Celebrate the supreme law

January 26, 1950 is when the Constitution of India came into effect. But, what is a Constitution? Read on to find out more.

January 21, 2016 12:44 pm | Updated September 23, 2016 02:07 am IST

January 24, 1950: Jawaharlal Nehru addressing member of the Constituent Assembly. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

January 24, 1950: Jawaharlal Nehru addressing member of the Constituent Assembly. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

Most of you know that India became independent on August 15, 1947. But do you know why we celebrate Republic Day? January 26, 1950, is the day the Constitution of India came into effect. What was until then known as Union of India officially became the Republic of India. For 66 years now, the Indian Constitution has been the permanent instrument that ensures the working of the government system.

So what is this Constitution? It is the country’s supreme law and not only defines the framework of the basic political principles, but also establishes what the different government institutions should do in terms of procedure, powers and duties. It contains fundamental rights, directive principles and the duties of citizens. It is the longest written constitution of any country in the world. The Parliament cannot override it because the Constitution was created by a special Constituent Assembly.

In the making

Let’s take a look at how the Constitution was created. Though it came into force only in 1950, the demand for a Constituent Assembly was made back in 1934. M.N. Roy, a Communist party leader, was the first to moot the idea. This was then taken up by the Congress party and the British government accepted the demand in 1940. The August offer, as it was known, allowed Indians to draft their Constitution.

In 1946, elections to the Constituent Assembly were held and, of the 296 seats, the Congress won 208 and the Muslim League 73. The Constituent Assembly for undivided India met for the first time on December 9, 1946. However, relations between the Muslim League and the Congress deteriorated and the former demanded a separate assembly for Muslims.

By this time, events were moving rapidly towards independence. After independence, the members who represented the areas that had gone to Pakistan had to be replaced and new elections had to be held.

What the Constituent Assembly hoped to achieve was expressed by Jawarharlal Nehru: “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.”

A Drafting Committee was constituted on August 29, 1947, with Dr. B. R. Ambedkar as Chairman to prepare a Draft Constitution. This committee finally finished their work on November 26, 1949. The date is therefore known as Constitution or National Law Day. The process was complete when the members signed the document — two copies in English and Hindi — on January 24, 1950.

The final document drew upon the constitutions of many other countries. Here’s a quick overview of a few borrowed ideas: From Britain, the idea of parliamentary form of government and idea of single citizenship; from the U.S., the concept of fundamental rights and the government’s federal structure but the division of power between the central and state governments was taken from the Canadian constitution. From the French was borrowed the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity and, from the Soviet Union, the ideas of fundamental duties and the Planning Commission.

While the Constitution is written down, it is not a rigid set of rules or framework. The provisions were stated generally so that they could be adapted to changing times and situations. Take for instance the Right to Life under Article 21. From “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”, it has gone on to include Right to speedy trial; Right to water; Right to livelihood; Right to health and Right to education.

In his book Making of India’s Constitution , a well-known Supreme Court judge Justice H.R. Khanna wrote that the people are the trustees and custodians of the values in the 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.”

Why do we need a Constitution?

Almost every aspect of our lives is governed by a set of rules. Think of your games; almost each one has its own specific regulations; your schools have certain rules that you have to follow. Adults are not exempt from rules; workplaces have them. Some are imposed by custom and tradition. Similarly society also needs certain rules so that people can live together in a safe manner. These are called Laws and are made by legislatures like our Parliament. The Constitution is the supreme law of the country and it contains laws concerning the government and its relationships with the people.

This quote by Patrick Henry, an American lawyer and politician, sums up the power of a Constitution best: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.”

Quick facts

The Assembly’s first meeting was in New Delhi on December 9, 1946, and its last on January 24, 1950. During this time, it held 11 sessions and met for 166 days.

Important members

Some of the important names in this assembly were Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, B.R. Ambedkar, C. Rajagopalachari, G.V. Mavalankar, Jawaharlal Nehru, K.M. Munshi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. The Anglo-Indians was represented by Frank Anthony and the Parsis by HP Modi. Harendra Coomar Mookerjee, Chairman of the Minorities Committee, represented Christians other than Anglo-Indians. The Gorkha community were represented by Bahadur Gurung and some of the important women members were Sarojini Naidu, Durgabai Deshmukh, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Vijayalakshmi Pandit.

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