How to Read the Constituent Assembly Debates – III

(Part One)

(Part Two)

On the 4th of November, Ambedkar moved the Draft Constitution for consideration in the Constituent Assembly. For the next one year, over four separate sittings, the Assembly would engage in a detailed and impassioned debate of each clause of the Draft Constitution [“the Second Reading“]. These four sessions (contained in Volumes VII – X of the CADs, spanning November 1948 – Jan 1949, May – June 1949, August – September 1949, and October 1949) are perhaps the heart and soul of the Debates: for the first time, the Members had the full text of the Draft Constitution before them, and were able to engage with it holistically, instead of piecemeal.

As discussed in the previous post, the Draft Constitution comprised of the Drafting Committee’s February 1948 Draft, and, placed alongside it, the proposed Amendments that the Assembly had received between February and October 1948, and agreed to sponsor. The document that the members of the Assembly had before them in November 1948 is not available in Shiva Rao and – to the best of my knowledge – it is not available online. Consequently, the best way to read this portion of the drafting is as follows: The Drafting Committee’s Draft Constitution is in Shiva Rao, Volume 3, pp. 509 – 681. This has to be kept by one’s side when reading the Volume VII – X debates, as this was the basic document that the Members had before them. For most of the Debates, this will suffice.

However, at places where Ambedkar mentions that he is moving an amendment, it refers to the amendments accepted by the Drafting Committee are part of “Comments and Suggestions on the Draft Constitution”, Shiva Rao, Volume 4, pp. 3 – 415. This Section – as discussed in the previous post, contains a number of proposed amendments, many of which were not accepted. However, it is easy to locate the ones that were, because after each article, “Drafting Committee’s Decision” is in bold letters. In sum, therefore, when you’re reading Volumes VII – X of the CADs, and you come across a mention of an amendment that the Drafting Committee has already agreed to, match the article being debated with the article in the Draft Constitution (Vol. 3, see above), and then turn to the pages dealing with that article in “Comments and Suggestions” (Vol. 4, see above). This will give you as complete a sense as possible of what exactly was going on at this most crucial time of the framing.

The fundamental rights and directive principles were among the first elements of the Constitution to be discussed, and they occupy a significant part of Volume VII (they were predominantly discussed in November and early December 1948). Here you have the arguments about whether the Constitution should have a “due process clause”, debates over the scope of the restrictions upon free speech and association, and intense disagreement over minority (especially linguistic) rights. Some of the more controversial articles were “held over”, and would be discussed again later in the year (interestingly, a privacy clause was almost snuck into the draft, but was ultimately dropped). The end of this phase also saw the introduction of the notorious “preventive detention clause” (Article 15-A in the draft Constitution, and Article 22 now), which Ambedkar brought in to compensate for the loss of due process, but which met with bitter opposition from critics who felt that it didn’t accomplish nearly enough. This provision was debated on 15th and 16th September, 1949.

Let us call this period, then, Constituent Assembly: Phase Two (November 1948 – October 1949). Mercifully, this one is not very complex to parse:

The Second Reading of the Draft Constitution by the Constituent Assembly, and the adoption of the Draft Articles.

By 17th October 1949, the Constituent Assembly had finished the second reading. The Draft Constitution was then sent back to the Drafting Committee to take into account the changes and modifications made by the Assembly, and finalise the draft into one consistent and coherent document (essentially, to “clean it up”). The Drafting Committee finished this task by November 3, 1949, and forwarded the finalised draft to the President of the Assembly (Shiva Rao, Vol. 4, pp. 745 – 932). This period is Committee Drafting: Phase Three (October 1949), and again, is simple:

Drafting Committee scrutinises and finalises the Draft Constitution.

The Constituent Assembly met again from 14th to 26th November, 1949 (Vol. XI). This session can be divided into two phases. The first was the “Third Reading“, where the Drafting Committees changes were debated and adopted (this happened from 14th to 16th November, 1949). To understand the proceedings, read the debates alongside the Drafting Committee’s draft Constitution (Shiva Rao, Vol. 4, pp. 745 – 932).

Then, the Constitution as a whole was put up for adoption, and members offered their last sets of comments on the Constitution as a whole. For me, these last few days – November 17 – November 26, 1949 – make for the most fascinating reading. The members of the Constituent Assembly had their last opportunity to make their voice heard, and they did not hold back: the speeches were passionate, critical, and unsparing (some, like Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Damodar Swarup, rejected the Constitution altogether). The criticisms were both broad-ranging and granular. They were prescient as well: many of the issues raised in November 1949 resonate even today. At the abstract level, the Drafting Committee was trenchantly criticised for its “eclectic” borrowing from different Constitutions, for its treatment of fundamental rights, for incorporating a heavy bias towards the centre in a supposedly federal Constitution, for making no effective provisions for decentralisation of power, for failing to incorporate Gandhian principles, for failing to adequately separate the executive from the judiciary, and so on. At the more concrete level, issues such as nominated members in the cabinet, preventive detention, and the discretionary powers of the Governors all came in for criticism. Other members offered defences as well, making for a lively debate and exchange of views.

On 25th November, Ambedkar gave his closing remarks (this is the famous “grammar of anarchy” speech), and on 26th November, the President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, delivered the concluding address, and the Constitution was adopted. This was Constituent Assembly: Phase Three (November 1949):

Third reading –> Final debate on the Constitution –> Adoption (26th November, 1949).

The Constituent Assembly reconvened one final time on 24th January, 1950, for all the members to sign the Constitution. This brought proceedings to an end, and the Assembly was adjourned sine die. The Constitution came into force on 26th January, 1950. 

To sum up: The framing of India’s Constitution was a mammoth task. The Constituent Assembly held eleven sessions, over a period of three years, and debated the Constitution for three separate rounds. The work of negotiation, framing, and drafting was carried out by multiple committees, culminating in the work of the seven-member Drafting Committee. Getting a handle on such a massive project, therefore, requires a systematic approach. Over the course of the last three essays, I have attempted to outline such an approach, by reading together the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly, and the work of the Committees, a large part of which has been reproduced in B. Shiva Rao’s book.

I have suggested breaking up the drafting process into six distinct – but interlocking parts: three phases of “Committee Drafting” and three phrases of “Constituent Assembly Debates”, which alternate with each other. Even this, however, is very difficult to wrap one’s head around: so I’ve suggested, further, a thematic approach, by taking the fundamental rights and Directive Principles chapter as an example. A good starting point – as outlined in Part I of this series – is to go back to the Sub-Committees that were constituted in early 1947 – the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee, the Minorities Sub-Committee, the Union Powers Sub-Committee, and the Excluded Areas Sub-Committee. With this starting point, one can then trace how a particular set of provisions (dealing with fundamental rights, minority protection, structures of governance, the Fifth/Sixth Schedule etc.) – wound their way through the three-year long process. The blueprint outlined in these three posts can be used, keeping in mind, of course, that different parts of the Constitution went through different drafting processes outside the Assembly.

A few caveats: even the Constituent Assembly Debates plus Shiva Rao do not give you the entire picture. Shiva Rao, as we have seen, does not contain the entire set of Committee Proceedings, and – as members of the Constituent Assembly frequently observed – many particularly controversial provisions were ultimately settled even outside the Committees. To get the full picture, therefore, you’d need access to the private correspondence of many of the prominent figures in the Assembly – and even that would leave gaps. I’ve limited myself to the Debates and Shiva Rao, however, because the former are freely available online, and the latter can be accessed with some effort in a library (or purchased – admittedly – at significant expense). This approach, I feel, provides a reasonable picture of the framing, while also remaining accessible to people who lack access to historical archives (i.e., most of us).

Readers interested in following up can also refer to the excellent CLPR website.

While moving the Objectives Resolution, Nehru famously said that “words can never capture the magic of the human spirit.” If there is one place, however, where they come close to doing so, it is in the Constituent Assembly Debates. As you go through the debates, the passionate arguments on principles, the granular discussions on grammar and form, and everything in between, it’s easy to forget the circumstances in which the Assembly carried on its work: the departure of the Muslim League, Independence, Partition, communal violence, the integration of the princely states, the war with Pakistan, and the unimaginable challenge of framing a democratic Constitution for a nation as vast, as diverse, as culturally and linguistically plural as India, with the added task of remedying centuries of political as well as social injustice. But when you remember all of that, you feel a sense of awe at the manner in which the Assembly conducted itself, and the manner in which it saw its task through to the end. As K.G. Kannabiran wrote, a Constitution at the culmination of a freedom struggle signifies “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I can think of no better description for the Indian Constituent Assembly.

I hope the brief outline in these three posts will help in capturing some of the magic of human spirit that went into the framing of the Indian Constitution.

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