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Blast from the Past- Constituent Assembly Debates: an underrated bedrock of the nation

Fundamental Right Constitution Cabinet Mission Reservation National Language Preamble

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Inhouse credit: Editor: Feba Nisha
Last updated: 21/10/2021

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Synopsis:  The Constituent Assembly was the pioneering set of individuals who set out to create the Constitution for the world’s largest democracy. From Fundamental Rights to National Language, all controversial aspects were discussed and debated by the Assembly and became part of the Constitution, but still, there is a lack of awareness of their importance.

 

Introduction

All of us, are aware of the importance of January 26, 1950. The day which marked the Constitution of India coming into effect, which constituted our nation as a Sovereign Democratic Republic securing to its citizens - Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Although most of us know the relevance of the same, very little is known about how we narrowed down to the provisions in the document which is the largest written constitution in the world.
 

Often, we hear that the Constituent Assembly, through its debates, was responsible for drafting the Constitution, we might even remember how our school textbooks mentioned the same with great reverence. However, that is where our knowledge about the Constituent Assembly ends. In this article, we aim to underline the importance of the functioning of the Constituent Assembly in general, and specifically how the Constituent Assembly debates hold a key to understanding the principles of law we take for granted today.

 

The Assembly is formed

During the 1857 revolt, the first attempt to establish an Indian Constitution was quickly dissuaded by the British. Another such attempt was made by Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1914, formally, as a note to the British Government for the creation of an Indian Constitution which also met the same fate.
 

With Indian independence looming on the horizon for the British, they finally agreed to establish the Constituent Assembly through the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. Elections were held to determine the members of the Assembly from various provinces at that time and 389 members were elected to formulate an Indian Constitution. The Constituent Assembly met for the first time in the morning of December 9, 1946, with Dr Sachchidananda Sinha becoming the temporary Chairman of the Assembly. However, with the Indian Independence Act, 1947, two nations, India and Pakistan, were created, which resulted in the members from those provinces withdrawing from the Assembly in June of 1947 and forming the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. The remaining members after the partition were 299.

 

The Assembly starts functioning

The Constituent Assembly lasted for the famous period of 2 years, 11 months and 17 days where it held 11 sessions spanning across 165 days. Dr Rajendra Prasad became the first permanent chairman of the Assembly. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru introduced the Objective Resolution on December 13, 1947, with the motive to “proclaim India as an Independent Sovereign Republic and to draw up for her future governance a Constitution[1], factors which became part of the Preamble of the Constitution.[2]
 

With the Objective Resolution accepted, various committees and sub-committees were formed with the aim of creating the Indian Constitution. The major committees were - Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights and Minority Rights (which consisted of the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights and the Sub-Committee on Minority Rights), Union Powers Committee, Union Constitution Committee, Drafting Committee and the Provincial Constitution Committee.[3] Out of the 8 major committees, the Drafting Committee was headed by Dr B.R. Ambedkar. B.N. Rau prepared an initial draft of the Constitution based on principles of constitutions across the developed nations. Each committee made its recommendations and these recommendations were deliberated by the members of the Assembly in the form of debates. These debates became part of Granville Austin’s PhD theses titled Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a nation, which was the first authoritative account of the debates.[4] In furtherance to the same, the Indian Institute of Public Administration published a five-volume series- The Framing Of India’s Constitution which, along with the 12-volume Transfer of Power series published by the British Government, became the comprehensive account of the Assembly Debates.

 

The Debates

The fifth session commenced on August 15, 1947, now celebrated as the Independence Day of India. This session famously started with the “India’s Tryst with Destiny” speech by Nehru. In this section, we will discuss some of the major motions of debate between the members:

  1. Fundamental Rights: This session saw landmark progress as the debates regarding Fundamental Rights began. Acharya J.B. Kriplani announced various Fundamental Rights available to the Citizens of India, while Dr Ambedkar debated in favour of attaching some reasonable restrictions to the Fundamental Rights. Another resolution along the lines of granting a special constituency for women was debated in the Assembly, which was heavily opposed by women members like Renuka Rey.
     
  2. DPSPs: Another key introduction that led to debates was the Directive Principles of State Policy. Ambedkar argued the duty of application of these principles resided with the elected representatives of people which was ultimately agreed by the members.
     
  3. Minorities and Reservation: The Minorities committee recommended special status to minorities along with women in the Constitution. Dr K.M. Munshi argued for a set period of time for which reservation was to be provided to these communities to bring them to an equal socio-economic status with the majority. The issue of reservation split the house into two: the ones who argued that it would create instability and demand of reservation from others and the other half argued in favour of its requirement as a social upliftment tool. Dr Ambedkar, who was one of the key supporters of the said reservation, debated with Sardar Patel on the same. This debate led to the inclusion of well-balanced provisions for minorities in the Constitution.
     
  4. Property: The next major debate was regarding the Right to Property. Sardar Patel introduced the same with the concept of compensation in case of acquisition of the same by the Government. Many members argued in favour of bringing more clarity as to what amount of compensation would be reasonable which was decided after deliberations to be eight times the income generated from such property.
     
  5. National Language: The most heated debate in the Assembly was regarding the adoption of Hindi as the National Language of the Country. While members from Hindi-speaking provinces argued in favour of granting it National Language status, members such as T.T. Krishnamachari represented the South Indian provinces and argued vociferously against the provision. Muslim leaders such as Maulana Azad vouched for Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu) to be the National Language. A special committee headed by K.M. Munshi and N.G. Ayyangar decided in favour of Hindi and English to be the Official languages of the Nation.
     
  6. Centre-State Relations: Pandit Nehru proposed the division of legislative powers and subject matter into three lists- the Federal, the Provincial and the Concurrent which still find a way into the Constitution as the Centre, State and Concurrent lists. Prominent leaders argued against the overpowered Centre and demanded decentralisation of powers. Ambedkar argued that a total decentralisation would be impractical, and it would be better to have a strong centre with reasonable powers to the Judiciary to decide if an act of the Centre is unconstitutional. Ambedkar argued that the same Judiciary can intervene if any such act is done by the legislatures (Centre or State).
     
  7. Preamble: Although the first effective declaration in the Constitution, the Preamble was one of the last matters to be debated by the Assembly. Dr Ambedkar read out the draft Preamble to the members, which was accepted without much debate by them.

 

Aftermath

Nearing three years after its constitution after tough decisions heated debates and thousands of amendments, the Constituent Assembly, on November 26, 1949 (which is now celebrated as the National Law Day), decided to adopt what is known as the Constitution of India. The Constitution came into effect on January 26, 1950.
 

The Debates not only clarify the basic principles on which the supreme law of the land is based upon but also establishes the succinct understanding of the members who carefully scrutinised and debated each and every provision of the Constitution. The debates help address present-day questions that the assembly neither faced nor foresaw.[5] E.g.- the recent criticism of the power of the Government to curb free speech could be understood with a clear background if the analysis of the debates is done. Moreover, the debates have helped the Judiciary in deciding vital questions regarding the basic structure of the Constitution, amendments, emergencies, etc.
 

In conclusion, the Assembly debates are mostly ignored when one delves into any study related to the Constitution as strict rules of interpretation require courts to stick to the black letter. There is a much-needed awareness which is required regarding the debates, the much-needed change of interpretation is required to make our future generation understand the genesis of our Constitution.

 

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. The same cannot be construed as legal advice.

 

 

[3]Committee Stages and Second Session of Constituent Assembly Debates.” CADIndia, http://cadindia.clpr.org.in/constitution_making_process/committee_stages_and_second_session_of_constituent_assembly_debates.

[4] Raghavan, Vikram. “Why Do Our Constitutional Debates Matter?” Https://www.livemint.com/, Livemint, 5 Oct. 2016, www.livemint.com/Opinion/mLactWgKWt6iKosuEyBNMI/Why-do-our-constitutional-debates-matter.html

[5]Raghavan, Vikram. “Why Do Our Constitutional Debates Matter?” Https://www.livemint.com/, Livemint, 5 Oct. 2016, www.livemint.com/Opinion/mLactWgKWt6iKosuEyBNMI/Why-do-our-constitutional-debates-matter.html

 





Apprentice in-house

Shantanu Rawat
Bangalore

This article was developed in-house by Mr. Shantanu Rawat, in collaboration with our team of lawyers and editors.

Apprentice Insights works with experts in the field of law to develop and publish articles which are theoretically and practically relevant to legal professionals.

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