The Constituent Assembly framed and adopted the Constitution on behalf of the people of India. It was formed on December 6th, 1946, and had its last meeting on January 24th, 1950. But the demand for a Constituent Assembly was older. In 1935, the Congress officially made the demand for a Constitution framed by Indians themselves. In 1938, Jawaharlal Nehru said: ‘[The National Congress] proposed that the Constitution of free India must be framed, without outside interference, by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise.’ In November 1939, C Rajagopalachari demanded a Constituent Assembly, a demand Britain finally accepted in August 1940, compelled in part by the exigencies of World War II. The genesis of the Constituent Assembly can perhaps be traced as far back as 1922 to Mahatma Gandhi’s declaration: ‘Swaraj will not be a free gift of the British Parliament; it will be a declaration of India’s full self-expression.’
The failure of the Cripps Mission of 1942, which sought a Constitution giving India Dominion Status in a Union (with exceptions if sought), owed to the inability of the Congress and Muslim League to come to an understanding. Thereafter, the Cabinet Mission tried a compromise while rejecting the League’s demand for a separate Constituent Assembly and state for Muslims. By December 6th, 1946, however, Britain had accepted the unlikelihood of preserving the Union and a single Constituent Assembly. When the Assembly met for the first time on December 9th, 1946, its League-members were absent and the League demanded its dissolution. After the Muslim-majority areas of Bengal and the Punjab, as well as Sylhet and the North Western Frontier, voted for Partition via the Mountbatten Plan, a separate Constituent Assembly for Pakistan was announced on July 26th, 1947. About a week earlier, the Indian Independence Act had received the Royal Assent. Its most salient feature was the declaration that each Constituent Assembly would have the power to draft and adopt any constitution of its choice.
Birth of a Dominion
The Constituent Assembly reassembled on August 14th, 1947. The deliberations would last about three years till the Constitution was adopted on November 26th, 1949 when some of its important provisions came into effect. The Date of Commencement of the Constitution, however, would be January 26th, 1950.
The War of Words in the Constituent Assembly
IN FRAMING AND ADOPTING THE Constitution, the Constituent Assembly witnessed one of the most vibrant debates in the history of parliamentary democracy. The debates set the terms of reference and essential character of the state. Some of the issues remain just as relevant today. These excerpts are from some of the significant interventions and speeches by stalwarts, as well as by some of the less-remembered members of the Constituent Assembly.
Jawaharlal Nehru (January 22nd, 1947): The first task of this Assembly is to free India through a new constitution, to feed the starving people, and to clothe the naked masses, and to give every Indian the fullest opportunity to develop himself according to his capacity. This is certainly a great task… at present the greatest and most important question in India is how to solve the problem of the poor and the starving… If we cannot solve this problem soon, all our paper constitutions will become useless and purposeless.
The Resolution: A Live Message
Nehru (December 13th, 1946): Laws are made of words but this Resolution is something higher than the law. If you examine its words like lawyers you will produce only a lifeless thing. We are at present standing midway between two eras; the old order is fast changing, yielding place to the new. At such a juncture we have to give a live message to India and to the world at large. Later on we can frame our Constitution in whatever words we please… [the Resolution] is not a law, but is something that breathes life in human minds…
Syama Prasad Mookerjee (December 17th, 1946): The Resolution has an importance of its own. After all, we are sitting here not in our individual capacity, but we claim to represent the people of this great land. Our sanction is not the British Parliament; our sanction is not the British Government; our sanction is the people of India. And if that is so, we have to say something… concrete to the people of India as to why we have assembled here…
S Radhakrishnan (January 20th, 1947): I believe that such a Declaration [of objectives] is essential. There are people who are suspicious, who are wavering, who are hostile, who look upon the work of this Constituent Assembly with considerable misgivings… We wish to tell all those who are abstaining, from this Assembly that it is not our desire to establish any sectional Government. We are not here asking anything for a particular community or a privileged class. We are here working for the establishment of Swaraj for all the Indian people… It is therefore essential that our bugle call, our trumpet-sound, must be clear, must give the people a sense of exhilaration…
Nehru (December 13th, 1946): The Resolution that I am placing before you is in the nature of a pledge… The Resolution deals with fundamentals which are commonly held and have been accepted by the people… The Resolution states that it is our firm and solemn resolve to have a sovereign Indian republic. We have not mentioned the word ‘republic’ till this time; but you will well understand that a free India can be nothing but a republic…
Rajendra Prasad (President, Constituent Assembly, November 26th, 1949): The first and the most obvious fact which will attract any observer is… that we are going to have a Republic. India knew republics in the past olden days, but that was 2,000 years ago or more and those republics were small republics. We never had anything like the Republic which we are going to have now… The President of the Republic will be an elected President… And it is for the first time that it becomes open to the humblest and the lowliest citizens of the country to deserve and become the President or the Head of this big State… This is not a small matter…
PK Sen (Member, Bihar, January 20th, 1947): It is necessary, therefore, that we should proclaim to the world our determination to carry out our undertaking and frame a constitution for an Independent Sovereign Republic—a Republic in which the ultimate power is vested in the people and all power and authority are derived from the people.
India’s Future as a Democracy
BR Ambedkar (Chairman, Drafting Committee, November 25th, 1949): What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people… Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is deepened by the realisation of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indian(s) place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.
There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship…
Integration of Princely States
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (October 12th, 1949): By integrating 500 and odd States into sizeable units and by the complete elimination of centuries-old autocracies, the Indian democracy has won a great victory of which the Princes and the people of India alike should be proud. This is an achievement which should resound to the credit of any nation…
The capacity for mischief and trouble on the part of the Rulers if the settlement with them would not have been reached on a negotiated basis was far greater than could be imagined at this stage. Let us do justice to them; let us place ourselves in their position and then assess the value of their sacrifice… The main part of our obligation under these agreements, is to ensure that the guarantees given by us in respect of privy purse are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stabilisation of the new order.
A Strong Centre
K Hanumanthaiya (Member, Mysore, November 15th, 1949): [When] we were fighting for freedom one of the principles on which we concentrated our mind upon in constitution-making was decentralisation of power. In this vast country, centralisation will ultimately work to the detriment of what we call ‘unity’ itself… Decentralisation is a necessity. It was also the principle on which Mahatma Gandhi wanted to construct this Constitution.
Pandit Balkrishna Sharma (Member, United Provinces, November 25th, 1949): When we say that we have erred too much on the side of centralisation and when we criticise our Constitution on this account, do we not lose sight of that historical tendency of drifting apart in our history, in our traditions? This country has been afflicted with that fissiparous tendency which has been the bane of its progress. And, remember, India has been able to raise her head in history only when there has been a strong Central Government established… Therefore, we should not forget that when we have to counter that tendency, that fissiparous tendency, that centripetal tendency, let us not forget that it is very necessary that the Centre must be made strong.
Mahavir Tyagi (Member, United Provinces, November 15th, 1949): It is not a question of centralisation at all. This is neither centralisation nor what I could call circumferisation. The real position is that there should not be disintegration.
Rajendra Prasad (November 26th, 1949): Some people have doubted the wisdom of adult franchise… I look upon it as an experiment the result of which no one will be able to forecast today, I am not dismayed by it. I am a man of the village and although I have had to live in cities for a pretty long time, on account of my work, my roots are still there. I, therefore, know the village people who will constitute the bulk of this vast electorate. In my opinion, our people possess intelligence and common sense… I have no doubt in my mind that they are able to take measure of their own interest and also of the interests of the country at large if things are explained to them… I have, therefore, no doubt in my mind that if things are explained to them, they will not only be able to pick up the technique of election, but will be able to cast their votes in an intelligent manner and I have, therefore, no misgivings about the future, on their account.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (October 10th, 1949): If you want an efficient all-India service, I advise you to allow the services to open their mouth freely… The Union will go—you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and, that after all there is the Parliament, of which we can be proud, where their rights and privileges are secure. If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee (December 13th, 1949): If it is claimed by anyone that by passing an article in the Constitution of India, one language is going to be accepted by all, by a process of coercion, I say, that that will not be possible to achieve. Unity in diversity is India’s key-note and must be achieved by a process of understanding and consent, and for that a proper atmosphere has to be created… Left to myself, I would certainly have preferred Sanskrit. People laugh at Sanskrit today… but most certainly that is a language which still is the storehouse, shall I say the unlimited and illimitable storehouse, from which all knowledge and wisdom are drawn, not so much perhaps by the present generation of the Indian people but by others who have preceded us and by all true lovers of learning and scholarship throughout the civilised world. That is our language, the mother-language of India.