Book review: Rohit De, A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic and Gautam Bhatia, The Transformative Constitution: A Radical Biography in Nine Acts

Published date01 June 2020
Date01 June 2020
Subject MatterBook Reviews
118 Book Reviews
of aesthetics as the distribution of the sensible, and politics as the contested terrain which arranges and
rearranges participation and exclusion in the realm of the senses. Thus, if politics pivots around what can
be seen or heard, what can be said about it and who has the right to say anything about it, free speech and
censorship emerge as structures that do not just participate in the distribution of speech, but also in its
definition of what counts as speech. Art Attacks is a significant contribution that alerts us to the fact that
the story of vandalism, when reduced to a story of censorship, dilutes rather than foregrounds this
complicated question.
Lawrence Liang
Rohit De, A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic. Delhi, India: Princeton:
Princeton University Press. 2018. 312 pages. Kindle edition, `423.
Gautam Bhatia, The Transformative Constitution: A Radical Biography in Nine Acts. Noida, Uttar Pradesh:
HarperCollins Publishers. 2019. 544 pages. `699.
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020918071
The writing of a constitution has often, with much fanfare, accompanied a transition to a democratic
form of government. In fact, more recent waves of democratization have even been defined in terms of
constitutionalism, thus emphasizing the importance of constitutions. Some advocates of constitutionalism
and the rule of law argue for a democratic government limited by a constitutional regime of individual
rights, whereas others who see democracy in terms of the sovereignty of the people question the
restraining of the popular will through the judicial interpretation of constitutional provisions. Questions
such as the following remain contentious: what purposes have constitutions served in democracies, and
what kind of relations between the state, the individual citizen, and the community are constituted by
them in a democratic context?
In the two books under review, many of the questions about the nature of constitutions, specifically
about the Indian constitution, are answered similarly. The titles of the two books are indicative enough:
both De and Bhatia read the Indian constitution as an attempt to change for the better the lives of the
ordinary people of India. De sees the constitution not as an elite text distant from the common people
(‘the constitution did not descend on the people’, p. 3) but as a document that ordinary people have used
to protect their rights. This process began as soon as the constitution came into force in 1950—De quotes
from a report that the chief minister of the state of Hyderabad wrote in 1951: ‘An extraordinary tendency
has been noticed recently for all sorts of people to take cases to the High Court citing provisions in the
constitution relating to what are termed fundamental rights’ (p. 9). For De, the constitution did not only
set up a regulatory state; it also enabled ‘marginal’ and ‘subaltern’ and ‘minority’ citizens (along with the
maharajas and property owners) to challenge the laws of the state by using the writ petitions provided by
the right to constitutional remedies. Bhatia also presents his reading of the Indian constitution as a
transformative constitution – the constitution not only established a new order of citizenship to replace
the earlier one of subject-hood vs a vs the state, it ‘was transformative in a second sense’ – in that it was
also an attempt to tackle ‘horizontal discrimination, i.e., discrimination suffered by private entities at the
hands of other private entities’ (pp. xxv, 115). Bhatia contrasts his reading of the constitution as a
transformative document to those who see it more in terms of continuity, and as an evolution. For both
these writers then, constitutionalism is not a way of restricting the will of the people, in a democracy, for

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