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“We the People” in the constitution. UPSC NOTE

 The meaning of "We the People" in the Indian Constitution and its implications for civil society 

  • During the inaugural session of the new Parliament, controversy erupted after Members were gifted copies of the Indian Constitution, wherein the Preamble appeared to have dispensed with the terms ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’.

  • Interestingly, the civil society debate that followed remained hemmed in on whether either of these terms defined the true spirit of the Constitution. 

  • Without going into the merits of that debate, there is a largely unaddressed facet to point out; one which ought to comprise the basis of any such deliberative inquiry.

  • The meaning of the opening words of the Preamble, ‘We the People’.

  • The meaning or character of our popular sovereignty is often treated as a convenient myth or as a purely abstract assumption in our civil society discussions. 

  • As constitutional scholar Sarbani Sen argued in her book, The Constitution of India: Popular Sovereignty and Democratic Transformations, the revolutionary potential of the Constitution inheres in this very spirit of popular sovereignty. 

  • She looks at ‘how the idea of popular sovereignty and its relation to constitutionalism developed as a result of inter-generational discourse in Indian political thought during the pre-founding colonial period’.

  • One can interpret the enactment of the Constitution as the culmination of a decades-long process of dialogue among contending political actors, wherein an important part of it focused on the character of the envisaged republic

  • The Preamble explicitly anchors the legitimising ends of the republic in terms of securing justice (social, economic and political), liberty (of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship), 

and equality (of status and of opportunity) to all Indian citizens.

  • When we reduce sovereignty of the “political community” to mere state sovereignty, we reduce the constitutional promises given above to vague aspirations floating in ether

  • The Constitution can only remain a living force in our democracy as long as the phrase, ‘we the people’, can somehow approximate to a discerning citizenry, which effectively discharges its agency as vigilant participants.

The significance of "We the People“

  • The western tradition of civil society tended to grant such a watchdog function, of counterbalancing the state’s drive to monopolise sovereign power, to an elite public sphere. 

  • Counterbalancing the state implies constraining the excesses of government power

  • This liberal public sphere (as described by theorists such as Jürgen Habermas), platformed the educated middle classes, held to be engaged in a rational discourse centred on individual autonomy and self-interest.

  • Served to redouble the hold of the traditional elites on the public sphere. 

  • Broadly, the public sphere, tended to privilege the views of segments that skewed male, upper class and dominant castes.

  • Yet, this elite public sphere has largely remained inert in the face of severe challenges to prevailing constitutional governance.

  • Indeed, the more forceful democratic claims to the mantle of popular sovereignty have emanated from what we can term as the non-elite counter-sphere. 

  • This is the counter sphere of ‘organisations and movements’: social movements, farmers and labour groups, human rights activists, subaltern caste and tribal movements and their powerful examples such as the Una agitation by Dalits against caste-based violence; the Pathalgadi movement of tribals in Jharkhand; the farmers’ movements of Punjab and Haryana; and the nation-wide protests by Muslims (led by women) against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

  • Often, the liberal public sphere, even while being empathetic towards these movements, seeks to cast them in the subordinate role of ‘sectional movements’ or emotional/irrational upsurges, which can at the most merit conditional support. 

  • Yet, if we refuse to accord these counter sphere political actors a position of complete equality within our civil society, we will lose the liberatory potential of these ‘radically democratic’ forms of popular assertions and mass protests.



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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: “We the People” in the constitution. UPSC NOTE
“We the People” in the constitution. UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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