How did the Constitution of India, drafted by an exclusive group of individuals elected through the limited franchise, gain popular legitimacy? Rohit De’s book, A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic attempts to answer this question by looking at constitutional litigation in the early days of the Indian republic. A key claim of the book is that the Constitution was shaped and transformed by the marginalized sections of the society.
In around 228 pages, De highlights the remarkable stories of marginalized & deprived sections of the society fighting for their constitutional rights. He analyses constitutionally-significant cases brought by sex workers, butchers, small-time traders, and vegetable vendors to demonstrate the existence of a ‘constitutional consciousness’ among the common people. De argues that these petitions filed by marginalized groups show that our present understanding of the Constitution was shaped from below.
Although the cases revolved around citizens attempting to secure their economic rights, De’s choice of these specific cases highlights social and political tensions that were present in newly-independent India. These included issues of sex work and cow slaughter, both of which were intensely debated in the Constituent Assembly in the context of fundamental rights. While in the Assembly, the framers had debated what the Constitution ought to be; these cases demonstrated what the Constitution actually was, i.e. how it interacted with the daily lives of ordinary citizens.
The book also demonstrates how the Constituent Assembly debates and the Indian Constitution were utilised by competing groups to achieve a favourable outcome in these different cases of constitutional significance. Another interesting aspect that the book highlights is the significance of the use of the Constitution as a tool to check executive power. In the four cases highlighted in the book, the State issued notifications or passed legislation which impacted the ability of some people to earn their livelihood. In colonial times, people hardly had the legal options to challenge the might of the State, and going to protests was their only option. The use of litigation to challenge State action, therefore, was a crucial moment in India’s political history: it was the first time that citizens had had the opportunity to engage with and challenge the sSate on relatively equal footing.
To a large extent, these cases refute criticism that the Constitution is a product of the elite for the elite. The compelling account of these specific cases of constitutional significance reveals not only that the Indian Constitution mattered to these people in their everyday lives but also that ordinary people had immense faith in the Constitution. These litigations were the Constitution in action: people used the text of the Constitution to protect their sources of livelihood, indicating that they had embraced it both as a legal document as well as a source of values. As De puts it, “the Constitution didn’t descend upon the people; it was produced and reproduced in everyday encounters.”
(This post contains edits and inputs by Madhavi Gopalakrishnan, Research Associate at CLPR).