By Frank F. Islam,
This is written from my adopted homeland of the United States of America to celebrate Republic Day in my motherland of India. It is a love letter to acknowledge the enormous privileges and benefits that I received growing up in India and then maturing in the US — the two largest democratic republics in the world.
Because of that duality, I have come to understand that these two great nation states have travelled somewhat parallel paths constitutionally to become the bulwarks of democracy that they are. Republic Day in India is held on January 26 to commemorate the date on which the Indian Constitution came into effect in 1950 — roughly two-and-a-half-years after the country’s independence. In the United States, Constitution Day is observed on September 17 to commemorate the adoption of the statute in 1787.
Both India and the United States took considerable time to draft and adopt the constitutions that created their democratic systems of government.
In India, the first draft of the Constitution was created on November 4, 1947. That draft was debated in 166 sessions open to the public, amended, and finally approved by the 308 members of the Constituent Assembly drawn from the provinces of India on November 26, 1949.
In the US, 55 delegates convened in May of 1787 in a Constitutional Convention and on September 17 of that year had a version of the Constitution that was approved. That version was not ratified by the necessary states, however, until May of 1790, after a Bill of Rights with 10 amendments was added.
Neither the US nor the Indian constitutions are perfect documents. But, they are crucibles for democracy providing the frameworks for the democratic governing process.
Fifteen amendments have been added to the US Constitution since the original 10 so now there are a total of 25 amendments. In addition, the Code of Federal Regulations, which spells out the general and permanent rules established by the federal government, totals more than 185,000 pages.
The Indian Constitution is the longest in the world. At its inception, it consisted of 395 Articles arranged under 22 Parts and eight Schedules. Today, after many amendments, it has 447 Articles arranged under 26 Parts and 12 Schedules.
The constitutions of India and the United States give citizens the rights to vote. In India, the right to vote is guaranteed to all citizens over the age of 18 and is provided by Article 326 of the Constitution and the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951.
The right to vote in the US has been more evolutionary. Limited rights were specified for males and land-owners in the original version of the Constitution. The right for those of colour was added by the 15th amendment in 1870 and the right for women added by the 19th amendment in 1920.
Neither country’s constitution mandates compulsory voting. The turnout in the last general election in India in 2014 was over 66 per cent — meaning over 530 million Indian voters went to the polls, the largest number in the history of the world. The turnout in the last general election in the United States was approximately 55.5 per cent with a total of more than 138 million eligible voters coming to the polls.
The turnouts in the US and India, with those large numbers of citizens participating without being compelled to do so, provide lessons in democracy. They also attest to the strength of the countries’ constitutions.
The US and India both commemorate their constitutions. Constitution Day in the United States is primarily ceremonial with little hoopla or hullabaloo. By contrast, Republic Day in India is a major celebration with a huge parade and many associated events in Delhi and other ceremonies across the nation.
Leaders from around the world attend the Republic Day parade. This year, for the first time, heads of states from 10 ASEAN nations will be in the reviewing stand for the parade. Heads of State who have been guests of honour at the parade in the past include Queen Elizabeth II of England, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Francoise Hollande of France.
In 2015, the paths of the US and India crossed on Republic Day when President Obama and Prime Minister Modi sat together at the parade and participated in other related events. I had the distinct privilege to be a member of the Obama-US delegation for those ceremonies.
It was during that visit to India that I came to the realisation of how doubly blessed I had been by these two great democracies. They gave me freedom, opportunity and, most importantly, nurtured me to be who I wanted to be and become what I wanted to be.
I owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. That is why my philanthropic ventures to date have been centred on investments to support self-actualisation in both countries and I have established the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship to promote civic engagement that will keep their democracies strong through this new century.
In his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech delivered in 1947 upon India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, said: “The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”
The future still beckons India. Significant progress has been made on the quest. Much work remains to be done.
As an Indian American, I am confident that India is up to this task to become a standard setter for democracy to the world because of what I have witnessed in my own life and life time.
Happy Republic Day, India.
(Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in the Washington DC area. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)