A look at the difficult circumstances in which our Constitution was adopted...

On a cold winter's morning 60 years ago today, 271 men and women huddled together in New Delhi's Legislative Building. As members of the Constituent Assembly, they had spent the past three years debating a governing charter for India. Together, they had produced the world's longest national basic law. They now assembled for their final session and could barely contain their excitement. Before them lay two large blue books with the Constitution's 90,000 words carefully handwritten in English and Hindi. The books were also illustrated with events from Indian history exquisitely prepared by the great national artist, Nandalal Bose of Santiniketan.

The Assembly was established under the “cabinet mission plan” after Prime Minister Clement Atlee concluded that Great Britain could no longer rule India. Under the mission's plan, legislative elections were held in every British India province with eligible voters having to satisfy certain property qualifications. Provincial legislators then elected the Assembly's members under a formula, which ensured that each member represented approximately one million people. Members were also elected or nominated to represent the native princely states.

In the Assembly, the Congress commanded a significant majority. Yet, the body's membership remained heterogeneous and diverse because the Congress high command strove to ensure that different shades of opinion were adequately represented. With remarkable foresight, the party also arranged for the election of several non-Congressmen, including B.R. Ambedkar, who had repeatedly clashed with Congress leaders; K.M. Munshi, who had left the party; and S.P. Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader. Despite some inevitable differences, they worked closely with the Congress's stalwarts, Nehru, Patel, and Azad. This “team of rivals”, to use the American historian Doris Kearns Godwin's phrase, later ensured that the Constitution quickly acquired widespread legitimacy and popular acceptance.

Unique character

There were no foreign consultants involved in framing the Constitution. This is in sharp contrast to the considerable external influence evident in other contemporaneously written national charters, notably the post-World War Japanese Constitution, or closer to home, the first Sri Lankan Constitution of 1946. Our founders were adamant that Indians should have full control over the drafting process. They accomplished that objective with the assistance of several lawyer-members including Nehru, Prasad, Ambedkar, and Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and eminent non-partisan experts, such as N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, a veteran administrator and Jerome D'Souza, a Jesuit educationalist, who had also joined the Assembly.

The Assembly's members were initially divided into several committees to study such specific topics as fundamental rights, minorities, and centre-state relations. Relying on their inputs, the Assembly's Constitutional Adviser B.N. Rau, a brilliant ICS officer and judge, prepared an initial draft constitution in February 1948. Rau's draft was further revised by Ambedkar's drafting committee and issued in November 1948. The Assembly took almost a year to discuss it. Members insisted on reviewing every clause, and in some cases, every word and sentence. More than 2,000 amendments were considered and several were accepted. The house also received a large number of comments and suggestions on the draft from societies, chambers of commerce, government agencies, academics, and ordinary citizens. The drafting committee produced a revised draft, which was eventually adopted by the Assembly, with some changes, as the Constitution on November 26, 1949.

When the Assembly convened for its final session on January 24, 1950, its secretary, H.V.R. Iengar announced that Rajendra Prasad had been elected unopposed as India's first President. After accepting members' congratulations, Prasad announced that Jana Gana Mana would be the National Anthem and that Vande Mataram would have equal status. He then invited members to sign the Constitution's calligraphic copies. Nehru was the first to do so and members from Madras followed him. After the last member had signed the books, Prasad decided that he, too, must do so. But, rather than signing behind the last signatory, he clumsily inserted his name in the small space between the last line of the text and Nehru's signature.

Two days later, the Constitution became fully effective with “the fanfare of trumpets, the booming of guns and scenes of rejoicing.” At a ceremony held in Rashtrapathi Bhavan's Durbar Hall, Governor General Rajagopalachari solemnly proclaimed India as a “Sovereign, Democratic Republic”. He then exchanged seats with Prasad, and Chief Justice Kania swore-in Prasad as the first President. Twenty years after the Lahore Congress's Poorna Swaraj declaration, India had finally reclaimed its own sovereignty and formally severed legal links with Great Britain. Later that afternoon, Prasad rode in a carriage built originally for Viceroy Hardinge to witness a ceremonial parade at the Irwin Stadium.

Significant step

In many ways, India's birth as a republic in 1950 was more significant than its emergence as an independent dominion in 1947. First, in a completely radical break with the past, the Indian people chose to place themselves under a supreme law instead of being ruled by a monarch's diktat. They adopted a system of governance that meticulously defines the powers and responsibilities of the three branches and regulates relations between the centre and the states. Second, the Constitution is the bedrock of India's parliamentary democracy. It ensures that the governments are made and unmade through universal adult franchise supervised by an independent election commission.Third, through its unprecedented abolition of untouchability, the Constitution serves as a powerful emancipation proclamation ending centuries of caste-based discrimination and social exclusion. Its lofty Directive Principles of State Policy further underscores its commitment to social justice. Fourth, the Constitution expressly guarantees every citizen important fundamental rights, which may be subject to only certain restrictions. These rights include the ability to freely speak and express oneself; the freedom of conscience and to profess, practise, and even propagate a religion; basic protections against arbitrary arrest and detention by authorities, and various cultural and educational guarantees.

In an editorial on January 26, 1950, The Hindu welcomed the new republic's creation but emphasised the need to keep “a crusading spirit alive”. It pointed out that the Constitution provides a “shell of democracy” and that it is up to the Indian people to breathe life into it. It reminded readers that the German Weimar Republic had also fashioned an admirable constitution. But that charter became “waste paper” because it lacked “fire in its belly”. It was that fire, The Hindu argued, which had to be kindled if India was to establish a fair, equitable, and viable polity. Those words ring loudly this day as they did 60 years ago.

Vikram Raghavan is a Senior Counsel in the World Bank's Legal Vice Presidency. He is a contributor to the blog Law and Other Things.

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