71 years ago, on the 26th of November, 1949, we, the people of India, gave to ourselves, the document that was to be the voice of India, the symbol of its sovereignty, our very own constitution. This day, the 26th of November, we proudly commemorate as Constitution day or Samvidhan Diwas.
The constitution has since then under-gone more than ninety amendments, making it the most amended constitution anywhere in the world, and has stood tall in the face of adversities faced by the nation. Today, let’s delve into the lanes of history and remember the story of our constitution-making and reflect upon the greatness of this unique manuscript, that would come to define the fate of the then newly-born Union of India.
To answer this question, one needs to understand what is a constitution in the first place. The constitution is the supreme law of the nation, that lays down the political principles, the guiding terms, and procedure of the government institutions, and directs its citizen about their duties.
The formation of the Indian constitution was a moment of completion of social and political revolution that had raged for more than 100 years. The constitution then was to be the culmination of all the dreams and aspirations that the revolutionary leaders of Indian independence carried in their hearts.
The constitution that came to be, provided the basis for adopting parliamentary government and direct elections, division of power among the legislative, executive, and judiciary, fundamental rights, and directive principals. But most of all, it provided for the limitation of state power, it provided for the empowerment of its people through ensuring equality, liberty and dignity and it asked of them for fraternity among themselves. This particular quote from Nehru best sums up all that our
constitution strived to achieve.
“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.”
The idea of a written constitution formulated by a constituent assembly was first put forward by M.N Roy, a pioneer of the communist movement in India. In 1935 INC officially demanded a constituent assembly to frame the constitution of India. Congress demanded that the “constitution of free India must be framed without outside interference, by a constituent assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise.” The demand was finally accepted by the British government in 1940 in what is termed as the “August Offer.”
Mahatma Gandhi saw the demand of the constitution as a step towards the goal of Purna Swaraj and gave his complete support to the idea. In 1922, Gandhi had said that Swaraj would not be the gift of the British parliament, but “must spring from the wishes of the people of India as expressed through their freely chosen representatives”.
These were the words that were repeated during the opening session of the constituent assembly twenty-four years later in 1946. It was a solemn moment and all the members of the assembly felt the solemn task they had ahead of them.
The Constituent Assembly
In 1946 the elections for the Constituent Assembly were held and out of the 296 seats Congress won 208 and the Muslim League 73. On 9 December 1946, the constituent assembly for undivided India met for the first time. Soon after matters went and downhill and the Muslim League boycotted the assembly demanding a separate state.
Almost 80 percent of the elected representatives were from the Congress party, yet the assembly was a righteous microcosm of the diversity of the nation. The assembly was representative of the idea of India and was democratic in its internal decision making. These were no ordinary people, all the members of the constituent assembly were charismatic in their appeal and wielded immense power over the hearts of the public. As the great scholar Granville Austin put it
“The Assembly was the Congress and the Congress was India.”
After the completion of the drafting of the constitution, the constituent assembly continued to remain in place and acted as the provisional parliament until the first general elections were held in 1951.
The drafting of the Indian constitution is often understood synonymous with Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a renowned reformer, politician and jurist and his intellectual contribution to the Indian constitution is immense. Ambedkar held various core positions in the entire process of constitution-making and his well-reasoned and scrupulously researched intervention and speeches earned him the respect of all the members of the constituent assembly.
Another person who played a phenomenal role in producing the first draft of the constitution was Sir B.N Rau. He was the constitutional advisor to the constituent assembly who prepared the first draft document in October, 1947. This was converted to the first draft of the constitution by the drafting committee over a period of four months. It had 240 Articles and 13 Schedules.
Rau then went on a world tour to meet the constitutional law experts and to seek their review on various features of the Indian constitution. The insights he thus gathered were reflected in his proposed amendments to the draft constitution. One such great incidents was when B N Rau, after meeting Justice Frankfurter, was convinced that the clause of “due process”, in the context of Personal Liberty (Article 21), will provide too much power to the state and shall thus be amended to the “procedure established by law”. In the coming months of constituent Assembly debates, the “due process” and “process established by law”, will become an issue of conflict and much debate.
The Preamble is based on the Objective Resolution moved by Jawahar Lal Nehru in the Constituent Assembly in December 1946. The original Preamble, adopted by the Constituent Assembly in 1949, declared India a “Sovereign Democratic Republic”. By 42 nd amendment of 1976, the words “Socialist” and “Secular were inserted.
While under discussion, some members proposed beginning the Preamble with the name of God. Others argued that it should begin with the name of Mahatma Gandhi whose principals were the guiding light for the constituent assembly. Ambedkar rose to the discussion and replied: “That this Constitution should emanate from the people and should recognise that the sovereignty to make this Constitution vests in the people.”
The draft of the constitution was duly scrutinized and voted upon and was finally accepted on 26 November 1949. The two copies, in English and Hindi, were signed by all the members of the assembly on January 24 1950 and so the longest written constitution of the world containing The Preamble, 395 Articles, and 8 Schedules came into being.
As of today, the constitution has a preamble and 470 Articles which are grouped into 25 parts. With 12 Schedules and five appendices, it has been amended 104 times. The power of amendability has made the Indian Constitution a living document, evolving over-time. In these 70 years it has faced immense challenges from the political class yet each-time it has come out more powerful, guarding the spirit of democracy and rule of law. Since it’s a document given to themselves by the people of India, it is, therefore, their duty to know about their constitution and be ever-ready to protect from decay.
H R Khanna writes in Making of Indian Constitution
“A constitution is not a parchment of paper; it is a way of life. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and, in the final analysis, its only keepers are the people.”