(This is the first in what should be a three or four part series on the Indian Constitution. I am trying to understand how and why the Consti was written the way it was. I think I should be able to make good headway on this by reading certain chapters of Granville Austin’s book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation. This first post is basically a summary of chapter 1 of that book.)
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous tryst with destiny speech is well known to most middle class Indians. What many may not know is to whom these words were addressed. The men and women being addressed were the members of the Constituent Assembly. They were to undertake the formidable task of debating, negotiating and approving the Constitution of a newly liberated India.
Who were these men and women ? And in particular who among them were the fulcrum for the creation of the document that a sixth of humanity was to accept as its supreme law ? The general membership of the Assembly was decided on the basis of a limited franchise indirect election from British India’s provinces and nominations from the princely states. Granville Austin sums up the overall assembly with the words,
The Assembly was the Congress and the Congress was India.
Such was the sway the Congress had over Indians due to its role in the freedom struggle. Yet, Austin says that the Assembly was representative, since,
The membership of the Congress in the Constituent Assembly and outside held social, economic, and political views ranging from the reactionary to the revolutionary, and it did not hesitate to voice them.
Not just the diversity, the professionalism of the 1940s Congress helped keep the Constitution at a safe distance from any kind of bias towards a single party and its agenda, something most Indians would find hard to believe today.
Within the Assembly, the key representatives were those that were the members of the various committees. This was a truly diverse set of people with superb pedigree. Names included those of Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Nehru, Sardar Patel and of course, Dr. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee. A majority were lawyers, some were civil servants and teachers. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs were all represented. That a diverse nation produced a diverse set of founding fathers should come as no surprise.
Austin summarizes the aims of these prominent members and in particular that of the Congress oligarchy (Nehru, Patel, Prasad and Azad) with the following words,
a Constitution adopted with the maximum of agreement would work better and provide a more stable foundation for the new India; approval should therefore be as nearly unanimous as possible.
In those extraordinarily gruesome times, the sanitized confines of the Parliament House and the foresight of the Congress oligarchy ensured that new India’s supreme law would be debated thoroughly and be approved with almost no one unhappy. Almost.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no mention of any significant leader or any significant deliberation/input from the regions where the Indian state’s sovereignty faces its most significant challenges. Not a single leader from the North East or Kashmir was to be found in the influential group of twenty. The same principle of direct election that was to empower the suppressed masses of the heartland pushed the regions from the geographical margins of the Indian Empire to the political margins of the new Indian Republic. No one raised a question as to how one Lok Sabha member out of 500 odd could represent all the Manipuris in the world ?
Notwithstanding such oversights, the men and women of the Assembly prepared a remarkable document. They were both competent and committed. It was perhaps the first instance in the history of mankind that a Constitution and a state were created with the explicit purpose of confronting and advancing the same society it was to protect. The topic of my next post will be how and why the Assembly chose the path of social and political revolution for the new India that it did.
Happy New Year !