Constitutional Cautions: Vice President and President Speak


Two Years of the Modi Regime: Admonitions from Top Constitutional Posts

Image: PTI

Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. And, in that sense, the past 24 months of the Modi regime have been special, in that they have seen, possibly for the first time in independent India’s history, public and premonitory observations from the country’s two top constitutional posts, the President and the Vice President (VP). Several times.

Eminent jurist, Fali Nariman, not so far back, on April 5 and 8 this year publicly endorsed what VP Hamid Ansari had stated days before at his convocation address in Jammu (‘VP calls on Supreme Court to help clarify and strengthen secularism’, Indian Express, April 3 ) and in fact three days later, went several steps further.  Nariman endorsed Hamid Ansari’s views stating that “A head of state (a vice head as well) must speak, extra-constitutionally, and more often, about basic constitutional values, especially since neither of these distinguished personages has any role to play in adjudicating upon them.”

Nariman, a widely respected jurist, did not stop at that. Three days later, speaking at a book release function at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in the presence of both President Pranab Mukherjee and Chief Justice TS Thakur, Nariman addressed himself directly to the Constitutional head of the Indian republic as he sought to underscore the importance of dissent and the republican form of democracy in India. “Mr President, I have been deeply worried and concerned over the past several months with an impression fast-gaining ground amongst large number of thinking persons in this country that it is only with executive powers concentrated in one person that this country can be more effectively governed. I beg to differ,” he said

Days before, on April 3 delivering his Convocation address at the university of Jammu, Vice-President Hamid Ansari had urged the court to clarify contours within which secularism and composite culture should operate so as to remove ambiguities. Addressing the 16th convocation of Jammu University here, Ansari also wondered whether a more complete separation of religion and politics might not better serve Indian democracy.  He said that a few years ago, in a volume published on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Supreme Court, lawyers Rajeev Dhavan and Fali S Nariman had observed that “as we transit into the next millennium, the Supreme Court has a lot to reflect upon, and not least on how to protect the minorities and their ilk from the onslaught of majoritarianism…..

"Unless the court strives to assure that the Constitution applies fairly to all citizens, Ansari said, the court cannot be said to have fulfilled its responsibility. “Is it therefore bold to expect that the Supreme Court may consider, in its wisdom, to clarify the contours within which the principles of secularism and composite culture should operate with a view to strengthen their functional modality and remove ambiguities?”

That was in April. Before that in February 2016, when Hamid Ansari delivered the address on Scientific Temper and the Media while address after launching of new look Rajya Sabha TV and inaugurating a panel discussion on “Scientific Temper: A pre-requisite for Knowledge based Society,”  on January 10, 2016 he had observed that the media, given its privileged position, has a responsibility to challenge the rampant obscurantism and superstition that afflict our society..” Further, he said, “ It is here that education has to play a critical role. Unfortunately, our education system is insufficiently equipped to inculcate Scientific Temper in young minds. Over the years, the quantum of scientific information in the country has increased but has not brought about science-mindedness in sufficient measure…. The use of mass media as a means of transmitting science related information is perhaps the most important bulwark in our fight against ignorance and irrationality. The media, given its privileged position, has a responsibility to challenge the rampant obscurantism and superstition that afflict our society.

In November 21, 2014, delivering the 8th Tarkunde Memorial Lecture at New Delhi, Hamid Ansari had stressed on the responsibility of the state in the protection of human rights In thus lecture he had stressed, “Despite the constitutional and legal guarantees, religious minorities continue to be target of violence and discrimination from time to time. Patterns of systematic mobilisation of hate and divisive politics are discernable; in many cases these have been pursued with impunity. The same holds for other weaker sections of society including SCs and STs, women, children and persons with disabilities. Credible data on these is available in government, academic and civil society reports. These cut at the root of the constitutional principle of equality of opportunity and equal access to justice and highlight the failure of the State to act appropriately. As we embark on the path of rapid economic growth and development, the issue of finding a balance between traditional rights of citizens, with environmental imperatives and economic objectives will have to be addressed by State; else, social tensions will undermine the development agenda.”

Then there was the First Ram Manohar Lohia Memorial National Lecture organized by a university in Gwalior on September 23, 2015. The moment was critical. There has been a series of sharp and aggressive efforts by the central agencies against dissenting voices, rights activists and organisations fighting for rights.“Dissent as a right has been recognised by the Supreme Court of India as one aspect of the Right of Freedom of Speech guaranteed as a fundamental right by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution," VP Hamid Ansari had said. “Despite the unambiguously stated position in law, civil society concerns about constraints on the right of dissent in actual practice have been articulated powerfully." Referring to the new reporting requirements for NGOs, he said, "Nothing is more fatal for disagreements and dissent than the idea that all of it can be reduced to hidden sub-texts or external agendas. The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else's subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. "It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you of taking their ideas seriously. Once we have impugned the source, we don't have to pay attention to the contents of the claim.. This has serious consequences for dissent," he said."Every citizen of the Republic has the right and the duty to judge. Herein lies the indispensability of dissent," he said.

The Vice President has always made studied speeches. He hands out a written text as is protocol. He one delivered on August 31, 2015 at the 50th jubilee celebrations of the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat and I this he posed both the problems of affirmative action –and absence of serious implementation of measures by the state as also the attitude of  sections of the community themselves.  Yet the rabble rousers among the Sangh Parivar launched an all out attack.

In this speech, Affirmative action for Muslims is key, says Vice President Hamid Ansari Vice President Hamid Ansari had said, “the official objective of sab ka sath sab ke vikas is commendable; a pre-requisite for this is affirmative action (where necessary) to ensure a common starting point and an ability in all to walk at the required pace. This ability has to be developed through individual, social and governmental initiatives that fructify on the ground. Programmes have been made in abundance; the need of the hour is their implementation.” The Vice President also called upon the Muslim community to respond to the times.

Apart from sections of the VHP and RSS asking him to ‘apologise’ senior scribes were also unapologetically peeved by the Vice President’s words of caution, especially those uttered in April 2016. The same voices were not heard admonishing the sectarian and rabid trolls who attacked the Vice President on Republic Day of 2015 on the issue of saluting the national flag, however. Or commenting on the deafening silence from the Executive.

[VHP Joint General Secretary Surendra Jain described this as a “political” and “communal”statement. He insisted that the demand was designed to “push Muslims into the dark alleys of dissatisfaction whose consequences will be dangerous.” He said that the statement did not befit the office of the Vice President. Worse still, Ram Madhav of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who is now a senior BJP functionary lashed out at the Vice President for ‘not attending the Yoga Day Celebrations’, much publicized and held by Narendra Modi. ]

At the time of the unseemly controversy around the saluting of the national flag, this author had written, “Or the vitriol unleashed on the anti-social media against our vice President Hamid Ansari because he observed protocol and did not salute the national flag? It seems that no matter how many times a Muslim swears his allegiance to India, doubts will always be cast. The disgusting levels of discourse on twitter and facebook, using labels like ‘Jehadi sympathiser’, ‘anti-India’ and ‘traitor’ for Mr Ansari will most certainly not be acted upon. The otherwise over-zealous IB and police machinery will cynically allow this abuse of our Vice President to simply happen, and pass…

What is the actual protocol? According to section VI of the Flag Code of India, , "During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag, or when the flag is passing in a parade or in a review, all persons present should face the Flag and stand at attention. Those present in uniform should render the appropriate salute". Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Pranab Mukherjee, vice president Ansari, US President Barack Obama, defence minister Manohar Parrikar were not in uniform and were therefore not required to salute the flag. Yet Ansari, by observing protocol has become the target of bitter and violent hate-letting.’ There was a studied and indecorous silence from the PMO.

The Vice President of India is the second highest constitutional office in the country. If the President Pranab Mukherjee has spoken out somewhat less, VP Hamid Ansari has been sharp and succinct in raising issues of serious concern in the past 24 months. This is the second term of this Vice President and Mr Ansari occupies the post until 2017.

Along with the post of President, the position of Vice President is crucial for upholding the dignity and core constitutional values of the state. It is under Articles 63-73 of the Constitution that the VP of India holds office for a term of five years. The Vice President is also the Chairman of the Council of States that is the Rajya Sabha and in this position he is part of Parliament. He thus has two distinct and dual roles; in the constitutional set up, the holder of the office of VP he is part of the executive and in the second he is part of Parliament. He steps in for President in the former’s absence and is also consulted on policies though not in the day-to-day affairs of the State.

During the Indepedence Day speech last year, August 2015, President Pranab Mukherjee had said, "Our democracy is creative because it is plural, but diversity must be nourished with tolerance and patience. Vested interests chip away at social harmony, in an attempt to erode many centuries of secularism." In th wake of the ghastly and shameful lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri last September, the President had again spoken saying that ‘Tolerance core to India’s survival’. Again on the occasion of the Holi festival in March 2016 he urged Indians to recall their basic composite culture.

History will recall and remember the studied words of both the Vice President Hamid Ansari as also the words of the President Pranab Mukherjee,  well.



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