The Constitution of India (issues)
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The Constitution of India
The drafting of the Constitution of India
The Times of India, Nov 27 2015
How we codified what India stands for WHEN DID THE PROCESS OF DRAFTING INDIA'S CONSTITUTION BEGIN?
In 1934 Indian leaders demanded a constituent assembly to draft a Constitution reflecting the ideals of an independent India, the process began more than a decade later. The constituent assembly first met on December 9, 1946 in the Central Hall of Parliament, then called Constitution Hall; more than 200 representatives attended, including nine women. Sachchidananda Sinha was elected temporary chairman, to be soon replaced by Rajendra Prasad.
How was the assembly constituted?
Constituent Assembly members were chosen mainly through indirect election by provincial assemblies, as per Cabinet Mission recommendations. 292 members were elected through provincial assemblies, 93 represented princely states and four represented chief commissioners' provinces, including the Northwest Frontier Province, Balochistan, Coorg, Ajmer-Merwara, Andaman and Nicobar. Total membership: 389.
How did it function?
On December 13, 1946, Nehru moved the `Objectives Resolution' stating the assembly's declaration proclaiming India an independent sovereign republic. It resolved to draw the operational characteristics of government in independent India. Soon after Mountbatten's partition plan was declared on June 3, 1947, a separate constituent assembly was set up for Pakistan, reducing the Indian body's members to 299. Before Independence, legislation was through the Central Legislative Assembly . On August 14, 1947 midnight, this was replaced by the constituent assembly. It had 17 committees to discuss all aspects of the new democracy .
How often has the Constitution been amended?
The Constitution has been amended 100 times, making it the world's mostamended statute. The first amendment came in 1951, a year after the Constitution came into effect. The last one became effective this May to make it possible for the India-Bangladesh land boundary agreement to be implemented. The Constitution framers felt the process of amending it should be neither too easy , which would defeat the very purpose of having a Constitution, nor too difficult, which would make it impossible for the document to keep up with changing social values. For amending the Constitution, a Bill can be intro duced in either House, but must win support of a majority of the total membership of each House (including vacancies, if any) and two-thirds of those present and voting (including “ayes“ and “nays“, excluding those abstaining) in each
House. If the Bill fails to pass this test in one House, no joint sitting of Houses can be used to get it passed. Where the proposed amendment imping es on the power of the states, it must be ratified by at least half the state legislatures. Which are the important amendments? Some amendments have been significant. The first amendment in 1951 introduced Schedule 9 to protect laws that are on the face of it contrary to constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights from judicial review.For example, a law allowing the state to forcibly acquire land for public good would seem to violate the right to property, but placing it in Schedule 9 (as the 17th amendment of 1964 did) was to put it beyond the reach of the courts. In 2007, the SC ruled that even laws under Schedule 9 are open to judicial review, if they violate the basic structure of the Constitution.
The Seventh Amendment of 1956 was to enable creation of linguistic states and of UTs while abolishing the earlier classification of Class A, B, C and D states.The 39th and 42nd amendments passed during Emergency in the mid-70s were controversial. The 39th placed restrictions on judicial scrutiny of the PM and the 42nd curtailed fundamental rights while introducing the concept of fundamental duties. It added the words secular and socialist to the preamble that defines the republic's nature.
The 43rd and 44th amendments passed after Emergency reversed some of the excesses. Rajiv Gandhi's tenure saw some crucial changes. The 52nd amendment of 1985 was to introduce an anti-defection bill while the 61st in 1989 reduced voting age to 18 from 21. The 73rd and 74th amendments allowed creation of a third tier of government through local bodies in rural and urban areas. The 86th amendment of 2002 conferred the right to education.
How long did it take to draft the Constitution?
It took two years, 11 months and 17 days to compile the world's longest national statute. The constituent assembly held 11 sessions over 165 days. On August 29, 1947, it set up a drafting committee under Ambedkar.The constitution was adopted on November 26, 1949. It came into force on January 26, 1950. That day the assembly became the provisional Parliament of India. This date was chosen to honour the “purna swaraj“ declaration of 1930.
Constitution adopted under difficult circumstances
The Hindu, November 26, 2015
The written Constitution diverges to such an extent from Indian constitutional law that it is not just an incomplete statement but can be positively misleading
Here's a look at the difficult circumstances under which our Constitution was adopted:
1. 271 men and women who were part of the Constituent Assembly, drafted the Indian Constituion after three years of debate over the governing charter of India.
2. The Constitution consists of 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.
3. There were no foreign consultants involved in framing the Constitution. The founders were adamant that Indians should have full control over the drafting procedure. Thus, the assistance of several lawyer-members were sought: Nehru, Prasad, Ambedkar, and Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar were part of the historic draft.
4. Based on expert inputs, the Assembly's Constitutional Adviser B.N. Rau prepared an initial draft constitution in February 1948. Rau's draft was further revised by Ambedkar's drafting committee and issued in November 1948.
5. The Assembly took almost a year to discuss it. More than 2,000 amendments were considered and several were accepted. The drafting committee produced a revised draft, which was eventually adopted by the Assembly, with some changes, as the Constitution on November 26, 1949.
6. 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. He invited members to sign the Constitution's calligraphic copies. Nehru was the first to do so and members from Madras followed him.
7. 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 inserted his name in the small space between the last line of the text and Nehru's signature.
8. Two days later, the Constitution became fully effective. At a ceremony held in Rashtrapathi Bhavan's Durbar Hall, Governor General Rajagopalachari solemnly proclaimed India as a “Sovereign, Democratic Republic”.
9. Through its unprecedented abolition of untouchability, the Constitution serves as a powerful emancipation proclamation ending centuries of caste-based discrimination and social exclusion.
10. 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.
The making and implementation of the Sublime Constitution
Nov 27 2015 : The Times of India (Delhi) STATUTE OF LIBERTY - Constitution is sublime, failings are of our own making Harish Salve As a college student, I remember hearing a speech by the legendary Palkhivala on what he called “the Sublime Constitution“. There can be no doubt that the epithet coined by him was anything but fully deserved. The government's decision to characterise November 26 as Constitution Day is a remarkable step -albeit a token of gratitude which this nation owes to one who can fairly be called the principal architect of the Constitution. The framing of the Constitution was a painstaking exercise. On August 29, 1947 the Constituent Assembly appointed a drafting committee (B R Ambedkar was chairman) which presented a draft in February 1948. This draft was discussed and altered and finally adopted by the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949. The Indian Constitution drew upon models in countries such as the US, Australia, Canada, Ireland, but crafted its own architecture.
Ambedkar in his speech to the Constituent Assembly quoted the powerful words of Grote [the Greek historian] “...The diffusion of constitutional morality.... Is the indispensable condition of government at once free and peaceable...Since even any powerful and obstinate minority may render the working of a free institution impracticable even without being strong enough to conquer ascendancy for themselves.“
With his characteristic bluntness Ambedkar said: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.“
We are no longer an infant democracy -65 years is a fairly long time in the life of a nation, sufficient to assess whether we have imbibed constitutional morality, in sufficient measure. India has had its share of problems, the biggest being the economic non-inclusiveness of nearly 13rd of its population. Sociologically , we continue to let caste and religion divide us. Gender justice is a distance away .
India is the perfect social cauldron where strife could be a way of life. Add to this mix the freedom of speech and a media driven by popularity ratings -there's hardly any surprise that on its surface India has started to appear as an intolerant society . But the gains of six decades of democracy should never be underestimated.
The biggest success of Indian democ racy has been its ability to sustain the system of a popular government -the experiment of 1975 and its aftermath has hopefully dispelled any fantasies of dictatorship harboured by any political leader.
The second has been that, despite populist attempts at dismantling the basic freedoms as a ruse to usher in a socialist order, we have maintained the fundamental freedoms engrafted in the Constitution -the gift of freedom for which our forebears took on the might of the British Empire and sacrificed their lives.
An adjunct of this is that the Supreme Court in particular, and judiciary generally, is considered perhaps the world's most powerful institution of its kind.Barring certain aberrations, SC has been at the forefront of the battle to preserve these freedoms, using judiciously its power to enforce constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms even if it meant overriding popular sentiment. The SC has been proactive in attempting to make constitutional rights a living reality even for those who do not have the resources to seek redress of the judicial system, and to use these as a weapon to address executive and legislative lethargy.
Ambedkar, in his speech in the constituent assembly on November 4, 1948, expostulated the features of the draft Constitution. He explained the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Presidential form of government and the Westminster form of democracy . He said a democratic executive must satisfy two conditions -it must be a stable executive and it must be a responsible executive.
The presidential forms impart greater stability but lesser responsibility as the executive isn't dependent for its existence on a majority in Congress. The British system imparts greater responsibility because of an executive dependent on Parliament for its existence, but this is at times at the cost of stability. It isn't that the former is unaccountable -it's the degree of accountability and its pervasiveness that differs in the two systems.By this touchstone, Indian democracy is clearly work in progress. The lack of stability in government inherent in the Westminster system has taken its toll -coalition politics has seen national interest being sacrificed for political stability -the need for consensus has been seen to constrain ambitious economic measures.
Constitutional morality is another area which is shown up in grey light.Some areas of dismal failure are crimi nalisation of politics, radicalisation and intolerance, populist measures that fester the caste divide, and, most of all egregious, corruption. We replace governments every five years, unfortunately each government uses the same red beacons to torment the common man.
And when all else fails, we blame the Constitution. Amendments to the Constitution have been made designed to emasculate the courts and make our fundamental freedoms subject to the whim and caprice of those in power, on the excuse that it was the fundamental rights that prevented removal of poverty .
Such attempts are now dust on the shelves of history . No government in present times would dare tinker with the basic values enshrined in the Constitution. In a broadcast on the Cabinet Mission plan in 1946, Lord Wavell had in prophetic words said “... No country and no form of government can work satisfactorily without goodwill; with good will and determination to succeed even an apparently illogical arrangement can be made to work....“ Our Constitution is truly sublime if there have been any failings we have only ourselves to blame.
Illustrations in the 1st print edition
Nandlal Bose’ chapter titles
‘Statute in 1950 form would draw Hindu Rashtra charge’
The Constitution,1950: Part III (fundamental rights) carries a picture of Lord Ram, Sita and Laxman and Part IV (directive principles of state policy) which has a picture of Lord Krishna and Arjun. The titles of other sections have pictures of Lord Hanuman, Buddha, Mahavir, Kabir and even Mahatma Gandhi. There is also Akbar.
Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said [in 2019 that] when the Constitution was being drafted, there were discussions on whether India’s culture, values and traditions should be incorporated into the document. Everybody, including Nehru and other leaders, agreed. “Painter Nandlal Bose was asked to paint the titles of various chapters. The founders of our Constitution decided what the paintings would be,” he said.
Details of the illustrations
The Constitution As An Illustrated History Of India
Courtesy of Ms. Medhavi Gandhi and The Heritage Lab.
Preserved in a helium filled glass case in the Parliament Museum lies the original manuscript of the Constitution of India. Adorned by beautiful artwork that capture India’s rich civilizational history, the manuscript is unique in being the only illustrated Constitution in the world. At 90,000 words, it is also the world’s longest.
Endorsing the decision that the whole manuscript of the Constitution be hand written by Shri Prem Behari Narain Raizada in a flowing italic style, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also proposed that the eminent artist Shri Nandalal Bose, famous for his “Indian style of painting” and known as the artist laureate of the country, illuminate the manuscript with distinctive illustrations that would encapsulate the timeless essence, diversity and unity of India.
Accordingly, Shri Bose’s carefully selected team of artists (including Biswarup, Gouri, Jamuna, Perumal, Kripal Singh and other students of Kala Bhavana) fashioned twenty-two images on the manuscript of the Indian Constitution, to depict a fragment of India’s vast historical and cultural heritage. Arranged chronologically, the illustrations were created using indigenous techniques of applying gold-leaf and stone colours.
It is believed that it took five years to create this elaborate piece of art. Once completed, the Constitution was published using the photo-lithography technique under the supervision of the Survey of India at Dehradun, India.
The basic structure doctrine
When Constitution got a judicial shield
40 years ago, the Supreme Court held that Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution did not extend to tampering with its basic structure or framework
Manoj Mitta | TNN
New Delhi: It was the mother of all judgments, delivered in 1973. The largest ever bench, consisting of 13 judges of the Supreme Court, came up with the “basic structure” doctrine in the Kesavananda Bharati case. The verdict was as political as it was legal, prompting the Indira Gandhi government to mount an audacious attack on the independence of the judiciary.
On April 24, 1973, the bench headed by the outgoing Chief Justice of India, S M Sikri, held with a 7-6 majority that Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution did not extend to tampering with its basic structure or framework. The very next day, the government appointed A N Ray as CJI, superseding three of the seven judges who had laid down the basic structure as the line that the Parliament could not cross while amending the Constitution.
For better or for worse, the Kesavananda Bharati judgment thwarted Indira Gandhi’s much-touted socialist policies of serving the collective interest at the expense of individual rights.
Long before the initiation of economic reforms in 1991, Kesavananda Bharati was the most significant triumph for the right, thanks to the exertions of legendary advocate Nani Palkhivala. In fact, it was seen as an instance when the right was on the right side of history.
The basic structure doctrine came on top of three judicial setbacks she had already suffered. While dealing with laws eroding the right to property, which was then a fundamental right, the Golaknath judgment of 1967 ruled that Parliament could not amend any of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Two years later, the apex court struck down the first-ever nationalization of banks, because of inadequate compensation to the original owners. In 1970, it also invalidated the government’s decision to abolish privy purses, which had been conferred on erstwhile princes at the time of the integration of their states into the country.
If the basic structure doctrine was a path-breaking innovation, the manner in which it was laid down was no less unprecedented. For, 12 of the 13 judges on the bench were equally divided on whether there was any implied limitation in Article 368 on Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution. CJI Sikri, who was on the side of the judges who believed in the implied limitation, tilted the balance by using the ambivalent opinion of the 13th judge, H R Khanna.
Sikri adopted the stratagem of writing a note titled “View by the Majority”, which was endorsed by most of his fellow judges. Khanna came on board as the crucial sentence in that summary about the basic structure was lifted from his opinion.
Thus was born the basic structure doctrine, through an addendum of doubtful legal sanctity.
Though it did not attempt to provide an exhaustive list of the basic features of the Constitution, the Kesavananda Bharati verdict cited illustrative examples: supremacy of the Constitution, republican and democratic form of government, secular character of the Constitution, federal character of the Constitution, mandate to build a welfare state, free and fair elections and unity and integrity of the nation. The premise of the verdict was that an amendment to any of these basic features would amount to abrogation of the Constitution, as it would have changed beyond recognition.
In the event, many of the constitutional amendments made during the Emergency did violate the basic structure and were therefore removed from the Constitution by the Morarji Desai government.
During that infamous phase, the Supreme Court under justice Ray even made an abortive attempt to review the Kesavananda Bharati verdict.
Though the judgment played a historic role in preserving democracy in India, it has its share of critics among legal scholars. They allege that by placing the Constitution above Parliament, the basic structure doctrine was actually anti-democratic.
But there is no denying that it has stood the test of time.
Court Has Discovered Many, Will Discover More: SC Judge
Privacy is the latest fundamental right mined out by the Supreme Court from the “Constitution's dark matter“, which over the years has yielded a rich harvest of gems like right to education and dignity , Justice J Chelameswar said.
In his separate judgment agreeing with the nine-judge bench's conclusion on constitutional status of privacy , Justice Chelameswar said privacy as a fundamental right did not find mention in the written words of the Constitution but it was not hard to find it intrinsic to many other expressly provided rights like right to life and various freedoms, including speech and expression.
“The implications arising from the scheme of the Constitution are `Constitution's dark matter' and are as important as the express stipulations in its text,“ he said and added that even the inviolability of basic structure doctrine laid down in the famous Keshavananda Bharati case in 1973 found no mention in the text of the Constitution. “The necessity of probing seriously and respectfully into the invisible portion of the Constitution cannot be ignored without being disrespectful to the hard earned political freedom and the declared aspirations of the liberty of `we the people of India',“ he said. Justice Chelameswar said the SC has continuously engaged in the process of interpretative digging of the “Constitution's dark matter“ which has yielded a rich harvest of gems of fun damental rights.
The discovered fundamental rights are freedom of press, right to earn livelihood, right to education, right to speedy trial, right to reputation, right to pollution free environment and right to go abroad and these have helped citizens realise fully the fruits of expressly provided fundamental rights in the Constitution.
Justice Chelameswar said, “To sanctify an argument that whatever is not found in the text of the Constitution cannot become part of the Constitution would be too primitive an understanding of the Constitution and con trary to settled cannons of constitutional interpretation.
“Constitution is a politically sacred instrument created by men and women who risked lives and sacrificed their liberties to fight alien rulers and secured freedom for our people, not only for their generation but generations to follow. The Constitution cannot be seen as a document written in ink to replace one legal regime by another. It must be seen as a document written in the blood of innumerable martyrs of Jalianwala Bagh and the like.“
On the liberties and freedoms needed for a human being to live with dignity , Justice Chelameswar said, “I am of the opinion that a better view of the whole scheme of the chapter on fundamental rights is to look at each one of the guaranteed rights not as a series of isolated points, but as a rational continuum of the legal concept of liberty , that is freedom from all substantial, arbitrary encroachments and purposeless restraints sought to be made by the state.“
Addition of terms: Secular and Socialist
Upendra Baxi is emeritus professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice chancellor, Delhi University
Constitutional secularism means that no particular group should acquire the syndrome of being persecuted or develop the symptoms of oppression.
There has been a lot of public debate in the last one year on the words 'secular' and 'socialist' appearing in the Preamble of the Constitution. No doubt, the two words were inserted into the Preamble by the 42nd Amendment in 1976-the last phase of Emergency proclaimed by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi-when most opposition leaders were imprisoned and when in a dark moment the Supreme Court denied the right of habeas corpus even in cases of mistaken identity. But the 42nd Amendment was upheld as a legal and binding amendment.
The post-Emergency governing elite chose not to delete these words. The 44th amendment was piloted by the then law minister Shanti Bhushan, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were leading members of the cabinet.
Three years before the Emergency, in the Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973, the Supreme Court declared that 'secularism' and 'socialism' were aspects of the basic structure of the Constitution, and constitutional secularism was affirmed in 1994 in the Bommai case. These decisions were as late as October this year fully followed in the invalidation of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) amendment. The deletion, if desired by Parliament, of the two words in the Preamble has to be a constitutional amendment process and will have to run the disciplinary gauntlet of the basic structure. Even systemic political dislike and occasional governmental advertisements (deleting these two words from the Preamble) cannot otherwise change the constitutional realities.
Much has been made of Dr B.R. Ambedkar's response to an amendment moved by professor K.T. Shah in the Constituent Assembly on November 15, 1948, where he did not see any need to add the two words to the Preamble. His overarching rationale was that there were certain "matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances" and these may not be "laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether". He added: "If you state in the Constitution that the social organisation of the state shall take a particular form, you are, in my judgement, taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organisation in which they wish to live."
Closely read, his response was directed only to the term 'socialist' character of the Constitution. The Constitution he drafted had ample assurances for the state's secularism. The Constitution did not declare God's will or supremacy; it abolished untouchability, trafficking in human beings, and agrestic serfdom as constitutional offences (incidentally ours is the first modern constitution to declare offences against it and give Parliament the power to legislate about it, despite the federal design and detail); endowed the freedom of conscience and practices of religion; gave minorities the basic right to establish and maintain educational institutions of their own choice; and embodied so many assurances of constitutional secularity. Ambedkar and the Constituent Assembly felt that nothing much by way of secularism remained to be achieved by adding this word to the Preamble. They also felt the same about 'socialism' because the directive principles were, and are, replete with its attributes. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has also felt it necessary to reiterate since 1973 the need to accentuate 'secularism' and 'socialism' as essential features of the basic structure.
One must conclude that the constitutional debate is long over, even when a new political debate seems to have begun around the meaning of constitutional secularism. The directions in which such a debate should move remain deeply contested. However, one must rule out firmly arguments for a Hindu rashtra, allowing non-Hindus a subordinated place. This is what the freedom movement rejected. Neither does the Constitution contemplate that born, or naturalised, Indian citizens should be asked or made to reside in other countries. Still less, does it allow citizens of this country to be demoted to the status of mere subjects-the new rightless people. The Preamble to the Constitution highlights fraternity as a value as important as liberty and equality; and there is now a fundamental duty of all Indian citizens, under Article 51-A of the Constitution, to promote and preserve the 'composite culture of India'.
Constitutional secularism means that no particular group should acquire the syndrome of being persecuted or develop the symptoms of oppression. All communities are to some measure affected by these. A mature political debate will, with great care, identify the specific constituencies and redress their injustices rather than quibbling about the terms of the Preamble.
The Constitution and the Scheduled Castes
The Times of India, Nov 27 2015
Chandra Bhan Prasad In the popular Dalit imagina tion, the Constitution is the anti-thesis of Manusmriti, the ancient text whose laws governed the caste Hindu society . Manusmriti belongs to antiquity, very few might have seen the book, let alone read it.However, its impact over the Hindu consciousness continues over vast swathes of India. That's why in MP's Ratlam district this year, stones were thrown at a Dalit groom who needed the protection of a kind policeman's helmet to avoid serious injury . His crime: Daring to ride a ghodi (mare) for his wedding.One also recalls the case of two Dalit brothers in UP's Pratapgarh district whose house was stoned after they cracked this year's IIT entrance exams. Such tales are endless.
The question that needs our attention is simple: Who were the Ratlam groom and the Pratapgarh brothers defying? Were they defying Hinduism? With all the brilliance at its command, caste Hindu India is yet to explain the relationship between Hinduism as faith and the caste as a social organization. The sad truth is that historically, Hinduism never rejected the caste order. And the caste order always justified its authority citing Dharma! Manu's law book, which also earned Chanakya's approval, lays down prohibitions against Dalits, ranging from food to lifestyle to occupation. The world of letters is forbidden to Dalits. It says, “A king must confiscate the wealth of a Shudra even if it is accumulated through enterprise.“
An effort to change such discrimination was first made by Macaulay , who created the Indian Penal Code in the first half of the 19th century . But a complete rejection of Manu's laws occurred when India turned into a republic with its own book of law: The Constitution.
The Constitution gave enormous confidence to Dalits. It always filled me with pride that BR Ambedkar, a Dalit, was the architect of the Constitution. And as a teenager, I was always upset that April 14 (Ambedkar's birthday) was not observed as a public holiday .
I recall how older Dalits spoke of the Constitution as their book of faith. I know I was able to join JNU for higher studies only because the Constitution created a pathway for me. Society , as we know it, would have hardly allowed a Dalit, someone from the community of rat hunters, to voice these words in The Times of India.
With the Indian society, its political arm in particular, accepting the Ambedkarauthored Constitution, a huge majority of Dalits feel integrated with the national mainstream. One can say that the Constitution allowed India to walk into a new era of egalitarianism, even if only theoretically .
While Manu's laws may still continue to impinge our lives adversely for another couple of generations, the government needs to be congratulated for this defining moment of observing November 25 as Constitution Day .For many decades, that's what many Dalits have been wishing for. Thank you Mr Prime Minister for making it happen.
Universal adult franchise/ electoral democracy
1947-50: how India ensured one-person-one-vote
The making of universal adult franchise in India during 1947-1950 was one of the greatest experiments in democratic history. Ornit Shani, author of the new book How India Became Democratic, speaks to Amulya Gopalakrishnan about those momentous years
Why was it such a massive feat for India to adopt universal adult franchise?
The Constituent Assembly of India agreed on the adoption of universal adult franchise in April 1947. But the practical process of turning all adult Indians into voters — enrolling the most gigantic electorate in the world — had to be achieved against many overwhelming odds. It was done in the midst of the Partition that rendered about 18 million people refugees; then there were 552 sovereign princely states whose subjects had not identified themselves as Indians; about 85% of the future electorate was illiterate; and 50% were women, many of whom did not recognise themselves as individuals, but as a ‘wife of’ or ‘daughter of’. Moreover, this had to be achieved in the face of deep social divisions and widespread poverty. Finally, universal franchise was no legacy of colonial rule. Colonial bureaucrats held the position that beyond being a bad fit for India, it would also be impracticable and an impossible task.
You show how Indians became voters before becoming citizens. Could you elaborate?
The Constituent Assembly Secretariat, the non-partisan executive branch of the Assembly, in anticipation of the Constitution being finally framed and approved, undertook from November 1947 the practical steps needed for the preparation of electoral rolls on the basis of universal adult franchise. These outstanding bureaucrats recognised that the work involved was ‘colossal’, and had to be undertaken forthwith to ensure that the general elections could be held as early as possible after the Constitution came into force. A voter, according to a key criterion in the instructions they devised, had to be a citizen. But the citizenship provisions were only agreed on in August 1949. So, while ‘who is an Indian’ was still a contested question, especially for Partition refugees, securing a place on the roll became a way for people to secure their membership in the nation. The enrolment engendered struggles for citizenship from below, as people from the margins fought for their citizenship and voting rights, through a place on the electoral roll. The first draft electoral roll was ready just before the enactment of the Constitution. So yes, Indians became voters before they were citizens.
How radical was the idea of one-personone-vote in a nation with many hierarchies?
The institutionalisation of procedural equality was revolutionary. It came about from the many interactions of the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly that, under the leadership of Constitutional Adviser B N Rao, oversaw this operation,with people. The Secretariat, whose work has largely been lost to history, aimed to prepare an accurate list of all adult Indians. They were inclusive, accountable, and responsive to every complaint or grievance. Their commitment to procedural equality sometimes resulted in bureaucrats taking proactive steps to ensure the voting rights of those at the very margins of society such as vagrants, domestic help and footpath dwellers. For example, in November 1948, the collector of Bombay wrote to the chief secretary, asking whether the following categories of persons should qualify for enrolment: ‘a vagrant lives in a hut erected on municipal land without permission, pays no rent but lives with his family in the hut; a person who works in the mill, and sleeps on the footpath’. The decision was that vagrants, servants and people who sleep on balconies, staircases and rear passages were eligible for inclusion. But people sleeping on footpaths were not included.
Why is the Election Commission (EC) such a critical institution?
The draft Constitution of 1948 provided for one EC for the central legislature and separate ECs for each of the states. Yet the article that came up for discussion in the Assembly on June 15, 1949, stipulated that the machinery for all elections to Parliament and state legislatures would be vested in a single central EC. This radical change was largely driven by the experience of the preparation of electoral rolls on the ground and by the information about attempts at disenfranchisement, and breaches of the Secretariat’s instructions by provincial governments. The Secretariat helped bring about these farreaching changes in the final Constitution, which ensured that the election management body would be independent of the government of the day.
How does that formative moment in India speak to our current situation?
It’s an inspiring story, and hasn’t been told so far. It is located just beyond the grasp of living memory — the generation that brought Independence is largely not alive. At this dire time for democracy in India and elsewhere in the world, this is an opportunity to appreciate an extraordinary juncture, in which Indians made electoral democracy for their own country and society. They did so against many odds with an immense imagination and inventiveness. It offers a basis for reconnecting people with the ideals of democracy.
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