Constitutional challenges of federalism

Jan 28 2005, 00:00 IST
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We have completed 55 years as a republic and this is a good time to introspect. With great expectation, the members of the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution on November 26, 1949, and the new republic came into existence on January 26, 1950. It was an extraordinary occasion.

The United States was the first republic in the modern world. With the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the American colonies rejected British rule. In the ensuing War of Independence, the American forces won. But the task of uniting the 13 independent states remained unfinished. In 1787, the Continental Congress met to deliberate on the future Constitution. Two viewpoints prevailed. The Republicans favoured popular sovereignty and supremacy of the states. The Federalists favoured a strong federal government. A compromise was made and the Constitution approved in 1789. The American Constitution was the first written one.

The early years of the republic were turbulent. For nearly a decade, the Republican group, led by Jefferson and Madison, and the Federalist faction, led by Hamilton and Adams, were at loggerheads, and the issue of slavery was deliberately kept aside to win the support of the southern states.

Finally, the Republicans vanquished the Federalists in the 1800 elections in which Jefferson was elected President. The Republicans embraced the Federalist ideology in part, even as the states’ rights were protected. The issue of slavery was not resolved until the civil war in the 1860s. But the promise of true liberty was denied to women and Blacks for many more decades. Women obtained the right to vote in the 1920s. While Black males got the right to vote after the civil war, it became real for the Afro-Americans in the south only in the 1960s, after the civil rights movement. The promise took over 180 years to be fulfilled.

The Indian Constitution is radical and revolutionary in comparison. At one stroke, all citizens got the right to vote. In a display of idealism, and faith in our people, our freedom fighters embarked on universal adult franchise, and embraced the republican principle. The new Constitution was not approved by the Governor General, the notional head of state. By deliberate decision, it was signed by the members of the Constituent Assembly. As the preamble declares, “We, the People,” have given unto ourselves the Constitution.

The Constituent Assembly, and the drafting committee under Babasaheb Ambedkar’s visionary chairmanship,

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