New Delhi- It's a common belief that the Indian constitution was crafted solely by an elitist faction, with little to no involvement from the common man. Surprisingly, even many educators or scholars of Polity are unaware of the extent of common people's participation in the constitution making process. The Mooknayak contacted several faculties in the Political Science and Public Administration departments across various Indian universities, it was surprising to discover that the majority of educators upheld the common notion. The educators said that while people indeed held opinions, these viewpoints were not directly shared in the constitutional process but rather through the representatives who formed the Constituent Assembly.
However, contrary to the widely held notion that the constitution making process was a closed affair conducted by a limited class of the privileged, a closer examination reveals a startling truth: many individuals and a multitude of organizations actively participated by offering their insights and suggestions to the Constituent Assembly (CA). Hence the participation of the people in the constitution making process was at two levels- Individual and Collective.
Several organizations, including Jain groups, All India Conference of Indian Christians, the Central Jewish board of Bombay, the Bengal Provincial Buddhist Association, and the All-India Momin Conference, wrote to the CA emphasizing the importance of their communities in India. Additionally, various caste, social, and professional groups, such as the All India Gurkha League, advocated for recognition as minority communities and sought representation, underscoring the distinct cultural and lifestyle differences that set them apart from the broader Indian population.
On 13 December 1946, the Constituent Assembly formally commenced its task of framing the Constitution of India. Jawaharlal Nehru moved the Objectives Resolution, which aimed to declare India as an Independent Sovereign Republic and create a Constitution to govern its future. The Resolution established general principles to guide the work of the Constituent Assembly. On January 22, 1947, the Constituent Assembly adopted the Resolution.
The draft went through a rigorous process of scrutiny and discussions and readings. On 26 November 1949, the third reading of the Constitution came to an end with the Constituent Assembly voting in favour of the motion proposed by Dr BR Ambedkar in the previous stage. The final version of the Constitution was signed by members of the Assembly on 24 January 1950, and it came into effect on 26 January 1950.
Before the Indian Constituent Assembly even commenced its debates in November 1946, Mr. Inder Lal, a retired official from Saharanpur, sent an extensive fifty-five-page proposal to the Assembly's secretary. Lal's document, 'The basic principles of the Indian constitution,' expressed an earnest effort to reconcile the nation's diverse cultural, economic, and political aspects.
However, Lal’s proposal faced challenges in being circulated within the Assembly due to an influx of similar memoranda and proposals. Yet, this instance was merely one among many. Over the three-year constitution-making process, at least fifty individuals and a dozen organizations proffered suggestions and proposals for India's future constitution.
These engagements were not restricted to one community or group; they were widespread and diverse. The All-India Women's Conference, though absent from the official records, actively discussed the constitutional body's formation, while members campaigned for specific bills and even met with Assembly members.
The early days of India's independence were marked by a significant political consciousness among its people, despite relatively low literacy rates. Though the educational standards were not as high as desired, the political discourse and awareness were quite prevalent. People actively engaged in discussions, public forums, and debates about the constitution's formation. There was an eagerness to understand how this document would shape the future of the country, its governance, rights, and the overall societal structure.
In a recent paper titled, "The People and the Making of India's Constitution", published by the Cambridge University Press, historian Ornit Shani significantly broadens our comprehension of the participation of ordinary Indians in the constitution-making process. Traditional understanding posited the constitution as a product of consensus-driven decisions by the elite, shaped and bestowed by India's nationalist leaders from the top down.
The crucial insight derived from Shani's paper is the notable albeit indirect involvement of the Indian populace in the constitution-making process. This revelation holds substantial implications for discussions within academic and broader circles.
The primary basis of Shani's study lies in extensive archival records encompassing sixteen voluminous folders housing a variety of correspondences such as letters, telegrams, proposals, pamphlets, and memoranda related to the Constitution Making.
Notably, the majority of these written communications were in English, barring a few letters in vernacular languages, with some being handwritten. Strikingly, the records largely lack female voices, with only two letters identified from women's adivasi organizations. This absence is not conclusive evidence of women's silence in the constitutional dialogue; rather, it exposes the archive's limitations.
Letters arrived from a multitude of locations, spanning the breadth and depth of the country, including cities like Ahmedabad, Allahabad, Bombay, Calcutta, Dacca, Lucknow, Madurai, Patna, and Shimla. Furthermore, correspondence poured in from more remote and lesser-known regions such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Darjeeling, and the Lushai Hills, signifying the widespread engagement and interest in the constitutional process across diverse and geographically dispersed areas.
A substantial number of Jain organizations voiced their disappointment by sending telegrams and letters from various regions across India, expressing their concern about the absence of a representative from the Jain community on the advisory committee. They fervently appealed for at least one nomination from their community. For instance, the president of a Jain organization based in Delhi highlighted the disparity, noting that communities with smaller populations, under 200,000, were reportedly allocated three to four seats. The absence of representation from the Jain community, given their significance and standing, was deemed highly regrettable.
Similar appeals were made by organizations representing other religious faiths such as the All India Conference of Indian Christians, the central Jewish board of Bombay, the Bengal Provincial Buddhist Association, and the All-India Momin Conference. They advocated for representation in the committee and sought assurance in the future constitution, underlining the importance of their communities, their circumstances, and their contributions to India as justifications for their requests.
Moreover, numerous caste, social, and professional organizations vigorously lobbied for representation on the advisory committee and constitutional protection based on their distinct identities. The All India Gurkha League, across its various branches in different parts of India, vehemently advocated for the recognition of Gurkhas as a minority community. Emphasizing the distinct cultural heritage and lifestyle of the Gorkha community, they highlighted the differences that set them apart from the rest of India.
The national president of the All India Gurkha League explicitly stressed the perceived injustice, citing examples such as the representation of three Parsis, who numbered less than a lakh, and advocated for three Gorkhas to represent the 30 lakhs of Gorkhas in India.
Public engagement during the constitution-making process extended beyond direct communication with the Assembly and found expression in newspapers and radio. Shani's research highlights that booklets containing the Draft Constitution of 1948 were made accessible for purchase by the general public, while specially crafted guides and other informative materials detailing Assembly developments became increasingly prevalent in the public domain.
Although Shiva Rao's volumes illustrate the considerable time the Assembly dedicated to reading and discussing the proposals received from the public, Shani further underscores that the Assembly secretariat made genuine efforts to respond to the multitude of letters it received.
However, a critical question arises: Did these public proposals significantly influence the shaping of the constitutional design? The extent of the public’s influence on the Constitution remains uncertain and requires a detailed investigation. Despite this, Shani's study emphasizes that Indian people significantly participated in the constitution-making, although not directly. This challenges the notion that the process was solely driven by the elite, especially as Assembly members weren't directly elected, and the final constitution lacked direct approval by the people. Shani's work questions these perceptions, suggesting the public had a more substantial role than previously thought.