Signposts and Whose-space?

1. The theme of ‘the reshaping of history through the rewriting of signposts’ brought out in this op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday in the context of changes made to road signs in Israel, evoked memories of similar activity back home. However, I often wonder if the preamble to the Indian constitution was one such signpost, and if the amendment of 1976 did anything more than try to alter a historic landmark?

2. A federal court recently threw out Lori Drew’s misdemeanor convictions under a federal law which, according to this piece, criminalized a website’s terms of service. ‘Void-for-vagueness’, a product of ‘procedural due process’, has been applied by the Indian Supreme Court as well. The case, in which the accused allegedly created a false MySpace profile (“Josh Evans”) in order to harass her daughter’s thirteen year old classmate (Megan Meier), resulted in suicide when the fictitious “Josh Evans” allegedly told Megan that ‘the world would be a better place without (her) in it’. A tragic story, which has serious speech implications.

Written by
Abhinav Chandrachud
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  • In response to (1): interesting point! Have often thought about it myself and would agree with you.

    The Preamble trying to alter history? That too. In this context, I find Dr. Ambedkar's speech on the 'event' a brilliant understanding of the landmark-ness of it, if you will. Rather downplaying the 'event' of the adoption of the Constitution, and in stark contrast to the optimism that some of the members of the Constituent Assembly displayed on the occasion and indeed, during the drafting of the Constitution.

    I wonder what immediate transformative effect the 1976 amendment had, really, but as with all 'changes' that are seen to be symbolic initially, the activist supreme court seems to find it useful today. Judging from the many decisions that have used the language of the Preamble to read Chapters III and IV in harmony, for example, especially in the early 90s. A 'good'(governance?) road that it seems to be pointing to?

  • Abhinav, I am not sure I entirely understood your post, especially the first point. I have a feeling I am missing something here. Could you please elaborate?

  • Thanks Tarunabh. Abhinav, I too am actually thoroughly bemused about the first point you made. It would be great if you could clarify what is meant by it and by understanding the preamble as a "signpost".

  • Well, let me put it this way: if constitutions are counter-majoritarian, then the power to amend legitimizes the otherwise illegitimate entrenchment of constitutional text. But what I wonder is, consistent with the theme of 'altering history' which has been explored within the context of the posts on Jaswant Singh's book below, are signposts counter-majoritarian too? Does each generation have its own legitimate right to alter our shared understanding of history (the answer-obviously not). But 're-interpreting' history can change the way we look at ourselves, perhaps take charge of a history that was not ours: I found an interesting similarity between the approach to Jaswant Singh, and our own change in signposts at home. In both cases, politics sought to enforce a certain view of history.

    Re: preamble:
    Although volumes have been written on the interpretive value of the preamble to a text, I always felt that trying to alter the words of the preamble was like trying to alter a piece of history (say, a signpost) – like seeking to amend the constituent assembly debates, or trying to alter the date on which the constitution was 'adopted, enacted and given to ourselves'. The preamble, however, being at once (both) a part of the counter-majoritarian constitution and a piece of history, it provided an interesting bridge between the legitimizing power of amendment vs. the philosophically regressive posture of 'altering history'.

    I admit, however, that my post raises more questions than it answers, and that was precisely its intent, although I agree that I ought to have been more precise…