Book review: A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic


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Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2018, 296 pp., Rs 699 ISBN 978-0-691-19255-0

Amazon USA Kindle  $16.17, Hardcover  $42.55, Paperback $29.95


Review By Vishwajeet Deshmukh   25 September 2020

The construction of the meta-institutions and their configuration in India has grasped the attention of the academic circles and the question which these circles intend to decode is the very fundamental existence of such institutions from a bottom-up process. The antecedent to an inquiry in this subject-matter has involved several perspectives including the everyday affairs of the State (Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India by Akhil Gupta, 2012); atrocities of the Indian Democracy (The Vernacularisation of Democracy: Politics, Caste and Religion in India by Lucia Michelutti, 2008) or the familiarization of the citizens to this franchise corseted in unusual conditions (How India Became Democratic: Citizenship And The Making Of The Universal Franchise by Ornit Shani, 2018). These attempts to understand this construction from a subordinate perspective placing the predominant political events and institutions at its centre-point with the assistance of alternative histories have been the academic focus.

A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic by historian Rohit De, also intends to answer the same question the academic scholars have attempted to provide a cohesive answer to. However, the approach of his book has shifted the focus from political events to the people experiencing those events thereby, placing a “people-centric focus”. The book explores a plethora of legal facts and details but, what distinguishes De in this aspect is the narration of the events as if it were experienced by the reader according to the conditions of the time. This method of narration humanizes the history of the Constitution, justifying the status of “a living constitution”; the previous attempts have missed humanization and reduced the events to dry facts. One experience is an animation of “did not descend upon the people but was produced and reproduced in everyday encounters” (p 3) history as one proceeds with this book.

De’s fundamental argument with regard to The Constitution of India has been that “it did not descend upon the people, but was produced and reproduced in everyday encounters” (p 3); the previous approach to production has been from a consensus of the elite. The key factors in his argument embody the writ petitions and public interest litigation brought by common people that configured the Constitution rather than the long judgments by the Supreme Court. He has refereed extensively on legislation, case laws, judgments, and also the archives from the Supreme Court of India. This special archive tucked away in the basement of the Indian Supreme Court, “stores entire proceedings of the cases, the arguments made by lawyers, the affidavits and evidence produced before the court, transcripts of witness statements, maps of crime scenes, the occasional blood-stained physical evidence, and so on”. (p 16)

The book is divided into four distinct chapters discussing prohibition, commodity and market controls, prostitution, and beef consumption. The post Independence period reveals more about the behavior and awareness of citizens towards the document which gives them an existence Constitution Of India. The reflection of the same can be tracked from the inverse proportionality recorded in the decrease of civil suits by citizens to an increase in cases against the State. Each chapter has engaged narratives from communities and their entanglement in society; this includes Parsis, Marwaris, Muslims and various other minorities. The book shows that the secret of the “greater legal consciousness” of these communities was entrenched in “their ability to forge strong community associations”(p 223). These narratives, at the intersection of communities and the Constitution, reveal a liberal insight into groups and individual rights. How individuals’ rights find their power in large groups is reflected through “claims for individual rights were organized, funded and supported by a group seeking to protect its own practices”. (p 223)

De’s scholarship has a unique acumen when it comes to its remarkable resemblance with the post-colonial state of affairs and the colonial antecedents which are quite expected in an ethnographic sensibility of the Constitution since it is the sociology of the time period that has grasped the center.

The suggestions embarked on by De places emphasis on the deliberation with the “legal procedure”. The influence of the procedure is highly underestimated by the Constitutional since these procedural remedies enable them to petition. For instance, Prohibition laws did not successfully challenge prima facie on the grounds of protection of the fundamental right to equal treatment, given that permits enabled some categories of people to freely consume alcohol. Thus, procedural grounds formed a larger part of the prohibition narrative wherein minor technical procedures paved the way substantially. Secondly, the dominant point that the forerunners of this constitution through judicial activism are not the elites which include judges, politicians, or non-governmental organizations. These changes have been brought through the judicial activism exercised by the regular citizens who forced the exercise of a detailed discussion of legal cases.  The Supreme Court’s decision in the Mohd. Hanif Qureshi v State of Bihar case was moved by butchers and leather laborers from the Quershi community with more than 3000 names on record in 1958. This is the prime example of collective litigation by a minority Quershi the Qureshi’s was probably “one of the earliest class-action cases in post-independent India”. (p125).

Lastly,  De’s argument with regard to the constitutional Supreme Court judgments has been that of the study of ‘after-life’. The development of constitutional law must be studied in the aftermath. “the afterlife of a court case, not just through its circulation as legal precedent but also through its effect on the lower courts, executive practices, and popular memory” (p 21). The book has also explored the values of the Nehruvian States and the detrimental policies towards traders of the Marwari community and the subsequent emergence of the Bhartiya Janta Party as an electoral representation.

In conclusion, A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic is a socio-political exploration in the realm of constitutional law. This book brilliantly expresses the transformation from the elite classes to the regular masses. All the cases that have been highlighted over the course of this book which form the majority of the same have justified the claims put forth by De. How regular butchers, prostitutes, and petty traders led the battle against the state for rule of law. The book is devoid of comments from the lower judiciary and interplays of the same with the Supreme Court; the book fails to comment on this poor state of affairs. Regardless of this exclusion which forms a foundational issue in this debate, the book is a new scholarship from an ethnographic sensibility. The nature of the writing is worldly and universal in nature. The book has configured the method in which modern India has taken shape.