India and Norway: Constitutions compared

At the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Indian constitution in 1949, Kathinka Frøystad, Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oslo, was invited to share her reflections on this important document at a symposium at the Embassy of India in Oslo. Below is the full manuscript of the talk. 

The constitutions of India (left) and Norway (right).

It is a great honour to be asked to share my reflections on the Constitution of India, which was adopted on 26 November 1949 – 70 years ago today – and which came into effect two months later.

In the course of my career as a scholar of Indian society and religion, I have come to acquire immense respect for the Constitution of India and all those who contributed to put it together. First among these is of course Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was responsible for making the first draft, which was already very thorough. But we should not forget the committee that assisted him and the long-drawn parliamentary debates that helped fine-tune and expand the document that eventually was adopted.

Whenever I show the preamble of this document to my students, I get tears in my eyes. Every citizen and friend of India ought to know it by heart. This is how it is phrased following the revision it underwent in the 1970s:

Preamble text. Image by author.

There are four reasons why these words make such an impression on me.

The first is the dignified break they made with the political turmoil and repression from which they arose.  India had just suffered years of humiliating colonial rule followed by a polarizing Independence movement and a blood-stained Partition. From these rumbles, Ambedkar and his team crafted a robust model for a New, free India, almost like the proverbial phoenix that comes to life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor.

The second reason why I admire the Indian constitution so much is its indispensable role in turning India into a viable and vibrant democracy. International scholars are unison in praising the constitution on this account. Many of the other postcolonial countries that began to come into their own after the Second World War have suffered long periods of military dictatorship. India has not. Clearly the architects of the Indian constitution did a number of things right, not least when it came to specifying the distribution of power between the executive and the judiciary powers. According to the American political scientist Steven Wilkinson, it was equally significant that India ensured a healthy diversity within the army to prevent partisan behaviour, and prevented the army from becoming “a state within the state”. Yet the role of the Constitution in establishing India as a democracy with a well-defined distribution of power and elaborate electoral procedures can hardly be overstated, even if the finer details will always be subject to debate.

The third reason why the Indian Constitution makes such an impression on me, is the contrast to the Constitution that I grew up hearing about, which is the Norwegian Constitution that came into being in 1814. Such a comparison is maybe unfair. Not only was Norway a far smaller country with only 1 million inhabitants, in contrast to India’s around 350 millions in 1949. Norway’s constitution is also far older and reflects a far less liberal thinking than its Indian counterpart. Since part of my research pertains to religion, I note with particular interest the original Norwegian Constitution’s denial of admission to people who followed other religious traditions than Protestant Christianity. Until 1851, neither Jesuits, Catholic monks nor Jews were allowed into the country. (Other religious communities were not mentioned, probably because they lived too far away at the time.) In fact, Jesuits were prohibited from entering the country until as late as 1956 – well after India’s progressive constitution had come into being.

The so-called Jewish paragraph in the Norwegian Constitution of 1814. Image modified from public domain.

Why was Norway so hesitant in allowing freedom of religion? Well, the Norwegian constitution was strongly majoritarian in the sense that it established Lutheran Protestantism as Norway’s state religion. 

Stiklestad Church ca 1930. Image: Olav Hjelle’s archives, Creative Comons.

Just like Sweden, Denmark, England and many other European countries, Norway opted for the state church model, which it retained until 2012. Yet even today the Lutheran church receives far more funding and privileges than other religious communities in Norway. Furthermore, the Constitution still states that the King, as the formal head of state, must be a Christian Protestant. So even though Norway has gradually reduced its original Protestant majoritarianism, it is still not even close to the state neutrality that was enshrined in the Indian constitution from the very start.

A fourth reason why I find the Indian constitution so impressive is its ambition to promote social equality and ensure political representation to marginal groups. Though the modes

Image: SVG Public domain.

in which this was done, the duration of compensatory provisions and the communities that were to be included in them have been subject to considerable debate, the ambition is nevertheless praiseworthy. Again, allow me to make a brief comparative glance to the Norwegian constitution of 1814. In Norway back then, there was not even question of a “one person, one vote” system of the kind that India got. On the contrary, the right to vote was only given to state employees and landholders, and only to men. Landless people and women had no say. In this way one could even argue that the Norwegian Constitution served to reinforce inequalities whereas the Indian one attempted to reduce them. But again, such a comparison is probably unfair since the Norwegian constitution is so much older. By 1884 Norway had extended the voting rights to all men, and in 1913 also to women.  That being said, it is worth pointing out that my ancestors found less help in their constitution than marginal groups in India did when taking up the battle for social and economic equality. Instead, my own ancestors had to initiate a labour movement.

No constitutions are only about rights. They are also about obligations. In Norway there were two. One was the duty of all Lutheran citizens to raise their children as Lutherans, which remained in place until 1964. The other, which is still intact, was the duty of every citizen to dedicate a certain period to protect their country. Every young man had to spend one year in

Justitia, the goddess of Justice. Image: Creative Commons C0.

the army to learn how to fight for the nation. Formally this clause is still in place, though nowadays only 15% of the cohorts are called in for military service, now including young women. In the Indian constitution, the obligations specified are at once broader and vaguer. They are all listed in Article 51A, which is titled “Fundamental duties”. The list contains 11 points, the initial of which pertain to defending the Constitution, the National Flag, the National Anthem and, not least, the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India. But there are also other duties on the list. One clause, for instance, specifies the duty of each citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures. Another specifies the duty to safeguard public property and to abjure violence. Yet others specify the duty of cultivating a scientific temper, educate one’s children and strive towards excellence in all spheres to bring the country forward.  Returning to questions of religion, we should also note that the constitution defines it as a fundamental duty to promote harmony and brotherhood across religious, linguistic and regional differences, and to value and preserve the rich heritage of India’s composite culture.

In a democracy as populous and diverse as India, people are bound to disagree about a number of things, sometimes quite intensely. But the way in which antagonistic parties often accuse one another of “speaking against the spirit of the Constitution” is equally revealing of the immense respect that the Constitution of India now commands across the political spectrum. 

In short, the Constitution that we are gathered in this room to celebrate today, deserves every word of praise that it has received in the 70 years since it was adopted. As a long-time friend and observer of Indian society and religion, I join you all in deep appreciation for the wisdom, humanity and far-sightedness of the Indian Constitution, which has not only become a model for India, but for us all.

Thank you.

Published Dec. 10, 2019 3:22 PM - Last modified Dec. 10, 2019 3:24 PM