Far from being elated, the framers of India's Constitution turned sombre when Ambedkar presented his draft. In the six days following his motion to adopt the new Constitution, speaker after speaker came forward to praise the proposed system. Yet others couldn't shake off the feeling that something was amiss. Nearly a third took the floor only to say something disparaging about the Constitution India was ready to adopt. It was evident that it had failed to inspire.
It was the most hopeful time in India's history yet the new Constitution didn't light a fire. People were clamoring for something new and unique; a system that broke from the humiliating past. But what they got, as a member put it, was "not even the case of pouring old wine into new bottles, but of old wine and old bottles" [Ajit Prasad Jain]. "We wanted the music of veena or sitar," said another "but here we have the music of an English band" [K Hanumanthaiah; spelled Hanumanthaiya in transcripts].
Ambedkar had proposed a system designed to keep things as they were. Most of it was a copy of the British Government of India Act of 1935.
Ambedkar had proposed a system designed to keep things as they were. Most of it was a copy of the British Government of India Act of 1935. It kept a foreign ruler's centralised system in place, where the government at the centre held all the powers. Ironically, it was a Congressman who was most candid: "This parliamentary democracy is essentially meant for maintaining the status quo," he declared, "it does not answer the aspirations of the man in the street" [P S Deshmukh]. Another Congressman broke ranks in describing the general feeling: "It has got to be admitted... that the Constitution, in spite of being one of the best paper constitutions in the world, has failed to evoke sufficient enthusiasm in the country and a suspicion lurks in the minds of even the most ardent admirers... that something is wrong somewhere..." [Nandkishore Das].
Members used harsh words. One called the proposed Constitution "futile and lifeless" [Kamlapati Tiwari], another "queer and unwholesome" [Lakshminarayan Sahu]. "Democracy of this country has yet to be realised and certainly not in this Constitution," said another [K T Shah]. Members described certain provisions as "a farce" [Damodar Swarup], "a clear deception" [Sardar Hukum Singh], or "a façade" [H V Kamath]. The criticism was so persistent that a member exclaimed "far from having any sense of satisfaction, I am feeling extremely depressed" [Damodar Swarup].
Members used harsh words. One called the proposed Constitution "futile and lifeless", another "queer and unwholesome."
No doubt, of the hundreds of members who rose in the Assembly to praise the Constitution, many were genuinely admiring. However, it was remarkable how many had ulterior motives. Most had never spoken in the Assembly; this was their last opportunity to establish a record of participation. Many rose simply to praise their leaders; some were unabashed sycophants. Also, many members came forward to applaud the draft only to imply to their constituencies back home that they brought benefits.
There was also no denying that the Constitution established some worthy principles. Providing universal suffrage, ending religion-based electorates, abolishing untouchability, eliminating princely India, and ending most communal reservations, were significant accomplishments.
But the showering of praise for these feats prompted a member, Kamlapati Tiwari, to ask: "After all, what have we done so as to deserve this self-praise and mutual congratulations?" He then proceeded to provide a balanced view. About adult franchise, he said, "we accepted a well recognised principle and have done but our elementary duty." On untouchability, after all the work done by Gandhiji, had we not abolished it he asked "how would we have kept face with our people?" Similarly, on separate electorates he asked "our history of the last 150 years bears testimony to the fact that no other problem has been so much responsible for ruining the country... would we have provided for separate electorates even now?"
Many members were deeply concerned that it granted immense powers to one individual, the Prime Minister. Many saw the makings of a dictatorship...
"It is terribly centre-ridden," Tiwari said as he began his criticism, "a tree is being planted with its roots above and its branches spreading downwards." Extreme centralisation of power was the Constitution's most criticised characteristic. Many members were deeply concerned that it granted immense powers to one individual, the Prime Minister. Many saw the makings of a dictatorship; some even spoke of similarities with Fascism. Worse, they worried that such centralisation would kill initiative and cause corruption.
"Not that I do not want a strong central government," said N G Ranga, "all of us want it. But just contemplate for a moment what is likely to happen if another Hitler were to arise and take charge of the central government." A member of the Drafting Committee, Syed Muhammad Sa'adulla, explained: "The Drafting Committee was not a free agency... we were only asked to dress the baby..."
In his closing remarks Rajendra Prasad held out the hope that India's system would not be over-centralised. Mindful of the general feeling in the Assembly, he pointed out that since India was to have an "elected" President, he would have some say. He noted there were no specific provisions in the Constitution "making it binding on the President to accept the advice of his Ministers." It was truly remarkable that in the end India's Constitution was based essentially on a hope. As we all know, those hopes were dashed rather quickly.
India's Constitution is not sacred. In fact, no book or document ever is, no matter how fanatical the following.
India's Constitution is not sacred. In fact, no book or document ever is, no matter how fanatical the following. "The Constitution which we frame is not an end by itself," Nehru announced in the opening days of the Constituent Assembly, "but it would be only the basis for further work." Patel categorically declared that "this Constitution is for a period of ten years." At the end, facing an Assembly less than inspired by the Constitution, Nehru pacified the members: "there is no permanence in Constitutions."
Dissatisfaction with the Constitution among some of India's Founding Fathers only grew. Within three years after adoption, Ambedkar became the first framer to disown it. During a debate in the Rajya Sabha in 1953, he blurted out: "my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody." K M Munish and R. Venkataraman (the future President) were some of the other famous framers who wrote against India's Constitution.
Bhanu Dhamija is the Founder & CMD of Divya Himachal newspaper, and the author of Why India Needs the Presidential System (HarperCollins).
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