Studying the Constitution for Competitive Exams: A Systematic Approach - Dr Manish Arora, Advocate Supreme Court of India*
The Constitution of India is a remarkable piece of legislative drafting both in terms of the clarity of vision and jurisprudential foresight, not to mention that it’s also the foundational legal document governing the world’s largest democracy. It is rigidly exact at some places and allows interpretive room at others, depending upon the possible needs of the future, which explains why it has managed to stand the test of time despite the very reasonable doubts cast from several quarters initially about the governability of a country as diverse as India under a constitution that large and comprehensive.
Any student studying the Constitution of India for any purpose whatsoever must bear in mind that it has to be read in the context of Indian realities and the broad-based egalitarian society the founding fathers of the Indian constitution were looking to build. In other words, the Constitution of India, at least in part, is aspirational in its social, economic, and political vision and seeks to provide a framework and a roadmap to a more egalitarian and just socio-political order. The aspirational aspects of the Constitution can be gleaned from the Preamble, which finds clearer and enforceable expression in different constitutional provisions, which, in turn, must be interpreted in the light of the constitutional goals they seek to achieve.
The Constitution, in order to achieve its goals, provides suitable constitutional machinery, different parts of which must function in consonance with each other, governed by the spirit of the Constitution. While the Constitution does not give precedence to one part of the Constitution over any other part, there is a hierarchy of constitutional values inherent in the structure of the Constitution itself, and the Preamble to the Constitution can be the guiding light in that respect and can prove to be an invaluable interpretive tool. No part of the Constitution can be read to defeat the constitutional values the Preamble alludes to. That’s an important key to read the constitution, for it is unlike any other law. It’s a legal, social, economic, moral, and philosophical text in different proportions. Once that is understood, it becomes easier to understand how different parts of the Constitution work together to achieve the goals set out in the Preamble.
Since the Constitution confers validity on all laws, it follows that any law in contravention of the letter or spirit of the Constitution is unconstitutional and will be pronounced invalid sooner or later. This also means that all laws further the goals set out by the Constitution, failing which they run the risk of being constitutionally questionable, and that’s why it is helpful for a law scholar to have a constitutional perspective on all laws, for it helps one understand where different laws stand in the constitutional scheme and how they give effect to the constitutional mandate in their respective areas of operation.
For instance, if Section 161(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C.) stipulates that a person making a statement to the police is bound to answer all questions truthfully except those the answers to which could “expose him to a criminal charge or to a penalty or forfeiture”, the reason is the Constitutional bar against self-incrimination under Article 20(3), which is also the reason why Section 26 of the Indian Evidence Act makes confessions made in police custody inadmissible in court and Section 27 limits the admissibility of the facts discovered in consequence of the statement made by the accused.
As a general rule, confessions made by the accused, even before the magistrates, are very closely and rigorously tested by the trial court before they can form the sole basis for a conviction. Confessions, in absence of independent corroboration, are looked upon as largely unreliable, which is in line with the constitutional protections extended to the accused. The law defends the constitutional rights of the accused against the might of the state so that innocent people could be protected against wrongful convictions.
Over the years, the procedural safeguards against arbitrary and unreasonable actions of the state, legislative and executive, have been strengthened by judicial interpretation aimed at making procedures just, fair, and reasonable to serve the constitutional ideals better. It is, therefore, useful to study other laws as part of the overarching constitutional scheme rather than independent laws because, as a matter of fact, they are not independent of the Constitution but are closely aligned with it, and further the ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Read that way, many provisions of several other laws, as demonstrated above, start making more sense and are easier to understand.
Systematic and Comprehensive Approach
Indian Constitution, with about 145,000 words, is over 30 times the US Constitution, and is the largest constitution of any sovereign state in the world. Originally, the Constitution consisted of 395 articles, 22 parts, and eight schedules. With 104 amendments the Constitution has substantially grown since. It’s not only long but is also quite complex, which is why it is important for any student of the Indian Constitution to understand the structure of the Constitution as well as have a clear understanding of what part of the Constitution seeks to achieve which of the constitutional goals.
The Constitution has twenty-five parts in total, and each Part deals with a specific aspect of Indian polity as governed by the Constitution. One of the reasons why Indian Constitution is so long is that the framers have provided a near-comprehensive framework for future legislatures to enact laws. The Constitution of India provides the framework, the legal machinery, and also guidance to govern the country. Different parts of the Constitution serve different purposes in service of the objectives broadly outlined in the Preamble, as pointed out earlier.
Part I defines the nation and its territories to be governed under the Constitution, and since a nation is more than just land, Part II proceeds to deal with Citizenship followed by the Fundamental Rights under Part III, which are central to the Constitution, and the enforcement of which has been made the responsibility and the foremost duty of the highest courts of the land with the Supreme Court at the apex. Then there is Part IV stating the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP), which constitute an aspirational roadmap for the Indian state to be guided by.
The first four parts, together with the Preamble, form the jurisprudential bedrock of the Constitution, and lay down the central values and aspirations for the Indian polity. From Part IV onwards, the Constitution gets down to the business of devising a legislative mechanism and providing an executive machinery to carry out the legislative mandate with proper legislative and judicial checks to keep it within the ambit drawn for it by the Constitution.
The most systematic way of studying the Constitution is to go through it part by part and thinking of it as providing the purpose, the legislative and executive mechanisms at both central as well as state level, and then fleshing out the finer aspects of social and economic governance without compromising the ability of the Parliament to legislate in accordance with the changing times, going forward.
Using the Case Law Method
Laws, including the constitution, are not meant to lie in the statute books, inert. They are meant to impact the lived reality of the people, which is why judicial interpretation and the enforcement of the law by the Executive bring out the purpose, context, and effectiveness of it, which is also why studying case law is immensely important for a thorough understanding of the law.
However, some students tend to lean on case law heavily and exclusively to understand the law, which is a mistake because all it can do at best is make one understand the law under discussion, but would not do much to help them with the interpretation of the statues. The same applies to constitutional interpretation.
The best way is to first understand the text of the provision on one’s own by giving the provision a thorough read. One may also make one’s own notes about one’s understanding of the provision before moving on to the case law. This helps one develop not only an understanding of the law in question but also an understanding of how statutory language is interpreted. This method is useful for law students, practicing lawyers as well as judicial service aspirants.
Studying case law, one must start from the first landmark case and proceed to the latest one to understand the evolution of the law over the years. The same approach must be taken to study constitutional law as well although compared to other laws, constitutional law tends to demand a far more focused approach together with consistent engagement.
After an in-depth understanding of the Constitution from a sufficiently detailed book, one can move to the multiple-choice questions (MCQs) for a better recall of the key facts relating to the constitution and relevant case law. The process, however, should not be reversed. Go from a textbook understanding to the multiple-choice questions, and not the other way round. The MCQs are recall devices and must be used to keep the specific provisions and case laws in mind so that those little things do not slip through the cracks as you master the tougher aspects of the subject, but cannot improve one’s understanding of the law.
Students sometimes go through the Constitution diligently but ignore the Schedules appended at the end of the Constitution, which are as much part of the Constitution as any other part. The Schedules must be read and understood in conjunction with the corresponding constitutional provisions for a better understanding and easier recall.
Important Features and Provisions
Certain parts and features of the Constitution require special focus for just about any competitive examination, and different methods can be adopted to improve understanding and retention, but making charts with notes in the margins works pretty well for the purpose. Some people like hanging charts from the wall to keep looking at it every now and then to revisit and revise on the go.
The framers of the Indian Constitution borrowed several tested features from the constitutions of different countries so that they could give India a constitution that suited Indian conditions and also kept India in step with the forward marching modern world. For instance, bicameral legislature came from Britain, Fundamental Rights and an Independent Judiciary from the US Constitution, Directive Principles of State Police from the Irish Constitution, Advisory Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court from the Canadian Constitution, and so on. This should not be hard to memorize although it can be confusing to some in the beginning. Also, Judicial Review is said to have come from the American Constitution, but it has been read into the American Constitution by judicial interpretation and does not find explicit mention in the text of the US Constitution.
Preamble, Part III and Part IV must be thoroughly understood, and while Directive Principles of State Policy are important as a whole, Article 39A, Article 43, Article 44, Article 45, Article 48A, and Article 50 are of particular importance.
Furthermore, Article 74, Article 76, Article 78, Article 112, Article 123, Article 143, Article 148, Article 161, Article 173, Article 178, Article 213, Article 214, Article 226, Article 280, Article 312, Article 343, Article 352, Article 368, and Article 370 are some of the other important constitutional provisions.
Among the Schedules, Schedule 3, Schedule 7, and Schedule 9 have to be paid careful attention to, and among the Constitutional Amendments, Seventh, Tenth, Twelfth, Forty-Second, Sixty-First, Seventy-First, Seventy-Third, Seventy-Fourth, Eighty-Seventh, Ninety-Fifth, Ninety-Seventh, Hundredth, One Hundred Third, and One Hundred Fourth are significant.
For better retention, the most effective way is to keep aside some time every day to study the Constitution and to rush through the chart and short notes to keep the information fresh for ready recall. During the time one keeps aside for studying the Constitution, one should start by going through the provisions of the Constitution, referring to the relevant case law, and then one should move on to the chart and notes, after which one would do well to attempt a few MCQs from any of the several reliable guidebooks available for the purpose. This would keep all the information tightly interconnected, making it easier to summon the information at will by way of associative recall. That is the most straightforward way of retaining a lot of information, but you can always make suitable changes to the process depending upon what works best for you.
*Dr Manish Arora, Advocate Supreme Court of India; Editor-in-Chief Lawyers Update; President Universal Institute of Legal Studies; Adjunct Professor Galgotias University Noida; Member Board of Legal Studies Amity University; Member Academic Advisory Council Lloyd Law College
President Harvard Club of India 2008 -2010