Few societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries remained untouched by the radical new idea of liberty, which implied both individual freedom and freedom from despotic rule. The leaders of India’s anti-colonial struggle, in making the concept their own, expanded its purview. But this definition of freedom, understood as socio-economic justice, was found to be fundamentally at odds with its narrower meaning during the debates in the Constituent Assembly.

As Professor John Harriss shows in this book, a fierce battle has thus played out ever since the setting up of the Republic between what are referred to as negative and positive freedoms, or, broadly, the guarantees of the Fundamental Rights, and the goals of the Directive Principles of State Policy. The contest has often been one between a judiciary adhering to the Constitution and a Parliament pursuing what Nehru called ‘real freedom’ for the masses. Several Constitutional amendments—the 1st of 1951, the 24th and 25th of 1971, the 42nd of 1976—ended up placing restrictions on individual freedoms as much as they pushed the agenda of social reform. Much worse happened, however, in the name of national security, like the 16th Amendment of 1963, which brought about the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act four years later. With the curbing of our individual liberties and leaden steps, at best, towards reform under successive governments, the central constitutional aim of liberty is still a long way off.

This monograph lucidly explains the difficult relationship between the Constitution and the Parliament, a relationship that must be clearly understood if we are ever to strike the right balance between the freedom of the individual and ‘real freedom’, as dreamt of by those who founded the Indian republic.

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