The Constituent Assembly: Here’s where it all began
By RONONJOY SEN IN TIMES OF INDIA JANUARY 23, 2010 / INDIA @ 60 Series
When the Constituent Assembly met for the first time on December 9, 1946, it was the best of times, it was also the worst of times. Indian independence was within sniffing distance, but the threat of Partition hung ominously in the air. Large-scale communal riots – a prelude to the massacres during Partition – had broken out in parts of north India triggered by the great Calcutta killings earlier that year. When the Assembly convened, the Muslim League was conspicuous by its absence. The Assembly would meet for three more sessions over the first half of 1947 before it became the legislative Assembly of an independent India at the stroke of midnight on August 14. With the violence and bloodshed of Partition as the backdrop, a drafting committee was set up later that month with Bhim Rao Ambedkar as chairman. Though we all know Ambedkar as the Father of the Indian Constitution , there were several other figures involved in the painstaking task of drafting the document who are now nearly forgotten. Indeed, there are shelves of books on the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and the Constituent Assembly in post-revolution France, but precious little on their Indian counterparts who laboured over and debated the emerging Constitution for nearly three years.
Despite the limited franchise of the 1945 provincial elections – where just over 28 per cent of the population voted – which was the basis for the formation of the Constituent Assembly, the gathering was broadly representative of the Indian nation. The Congress had a brute majority – post-1947 , over 80 per cent of the Assembly members were from the party – but by virtue of being an ‘umbrella’ organisation it managed to represent a wide assortment of opinion. The Congress high command had also ensured that prominent non-partymen , who could contribute to the drafting of the Constitution, were elected to the Assembly. Ambedkar himself headed this list along with A K Ayyar, HN Kunzru, N G Ayyangar, K Santhanam, M R Jayakar, Sachidananda Sinha, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and K M Munshi.
Importantly, the minorities were well represented after 1947 and post-Partition , Muslim League leaders too were back in the Assembly. Hence, Granville Austin, author of the landmark The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, points out, “Although indirectly elected and therefore not responsible to the mass of Indians, the Constituent Assembly was a highly representative body.”
The biggest absence was Mahatma Gandhi who was busy trying to douse the flames of communal riots. On December 13, 1946 when Nehru moved the historic ‘aims and objects’ of the Constituent Assembly where it was resolved to “proclaim India as an Independent Sovereign Republic and to draw up for her future governance a Constitution” , he said to thunderous applause, “There is another person who is absent here and who must be in the minds of many of us today – the great leader of our people, the father of our Nation – who has been the architect of this Assembly and all that has gone before it and possibly of much that will follow. He is not here because, in pursuit of his ideals, he is ceaselessly working in a far corner of India. But I have no doubt that his spirit hovers over this place and blesses our undertaking.”
Besides Ambedkar, the four Congress giants, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Abdul Kalam Azad, were dominant players in drafting the Constitution. Either Ambedkar, Nehru, Patel or Azad headed the eight major committees – rules, steering, advisory, drafting, Union subjects, Union constitution, provincial constitution and states – within the assembly. There were others who were crucial in working out the fine print. Among them were B N Rau, the constitutional adviser, and S N Mukherjee, the chief draftsman. Ambedkar made special mention of both of them in his concluding speech in the Assembly delivered on November 25, 1947.
Of the 165 days that the Assembly sat in session, 114 days were spent in discussing the draft Constitution . The time taken was longer than in some other democracies. The American Convention completed its work in a mere four months. But other countries took much longer with the Australian Constitutional Convention spending nine years and Canada over two years. Ambedkar justified the time taken by pointing to the length of the Indian Constitution – which is one of the longest in the world – and the nearly 2,500 amendments that had to be dealt with.
The framers, not a few of whom had been educated abroad, looked to existing constitutions for inspiration and guidance. Ambedkar, who had degrees from both Columbia University and University of London, admitted as much during the debates: “The only new thing, if there can be any, in a Constitution framed so late in the day are the variations, made to remove the failures and accommodate it to the needs of the country.”
India’s astonishing religious and ethnic diversity, caste inequalities and widespread illiteracy and poverty demanded unique provisions. The Constituent Assembly members were equal to this task, debating and discussing the clauses of the draft Constitution threadbare. Though much of the real work on the Constitution was done in committee rooms, the debates on the floor provide a window to the thinking of the framers. The discussions were often of high quality though it was not unusual for passions to run high. And not every one of the 284 members who put their signature on the Constitution was satisfied with the outcome. One member labeled the Constitution as a “slavish surrender to the West” , while another said, “We wanted the music of veena or sitar but here we have the music of an English band.” But these objections were exceptions.
When the Indian Constitution was formally ratified on November 26, 1949, it concluded a process that resulted in a remarkably forwardlooking document that enshrined individual liberty, equality of opportunity, social justice and secularism. The deliberations by the men and women of the Constituent Assembly are barely remembered today. But in more ways than one, it is comparable to the other great exercises in republic-building in America in 1786 and in France in 1789.
Us and the US
There were 55 delegates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1786 which drafted the United States Constitution. The Indian Constituent Assembly was much bigger. There were 299 members in the Assembly of whom 284 actually signed the final document. The meetings of the Philadelphia Convention were secret. There were several delegates who were unhappy with the result and left before the final ceremony. George Mason was one of the most vocal critics who wanted a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. There were some who stayed back but refused to sign. The Indian Constituent Assembly took 2 years 11 months to draft and adopt the Constitution. The debates when printed run into 12 bulky volumes. Though the debates in the Assembly were often passionate, there was little criticism by Assembly members of the final Constitution. The US Constitution is one of the shortest in the world. It has been amended only 27 times. The first ten amendments by the first US Congress in 1789, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the US Constitution in 1791. The last one was in 1992 and related to Congressional pay. The Indian Constitution is one of the longest in the world. The fundamental rights are part of the Constitution itself. The Constitution has been much amended, 94 times by the latest count.