India’s Constituent Assembly Debates – Need to Read Again!

By: Dr. Kishor Dere (PhD)

(Independent analyst of  International Relations and International Law)

On 19th of August 2016, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy had organised an interesting lecture by Vikram Raghavan on ‘Why should we read our Constituent Assembly Debates?’ It was held at the prestigious India International Centre in New Delhi and well-attended by students, professors and lawyers among others. The lucid style of Vikram Raghwan’s lecture had naturally evoked a large number of thought-provoking questions.

Raghavan, trained as a lawyer in India and the US, has co-edited a volume of essays entitled Comparative Constitutionalism in South Asia (Oxford University Press 2013). He had earlier delivered lectures on ‘Granville Austin and the Making of India’s Constitution’ and ‘George Gadbois and the Judges of the Supreme Court of India’.

In his talk, Raghavan used archival material and photographs to draw attention to the initial neglect of the Constituent Assembly Debates in the 1950s. He then referred to the ‘turning points’ on the use of the Debates in the 1960s and 1970s as a tool to interpret key provisions of the Constitution by judges and lawyers. He then analysed the need to read Constituent Assembly Debates, and how such exercise can help resolve various constitutional predicaments and anxieties that we face from time to time.

It is indeed crucial to remind ourselves of the pertinence of such crucial legal and constitutional developments in the history of our republic.

One of the points made by Vikram Raghavan was that rise of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar as a national icon in the context of resurgent Dalit politics contributed to growing recourse to Constituent Assembly Debates by social science scholars to analyse a variety of socio-economic and political matters in Indian society. This rapidly happened mainly in 1990s.  Before that the main users of the debates were Supreme Court judges. In fact there also exists a series of judgements on the utility of reading the Constituent Assembly Debates in interpreting the Constitution of India. The use of these debates was so rare that it was difficult to find publications of those proceedings. Libraries of universities, law schools and public libraries hardly had copies of these voluminous proceedings. Subsequently, many publications came out.  Nowadays, these debates are available online besides being there in hard-copy.

Today as one reads them, one gets an opportunity to comprehend complexities of the subject matters discussed in the Constituent Assembly. It was an era of turmoil and turbulence in the life a newly independent nation. It was a period of joy of independence marred by sorrow and pain of partition and accompanying violence, migration of people from both sides, and widespread suspicion, rumour-mongering and hatred.  Right from who should be the citizen of India and what should be the form of government to the Consolidated Fund of India, and judicial independence, a vast range of subjects was critically debated and analysed by the Constituent Assembly members. Of course, there were many informal and formal parleys that took place outside the Constituent Assembly as well. All those discussions of course do not figure in the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly Debates. In order to fully grasp the constitution-making process in India, one should also read biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, interviews of those involved in this marathon process. These should be further supplemented by critical analysis of the multi-volume Transfer of Power. By now there are also Supreme Court judgements along with writings and commentaries by constitutional experts on these and allied matters. Undoubtedly Constituent Assembly Debates are not perfect yet they are the most authentic source available to know the subject as it evolved.

After all, today we are living in an era of law firms and corporate lawyers. Outsourcing of work to law firms has become order of the day. The trend is so dominant that even Constitutions of certain counties are said to be written by national or international law firms. It is a kind of ‘outsourcing’! by the legislatures and lawmakers if one may term it so. To call it a ‘delegated legislation’(?) would be tantamount to either abusing the term or regressively redefining it. It will be a travesty of justice.

This, however, does not apply to the Constitution of India and its framers. The Constituent Assembly took almost three years (two years, eleven months and seventeen days to be precise) to complete its historic task of drafting the Constitution for Independent India. During this period, it held eleven sessions covering a total of 165 days. Of these, 114 days were spent on the consideration of the Draft Constitution.

As to its composition, members were chosen by indirect election by the members of the Provincial Legislative Assemblies, according to the scheme recommended by the Cabinet Mission. The arrangement was: (i) 292 members were elected through the Provincial Legislative Assemblies; (ii) 93 members represented the Indian Princely States; and (iii) 4 members represented the Chief Commissioners’ Provinces. The total membership of the Assembly thus was to be 389. However, as a result of the partition under the Mountbatten Plan of 3 June, 1947, a separate Constituent Assembly was set up for Pakistan and representatives of some Provinces ceased to be members of the Assembly. As a result, the membership of the Assembly was reduced to 299.

So it would be a worthwhile exercise to read the proceedings of such a democratically elected serious body of eminent and dedicated public representatives. Most of them had sacrificed their lucrative careers and plunged into the freedom struggle. They had the vision, statesmanship and commitment to make India a democratic and sovereign republic. Their vision was not blurred by dogmas of ideology, compulsions of electoral politics, blinkers of partisan politics or any other narrow-minded, short-sighted parochial consideration and primordial loyalty. By reading the Constituent Assembly Debates, all of us may be reminded of our rights as well as duties as citizens of India. That in turn would help develop the spirit of responsible citizenship across the length and breadth of India.

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