The outbreak of COVID-19, this spring, has forced the entire world into an emergency like situation. In India, the crisis deepens as a population of around 40 million migrant labourers is facing displacement at the heart of this pandemic, as stated by the World Bank. The nationwide lockdown, problems like unemployment, want of food and other necessities have spawned a humongous exodus of these labourers and the working class from the towns, who are now heading back to their respective homes. Despite of the looming migrant labour crisis, multiple states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, Odisha have formulated ordinances tweaking the application of labour laws, with a view to boost the economic activities. BJP led Uttar Pradesh government took the most drastic step as it suspended most of the labour laws, in their application to the state, for next 3 years. Experts have been labeling this move detrimental to the interests of the labourers, with many articulating it a disengagement of the state from the principle of socialism. This description leads to the question which this author has made an attempt to answer through this article: as to what implications does the term ‘socialism’ have in the Indian polity?
During the Constituent Assembly debates, Dr. Ambedkar opposed K.T. Shah’s proposal of describing India, under Article 1, as socialist. He viewed the same as an impediment on the liberty of the people to choose the socio-economic structure, in which they favoured to live, according to time and circumstances. He argued, moreover, that Draft Article 31 (Article 39) and several other cognate provisions clearly manifested the socialist side of the Indian polity. In 1976, the expression ‘socialist’ was inserted into the Preamble of the Indian Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act. Nevertheless, the said insertion did not bring any significant change to the economic policies of India, testament to which are the instances of nationalisation of the banks prior to 1976 and liberalisation of economy post 1976. It was a mere verbal change as the mode of realisation of the said term was worked out in detail through various provisions of Part III & IV of the Constitution, as pointed by Dr. Ambedkar.
Description of socialism changes significantly according to different angle of approaches, from thinkers to thinkers, country to country. It has often been described as a hat that has lost its shape since everyone wears it. One of those description, the Marxist version of socialism, suggests that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the proprietariats and the proletariats leading to the exploitation of latter which would not end but for the proletariats seizing the political power through forceful revolution. Further, the ill-gotten wealth of the proprietariats needs to be expropriated and the means of production has to be socialised. Marxist version of socialism advocates for strict proletarian dictatorship unless and until a stage arrives when there will be no need of force and socialisation of means of production, thus causing the State to wither away. The abovementioned version of socialism, thus, acts as a precursor to communism. Though this prognostication largely remains metaphysical as the aforesaid transition into communism has failed significantly in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Principally, there has never been a communist nation State. Even in a country like Finland, which remains the most ideal manifestation of a socialist State, arrival of a model like communism seems far away from reality. Indian Constitution, however, envisages a different version of socialism, viz., Democratic Socialism. Indian economy is a mixed economy which is marked by the co-existence of both public and private entities, meaning thereby that the means of production can either be socialised or there can be both collaborative or competitive partnership between public and private entities. Democratic socialism suggests that socialism and democracy must go hand-in-hand and that the socio-economic administration must be done democratically with a view to mitigate income inequality and all forms of exploitation, thus setting up a welfare state.
In D.S. Nakara v. Union of India, the Supreme court described Indian socialism as a synthesis of the Gandhism and Marxism, that gravitated heavily towards Gandhism. Desai J. observed that: “The principal aim of a socialist State is to eliminate inequality in income and status and standards of life. The basic framework of socialism is to provide a decent standard of life to the working people and especially provide security from cradle to grave. This amongst others on economic side envisaged economic equality and equitable distribution of income. This is a blend of Marxism and Gandhism leaning heavily towards Gandhian socialism”. Further it was beautifully observed that at the formative stage, socialism aims at providing to all equal opportunity to pursue educational activities and that no one is denied this opportunity for want of wherewithal. As regards higher education, opportunity has to be offered on the basis of merit and quality of the scholar, and not his economic background. Institutes need to strike a balance between equality and excellence. This longstanding practice has to be disregarded where brainy poor scholars are denied admission into higher educational institutes, for want of wherewithal, while ill-equipped sons or daughters of well to-do parents enter the portal of higher education and later contribute to the national wastage. After the completion of education, it ensures equality in pursuit of excellence in their chosen fields as well, sidelining all types of discrimination or exploitation. It also ensures equitable distribution of the national cake and treats the worst off in the manner leading to their upliftment. In the fall of life it ensures to the old aged a decent standard of life with necessary aid and assistance, as a homage to the service they had rendered unto the society. Article 41 of the Constitution demonstrates the same idea while enjoining the state to secure public assistance to old aged, sick and disabled. Thus, the preamble instructs that every state action must be so directed as to establish such a socialist state. Accordingly, relying upon the aforesaid description of socialism, it was held that the benefits of pension scheme cannot be restricted to a group of employees retiring after a certain date since the pension schemes are meant to give a fillip to the socialist goal of providing security from cradle to grave. The Apex Court has used socialism as an interpretive tool at various other instances thereby accentuating its importance. In Akadasi Padhan v. State of Orrisa, Gajendragadkar J. pointed out the difference between the doctrinaire and pragmatic approaches of socialism while dealing with the validity of state monopoly under Article 19(6). It was observed that the former supports state ownership as a matter of principle, whilst the latter supports nationalisation only on the ground of economic efficiency and productivity. On the basis of this difference, the supreme court in Excel Wear v. Union of India, observed that the term socialism could not be so stretched as to ignore completely, or to a larger extent, the interests of another section of the public, namely the private entities. ‘Socialism’ has to be read in consonance with the provisions of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of trade and commerce. Thus, this case highlighted the nature of India as a mixed economy. In Atam Prakash v. State of Haryana, the supreme court, relying upon the touchstone of socialism, held that right of pre-emption on consanguinity was unsustainable since it was feudal, paritical and opposed to the contitutional scheme of India which is Socialist Republic.
To conclude it succinctly, socialism, in context of Indian polity, seeks to reduce income disparity, exploitation and ensure economic equality in the society. It provides a fillip to Gandhi’s economic constitution which suggested that no one under it should suffer from the want of food, cloth and other basic necessities of life. Thus, in the wake of labour law suspensions and abovementioned implications- when a huge population of workers has been forced to the streets- may not it be valid to ask as to whether the state is evincing its intention to unsubscribe itself from the principle of socialism?
1. Udai Raj Rai, Constitutional Law-I, Chap. 3
2. C.E. Joad, Introduction to Modern Political Theory, Chaps. 3-6