Republic at 70: In Partition’s shadow, Constituent Assembly adopted secular charter
In May 1942, Inder Kumar Gujral, a young student leader, attended a public meeting addressed by Jawaharlal Nehru in Lahore. Nehru told the audience that an elected Constituent Assembly would draft a Constitution for free India. Nehru’s announcement took Gujral by surprise. He and others had assumed that the British would frame and impose a Constitution as they prepared to leave India.
But Nehru’s proposal wasn’t exactly a new one. The idea of a self-drafted Constitution had long fascinated India’s elite. The demand for a home-made Constitution drafted by an elected body became a constant drumbeat during the national movement’s final stages.
After the Second World War ended, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee dispatched senior cabinet ministers to India to negotiate the sub-continent’s constitutional future. Although the Cabinet Mission readily agreed to a Constituent Assembly, it was unwilling to concede the demand for universal adult suffrage. Under the Mission Plan, a majority of the Constituent Assembly’s members would be elected by the legislatures of British Indian provinces.
Provincial MLAs would vote in three blocs -- Muslim, Sikh, and General (Hindus and others) -- for candidates to represent these communities in the Assembly. The provinces would elect a total of 296 members roughly in the ratio of one member for one million people. The composite Madras Province had the largest contingent of 43 while the United Provinces had 42. An additional 93 seats were allocated to the nominated or elected representatives of princely states.
Elections under the Mission Plan took place in July 1946. The Muslim League won a vast majority of Muslim seats while Congress nominees were elected to most general ones.
The Assembly’s composition was broad and diverse. Many members had been involved in the freedom movement or were active in national or local politics. Several had already served in provincial ministries and mayors of important cities and towns. Some like the Maharaja of Darbhanga, were zamindars. Others like Minoo Masani were libertarians. Besides left-leaning progressives, notably K.T. Shah, there was also Somnath Lahiri, a Communist. The Assembly had sixteen women members, including Sarojini Naidu, Hansa Mehta, and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who skillfully coordinated their position on various issues.
In December 1946, the Assembly convened in the erstwhile central legislature’s library (now parliament’s central hall). A recently released silent-movie clip (“Indian Leaders Assembly” on YouTube) vividly captures the opening day’s energy and excitement. It also shows empty seats as the League boycotted the proceedings. Anxious to press ahead, Nehru tabled the historic Objectives Resolution to constitute India into a sovereign republic. In its early months, however, the Assembly “marked time” as the Congress and the League engaged in intractable negotiations over the country’s future.
After partition became inevitable in June 1947, the Assembly got down to business. At independence, most League members left for Pakistan where a separate assembly convened in Karachi (Gujral’s father was briefly a member). Their departure meant the Congress would be the Assembly’s dominant force. As Granville Austin puts it, the party was led by a benevolent “oligarchy” comprising Rajendra Prasad, Nehru, Sardar Patel, and Maulana Azad.
The oligarchy shrewdly ensured the presence of legal experts such as Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar and political opponents such as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and K.M. Munshi. It even secured the election of Jerome D’Souza, a Jesuit from Madras, to ensure minority representation.
The Assembly’s initial sessions took place amidst unprecedented carnage over Partition. On some days, members required curfew passes to attend meetings while Delhi and other cities were besieged by refugees. This surcharged atmosphere undoubtedly influenced the Assembly’s decision to authorize sweeping restrictions on fundamental rights in the Constitution. It also strengthened members’ resolve to create a strong union within a federal system.
Taking a leaf from the Round Table conferences, the Assembly created several committees on specific subjects (fundamental rights, minorities, and allocation of powers). Drawing on the committees’ recommendations, the Assembly’s advisor, B.N. Rau, prepared a draft constitution in October 1947.
Unlike the contemporaneously adopted Japan and Ceylon constitutions, the framing of India’s Constitution did not involve any foreign consultants or advisers. Instead, Rau, toured the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom in November 1947 for consultations. He met Presidents Truman and De Valera and leading judges in each country who offered him valuable suggestions.
Meanwhile, the Assembly’s drafting committee headed by Ambedkar reviewed and revised Rau’s first draft. A second version was prepared in February 1948 and released to the public. Copies quickly sold out. The draft’s salient features were summarized on All India Radio and analyzed in leading newspapers across the country.
As Rohit De notes, the Assembly was deluged by telegrams, postcards, and letters from schoolboys, housewives, postmasters, and chambers of commerce. Reflecting these inputs, the drafting committee made further changes and a third draft was ready by October 1948.
The Assembly then began a clause-by-clause debate. Members proposed thousands of amendments to the draft. Austin reckons that over two-hundred fifty members spoke in the Assembly. Over two hundred did so quite frequently. This stage of the process took almost a year to complete. Yet, unlike the American constitutional debates that took place in absolute secrecy, the Assembly’s proceedings were open to visitors; reported widely; and meticulously transcribed.
By November 1949, the Assembly had before it a close-to-final version of the new constitution. At this stage, more amendments were moved, but most were rejected. Ambedkar then called upon the house to approve the final text. The Assembly did so on 26 November 1949 and the Constitution came into force on 26 January of the following year.
Decades after Nehru’s Lahore speech and shortly after resigning as prime minister, Gujral reflected on the Assembly’s overall legacy. To Gujral, the Assembly’s greatest success was that it framed a constitution embodying the people’s aspirations. This was, by no means, an easy task. Indeed, in his new book, Madhav Khosla explains that the Assembly was fully alive to the challenge of creating a democratic republic in a land afflicted by extreme poverty, widespread illiteracy, dizzying differences, and diverse traditions.
And yet, India’s founders adopted a liberal and secular charter which enshrines fundamental rights, establishes basic institutions, and creates institutional checks and balances. The Republic, which they erected, is a solemn bequest to every succeeding generation of Indians each of whom is called upon to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
Vikram Raghavan studied law in India and writes for the blog, Law and Other Things. His views are personal.