Philosophy of the Constitution

Category : UPSC


Philosophy of The Constitution




Contents of the Chapter

  • Constitution as Means of Democratic Transformation
  • Why do we need to go back to the Constituent Assembly?
  • Individual freedom
  • Social Justice
  • Secularism
  • Universal franchise
  • Federalism
  • National identity
  • Procedural Achievements



Some people believe that a constitution merely consists of laws and that laws are one thing, values and morality, quite another. Therefore/ we can have only a legalistic, not a political philosophy approach to the Constitution. It is true that all laws do not have a moral content, but many laws are closely connected to our deeply held values.


For example, a law might prohibit discrimination of persons on grounds of language or religion. Such a law is connected to the idea of equality. Such a law exists because we value equality. Therefore, there is a connection between laws and moral values. One should look upon the constitution as a document that is based on a certain moral vision, and adopt a political philosophy approach to the constitution. What do we mean by a political philosophy approach to the constitution? We have three things in mind.


  • First, we need to understand the conceptual structure of the constitution. What does this mean? It means that we must ask questions like what are the possible meanings of terms used in the constitution such as ‘rights’, ‘citizenship’, ‘minority’ or ‘democracy’?


  • Furthermore, we must attempt to work out a coherent vision of society and polity conditional upon an interpretation of the key concepts of the constitution. We must have a better grasp of the set of ideals embedded in the constitution.


  • Our final point is that the Indian Constitution must be read in conjunction with the Constituent Assembly Debates in order to refine and raise to a higher theoretical plane, the justification of values embedded in the Constitution. A philosophical treatment of a value is incomplete if a detailed Justification for it is not provided. When the framers of the Constitution chose to guide Indian society and polity by a set of values, there must have been a corresponding set of reasons. Many of them, though, may not have been fully explained.


A political philosophy approach to the constitution is needed not only to find out the moral content expressed in it and to evaluate its claims but possibly to use it to arbitrate between varying interpretations of the many core values in our polity. It is obvious that many of its ideals are challenged, discussed, debated and contested in different political arenas, in the legislatures, in party forums, in the press, in schools and universities. These ideals are variously interpreted and sometimes wilfully manipulated to suit partisan short term interests. We must, therefore, examine whether or not a serious disjunction exists between the constitutional ideal and its expression in other arenas.


Sometimes, the same ideal is interpreted differently by different institutions. We need to compare these differing interpretations. Since the expression of the ideal in the constitution has considerable authority it must be used to arbitrate in conflict of interpretation over values or ideals. Our Constitution can perform this job of arbitration.



Constitution as Means of Democratic Transformation

It is widely agreed that one reason for having constitutions is the need to restrict the exercise of power. Modern states are excessively powerful. They are believed to have a monopoly over force and coercion. What if institutions of such states fall into wrong hands who abuse this power? Even if these institutions were created for our safety and well-being, they can easily turn against us. Experience of state power the world over shows that most states are prone to harming the interests of at least some individuals and groups. If so, we need to draw the rules of the game in such a way that this tendency of states is continuously checked. Constitutions provide these basic rules and therefore, prevent states from turning tyrannical.


Constitutions also provide peaceful, democratic means to bring about social transformation. Moreover, for a hitherto colonised people, constitutions announce and embody the first real exercise of political self- determination. Nehru understood both these points well. The demand for a Constituent Assembly. He claimed represented a collective demand for full self-determination because; only a Constituent Assembly of elected representatives of the Indian people had the right to frame India’s constitution without' external interference. Second, he argued, the Constituent Assembly is not just a body of people or a gathering of able lawyers. Rather, it is a ‘nation on the move, throwing away the shell of its past political and possibly social structure, and fashioning for itself a new garment of its own making’ The Indian Constitution was designed to break the shackles of traditional social hierarchies and to usher in a new era of freedom, equality and justice.


This approach had the potential of changing the theory of constitutional democracy altogether: according to this approach, constitutions exist not only to limit people in power but to empower those who traditionally have been deprived of it. Constitutions can give vulnerable people the power to achieve Collective good.


Why do we need to go back to the Constituent Assembly?

Why look backwards and bind ourselves to the past? That may be the job of a legal historian - to go into the past and search for the basis of legal and political ideas. But why should students of politics be interested in studying the intentions and Concerns of those who framed the Constitution? Why not take account of changed circumstances and define a new normative function of the Constitution?


In the context of America - where the Constitution was written in the late 18th century- it is absurd to apply the values and standards of that era to the 21st century. However, in India/the world of the original framers and our present day world may not have changed so drastically. In terms of our values, ideals and conception, we have not separated ourselves from the world of the Constituent Assembly. A history of our Constitution is still very much a history of the present.


Furthermore, we may have forgotten the real point underlying several of our legal and political practices, simply because somewhere down the road we began to take them for granted. These reasons have now slipped into the background, screened off from our consciousness even though they still provide the organizational principle to current practices.


When the going is good, this forgetting is harmless. But when these practices are challenged or threatened, neglect of the underlying principles can be harmful. In short, to get a handle on current constitutional practice, to grasp their value and meaning, we may have no option but to go back in time to the Constituent Assembly debates and perhaps even further back in time to the colonial era. Therefore, we need to remember and keep revisiting the political philosophy underlying our Constitution.



It is hard to describe this philosophy in one word. It resists any single label because it is liberal, democratic, egalitarian, secular, and federal, open to community values, sensitive to the needs of religious and linguistic minorities as well as historically disadvantaged groups, and committed to building a common national identity. In short, it is committed to freedom, equality, social justice, and some form of national unity. But underneath all this, there is a clear emphasis on peaceful and democratic measures for putting this philosophy into practice.


Individual freedom

The first point to note about the Constitution is its commitment to individual freedom. This commitment did not emerge miraculously out of calm deliberations around a table. Rather, it was the product of continuous Intellectual and political activity of well over a century. As early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, Rammohan Roy protested against curtailment of the freedom of the press by the British colonial state. Roy argued that a state responsive to the needs of individuals must provide them the means by which their needs are communicated. Therefore, the state must permit unlimited liberty of publication. Likewise, Indians continued to demand a free press throughout the British rule.


It is not surprising therefore that freedom of expression is an integral part of the Indian Constitution. So is the freedom from arbitrary arrest. After all, the infamous Rowlatt Act, which the national movement opposed so vehemently, sought to deny this basic freedom. These and other individual freedoms such as freedom of conscience are part of the liberal ideology. On this basis, we can say that the Indian Constitution has a pretty strong liberal character. In the chapter on fundamental rights we have already seen how the Constitution values individual freedom. It might be recalled that for over forty years before the adoption of the Constitution, every single resolution, scheme, bill and report of the Indian National Congress mentioned individual rights, not just in passing but as a nonnegotiable value.


Social Justice

When we say that the Indian Constitution Is liberal, we do not mean that it is liberal only in the classical western sense. In the book on Political Theory you will learn more about the idea of liberalism. Classical liberalism always privileges rights of the individuals over demands of social justice and community ‘values.


The liberalism of the Indian Constitution differs from this version in two ways. First, it was always linked to social justice. The best example of this is the provision for reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Constitution. The makers of the Constitution believed that the mere granting of the right to equality was not enough to overcome age-old injustices suffered by these groups or to give real meaning to their right to vote. Special constitutional measures were required to advance their interests. Therefore the constitution makers provided a number of special measures to protect the interests of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes such as the reservation of seats in legislatures. The Constitution also made it possible for the government to reserve public sector jobs for these groups.


Respect for diversity and minority rights The Indian Constitution encourages equal respect between communities. This was not easy in our country, first because communities do not always have a relationship of equality; they tend to have hierarchical relationships with one another (as in the case of caste). Second, when these communities do see each other as equals, they also tend to become rivals (as in the case of religious communities). This was a huge challenge for the makers of the Constitution: how to make communities liberal in their approach and foster a sense of equal respect among them under existing conditions of hierarchy or intense rivalry?


It would have been very easy to resolve this problem by not recognising communities at all, as most western liberal constitutions do. But this would have been unworkable and undesirable in our country. This is not because Indians are attached to communities more than others. Individuals everywhere also belong to cultural communities and every such community has its own values, traditions, customs and language shared by its members. For example, individuals in France or Germany belong to a linguistic community and are deeply attached to it. What makes us different is that we have more open to acknowledged the value of communities. More importantly, India is a land of multiple cultural communities. Unlike Germany or France we have several linguistic and religious communities. It was important to ensure that no can community systematically dominates others. This made it mandatory for our Constitution to recognise community basted rights.


One such right is the right of religious communities to establish and run their own educational institutions. Such institutions may receive money from the government. This provision shows that the Indian Constitution does not see religion merely as a private’ matter concerning the individual.



Secular states are widely seen as treating religion as only a private matter. That is to say, they refuse to give religion public or official recognition. Does this mean that the Indian Constitution is not secular? This does not follow. Though the term ‘secular’ was not initially mentioned, the Indian Constitution has always been secular. The mainstream, western conception, of secularism means mutual exclusion of state and religion in order to protect values such as individual freedom and citizenship rights of individuals.


Again, this is something that you will learn more about in Political Theory. The term ‘mutual exclusion’ means this: both religion and state must stay away from the internal affairs of one another. The state must not intervene in the domain of religion; religion likewise should not dictate state policy or influence the conduct of the state. In other words, mutual exclusion means that religion and state must be strictly separated.


What is the purpose behind strict separation? It is to safeguard the freedom of individuals. States which lend support to organised religions make them more powerful than they already are. When religious organisations begin to control the religious lives of individuals, when they start dictating how they should relate to God or how they should pray, individuals may have the option of turning to the modern state for protecting their religious freedom, but what help would a state offer them if it has already joined hands with these organisations? To protect religious freedom of individuals, therefore, state must not help religious organisations. But at the same time, state should not tell religious organisations how to manage their affairs. That too can thwart religious freedom. The state must, therefore, not hinder religious organisations either. In short, states should neither help nor hinder religions. Instead, they should keep themselves at an arm’s length from them. This has been the prevalent western conception of secularism.


Conditions in India were different and to respond to the challenge they posed, the makers of the Constitution had to work out an alternative conception of secularism. They departed from the western model in two ways and for two different reasons.


  • Rights of Religious Groups First, as mentioned already, they recognised that intercommunity equality was as necessary as equality between individuals. This was because a person's freedom and sense of self-respect was directly dependent upon the status of her community. If one community was dominated by another, then its members would also be significantly less free. If, on the other hand, their relations were equal, marked by an absence of domination, then its members would also walk about with dignity, self-respect and freedom. Thus, the Indian Constitution grants rights to all religious communities such as the right to establish and maintain their educational institutions. Freedom of religion in India means the freedom of religion of both individuals and communities.


  • State’s Power of Intervention Second, separation in India could not mean rnutual exclusion. Why is it so? Because, religiously sanctioned customs such as untouchability deprived individuals of the most basic dignity and -self-respect. Such customs were so deeply rooted and pervasive that without active state intervention, there was no hope of their dissolution. The state simply had to interfere in the affairs of religion. Such intervention was not always negative. The state could also help religious communities by giving aid to educational institutions run by them. Thus, the state may help or hinder religious communities depending on which mode of action promotes values such as freedom and equality. In India separation between religion and state did not mean their mutual exclusion but rather principled distance, a rather complex idea that allows the state to be distant from all religions so that it can intervene or abstain from interference, depending upon which of these two would better promote liberty, equality and social justice. We have hitherto mentioned three core features these can also be seen as the achievements of our Constitution.


  • First, our Constitution reinforces and reinvents forms of liberal individualism. This is an important achievement because this is done in the backdrop of a society where community values are often indifferent or hostile to individual autonomy.


  • Second, our Constitution upholds the principle of social justice without compromising on individual liberties. The constitutional commitment to caste-based affirmative action programme shows how much ahead India was compared to other nations. Can one forget that affirmative action programmes in the U.S. were begun after the 1964 Civil Rights Movement, almost two decades after they were constitutionally entrenched in India?


  • Third against the background of inter-communal strife, the Constitution upholds its commitment to group rights (the right to the expression of cultural particularity). This indicates that the framers of the Constitution were more than willing to face the challenges of what more than four decades later has come to be known as multiculturalism.


Universal franchise

Two other core features may also be regarded as achievements. First, it is no mean achievement to commit oneself to universal franchise, specially when there is widespread belief that traditional hierarchies in India are congealed and more or less impossible to eliminate, and when the right to vote has only recently been extended to women and to the working class in stable. Western democracies.


Once the idea of a nation took root among the elite, the idea of democratic self government followed. Thus, Indian nationalism always conceived of a political order based on the will of every single member of society. The idea of universal franchise lay securely within the heart of nationalism. As early as the Constitution of India Bill (1895), the first non-official attempt at drafting a constitution for India the author declared that every citizen i e anyone born in India had a right to take part in the affairs of the country and be admitted to public office. The Motilal Nehru Report (1928) reaffirms this conception of citizenship, reiterating that every person of either sex who has attained the age of. Twenty-one is entitled to vote for the house of Representatives or Parliament. Thus from very early on, universal franchise was considered as the most important and legitimate instrument by which the will of the nation was to be properly expressed.



Second, by introducing the articles concerning Jammu and Kashmir (Art. 370) and the North-East (Art, 371), the Indian Constitution anticipates the very, important concept of asymmetric federalism. We have seen in the chapter on federalism that the Constitution has created a strong central government. But despite this unitary bias of the Indian Constitution, there are important constitutionally embedded differences between the legal status and prerogatives of different sub-units within the same federation. Unlike the constitutional symmetry of American federalism, Indian federalism has been constitutionally asymmetric. To meet the specific needs and requirements of some sub-units, it was always part of the original design to have a unique relationship with them or to give them special status. For example, the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian union was based on a commitment to safeguard autonomy under Article 370 of the Constitution. This is the only State that is governed by its own constitution. Similarly, under Article 371A, the privilege of special status was also accorded to the North-Eastern State of Nagaland. This Article not only confers validity on preexisting laws within Nagaland, but also protects local. Many other States too, are beneficiaries of such special provisions. According to the Indian Constitution, then, there is nothing bad about this differential treatment. Although the Constitution did not originally envisage this, India is now a multi-lingual federation. Each major linguistic group is politically recognised and all are treated as equals. Thus, the democratic and linguistic federalism of India has managed to combine claims to unity with claims to cultural recognition. A fairly robust political arena exists that allows for the play of multiple identities that complement one another.


National identity

Thus, the Constitution constantly reinforces a common national identity. In the chapter on federalism, you have studied how India strives to retain regional identities along with the national identity. It is clear from what is mentioned above that this common national identity was not incompatible with distinct religious or linguistic identities. The Indian Constitution tried to balance these various identities. Yet, preference was given to common identity under certain conditions. This is clarified, in the debate over separate electorates based on religious identity which the Constitution rejects.


Separate electorates were rejected not because they fostered difference between religious communities as such or because they endangered a simple notion of national unity but because they endangered a healthy national life. Rather than forced unity, our Constitution sought to evolve true fraternity, a goal dear to the heart of Dr. Ambedkar. As Sardar Patel put it, the main objective was to evolve ‘one community’.





All these five core features are what might be called the substantive achievements of the Constitution. However, there were also some procedural achievements.

  • First, the Indian Constitution reflects a faith in political deliberation. We know that many groups and interests were not adequately represented in the Constituent Assembly. But the debates in the Assembly amply show that the makers of the Constitution wanted to be as inclusive in their approach as possible. This open-endedness indicates the willingness of people to modify their existing preferences, in short, to justify outcomes by reference not to self-interest but to reasons. It also shows a willingness to recognise creative value in difference and disagreement.


  • Second, it reflects a spirit of compromise and accommodation. These words, compromise and accommodation, should not always be seen with disapproval. Not all compromises are bid.


If something of value is traded off for mere self-interest, then we naturally have compromised in the bad sense. However, if one value is partially traded off for another value, especially in an open process of free deliberation among equals, then the compromise arrived in this manner can hardly be objected to.


We max’ lament that we could not have everything but to secure a bit of all things important cannot be morally blameworthy. Besides, a commitment to the idea that decisions on the most important issues must be arrived at consenually rather than by majority vote is equally morally commendable. The Preamble of the Constitution reads like a poem on democracy. It contains the philosophy on which the entire Constitution has been built. it provides a standard to examine and evaluate any law and action of government, to find out whether it is good or bad. It is the soul of the Indian Constitution.


WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, and DEMOCARATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;


FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation; IN OUR CONSTITUTENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AN? ?IVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION.



  • The constitution has been drawn up and enacted by the people through their representatives, and not handed down to them by a king or any outside powers.



  • People have supreme right to make decisions on internal as well as external matters. No external power can dictate the government of India.



  • Wealth is generated socially and should be shared equally by society. Government should regulate the ownership of land and industry to reduce socio-economic inequalities.



  • Citizens have complete freedom to follow any religion. But there is no official religion. Government treats all religious beliefs and practices with equal respect.



  • A form of government where people enjoy equal political rights, elect their rulers and hold them accountable. The government is run according to some basic rules.



  • The head of the state is an elected person and not a hereditary position.



  • Citizens cannot I discriminated on the grounds of caste, religion and gender. Social inequalities have to be reduced. Government should work for the welfare of all, especially of the disadvantaged groups.



  • There are no unreasonable restrictions on the citizens in what they think, how they wish to express their thoughts and the way, they wish to follow up their thoughts in action.



  • All are equal before the law. The traditional social inequalities have to be ended. The government should ensure equal opportunity for all.



  • All of us should behave as if we are members of the same family. No one should treat a fellow citizen as inferior.


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