Constitutional Literacy: A yellow-brick road to an Effective Democracy

The Need to Encourage Constitutional Literacy

“There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

The Constitution of India is our grundnorm; a body of law that is superlative in its own right. As per our country’s framework, every legislation must measure up to the Constitution and adhere to its rules; it protects the people from arbitrary powers of the State and ushers in an era of accountability.

Hence, a legal foundation like the Constitution, regarded as the supreme law of the land by countries that adopt and practise democracy, plays a significant role in not only understanding how the nuanced process of law-making works or is supported, but also the entitlements as well as obligations of people, be it citizens or aliens.

Educating the people about the constitution of their home country or country of residence is important to primarily educate them of the rights and privileges that they are entitled to, and make them aware of the restrictions to these entitlements and the obligations that they are bound to adhere to, so as to ensure an effective civilian setup and conduct in the country. This understanding acts as a link or relay between the people and the parliament, due to the constitution acting as a social contract between the people and the State, due to the roles and responsibilities being explicitly prescribed in it. This in turn pushes towards a narrative for a pro-people legislations, due to becoming not only more educated in terms of the surrounding laws and powers of the law making bodies which would allow them to raise legitimate and credible claims as politically aware citizens or as interest and pressure groups. In addition to looking for pro-people legislations, the aforesaid political awareness could bring about a nuanced individual adjudication of claims made by the government in power.

This understanding allows people to push for governmental policies and laws that cater to the interests of minorities and marginalized groups, so as to ensure that the privileges that these people are entitled to are not compromised with, i.e. they are allowed to exercise them to the fullest extent.

Further, a detailed understanding of the ideas behind the drafting of the Constitution and the ideals enshrined in the Constitution allows people to comprehend the mind and intention behind a particular constitutional provision. It also endorses a feeling of togetherness among the people, by convincing them of the fact that the very document was created by people getting together for bringing future generations together. This promotes setting aside of differences (cultural, religious, linguistic and even ideological) and encourages unity in tough times.

On the third and final forefront, an individual literate about the Constitution can engage in the notion of constitutional morality. Constitutional morality encourages safeguarding of inalienable rights and duties. This allows people to evaluate what a country lacks/needs in the status quo due to its relations and composition as well as the ideals that went into the drafting of the constitution, respectively. An individual understands as to what is the broader good that the constitution attempts to bring about, supports the supremacy of the Constitution in order to maintain the ethos of the respective governmental setup.

On that note, it becomes imperative to take a step towards educating the masses about the constitution, the principles enshrined in it, and the value that it carries for them.

India’s Tryst with Constitutional Literacy

Education cannot be isolated from politics and governance; when learning is kept away from civic studies and political science, ‘literacy’ remains a façade. Recognising this, the Kerala State Literacy Mission, in 2018, launched the first phase of its Constitutional Literacy programme. The programme was based on a Literacy Handbook created and compiled by the State; this resource listed the basic Constitutional Principles including framing of the Constitution, a general overview of the debates, secularism, fundamental rights and duties and also gender equality. Also, Kerala realised that the way to its citizens’ minds was to exclude all complicated and unnecessary legal jargon. Instead, it presented the law through vivid illustrations, conversational text and translations to local languages! This handbook was taught and explained by more than one lakh resource persons and it reached an estimate of 50 lakh citizens and residents in Kerala!

Kerala soon launched its second phase in January 2019, where the Minister for Culture, A.K Balan rightly stated that democracy could be protected only by safeguarding the Constitution. On parallel lines, the Ministry of Law and Justice also frequently releases Legal Literacy Handbooks; they include not only certain important Constitutional provisions such as Fundamental Rights but also provide a brief overview of other important legislations.

Apart from the Government, a few private organisations are also furthering this objective. For instance, in January 2019 itself, Anubhuti Foundation spearheaded a Constitutional Literacy competition for youth which saw a decent participation for its literacy workshop and exam. Also, since 2017, Centre for Law and Policy Research has digitized Constituent Assembly Debates so that they can be easily accessible to the public. Additionally, PRS Legislative Research, a policy think-tank, maintains a repository of all Bills and Acts under consideration in both houses of the Parliament – this includes potential amendments to the Constitution.

Hence, apart from State programmes and workshops, Constitutional Literacy should be viewed in a more holistic manner. That includes transparency in administration, judicial bodies and legislature. In the age of the internet, it is the responsibility of our Government to maintain a detailed collection of notifications, cabinet decisions, draft rules and so forth in all relevant vernacular languages – not just English! Similarly, State Legislatures should broadcast its proceedings on television regularly and follow suit of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha TV.

Only with greater understanding of the Constitution can a citizen or resident of India fully recognise his/her rights. The information asymmetry between the Government and its people can be reduced, ensuring an ideal of transparency and robust administrative processes.

(This post is authored by Mrudula Dixit and Tejas Hinder. Mrudula is a 5th year student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune and Tejas is a 3rd year student at National Law Institute University, Bhopal. Both of them serve as Editors at TCLF)

Cite As:  Tejas Hinder and Mrudula, Dixit ‘Constitutional Literacy: A yellow-brick road to an Effective Democracy’, (The Contemporary Law Forum, 26th November, 2020) <https://tclf.in/2020/11/26/constitutional-literacy-a-yellow-brick-road-to-an-effective-democracy/> date of access. 

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