Indian Constitutional debates: a timeless chronicle

Amruta Kulkarni

The Indian Constitution reflects the fundamental principles and laws on which the Government of India is based. With 395 Articles, 22 Parts and 12 Schedules, the Indian Constitution is the longest constitution in the world. Have we ever wondered or thought about the source of these provisions? On what principles the Constitution is based? Who decided what shall be included and what shall be excluded from the Constitution? Who took up this mammoth task and wrote down each and every Article governing the minute details of the nation to facilitate its efficient functioning? We will find the answers to all these questions in the debates of the Constituent Assembly, which was formed exclusively to draft the Constitution of India. The Assembly comprised 389 members including representatives of all the states, princely states and provinces. Our Constitution is the outcome of a three year long effort of the members of the Constituent Assembly, wherein each and every provision was discussed and debated extensively. Each part, provision, clause and word of this Constitution has been enacted with the backing of a specific objective, foresight and of course consensus of the majority.

The constitutional debates consist of opinions, proposals, questions, agreements and disagreements of each Constituent Assembly member with respect to the various provisions discussed during the framing of the Constitution. As the Constituent Assembly comprised members from various social, political, cultural and economic backgrounds from all over India, the debates reflect this diversity as well. Therefore, the constitutional debates are an incredibly important source for us to understand how our Constitution and its Articles came into being, how decisions on important aspects like rights of minorities were arrived at and most importantly what the rationale was behind the decisions taken.

A quick glance at the making of the Indian Constitution
The first session of the Constituent Assembly was held on 13th December, 1946 when Jawaharlal Nehru moved the “Objectives” resolution. In the second session, a number of committees were formed to analyze and report on the various aspects of the structure of the Constitution. On the basis of the discussions that took place in the Assembly and the reports of the various committees, B. N. Rao, constitutional advisor to the Assembly prepared a draft constitution by October 1947. This draft was subjected to the scrutiny of the Drafting Committee, which submitted its first draft constitution to the President of the Assembly on 21st February 1948 and then published and circulated it among the public for comments and suggestions. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the Drafting Committee then presented the draft constitution to the Constituent Assembly in November 1948 for a clause by clause debate. After the debates, the draft was revised by the Drafting Committee and submitted to the President of the Assembly in 1949 followed by a second and third reading, which ended with the motion “that the Constitution settled by the Assembly be passed.” On 26th November 1949, the Assembly voted for the adoption of the constitution. It was finally signed by the members of the Assembly on 24th January 1950 and came into force on 26th January 1950.

The aims and objectives of the Constitution, Preamble, fundamental rights, strengthening the status of minority communities by providing reservation, and separation of powers of the government were some of the significant topics that were discussed at length during the Assembly sessions.

Let us look at the discussion around reservations and secularism a bit more in detail.

Reservation
The provision for caste-based reservations for the backward sections in the government sector and educational institutions was one of the most heatedly discussed issues. There were several arguments from both sides supporting and opposing this provision.

The arguments supporting this provision were based on the principles of equality, justice and fraternity. P. Kakkan (a member) said, “The government can expect necessary qualification or personality from the Harijans, but not merit. If you take merit alone into account, the Harijans cannot come forward”. T.V. Pillai (another member) said that, “As long as the Harijan community remains backward in getting admissions into the services it is highly necessary to give them the reservation.”

T Channaiah of Mysore remarked, “The backward class suffers from both educational and social disabilities, hence it is my opinion to implement the reservations for 105 years, that is the period for which this community was denied equal status and opportunities in the society.”

In the words of Ambedkar, “In this country, both the minorities and the majorities have followed a wrong path. It is wrong for the majority to deny the existence of minorities. It is equally wrong for the minorities to perpetuate themselves. A solution must be found which will serve a double purpose. It must recognize the existence of the minorities to start with. It must also be such that it will enable minorities to emerge someday into one…. The moment the majority loses the habit of discriminating against the minority, the minorities can have no ground to exist. They will vanish.”

On the other hand, there were many members who predicted the severe harm in adopting the reservation policy. According to them, this system once brought into force, could become a political tool misused for votes, thereby making it difficult to remove. Members opposing the reservation system found it to be anomalous and biased towards some sections of the society leaving the really needy people out of it. Z.H. Lahari made the plea, “Take away reservation from the Legislature and for God’s sake give us reservation in the services. Here I speak not only for the Muslim of the United Provinces but also for other minority people.” He argued that giving reservations to Anglo-Indians and excluding Muslims was a blatant discrimination.

According to Sardar Patel reservation is based on communal lines and therefore against secularism which is very important for the prosperity of the country. He was also of the opinion that as the definition of the backward classes was nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, it could be misused by politicians to include their vote bank in the backward classes. Sardar Patel declared that “this Constitution of India, of free India, of a secular state will not hereafter be disfigured by any provision on a communal basis.” Many members of the Assembly thought that providing reservation on the basis of caste was wrong as in each caste there are prosperous people who don’t need reservation and thus if reservation is given to the caste as a whole, such people will get undue advantage of this provision.

Mahavir Tyagi said the term ‘scheduled caste’ is a fiction. There are some castes that are depressed, some are poor, some are untouchables. According to him, “Dr.Ambedkar cannot be considered as a member of the SC because he is neither illiterate nor untouchable and hence he is not lacking anything.”

After the heated debate on this topic, as per Article 334 of the Constitution, seats were reserved in both the Union and State legislatures for a period of 10 years for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This period, however, has consistently been extended through a series of amendments to the Constitution.

Also, the Article 15(5)* and 16(4) of the Constitution provided blanket provision of reservation for socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs), scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in educational institutions including private educational institutions and for appointments and posts in services under the state without any specific time duration.

Secularism
Secularism primarily means the disassociation of religion and matters of governance. A secular constitution does not demand secularism from the citizens. During the Constitutional Assembly debates, the question whether secularism should be brought into the Constitution and what it should mean was discussed a number of times. Actually three amendments attempting to incorporate the term “secular” in the Constitution were proposed by K T Shah and all of them were rejected by the Assembly.

The first amendment proposed in November 1948 said that in clause (1) of Article-1, after the words “shall be a” the words, ‘secular, federal, socialist’ be inserted.

Shah submitted that India is a secular state and hence the term should be added in the Constitution. The basic objective behind his proposition was that there shall not be any kind of influence or interference based on religion by the government in the lives of its citizens.

This amendment was rejected by the Assembly members with the explanation that what the policy of the State should be, how the society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters that must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.

The second amendment suggested by K T Shah was: “The State in India being secular shall have no concern with any religion, creed or profession of faith; and shall observe an attitude of absolute neutrality in all matters relating to the religion of any class of its citizens or other persons in the Union.” This was also negated by the Assembly. Shah tried to get the said words incorporated a third time through a third amendment and failed. Another proposal for incorporating the word “secularism” as part of the Preamble was also rejected by the Constituent Assembly.

Admittedly there was broad consensus about the creation of a “secular” State but then like today, there was a general confusion as to what that meant and what the object of a secular state was, whether it was a means to an end or the end in itself, whether it was a compromise or a worthy goal.

The views of the three great protagonists in the framing of the Constitution – Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar have been recorded on various occasions and they interestingly reflect the political debate which still haunts the country when it comes to the concept of secularism.

Finally, with the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India in 1976, the word ‘secular’ was inserted in the Preamble altering the description of India from “sovereign, democratic republic” to a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic”.

As one can see from the excerpts above, the text of constitutional debates holds immense value for all of us, as it states the journey of words and the rationale behind them. The text offers valuable guidance to all stakeholders of our republic including the government itself. Ignoring it is a big mistake. The debates could help fill gaps in the constitutional text. It also lessens the tension between the Legislature and the Judiciary. Also, these debates reduce the need for constitutional amendments and adapt the charter to the changing times. Most importantly, these debates provide us, common citizens, with the vision and principles on which our Constitution was enacted and shows us the way forward.

Note: You can read the entire texts of the constitutional debates here: http://164.100.47.194/Loksabha/Debates/cadebadvsearch.aspx
You can also watch a short series, Hamara Samvidhaan, by Shyam Benegal on the making of the Constitution of India here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0U9KDQnIsNk

The author is working as a legal associate in an IP firm in Pune. Being a law student, Constitution of India and civic education have always been her areas of interest. She has been associated with We, The People Abhiyan for more than three years. She can be reached at [email protected].

*The 93rd Constitution Amendment Act, 2006

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