “representative standing” and “citizen standing”, and argues that the loosening of locus should be limited only to the first class of cases.

It remains for me to thank all Aparna, Suhrith, and Anuj for taking out the time and making this book discussion a reality. This is an exciting time in Indian constitutional law, with new works of scholarship being published on a frequent basis. We hope to host more such discussions in the coming weeks and months.

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ – V: The Author Responds

(We close our discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India, with a response by the author).

I want to begin with a note of sincere thanks to Gautam Bhatia for initiating this intense discussion on my recently published book ‘Courting The People’ on this wonderful blog, which has become such a useful resource for many of us. As an author, I could not have asked for more. To have three readers reading closely and commenting carefully on a book in quick time is really overwhelming, especially when they are of the calibre of Aparna Chandra, Suhrith Parthasarathy and Gautam Bhatia. I feel immensely fortunate to have them as my interlocutors here.

Addressing Gautam Bhatia’s critique

Bhatia began the discussion with an excellent introduction to the themes of the book, providing a much better summary than I myself could have managed. In his critique then, he makes some important points that I will try to address here.

Paternalism vs Populism

I agree with Bhatia that paternalism in the Indian higher judiciary, where the judges claim prior superior knowledge of the Indian people and their strange proclivities and tendencies, dates from before the PIL era. But since the birth of PIL, the court also manages to speak for the people, not just of the people.  The former is classic populism, the latter paternalism— an important difference, though the latter is, of course, alive and well. The former tends to rely on a rhetoric of suffering, the latter on the narratives of the insufficient modernity of Indians. These two tendencies get interestingly deployed together in the Bhopal disaster judgments of 1989-91. The victims’ suffering becomes the pretext to justify the unseemly haste of settlement, while at the same time the suffering masses don’t really need to be heard in their own cause, as they are irresponsible and incompetent. (For instance, the court justified the expropriation of the victims’ right to legal redress thus: “It is necessary for the State to ensure the fundamental rights in conjunction with the Directive Principles of State Policy to effectively discharge its obligation and for this purpose, if necessary, to deprive some rights and privileges of the individual victims or their heirs to protect their rights better and secure these further.”)

Earlier, the judges relied on their own sociological insights (with colonial antecedents) about the Indian people and thereby came to paternalistic conclusions regarding the need for censorship, or trusted their own sastric knowledge even to attempt a task as difficult as defining Hinduism (Sastri Yagnapurushadji vs Muldas). But I would not compare Justice Hidayatullah or Justice Gajendragadkar to a Justice Bhagwati or a Justice Dipak Misra, in terms of looseness of legal language. The ability to ground clearly extra-legal arguments and facts in legal terms has certainly shown a decline.

The Migration of PIL Logic to Civil Liberties Cases

On the tendency of the post-PIL appellate courts to issue guidelines, Bhatia has discussed how they can become a convenient copout in civil liberties cases. To add to his points on this issue, as I have also argued in Chapter 1 of the book,  very rarely do these guidelines travel from the court’s legislative mode to its adjudicative mode: i.e., hardly ever do the actual violations of these guidelines reach the court again in its adjudicative avatar. Hardly ever does the court dealt with evidence of violations of its guidelines or pronounce on reliefs for them. They are another instance of (judicial) legislations without any infrastructure for their implementation, rights without remedies.


On Aparna Chandra’s review

Aparna Chandra has written a masterly review of my book. In order to address some of her criticism, I have been forced to think more carefully about some of the points I have made

Understanding the teleological mode

I completely agree with Chandra’s broad point, i.e., that the teleological mode of reasoning has taken deep roots in Indian constitutional interpretation. I would suggest that this entrenchment of teleological judicial reasoning is the fruit of Article 31C’s poisonous tree. While the innovation of Article 31B (and the 9th Schedule) is justly infamous for trying to protect the Constitution from itself, at least it was a blanket provision that left the rest of the Constitution untouched. The legacy of Article 31C, which aimed to restrict judicial review of all laws that ‘claimed’ to implement directive principles, and the line of thought it represents, has been far more insidious, and has infected Indian constitutional culture itself.  We often forget that the argument of ‘committed judiciary’ was the requirement of a commitment to the Directive Principles. And the official aim of the 42nd amendment was to give Directive Principles precedence over Fundamental Rights.  Over time, this mode of argumentation has infected Indian legal academia as well. It has become our common sense approach to legal interpretation: whether it is to evaluate a case or a statute.

In Chapter 4 of the book, I examine in some detail Justice Bhagwati’s talisman (as I call it) in which he suggests that judges should be teleologically inclined in their activism. The normativisation of such judicial behavior is in one way the culmination of the committed judiciary argument. I draw parallels between Mohan Kumaramanglam’s 1970s call for a committed judiciary,  and Justice Bhagwati’s reasoning in his 1985 article, but with a key difference. While the 1970s discourse required judges to give the legislature carte blanche so as to bring about the social revolution legislatively through the Directive Principles, the 1980s version, with PIL, needed the judges to be the vanguard.

As a corollary to this difference between the two approaches, there are two different ways in which the Courts may be teleological: one is the specific mandate of Article 31C’s logic [the1970s version], which protects statutes professing certain aims from judicial review. This immunization approach continues today and has become entrenched in constitutional cases, where the court often decides that the goals of a statute can trump fundamental rights. The goals could be fighting terrorism in Kartar Singh vs State of Punjab, controlling population in Javed vs State of Haryana, , or the desirability of sanitation in Rajbala vs State of Haryana.

The second approach is when the logic of Article 31C, and the concomitant discourse of committed judiciary, requires the judges to act teleologically, not just in immunizing statutes in cases, but in furthering the cause of social revolution through the expansion of judicial power itself. As Justice Bhagwati would say, the aim should be juristic activism to bring about social change. Now this itself can typically be done in 2 ways: interpreting legal doctrine creatively but also in transforming judicial process itself. The former in this case would be to read all kind of directive principles or international law into Article 21, or e.g,, creating the notion of ‘absolute liability’ ex nihilo (the quality of hermeneutic labour done by judges being of no concern of course.) That is, while one aspect of judicial teleological behaviour in this expansive sense still relates to statutory interpretation (though without much regard for the text of the Constitution or basic legal argumentation), the second is with regard to how to go about judicial proceedings themselves, which the radical departures of PIL make possible. At this point, all three versions of the teleological approach can be observed within the Indian judicial behavior: the immunization approach espoused in 1970s sits comfortably with the expansion of judicial power through the excesses of Article 21, as well as the annihilation of procedure achieved through PIL.

Throughout the book, I focus on the latter: i.e., PIL cases, and how they have set the pace for the negation of procedure. This form of laxity in judicial process has bled from PIL to even non-PIL cases. PIL cases are no longer entirely exceptional in this regard. In my conclusion I give the example of a non-PIL civil dispute, albeit a particularly famous one: the judgment by the Lucknow bench on the Babri Masjid/ Ram Janmabhoomi dispute to show that this mode of judicial behaviour is now found across jurisdictions. However, at one point in chapter 1, I suggest that the delegitimisation of procedure in PIL cases and judicial process more generally (my primary focus in the book) achieved through teleological reasoning of the third kind has perhaps fed into the concomitant discourse of the Courts giving short shrift to procedural safeguards (or the absence thereof) in repressive criminal statutes, when it consistently upholds them (the teleological approach of the first kind, ie the  immunization approach), accepting curtailment of judicial oversight in criminal inverstigations. In her review, Chandra takes issue with this, pointing out that it need not flow directly from PIL. Admittedly, in this instance, perhaps I have jumped from correlation to causation, and if so, then mea culpa. However, the coincidence of the two developments occurring simultaneously made the resemblance uncanny.

Transformations in Substantive law

Chandra has argued that changes in substantive law since the 1970s are important to the history of  PIL. While I do not deny that the so-called ‘Article 21 jurisprudence’ (one can instead use a colloquialism and call it the ‘Raita of Article 21’) has played a crucial role in this history, its extreme expandability since the early 80s can also conversely be read as a byproduct of the PIL (non)procedure. The need for ratiocination in judicial prose and a basic fidelity to law are themselves procedural principles as well. The rise of PIL and its attack on every other aspect of judicial procedure has also meant that minimal hermeneutic labour in the form of judicial justification is no longer at a premium. I would not belabor this “substance vs procedure” point but I do believe that PIL is a particularly important part of this story, because it enables the court to change its process itself. The new goal-oriented approach finds procedure as merely  “a handmaiden to justice” which can be done away with in the name of substantive justice. The instances I look at in Chapter 2 and 3, where a cause of action in a writ proceeding can change 9 times, where the Court can repeatedly take decisions without hearing affected parties, where it creates its own enforcement machinery – all illustrate the powers that the PIL court can operationalize. This is not just about judicial logic, but about the entire judicial process, from the initiation of a case to the obtaining and weighing of evidence, even the implementation of its decision. All this can now be shortchanged, thanks to PIL. The rhetoric of immediacy (i.e., the mediation of procedure as no longer essential to justice) ties up with that of teleological reasoning in the rise of PIL.

Why process?

Chandra helps explain why I think process is so important. Just to add to that: if fundamental tenets of judicial process are not being followed, it is a moot question if the proceedings can be  called adjudication at all. I think J. Pathak in Bandhua Mukti Murcha vs Union of India makes this point very well:

“Whatever the  procedure adopted by the court it  must  be procedure known to judicial  tenets and characteristic of a judicial  proceeding.  There are  methods  and avenues of procuring material  available to  executive and legislative agencies and  often employed  by them  for the efficient and effective discharge  of the tasks before them. Not all those methods and avenues are  available to the Court. The Court must ever  remind itself that one of the indicia identifying it as  a Court is the nature and character of the procedure adopted by  it in  determining a  controversy. It is in that sense limited in the  evolution of procedures pursued by it in the process of  an adjudication,  and in  the grant   and execution of  the relief.  Legal jurisprudence     has in its historical development identified  certain fundamental principles which form the  essential constituents of judicial procedure. They are employed in every     judicial proceeding, and constitute the basic  infrastructure along     whose    chamacts  flows     the power of  the Court  in the process of adjudication.”

On selective enforcement

Chandra’s point about efficacy of enforcement of certain PIL cases over other PIL cases is a very important one. I try to give the example of ‘the Sealing case,’ one of the avatars of WP 4677/1985, as another instance where the court’s attempt at grand social engineering of Delhi ultimately fails.  But the Court did pursue this particular case with a lot more tenacity than the Vishaka and the Aadhaar cases. In the ‘Sealing Case’, the court repeatedly took up contempt cases against non-enforcement and stayed governmental attempts at diluting its orders. In the Aadhaar case, the court has been not so proactive. On the other hand, enforcing Vishaka is in the realm of pronouncing an ambitious new legislative norm, without having the enforcement mechanism.

Why rely on Ely

Lastly, on the arguments of John Hart Ely:I would argue that Ely’s representation-reinforcement theory of judicial review applies to India. It provides the most persuasive account of how judicial review (which is, by definition, counter-majoritarian), can potentially perform an important democratic function.The preference for judicial populism over judicial review by Indian courts has meant an abandonment of this democratic function, as was evident most clearly in Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation. And also, to my mind, we need to be more skeptical of the interventionist conception of the State, expounded in the Directive Principles. The romance of the vanguardist Indian State, tasked with reforming the unruly Indian social milieu, which also forms the ideological basis of PIL, needs to be swiftly abandoned. There is an acute need to see how dangerously fascistic concepts we so easily use in India, such as ‘social engineering’, can be.


On Suhrith Parthasarathy’s intervention

Locus Standi

Parthasarathy makes a beautifully argued point that a too narrow reading of locus standi would go against the express provisions of Article 32 and Article 226. I am in full agreement with his argument, but I do think that the other extreme that we have been saddled with because of PIL, i.e. the complete dilution of locus standi, is not the answer either. Instead a way forward that I would suggest is that we try to analytically distinguish ‘representative standing’ from ‘citizen standing’.

An insistence on ‘representative standing’ (either as associational standing in cases of associations/ social movements or secondly, even individuals with some relation to the victims themselves, extrapolating the logic of habeas corpus where the detained person for some reason cannot come to court) should be preserved. The Mumbai Kamgar Sabha Case would be  a simple example of this form of standing. Besides PUDR and Bandhua Mukti Morcha, which Parthasarathy discusses, other examples of such representative petitioners from recent litigation would be Safai Karamchari Andolan and Narmada Bachao Andolan. In the second instance, representative standing could be thought of as similar to a class-action suit, except with a non-class member representing the larger group. Examples of this are Nandini Sundar case and Olga Tellis, where there were co-petitioners who were directly affected. These cases got named after the non-class petitioners, even though class members were petitioners too.

It would be useful to distinguish these instances from ‘citizen standing,’ which allows any citizen to file a petition on an issue completely unconnected with her own life and work. A complete dilution of locus standi is precisely the reason why the Judge can reduce the Petitioner to an informant (as if she is just filing an FIR), and make her redundant without any major loss to the process of the litigation. In other words, the Judge sees no harm in expropriating the litigation from such a petitioner. Many of the processual problems I discuss emerge from this. Reconceptualising locus standi this way could be part of thinking of an alternative. And yes, Justice Pathak’s opinion in Bandhua Mukti Morcha reminds us of what could have been, and is still worth returning to.

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ – IV: Suhrith Parthasarathy on the Case for the Defence

(We continue our discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s new book, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency Indiawith an essay by Suhrith Parthasarathy, a Chennai-based lawyer and writer).

As both Gautam Bhatia and Aparna Chandra have recounted here, Anuj Bhuwania’s book, “Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post Emergency India,” is an important and unique piece of work, in that it questions not merely the judiciary’s abuse of the PIL power, but also the very conferment of the PIL jurisdiction on the high courts and the Supreme Court of India. Bhuwania’s argument is hugely compelling, and is difficult to counter, particularly on the back of constantly mounting evidence which shows us how the PIL is often a tool that is malleable to the individual predilections of judges, and the campaigns they seek to further.

However, I have two primary concerns with this thesis, which I shall explicate presently: the first is that, textually, both Articles 32 and 226, which respectively guarantee the rights to approach the Supreme Court and the high courts for enforcement of fundamental rights, do not support a blanket prohibition against actions in public interest. The second is the Supreme Court’s own historical record, which contains numerous instances when the court has had little choice but to interfere under Article 32, faced, as it has been, with what were often appalling infractions of basic civil and socio-economic rights. However, it must also be pointed out that even in these cases which demanded interference, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the cause of PILs would have been better served had the court, in exercising the power, not only restrained the rhetorical flourish of its judgments, but also managed to maintain, in the process, a greater, basic fidelity to the procedures of an adversarial process.

PILs: The Textual Defence

Let’s consider, at first, the wordings of Articles 32 and 226. Article 32(1) states: “The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.” Article 226(1) states, “Notwithstanding anything in Article 32 every High Court shall have powers, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercise jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibitions, quo warranto and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose.”

What’s notable is that neither of these articles places any limitations on the category of persons entitled to approach the court. In the case of Article 32, it simply requires the petitioner to show that a fundamental right guaranteed under Part III has been violated—this violation can quite conceivably be of a right possessed by a person distinct from the petitioner. Similarly, Article 226 also does not specify that only persons whose rights have been affected can approach the high courts. What’s more, Article 32 goes a step further in granting leeway to petitioners to approach the Supreme Court by way of “appropriate proceedings.” Were we to read these provisions literally it becomes rather difficult to justify strict rules of locus standi. In fact, were the Supreme Court, for example, to reject a petition purely on the ground that the petitioner has no personal interest in the case, when a fundamental right has been shown to be violated, it might well be a dismissal contrary to the bare text and meaning of Article 32.

Therefore, in many ways, the loosening of principles of standing that occurred over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s, is in consonance with a proper, textual reading of Articles 32 and 226. Further, a look into Constituent Assembly’s debates on these articles also does not show us that the drafters intended to place restrictions on locus standi in a manner that required petitioners to be personally affected. Now, this is not to suggest that the court is incapable of framing rules that regulate the principles of standing. The words “appropriate proceeding” in Article 32, for instance, gives the court the latitude to regulate principles of locus standi in a manner consistent with the broader requirements of justice. That the court has failed to do so in a systematic and coherent manner, however, has been a failing that has had serious repercussions.

As Bhuwania argues, this lack of rigour in the Supreme Court’s PIL jurisprudence, which is only made worse by the court’s almost declamatory language, is evident almost right from the inception of PILs. For example, take one of the earliest instances of the Supreme Court’s exercise of what it itself appeared to describe as a public interest action: the 1976 judgment in Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, Bombay vs M/S Abdulbhai Faizullabhai. Here, the court was concerned with an appeal against an award made by an Industrial Tribunal where a demand for bonus by employees working for various small hardware businesses in Navi Mumbai was rejected. One of the defences that the Respondent took in the Supreme Court was that the employees had been represented by a Trade Union, and, this body lacked the standing to bring the appeal on behalf of the workers. “No right of the Union qua Union was involved,” the Respondent contended, “and the real disputants were the workers.”

To this, Krishna Iyer, J., who was part of the two-judge bench hearing the appeals, responded thus: “But a bare reading of the petition, the description of parties, the grounds urged and grievances aired, leaves us in no doubt that the battle is between the workers and employers and the Union represents, as a collective noun, as it were, the numerous humans whose presence is indubitable in the contest, though formally invisible on the party array.” As a matter of technicality, he conceded that the Union could not be a party, but, this, he said, was merely an infelicity in the drafting, for it was clear that it was the workmen who were the real parties to the dispute. This ordinarily ought to have been enough for the court to overcome any objections on the maintainability of the appeal—the workers, as Krishna Iyer, J., had pointed out were, in fact, before the court, but were merely represented by a Union.

Unfortunately, however, the court did not stop here. And this is where the problems begin. “Test litigations, representative actions, pro bono public and like broadened forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice to the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the real issues on the merits by suspect reliance on peripheral procedural, shortcomings,” Krishna Iyer, J., wrote. “Even Article 226, viewed in wider perspective, may be amenable to ventilation of collective or common grievances, as distinguished from assertion of individual rights, although the traditional view, backed by precedents, has opted for the narrower alternative. Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances and conceptual latté dinarianism permits taking liberties with individualization of the right to invoke the higher courts where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker.”

Now, the court was unconcerned here with Article 226, and any observations made on the procedural requirements of standing to approach a high court were simply irrelevant to the facts of the case. What’s more, the court was actually concerned with whether the workers individually had a right to seek bonus; that they may have been collectively represented by a Union did not negate the fact that their individual rights had nonetheless to be determined. In framing the issue, though, as one which involved an airing of collective grievance, as opposed to one that involved an assertion of individual rights, Krishna Iyer, J. ended up upholding an argument quite different to the one made by the Trade Union.

PILs: On the Necessity of Judicial Intervention

There are similar misgivings with almost all of the early cases that are often described as heralding a movement towards public interest litigation. It’s quite conceivable that each of those cases may well have been amenable to the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction without otherwise compromising on the basic principles of standing. For instance,Gautam Bhatia in his review of Bhuwania’s book points to the 1982 judgment of the Supreme Court in PUDR vs Union of India, as an exemplar of what PIL can mean, when applied correctly.

Here, the court was faced with a report that pointed out a flagrant violation of several labour laws in relation to workmen employed in the construction work of various projects connected with the Asian Games. Article 32, as P.N. Bhagwati, J. pointed out in his judgment, only required that the petitioner show a violation of a fundamental right. What’s more, as I have argued above, the provision doesn’t, in and of itself, prohibit a person from approaching the court in the interest of fundamental rights of any other individual or any other distressed groups of people. In this case, the petitioner’s report quite clearly, in the court’s opinion, presented evidence of what constituted a form of forced labour in violation of Article 23. Now, it was up to the Union of India to disprove that the labourers employed for the projects connected with the Asian Games weren’t being employed in a manner that violated Article 23. The Union, though, didn’t quite dispute the basic findings in the petitioner’s report. Instead, it argued by placing emphasis, as the judgment states, on the word ‘similar’, used in Article 23, contending that it is not every form of forced labour which is prohibited by the provision but only such form of forced labour as is similar to ‘begar’ and since ‘begar’ means labour or service which a person is forced to give with-out receiving any remuneration for it. Article 23, in its argument, was limited only to those forms of forced labour where labour or service is exacted from a person without paying any remuneration at all and if some remuneration is paid, though it be inadequate, it would not fall within the words ‘other similar forms of forced labour.’ Given the arguments adduced the court’s task was to simply answer a legal question: whether Article 23 prohibited all forms of forced labour or merely those forms that were similar to “begar.” This, the court did effectively.

But, once again, much of the court’s good work was undone by its oratorical excesses. Bhuwania takes us to one such statement, where the court was quick to stress on a need to loosen procedural standings on a whole, and, more significantly, on a need to invent new strategies to provide access to large groups of people:

“We wish to point out with all the emphasis at our command that public interest litigation which is a strategic arm of the legal aid movement and which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, is a totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation which is essentially of an adversary character where there is a dispute between two litigating parties, one making claim or seeking relief against the other and that other opposing such claim or resisting such relief,” wrote PN Bhagwati, J. “Public interest litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and un-redressed.”

Thus, once again, the court was framing the debate in terms of collective rights. This, in my submission, was where the court went wrong. This was a case much like Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, a case where individual rights of workers were being contravened. PUDR, as Bhatia has argued, largely represents a case where PIL was put to good use. But the court could have achieved its ends through a narrower holding. It simply had to read Article 32 in a manner close to its text, to find that PUDR did, in fact, possess the locus standi to approach the court for a violation of the fundamental rights of the workers. This required no specific loosening of the standard.

Appropriate Proceedings”

We may now look at one more example, a 1984 case, which Bhuwania refers to in detail: Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India. This was a case initiated by an organisation dedicated to ending bonded labour. As Bhuwania points out, the judgment rendered by PN Bhagwati, J., in the case is riddled with his “standard trope of Indian difference.” That “in a country like India where there is so much of poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, deprivation and exploitation, any insistence on a rigid formula of proceeding for enforcement of a fundamental right would become self-defeating because it would place enforcement of fundamental rights beyond the reach of the common man and the entire remedy for enforcement of fundamental rights…would become a mere rope of sand so far as the large masses of the people in this country are concerned.”

But while Bhagwati, J., may have been wrong on this count, as is pointed out in a concurring judgment in the same case by Pathak, J., he did also seek to defend the court’s intervention based on a textual reading of Article 32. The provision, he pointed out, confers the right to move the Supreme Court for the enforcement of any fundamental right, but it neither restricts movement of the court to any category of persons, nor does it place a restriction on the manner of the proceedings: “It is clear on the plain language of Clause (1) of Article 32 that whenever there is a violation of a fundamental right, anyone can move the Supreme Court for enforcement of such fundamental right,” wrote Bhagwati, J. “…again Clause (1) of Article 32 says that the Supreme Court can be moved for enforcement of a fundamental right by any ‘appropriate’ proceeding.’ There is no limitation in regard to the kind of proceeding envisaged in Clause (1) of Article 32 except that the proceeding must be ‘appropriate’ and this requirement of appropriateness must be judged in the light of the purpose for which the proceeding is to be taken, namely, enforcement of a fundamental right.”

As a matter of pure textual interpretation of Article 32, as I sought to show earlier, it is difficult to argue against Bhagwati, J.’s view. Had he dismissed the petitioner’s approach purely on the ground that he or she doesn’t have the standing to maintain an action for the violation of a fundamental right, the dismissal would have run directly counter to Article 32’s wording. This is not to say that the court cannot place its own international restrictions on when to interfere. But any strict rule of standing would simply be impermissible as a matter of constitutional law.

Here, what Pathak, J. said in his concurring opinion in Bandhua Mukti Morcha is particularly instructive. He expressly recognised that Article 32 does not specifically indicate who can move the court when a fundamental right is violation and, therefore, in the absence of a confining provision, it was “plain that a petitioner may be anyone in whom the law recognises a standing to maintain an action of such nature.” But as to what constitutes an “appropriate proceeding,” Pathak, J. was more circumspect. While he recognised that it was indeed time for the law to enlarge the doctrine of standing to permit actions by persons in public interest on behalf of groups otherwise incapable of representing themselves, public interest litigation, he held, did not necessarily call for a system that altogether loosens the fundamental requirements of a properly adversarial process. It similarly also did not a call for a system where the relief provided by the court is beyond what it might provide in a regular writ proceeding.

A public interest litigation, Pathak, J. held, did permit a greater degree of flexibility in comparison to a traditional private law litigation, but any such procedure adopted by the court must nonetheless confirm to basic judicial tenets characteristic of a proper proceeding. What he meant by this was that although a defined pattern of procedure might be hard to lay down, the court must still follow the procedure laid down by any statute that prescribes the procedure for the proceeding concerned. Where the court devises any supplementary procedure, “there can be no deviation from the principles of natural justice and other well accepted procedural norms characteristic of a judicial proceeding,” he wrote. “They constitute an entire code of general principles of procedure, tried and proven and followed by the sanctity of common and consistent acceptance during long years of the historical development of the law. The general principles of law, to which reference is made here, command the confidence, not merely of the Judge and the lawyer and the parties to the litigation, but supply that basic credibility to the judicial proceeding which strengthens public faith in the Rule of Law. They are rules rooted in reason and fairplay, and their governance guarantees a just disposition of the case. The court should be wary of suggestions favouring novel procedures in cases, where accepted procedural rules will suffice.”

Bhuwania is entirely correct in pointing out that it was ultimately Bhagwati, J’s judgment that carried the day, and Pathak, J.’s opinion remains just that, an opinion. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that Pathak, J. may have been correct as a matter of law on how a PIL has to be treated: that a petition cannot be dismissed purely on the ground that a petitioner lacks standing, and that where a violation of a fundamental right is shown, the court has little choice but to intervene. But this intervention must partake a proper procedure, and, any relief that is ultimately awarded must also be tailored into a proper judicial relief.

Conclusion: A Partial Defence

There are many genuine, legitimate areas in which a PIL serves as the only recourse available to check unconstitutional executive or legislative actions. But it is tragically disappointing that the court ultimately chose to follow the pattern shaped by Bhagwati, J. Bhuwania shows in substantial detail (as Bhatia illustrated in his first post) that PILs have led to a series of pitfalls, and have proved hugely damaging to the quality of justice delivery in the country. But this, in my submission, isn’t as much a problem with PILs per se as it is with the larger lack of accountability that the judiciary enjoys. Here, I agree with Chandra, who argues that the “judicial populism that Bhuwania describes in his book translates into distinct conception of the judicial role, and a mode of judicial reasoning that is apparent not just in PIL cases but across the board.” The misuse of the PIL has only been accentuated by the unaccountability of the judiciary; the general lack of integrity in decision making, of maintain a fidelity to constitutional values and principles, is a problem as much in the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction as it is in its exercise of PIL power.

Any solution, therefore, has to go deeper. Regrettably, attempts made to alter the system of appointing judges have thus far failed. In the place of proper democratic constraints on the judiciary, what we have instead are anti-constitutional checks on judicial power: post-retirement postings, for example. Unless these larger issues are met effectively, it’s difficult to imagine a proper reform of the PIL process. To understand why we need this reform, though, there is no better place to begin than by reading Bhuwania’s book.

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