Excerpts from a speech delivered at the 18th Gen KS Thimayya Memorial Lecture on November 5, 2022 in Bengaluru.

Senior Advocate Aditya Sondhi wearing a black suit is in the foreground with the picture of the Supreme court in the background.
Voices Constitution Saturday, November 26, 2022 - 13:46

The following quotes are excerpts from a speech delivered at the 18th Gen KS Thimayya Memorial Lecture delivered by senior advocate Aditya Sondhi on November 5, 2022 in Bengaluru. Watch the full speech at the YouTube link provided below.

“The Constitution begins with the words India that is Bharat and one has to give due weightage to the use of this word. It is one question as to what the idea of Bharat is – that takes us into a different civilisational expedition. But the fact is that there existed an amorphous concept of Bharat that the Constitution recognises, defines and builds upon.”

“Kumud Pawde, who was one of the first Dalit teachers in Sanskrit, at her Sanskrit Pandita Award ceremony is quoted in Veena Venugopal’s book Independence Day: A People’s History as saying: I am a woman .... a Dalit and married to a Shudra. In all three cases, I should not learn or teach Sanskrit according to the shastras. But the constitution of my India allows me to do this. That is the idea of India.”

“I learned of a pending PIL to strike out the words secularism and socialism from its text on the grounds that they were never contained in the original preamble. Does striking them out mean we are not socialist and secular? Secularism is in fact the preamble of not just our Constitution but of our very DNA – the days we spent in school, oblivious of religious differences (or for that matter, class differences and caste differences – at times, too oblivious) defined what to be Cottonian, Bangalorean and Indian. The spirit of fraternity, equality, the idea of merit, the idea of respect for religion, the emphasis on being and doing good and doing the right thing, enjoying the liberty to think and express oneself were indeed part of the personality of growing up here in the 1980s.”

“A fine indicator of our diversity is language. The reorganisation of states in 1956 came about on a linguistic basis, eroding the hitherto bifurcation between princely states and governor’s provinces, which paid no heed to the linguistic identity of the people. Potti Sriramulu also known as Amarjeevi or immortal for his fast unto death that led to the creation of Andhra Pradesh, carved out from hitherto Madras Presidency, showed that language and culture trumps politics. The imposition of Hindi has been strongly resisted, especially in the Southern states. EV Ramaswamy better known as ‘Periyar’ was one such trenchant opponent of language imposition. Asked in 1930 whether India was a single country, he responded in the negative, saying India was a just collection of various castes, religions and languages. It is the Constitution twenty years later that unified us into one.”

Watch: KST18 | Dr. Aditya Sondhi | The Constitution and the Idea of India

“The Constitution is, in many ways, Sufi – I do not say this in any religious sense, but in the sense that it permits for all religion and is itself embedded in being righteous, spiritual and good (without being aligned with religion itself). For whom conscience trumps religion. Rumi in The Masnavi (in translation by Jawid Mojaddedi) says that while the warriors stand to the King’s left and the treasurer and scribes to the right, the Sufis are seated straight in front as they serve as mirrors to the soul. Our constitution is a mirror to our soul, and we may choose to behold in it all that’s good and right. What we perhaps refer to as constitutional morality that ought to guide the mothership forward.”

“In some ways it is easier to define what is not the idea of India. Just as you know using sandpaper on the ball is not cricket, fake encounters by policemen in the name of justice is not the idea of India. The remission of Bilkis Bano‘s rape accused and is not the idea of India. Lynching mentally challenged individuals by branding them child lifters is not the India. Believing in rank superstition, human sacrifice and discrimination, and killing of rationalists is not the idea of India. The beating and killing of a Dalit boy for trying to drink water from a common pot is not the idea of India. Running JCBs through slums in the name of law and order and urban planning is not the idea of India. Incessant farmers suicides - which P Sainath writes so movingly about – while we boast of being an economic superpower, is not the idea of India. Foisting charges of sedition on an officer who prevents a political leader from entering the ATC of an airport for trying to force a flight after hours is not the idea of India. Having our fellow citizens indulge in manual scavenging – a glorified metaphor for removing excreta from our drains – in the name of employment is not the idea of India. The idea of India is not the idea of a Government or the idea of a high powered elite. What the commonest of our citizens aspires for as a haven of compassion and opportunity where dignity pervades – that is the idea of India.”

“The rights to privacy, dignity, autonomy, sexuality, bodily integrity, ecology and many others are rights read into the right to life. It surprises me sometimes to see folks read the constitution as though it were some municipal corporation statute, without its elasticity or imagination. We have come a long way from the dark jurisprudence of ADM Jabalpur where the Supreme Court upheld the absolute suspension of fundamental rights on the shallow ground of Emergency powers. The constitutional Courts need never feel helpless as the letter and spirit of the constitution gives them the power of “adaption, its suppleness, its play” to further civil rights and the idea of justice. Driven, I dare say, by the notion of constitutional morality.”

“The Indian constitution is the most lengthy and the most amended constitution in the world. The precious right to education was introduced by way of the insertion of article 21A leading to the RTE Act, which has in some ways been a game changer. Similarly the introduction of article 371J which provides for reservation to people from Hyderabad-Karnataka region I think is a unique constitutional construct. It recognises the backwardness of certain districts and geographies in the country and provides for their advancement through affirmative action. Similar provisions are available in respect of the north-east as well. The 42nd amendment providing for grassroots representation through the development of the Panchayat system is really the introduction of a Gandhian form of governance that is decentralised, local and bottom-up in contrast to how Nehru and Ambedkar saw it as more centralised in functioning. All of this with the backdrop of a federal structure where the states and the Union are to enjoy their respective autonomy as per the lists in Schedule VII. These paradigms co-exist and highlight the accommodation within the Constitution.”

“It may come as a revelation to some of you that the Indian Constitution does not establish intelligence agencies in India and the all-powerful IB, RAW and others function in what can only be called a constitutional vacuum. We fought this this case to not just regulate these agencies – as should be the case in any country that follows rule of law and as is the case in many other countries where intelligence agencies operate within the framework of legislation, for instance the MI6 or CIA - but also to try and provide legal/constitutional legitimacy to these intelligence agencies. There obviously remain gaps in the Constitution and remind us that change is constant and is often welcome.”

“With the emerging axis of a cultural revanchism, a dominant executive and a partial media, the Supreme Court and high courts are going to find themselves more and more in the eye of a storm. How the Courts tackle these vexed issues of sociocultural and political ramifications within the letter and spirit of the Constitution is going to be critical to the development (or erosion) of the idea of India. That said, civil society movements, general awareness of the Constitution, a greater exposure to the Constitution in schools and colleges regardless of curriculum and, I believe, a greater engagement with Constitution in our everyday workplaces and social conversations will go a long way in refining our understanding of the Constitution – so that in this upcoming cultural collision, if you will, there is a collective sense of the constitutional idea of India.”

Aditya Sondhi is a designated senior advocate practising before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Karnataka. He has served as Additional Advocate General for Karnataka and has taught and lectured widely. He is also a research scholar, playwright, author, podcaster, and philanthropist.

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