Constitution Day: How a book changed India’s fate
On November 26, 1949, sixty-seven years ago, the Constitution of India was adopted. With its adoption, the Union of India became the modern and contemporary Republic of India, carrying secular legal systems and the common law.
With nearly 400 articles or provisions, the Constitution gave us fundamental rights irrespective of our caste, class, religion or place of origin. It also enlisted duties of a citizen and role of the government.
But since India is home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, what was the law that was governing us before the Constitution came into effect in 1949. What rules and regulations was India following, which was India’s book of law?
Historians say that a recorded legal history starting from the Vedic ages and some sort of civil law system may have been in place during the Bronze Age and the Indus Valley civilisation. Court systems for civil and criminal matters were essential features of many ruling dynasties of ancient India. It is said that excellent secular court systems existed under the Mauryas (321-185 BCE) and the Mughals (16th–19th centuries) with the latter giving way to the current common law system.
Historians say the Manusmriti, one of the most important ancient legal texts among Hindu Dharmashastras, was India’s book of law which provided rules and directives to various dynasties and kingdoms for centuries.
If we juxtapose Manusmriti with the modern day Constitution, one would be left awestruck at the striking differences in the system of laws these two books offer. The Constitution declared India a sovereign, democratic republic and assured its citizens of justice, equality, and liberty, and endeavoured to promote fraternity among them. Indira Gandhi had the words “socialist, secular” added to the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976.
The Constitution offered equality before law to all men and women, prohibited discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, promised to offer equality of opportunity in matters of public employment and most importantly abolished the age-old inhuman practice of untouchability.
On the other hand, the Manusmriti, the ancient law book of India, called women “an embodiment of the worst desires, hatred, deceit, jealousy and bad character”, argued that women should not be given freedom, ruled that killing a woman, a Shudra or an atheist is not sinful and shamelessly advocated that “if the Shudra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda then his ears should be filled with molten lead and lac.”
Thanks to Dr B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution, that he not only burnt this brutal book on December 25, 1927 but made great efforts, when he became chairman of the Constitution drafting committee, to abolish all social evils through the statute and give all citizens the right to equality.
The Constitution has played a major role in the creation of a new India. It has shown to Indians that the goal under the fabric of the Constitution is nothing but to establish social, economic and political democracy for the betterment of all Indians.