Colombo, January 24 (Ceylon Today): January 26 is celebrated in India as Republic Day. It was on January 26, 1950, that the Indian Constitution came into effect. It is as historic as Independence Day because it created a functioning State out of a divided, fractured and bruised nation. It brought into effect a democratic, secular and inclusive constitution with universal adult franchise for the first time in the history of India.
The 300 plus-member Constituent Assembly (CA) had finalized the document on November 26, 1949. But it had to wait for two more months for coming into force because the contours of India were yet to be finalized. Work on the integration of the 500-odd Princely States had not yet been completed.
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British officials, Conservative British politicians and hard-boiled “India hands” had cynically predicted independent India’s quick collapse, citing its mind-boggling social contradictions and 85% illiteracy. But the working of the new constitution proved them wrong, partly because of its basic goodness and partly because it has kept evolving with 105 amendments (till October 2021).
The challenges before the interim government headed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were humongous as Viceroy Lord Wavell set up the Constituent Assembly (CA) in 1946, eight months before independence. 1946 saw the “Great Calcutta Killings” to press for a Muslim state of Pakistan. The carnage claimed 4000 lives. In 1947, there were India-Pakistan partition riots in Punjab, Delhi, Bihar and Bengal, which led to one million deaths and displacement of 15 million. With the exit of Britain, its sovereignty over the 540 Princely States lapsed, making them theoretically independent. India seemed to be heading for Balkanization with some of the Princely States wanting independence. And Pakistan was fishing in troubled waters. It sent raiders into Kashmir to seize it forcibly.
It was in the midst of unprecedented chaos that the CA worked between 1946 and 1949. Fortunately, it had a blueprint in the 1929 “Purna Swaraj” resolution of the Congress party which had been made public on “Republic Day” January 26, 1930.
It was not an easy task to make a constitution for a country that was populous, extremely diverse and which had not been knitted together as one country yet. British India was divided into a predominantly Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan in 1947. There were 540 virtually independent “Princely States” ruled by Maharajahs and Nawabs. But overcoming all odds, the leaders of the country gave the country a constitution which ensured a secular government “of the people, for the people and by the people” with universal adult franchise.
The CA finally had over 300 members representing the various provincial councils on the basis of the 1946 elections plus representatives of Princely States. It had 9 women. 82% of the membership was from the Congress party, which, at that time, had members of all ideological persuasions. The CA also took into account written submissions from the public. Though the Muslim League did not participate as it was fighting for an independent Pakistan, the Congress team had Muslims.
The Chief architects of the constitution were the Vice President of the Viceroy’s Executive Council (Prime Minister) Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave the broad direction; Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, who managed the committees and resolved contradictions; K.M.Munshi lawyer and intellectual; Law Minister B.R.Ambedkar who headed the Drafting Committee; Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyar, a lawyer; B.N.Rau constitutional advisor; S.N.Mukherjee, draftsman; and Dr.Rajendra Prasad, the CA’s Chairman.
According to Ramachandra Guha author of “India After Gandhi” (MacMillan 2008) the CA brought together “moral vision, political skill and legal acumen.” And as historian Granville Austin put it, the constitution brought about a “national” as well a “social” revolution, combining democracy, liberty on the one hand, and social and economic equity on the other. For the first time, reservation in employment was given to the “untouchable” castes and tribals. Most importantly, it included a chapter on Fundamental Rights enforceable in courts.
The CA hotly debated every issue including the merits and demerits of the Indian and Western models of democracy. But it finally settled for the Western model. Individual rights triumphed over communal rights. Since there was a need for a strong government, the First Past the Post System was preferred to the Proportional Representation System. The Westminster system was preferred to the US Presidential system.
This drew criticisms from Gandhians. K.Hanumanthaiya of Karnataka remarked that “people expected to hear the music of the Veena or the Sitar, but what they got instead was an English band!” Significantly, Mahatma Gandhi played no role in constitution- making as he was busy fighting murderously communal forces outside. The constitution was thus the work of Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr. Ambedkar. Nehru had a particular attachment to the final document as it reflected his ideological predilections. When it came up for signatures, he was so excited that he ignored protocol and signed it first, when CA Chairman Rajendra Prasad should have it signed first.
Unification of India
The Constitution would have been a work of fiction if India had not been made one country from the welter of units that existed then. As stated earlier, apart from the British Indian provinces there were 540 Indian Princely States, some of which like Hyderabad and Kashmir were very big. These were semi-independent units under the British sovereign. When the British quit, its sovereignty lapsed not only in relation to the directly-ruled “British India” but also in relation to the Princely States. The latter could technically declare independence and Balkanize the Indian land mass. Aware of this danger, Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy and Governor General of the Dominion of India, advised, coaxed and pressured the Princes to merge with either India or Pakistan going by territorial contiguity.
But some States were determined to become independent. Travancore (in Kerala) wanted to enter into a “treaty with India” and establish diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Hyderabad and Bhopal also desired independence. Junagadh, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer sought merger with Pakistan though their populations were not Muslim. Kashmir, a Muslim majority State with a Hindu ruler, dilly dallied and finally merged with India.
Neither Lord Mountbatten nor the government of independent India wanted to force the Princely States to merge. They were trying to convince them of the logic behind the suggestion of merger with one or the other of the Dominions of India and Pakistan based on territorial contiguity. They were sensitized to the ill effects of Balkanization of India. Yet, some of the Princes adamantly stuck to their line even disregarding Home Minister Patel’s offer of fat pensions and the right to use their grandiose titles even after losing their kingdoms.
Hyderabad’s “Nizam” took the legal route by engaging Sir Walter Monckton, the most expensive lawyer in the UK. The Nizam also tried to terrorize the Hindu majority into submission by getting one Kasim Rizvi to let loose his storm troopers called Razakars on the population. The Congress, on its part, mounted agitations against the Nizam. Finally, in September 1948, India sent its army to take over Hyderabad. In Junagadh, a referendum settled the issue. In Travancore, the issue was settled in favor of India, after the Diwan or Prime Minister of the State, the ambitious Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Aiyar, was knifed by an irate socialist party worker. The Nawab of Bhopal finally gave in when the tide was turning against him.
Kashmir, however, was a different kettle of fish. The wavering Hindu Maharajah of the Muslim-majority State signed the Instrument of Accession to India only after Pakistani raiders were at the gates of his capital Srinagar to coerce him into merging with Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir so far, but the ground situation has remained unchanged. By the time constitution was finalized in November 1949 and adopted in 1950, India had been united and the constitution has survived, albeit with 105 amendments till October 2021.
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