[By Bhanu Dhamija]

Mahatma Gandhi would not have approved of India’s Constitution. The document, framed without his involvement and adopted two years after his assassination, bears no resemblance to his known preferences for constitutional structure and balance of powers. He would have also objected to our Constitution’s handling of secularism. As to what our Constitution has become in modern times, the Mahatma would be aghast.

Gandhi hadn’t fully developed his ideas for an independent Indian Constitution, but he was very close. In 1946 his thoughts were outlined in Gandhian Constitution of Free India, written by Shriman Narayan Agarwal, an associate of Gandhi’s and later Governor of Gujarat.

Gandhi’s Dream of a Model State

Agarwal presented Gandhi’s vision of a decentralized administration based on village panchayats. This “Decentralized Village Communism” would have full autonomy at the local level in education, health, economy, and administration. The panchayat would control village servants, patwaris, police, and even deliver justice. About 20 villages would form a Taluka (District) and elect a Taluka Panchayat, which would elect a Provincial Panchayat, and then an All-India Panchayat. Each legislature would elect a President and Ministers, but they wouldn’t be members of the panchayat. Thus there would be “a complete separation of functions between the Legislature and the Executive.”

Gandhi had experimented with just such a Constitution for nearly a decade. In 1938, Raja Bhawanrao Pant of Aundh, a princely state in Maharashtra, considered relinquishing his throne and invited Gandhi to help formulate a Constitution so that the people could run their own affairs. Gandhi proposed a structure based on panchayats, in which all aspects of governance rose from the bottom up. The Raja’s son Apa Pant quoted the Mahatma: “In my dreams of a model state, power will not be concentrated in a few hands. A centralized government becomes expensive, unwieldy, inefficient, corrupt, often ruthless, and is always heartless. All centralized governments attract power-seekers who capture power, and then maintain it by force.” Gandhi’s approach improved Aundh’s education levels, finances, and social cohesion.1 In 1948, Aundh joined the Indian Union.

If India Copied England’s Constitution

Gandhi had learnt about the perils of centralization of power from the British parliamentary system. In 1909, he wrote in Hind Swaraj that England’s Parliament was “like a sterile woman and a prostitute” because it was “under the control of ministers.” He cautioned, “If India copies England, it is my firm conviction she will be ruined.” He once admonished the British Secretary of State for his country’s system: “My whole being rebels against the idea that in a system called democratic one man should have the unfettered power… To me this is a negation of democracy.”2

At the time, the framers of India’s Constitution completely disregarded Gandhi’s experience and ideas, and chose to adopt the British system. Nehru informed Gandhi in 1945 that the Congress Party had “never considered” his view of society as exemplified in Hind Swaraj, “much less adopted it.” 3 The following year, as the head of Congress’s Experts Committee and the Constituent Assembly’s Union Constitution Committee, Nehru pushed through the adoption of the very system Gandhi had cautioned against. Granville Austin, chronicler of India’s Constitution, wrote, “A Gandhian constitution seems not to have been given a moment’s thought.” 4

Nehru argued that Gandhi’s approach wasn’t practical and modern. In his view, India needed a centralized Constitution to deal with internal and external threats, and to grow its economy. The country was facing serious fissiparous pressures due to Hindu-Muslim strife and princely states’ demands. And India’s economy needed centralized planning, modern agriculture and industry. Nehru asked Gandhi, “With a village society and a decentralized constitution, would India have been able to protect itself from foreign aggression?” And “how far” would modern economic needs “fit in with a purely village society?” 5

Once Nehru’s committees decided on a centralized Constitution, the Constituent Assembly simply went through the motions of adopting it. Inside the Assembly, Drafting Committee Chairman Ambedkar, Gandhi’s political opponent, mocked the Mahatma’s ideas of a village- based Constitution. “The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic,” he said. “What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?”6 But when the Draft was fiercely criticized for ignoring villages altogether, an article for promoting panchayats was added as a Directive Principle.

Today’s Centralization and Secularism

Today, as Gandhi had feared, the centralization of power in our Constitution has reached ruinous levels. In 1976, Indira Gandhi’s 42nd Amendment made the President subservient to the Prime Minister. This not only gave the PM unfettered power over legislation, but also over Governors across the country. And in 1985, the anti-defection laws gave the PM total control over the votes of his party’s Members of Parliament.

Our Constitution’s handling of secularism is another area that Gandhi would dislike. It allows governments a freehand to engage in religious activities. Gandhi wrote in 1946: “If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it.” 7

It wasn’t until the 1990s that India finally adopted Gandhi’s vision of empowering village panchayats. Rajiv Gandhi’s 73rd Amendment gave panchayats constitutional status as institutions of self-governance. But by then the state and central governments were too entrenched in their powers. Even after three decades, panchayats are not self-sufficient enough in authority and resources to act as the basic unit of India’s administration.

Now that India’s integrity and unity are no longer under threat, it is time to give the Mahatma’s vision of a truly decentralized Constitution a fresh look.

Notes: 1) https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/p1p8hydrvOgHttZC8FXSJJ/What-might-a-Gandhian-constitution-have-looked-like.html; 2) To Samuel Hoare, 11 March 1932; 3) A Bunch of Old Letters; cited in The Indian Constitution by Granville Austin, Oxford Univ Press, p.39; 4) Austin, p.34; 5) Austin, p.45; 6) Constituent Assembly Debates 4 November 1948; 7) Harijan, 22 September 1946

[Dhamija is the Founder and CMD of Divya Himachal media group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’ (Harper, 2015). Twitter: @BhanuDhamija]