The Constitution long before the review by H.Y. Sharada Prasad Sunday, March 12, 2000
WHO is the author of our Constituion? To that, many people would say: "What a question! Every one knows it is Dr Ambedkar."
But Ambedkar himself shied away from claiming that title for two reasons. One, as he often pointed out, he was only giving expression to a consensus that had been reached after many compromises in the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. Two, he could not hide the fact that in many areas the Constitution fell far short of what he would have liked.
But there is one man who literally wrote our Constitution. His name, little known, is Prem Behari Narain Raizada (Saxena), son of Brij Behari Narain Raizada of Delhi, although the family originally came from Rampur. The Constituent Assembly, which met on December 9, 1946, concluded its labours and adopted the Constitution on November 6, 1949. The entire document was then written out in his own hand by Prem Behari in a flowing italic style in the best calligraphic tradition of our country.
This original version was then signed by all the members of the Constituent Assembly in January 1950. The Constitution itself came into force on the 26th of that month. Photolithographed copies of it were then made at the office of the Survey of India in Dehra Dun.
I had seen a couple of them displayed in exhibitions and had marvelled at the quality of the craftsmanship, particularly because of the art work lavished on it by one of our most eminent painters, Nandalal Bose. Each page had a frame and at the beginning of each part of the Constitution, Nandalal Bose had depicted some scene from our national experience. In doing so he gave us a gallery of some of the greatest figures of our history.
And now I have become the proud possessor of a copy of this beautiful volume because the government had the welcome idea of reprinting it to mark the 50th anniversary of the Republic. Once again the work was entrusted to the Survey of India, which has done a splendid job of it.
The articles and clauses of the Constitution are available in various editions for the use of lawyers and legislators. But Nandalal Bose’s outstanding art work can be seen only by those who have access to this collectors’ item. It ought to be better known. To the best of my knowledge only the page which gives the Preamble which begins with the words "We the people of India...." has been reproduced and displayed in public offices. It would be a good idea if all the illustrations were brought out in the form of a separate publication, for they show an eminent artist contemplating our heritage from the Mohenjo Daro period to our own days.
The Vedic period is represented by a scene of gurukula and the epic period by a visual of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana returning homeward and another of Krishna propounding the Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield. Then there are depictions of the lives of the Buddha and Mahavira, followed by scenes from the courts of Ashoka and Vikramaditya. Other great figures of our history who are represented are Akbar, Shivaji, Guru Gobind Singh, Tipu Sultan, and Lakshmibai.
The freedom movement is delineated by line drawings of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march and his tour of Noakhali as the great peacemaker, and of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose saluting the Mahatma from abroad and asking for his blessings in the war of India’s liberation.
There are also beautiful renderings of our landscape and some of the masterpieces of our art. Even the decorations used for the borders exemplify in the Santiniketan style.
This is not a book I would turn to if I had to look up what the Constitution has said on any particular subject. For one thing, it does not contain an index. Nor does it have the amendments which have been adopted in the last half century. It is too large (16 inches by 12) and too heavy (3.75 kg) even to keep in one’s lap. But merely to look at the signatures of our founding fathers which are given at the end in the very colours of the various inks they had used arouses nostalgic memories.
There are 11 pages of these signatures which begin immediately below the list of languages in the Eighth Schedule. The first to sign appears to have been Jawaharlal Nehru. For some unexplained reason the first page has a preponderance of Constitution-makers from the South — B. Patthabhi Sitaramayya, N. Gopalaswami (without Ayyangar), O.P. Ramaswamy Reddy, Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer, Ammu Swaminathan, T. Prakasam, K. Santhanam, K. Venkata Rao, then an illegible name, then G. Durgabai, M. Thrumala Rau, M. Anantasayanam Iyengar and N. Sanjiva Reddy. The names of Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabhbhai Patel and B.R. Ambedkar appear in the first column of the next page along with those of Baldev Singh, Amrit Kaur, Jagjivan Ram, John Matthai, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Jairamdas Daulatram, K.C. Neogy, P. Subbarayan and C. Subramaniam. The very last signature is that of Feroze Gandhi. The president of the Constituent Assembly seems to have affixed his signatures after all the other members had signed. Nobody seems to have thought of leaving a special place for him, and so he has signed his name in the space next to the list of languages.
He has also signed in two languages, first in Devanagari and then in the Roman script. Most others have signed in English, the outstanding exceptions being Abul Kalam Azad in Urdu and Purushottam Das Tandon in Devanagari.
While almost all have managed to sign within the limited space provided, four or five have been unable to do so and their signatures extend well into the border. Particularly notable is the flourish of the signature of Dr Sachchidananda Sinha, the grand old man of Bihar who had the privilege of being the temporary chairman of the Assembly before Rajen Babu was elected to that position.
One signature which is not there in the Constitution is that of Mahatma Gandhi. He was no longer alive when the Constitution was adopted. But he was very much there when the Constituent Assembly met. One can say that without him there would have been no Constituent Assembly. Those who argue that all that the Assembly did was to rehash the Government of India Act of 1935 miss one important point — namely, that the Constitution is not just a charter of political freedoms but embodies something of the vision of social change that Mahatma Gandhi preached and practised.
It has sometimes been remarked that the Constituent Assembly did not provide organised representation for several segments of our population such as the Muslims, Hindu communal groups and the working classes. But this could be said of the founding fathers of the United States as well since the franchise there was then so notoriously narrow and did not provide representation for women, blacks and many sections of the propertyless.
It has also been remarked that Gandhi himself was not much of a democrat because he ruled the Congress in a very authoritarian way. But the miracle of Gandhi is that though born in a Dewan’s family, through his experiments with truth he evolved into the voice and symbol of the poorest of the poor. He shed raiment after raiment and became truly the shirtless one. Gandhi’s concern for the poor ran like a thread through the debates of the Constitution makers.
As for the Constituent Assembly itself, it is true that is was a creature of the British rulers’ statement of May 16, 1946. But as Jawaharlal Nehru, the main advocate for years of the idea of a Constituent Assembly drawing up free India’s scheme of governance, remarked in an editorial in the National Herald on July 16, 1946.: "It is certainly to some extent a creation of the British Power. But even more so it is a creation of circumstances which none can ignore. Taking birth out of the womb of the circumstances it will grow of itself and function as it chooses. Who is going to put an end to it or dissolve it? Lawyers and constitutionalists may ponder over these problems but there is something beyond the lawyer’s textbooks and precedent in these happening, and vital forces are at play..."
Elsewhere Jawaharlal Nehru declared that the Constituent Assembly would not be bound down by any conditions: "The Constituent Assembly as such is not bound by any conditions. The members of the Assembly can change anything and everything by mutual agreement...So far as we are concerned we shall act as a sovereign body. We are going to the Constituent Assembly in a constructive spirit, and not to create trouble or to wreck it. As long as we feel that the Constituent Assembly is drawing the charter of India’s freedom, we shall work in it."
When the Constituent Assembly met, the British had not yet quit India. In the very first few days it was apparent that it functioned exactly in the sovereign manner that Nehru had indicated when he said that everything would be guided by our own interpretation and everything would be examined in the context of Indian Independence.
In the end, the Constituent Assembly produced a document which, in the words of Dr Sunil Khilnani, "became a programmatic manifesto, setting out elaborate prescriptions for the shape of the future society...The Constitution did not see itself as merely expressing the already existing hopes and fears of the society; rather, it took the view that preferences had to be created and nurtured, that law should reform rather than merely express the morality and customs of society."
H.Y. Sharada Prasad is a former adviser to the Prime Minister of India. This review article appeared in The Asian Age, New Delhi. The illustrations are from another commemorative volume brought out by Taxman, New Delhi.