The Ashokan Constitution and Glibness: A Love Affair

  • by Rutuparna Deshpande, UG’23 and Agnidh Ghosh, UG’23

For the fourth instalment of our series: HoR Insights, our writers delve into the details of the Constitution that governs the Student Government at Ashoka University. They elucidate upon the way the Constitution uses extravagant terms but does little to help streamline and smoothen the workings of the Student Government. Our writers argue that the Constitution, formulated in 2014, does not do justice to its task and leaves more room for confusion than it delineates the SG’s ambit. 

Let’s get one thing clear: the Constitution of Ashoka University’s Student Government is a set of by-laws, once removed. This means the authority the Constitution holds over the Ashokan student body is at the bottom of the existing legal hierarchy.  The hierarchy starts with National and Haryana State laws, then moves on to the University rules after which, at the very bottom of the barrel, we have the rules in the Constitution. 

Despite this fact, the first few pages of the document include highly ambitious sections like a ‘Preamble’ and a ‘Proclamation of Sovereignty’. These sections set the tone for the rest of the document, which should anyway be a practical rulebook and not an aspirational one. This might also explain why it is so hard to take the student government seriously — the document seems to take itself way too seriously and lays bare its naivety. 

For instance, Ashoka’s Student Government does not have the required legal authority to “secure for its people” any of the high moral ideals listed in the Preamble like ‘justice’, ‘tranquillity’, ‘equality of opportunity’. While we can all agree that these are important guiding principles, they have no pragmatic significance in a governing document. The issue here is that the SG cannot possibly ensure or confer standards like ‘justice’. As per its ambit, it can only look inward and say that in case these ideals are violated by other authorities, it can strive to have them restored.

The next section, a ‘Proclamation of Sovereignty’ only serves to remind us of Nicholas Cage’s cult classic movie ‘National Treasure’ due to its trivialization of the American Declaration of Independence. The first line of the proclamation is a lazy reformulation of a famous line from the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all persons are created equal and that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights.

While “National Treasure” has been endlessly ridiculed in pop culture because of it’s meme-able premise, where Cage attempts to steal the Declaration of Independence, the Ashokan Constitution is just as laughable. 

To be sure, no one is going to be stealing the Constitution because again, the Student Government cannot, as the proclamation states, “govern, completely free of external influence and control”. While the American Declaration is steal-worthy because its proclamation is legitimate, the one by the Constitution is anything but. 

The ending of this proclamation is even more concerning: “…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” We don’t know about anybody else, but we will not be laying our life, fortune or honour for Ashoka anytime soon. 

Having said that, in the defence of its makers, the Constitution does take a practical turn in the latter pages. Still, it does not let go of its romanticization of legal language, with a special focus on American legal language at that. For example, the word ‘ballot measure’ is found under the section for ‘petitions’.The term refers to a referendum and is widely used in the United States. 

Of course, not everybody in the student body is aware of such Americanisms. Could we not have stuck with the term ‘petition’ which is much more intelligible in the Indian context? 

This is not just a pedantic obsession with language — it also shows the guiding philosophy of the document that forms our Student Government. The legal-moral focus of the language gets us caught up with macro concerns like “rights” or “quorum”. The Constitution never actually gets to the part which delineates practical procedures. 

The Constitution also does not mention what exactly constitutes the roles and responsibilities of the Student Government. Article 2 of the Constitution begins by stating: “All powers shall be vested in the House of Representatives.” However, nowhere in the document is the scope of these powers clarified. Especially in the current political climate at Ashoka, where the all-encompassing powers of the HoR have put the Student Government, and by extension, the student body at large in jeopardy, and conversations about structural change and accountability mechanisms have been underway, such a statement seems almost laughable. 

The Student Government in Ashoka has to work with a lot of stakeholders, like the college administration, the workers, and the trustees. The relationship between these parties and the mandate of the Student Government has not been clearly defined in the constitution. This provides breeding grounds for confusion and chaos, leading to a certain degree of disorientation in times of need, as seen during the protests in the aftermath of Professor Mehta and Professor Subramanian’s resignations.

Defining such complex relationships is never easy, and codifying them can lead to a form of stagnant rigidity that is not healthy for any student government. Nonetheless, ensuring that there are provisions in the Constitution that define a scope of engagement with the various stakeholders of Ashoka is crucial for the proper functioning of the Student Government. The usage of precedents to create a framework of some exactitude, to guide SGs to come, seems to be sorely missing.  It also helps by making clear to the student body the responsibilities of their representatives so they can engage better with the student government and hold them better accountable.

The first and foremost job of any Constitution is to delineate what the concerned government is supposed to do. Article 1of Ashoka University’s SG Constitution simply says that decisions relating to the student body can be taken up by the Student Government. The document does not even attempt to give an idea of what those decisions or their extent are in detail. This leads to the disenchantment of the student body who constantly see the SG fall short on their expectations. No wonder then that many students have actively disengaged from student politics, as evidenced by the turnout in the most recent elections

The lack of defined mandates in the Constitution also means that most, if not all decisions are passed using the same process. This means that something as trivial as drafting an internal memo has to pass through the same process as financial decisions or issues related to workers’ welfare. The lack of differentiated and defined parliamentary procedures for different kinds of laws has contributed to a Student Government that does not have its priorities straight. There is no set legislative agenda as everything gets passed in the same way, leading to haphazard attempts by everyone to accomplish everything all at once. 

The Constitution unnecessarily devotes a larger chunk of its space to listing out ways and means by which the Student Government can appoint or dismiss itself. It seems to be the result of an overzealous exercise in defining electoral systems with an utter disregard for the actual consequences of these electoral systems and processes. There is clearly no compulsion for us to use American legal language to define what we want from our Student Government. As a matter of fact, it is not unreasonable to ask for a document that everybody can understand, which comprehensively tackles practical questions not moral ones, and is firmly grounded to its context.

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