Constitution and Constitutionalism

By Deepika Sangwan

These two words are no longer limited to legal texts. Their extensive use even by a layman provides testimony of their popularity and also the potential danger of treating both as synonyms. Hence, it becomes essential to know the fundamentals of these terms.

CONSTITUTION is a basic law of a country, written or unwritten, which sets out provisions for the working of government and its different organs. It defines the relationship between government and citizens and also amongst different government institutions inter se. It is also called organic or living law as it evolves to adapt itself with changing times. Legality of all other laws is tested at the anvil of the constitution. Thereby, it is also called mother of all laws.

CONSTITUTIONALISM on the other hand is an inclusive political philosophy which believes that power entrusted upon the government shall be limited rather than absolute. These limitations are prescribed in the constitution itself and observing these limitations is known as constitutionalism. Thereby, constitution is one of the sources of constitutionalism.

The history of constitutionalism can be traced back from 1215 A.D. with the issuance of Magna Carta, which limited the powers of King John of England to some extent. Credits are also given to political theorist John Locke in developing the concept of constitutionalism by his social contract theory, whereby, people reserved the right to remove the ruler anytime if there is a contravention of the terms of the contract. Bill of rights (1689A.D), the constitution of United States (1787), French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) were some of the landmarks in the development of the constitutionalism.

This political doctrine favours limited government and uses various ideas, rules and principles to prevent a government from becoming despotic and arbitrary. Supremacy of the constitution, separation of powers (checks and balances), judicial review, independence of judiciary, rule of law, responsible and accountable government, popular sovereignty, justifiability of fundamental rights of citizens etc. constitutes the basic features of constitutionalism.


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