Revisiting the Constituent Assembly proceedings of 26th November 1949

73 years ago on this day, India adopted its Constitution. The Constitution was a product of years of hard work and sweat of the members of the constituent assembly, who debated and discussed every provision of the draft Constitution and thereafter gave India its own document of governance. This was the final break from our colonial past as going forward the nation would be governed by a law framed by Indians and not a law imposed on us.

The Constituent Assembly met at 10am in the Constitution Hall, New Delhi on 26 November 1949, to vote on the motion “That the Constitution as settled by the Assembly be passed”.  In this post, I revisit the proceedings of this day and discuss the various announcements and speeches made.

A. Sardar Patel’s announcement on position of states:

The proceedings of the day began with a historic announcement by Sardar Patel. Patel announced that all the Part B states i.e., Hyderabad, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Bharat, Mysore, Patiala and East Punjab States Union, Rajasthan, Saurashtra and Travancore-Cochin, have signified their acceptance of the Constitution which will be passed by this Assembly. This was monumental because along with India these princely states were also granted independence and the government had worked very hard to integrate them into the nation. The Constituent Assembly had worked tirelessly to bring representatives of these Part B states to the Assembly so that the Constitution is framed in consultation with then. Patel’s remark was an indication that all the states had accepted the Constitution and were willing to be bound by it.

B. Questions to the President:

Thereafter, some members asked questions to President Dr. Rajendra Prasad (‘Prasad’). For instance, Shri B. Das asked whether any pronouncements deciding our national anthem and terming Vande Matram as the national song would be made? Prasad responded that no such announcements would be made at this stage and the matter would be taken up later.

Next Shri Algu Rai Shastri asked Prasad the tentative date and form in which the Hindi translation of the Constitution would appear. He urged Prasad to convene a session and devote time to discuss and authenticate the Hindi translation of the Constitution. He remarked,

You would recollect that you had yourself declared that the Constitution of our Nation would be framed in our own National Language, but you have not yet made any definite announcement on this question. I would request that some announcement should be made in this respect. We can sit for two or three days and adopt the Constitution in our National Language. We should pass our Constitution in the language of the country. This language (English) is not the language of the people, it is not the language of the common man. I, therefore, request you in the name of India nationalism and in the name of Indian people to make a definite announcement in this respect.”

It must be noted that there were many references to Hindi as the ‘national language’ in the Assembly.

Prasad responded that unfortunately it would not be possible to discuss and adopt the Hindi translation of the Constitution. However, he reminded the House of the resolution passed by the Assembly as per which he was directed to publish the translation by 26th January and assured them that the translation will be published by the said date. To summarise, the translation in Hindi would be published but a discussion on it would not be possible at this stage.

Prasad remarked,

I do not know whether all the members of the Assembly would be prepared to accept the translation. It can be done after full consideration of every word and every phrase. This may perhaps take as much time as had been taken by the English version.”

C. Prasad’s Speech to the House:

After responding to the questions, Prasad made a historic speech in the Assembly. In a previous post, I discussed Ambedkar’s final speech in the House and must mention, that Prasad’s speech is no less important. In his speech, Prasad highlighted the difficulties faced by the Constituent Assembly, listed the salient features of the Constitution, defended the principle of adult franchise, argued for a national language and also shared his regrets about the constitution making.

i. Difficulty in Framing the Constitution:

First, he highlighted the difficulty faced by the Assembly in framing the Constitution. The assembly was responsible for making a constitution for a population of 319 million which is larger than whole of Europe minus Russia (317 million), an act in which it succeeded. Further, the assembly had to accommodate the diverse communities, languages and cultures present in India. He remarked, “We have got many communities living in this country. We have got many languages prevalent in different parts of it. We have got other kinds of differences dividing the people in the different parts from one another. We had to make provision not only for areas which are advanced educationally and economically; we had also to make provision for backward people like the Tribes and for backward areas like the Tribal Areas.”

The Assembly also had to take cognisance and accommodate the interests of the princely states. The Assembly had to partake in detailed negotiations with them to ensure that representatives of these states were heard and involved in Constitution making. The Assembly was able to bring them under the ambit of the Constitution. He remarked, “When the British decided to leave this country, they transferred power to us; but at the same time, they also declared that all the treaties and engagements they had with the princes had lapsed. The paramountcy which they had so long exercised and by which they could keep the Princes in order also lapsed. The Indian Government was them faced with the problem of tackling these States which had different traditions of rule, some of them having some form of popular representation in Assemblies and some having no semblance of anything like that, and governing completely autocratically. There were undoubtedly geographical and other compulsions which made it physically impossible for most of them to go against the Government of India but constitutionally it had become possible. The Constituent Assembly therefore had at the very beginning of its labours, to enter into negotiations with them to bring their representatives into the Assembly so that a constitution might be framed in consultation with them.”

The Assembly managed to draft the Constitution following a detailed procedure wherein every provision was scrutinised and debated upon by the Drafting Committee and the Assembly. He remarked, “As Dr. Ambedkar pointed out, there were not less that 7,635 amendments of which 2,473 amendments were moved. I am mentioning this only to show that it was not only the Members of the Drafting Committee who were giving their close attention to the Constitution, but other Members were vigilant and scrutinising the Draft in all its details. No wonder, that we had to consider not only each article in the Draft, but practically every sentence and sometimes, every word in very article.”

He also mentioned that the public took a keen interest in the constitution making which was evident from the large number of visitors (over 53,000) who were in attendance in the visitors’ gallery during the deliberations of the Assembly.

ii. Salient Features of the Constitution:

Prasad highlighted the salient features of the Constitution. He remarked, the parliamentary system in India will allow the humblest and the lowliest citizen to become the President which is not a small matter.  In his opinion, this was a deliberate departure from the British Model wherein a hereditary king acts as the fountain of all power. However, he conceded that the President even though elected should be a mere figurehead who must be bound by the advice of the council of ministers. He remarked, “So far as I know, in the Constitution itself making it binding on the President to accept the advice of his Ministers, it is hoped that the convention under which is England the King acts always on the advice of his Ministers will be established in this country also and, the President, not so much on account of the written word in the Constitution, but as the result of this very healthy convention, will become a Constitutional President in all matters.”

Ironically, Prasad later had disagreements with Pt. Nehru on this convention as he wanted to exercise his independent discretion as the President of India. Contradicting himself, he argued that in some situations the President is not bound by the advice of Council of Ministers.

Thereafter, Prasad provided an outline of the new Constitution which included the mention of the supremacy of the Lok Sabha over the Rajya Sabha, independence of the judiciary, independence of the independent agencies, separation of powers between Centre and the states, creation of special schedules for administration and control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes.

iii. Defending the experiment of Adult Franchise:

The new Constitution had adopted adult franchise and every adult citizen was entitled to vote for the new government. Prasad gave an overview of the elections that were awaiting India. Speaking on this mammoth task, he remarked, “I was the other day, as a matter of amusement, calculating what are electoral roll will look like. If you print 40 names on a page of foolscap size, we shall require something like 20 lakhs of sheets of foolscap size to print all the names of the voters, and if you combine the whole thing in one volume, the thickness of the volume will be something like 2200 yards. That alone gives us some idea of the vastness of the task and the work involved in finalising the rolls, delimiting Constituencies, fixing polling stations and making other arrangements which will have to be done between now and the winter of 1950-51 when it is hoped the elections may be held.”

Thereafter, he repelled the doubts over India’s decision of adult franchise. He conceded that although adopting this principle was an experiment, he was not dismayed by it. He repelled the allegation that majority of Indians lived in villages, were illiterate and hence, did not possess the capability of exercising their vote intelligently. He remarked,  

“I, therefore, know the village people who will constitute the bulk of this vast electorate. In my opinion, our people possess intelligence and common-sense. They also have a culture which the sophisticated people of today may not appreciate, but which is solid. They are not literate and do not possess the mechanical skill of reading and writing. But, I have no doubt in my mind that they are able to take measure of their own interest and also of the interests of the country at large if things are explained to them. In fact, in some respects, I consider them to be even more intelligent than many a worker in a factory, who loses his individuality and becomes more or less a part of the machine which he has to work.”

He observed that if things were explained to the masses, they would not only understand the technicality of elections but also cast their votes in an intelligent manner.

iv. Call for making Hindi the national language:

Prasad welcomed the status of Hindi as one of the official languages and appealed to the Assembly and the people, to make it the national language in future. He remarked,

“There is a natural desire that we should have our own language, and in spite of the difficulties on account of the multiplicity of languages prevalent in the country, we have been able to adopt Hindi, which is the language that is understood by the largest number of people in the country as our official language. I look upon this as a decision of very great importance when we consider that in a small country like Switzerland they have no less than three official languages and in South Africa two official languages. It shows a spirit of accommodation and a determination to organize the country as one nation that those whose language is not Hindi have voluntarily accepted it as the official language.”

He looked at adoption of Hindi as an act of organizing the country as a nation behind a common symbol and language, as against an act of imposition. He gave the examples of Persian (language during the Mughal empire) and English (language during the British rule) and termed them as imposed languages as against Hindi, which was voluntarily accepted by the people in the Assembly.

He expressed hope that English (the other official language) will only be used during the period of transition and slowly, Hindi would be developed as a national language. He remarked,

“Now for the first time in our history we have accepted one language which will be the language to be used all over the country for all official purposes, and, let me hope that it will develop into a national language in which all will feel equal pride while each area will be not only free, but also encouraged to develop its own peculiar language in which its culture and its traditions are enshrined. The use of English during the period of transition was considered inevitable for practical reasons and no one need be despondent over this decision, which has been dictated purely by practical considerations. It is the duty of the country as a whole now and especially of those whose language Hindi to so shape and develop it as to make it the language in which the composite culture of India can find its expression adequately and nobly.”

v. Expressing Regret:

Prasad concluded his speech by expressing two regrets about the constitution making. First, he observed that the Assembly failed to provide any qualifications for the members of the legislature. He wanted additional qualifications to be imposed on the members, which would test their intellectual capacity and the ability to act independently and undertake a balanced view of things. He remarked,

“I would have liked to have some qualifications laid down for members of the Legislatures. It is anomalous that we should insist upon high qualifications for those who administer or help in administering the law but none for those who make it except that they are elected. A law giver requires intellectual equipment but even more than that capacity to take a balanced view of things, to act independently and above all to be true to those fundamental things of life-—in one word—to have character. It is not possible to devise any yardstick for measuring the moral qualities of a man and so long as that is not possible, our Constitution will remain defective.”

Second, he regretted that our Constitution was not drafted in an Indian language. His hope for Hindi to be adopted as the national language in future, was arguably the solution of this regret.

He thereafter observed that we are adopting a democratic Constitution. However, the working of this Constitution depends on the people administering it. He remarked, “It is trite saying that a country can have only the government it deserves.” He said that even if the Constitution had some defective provisions, if the people implementing it are capable and have character, they will make the best of this defective Constitution.

He remarked, “After all, a Constitution like a machine is a lifeless thing. It acquires life because of the men who control it and operate it, and India needs today nothing more than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before them.”

Thereafter he thanked the Assembly and the staff and uttered the historic words, “It now remains to put the motion which was moved by Dr. Ambedkar, to the vote of the House. The question is :’That the Constitution as settled by the Assembly be passed.’” Amidst prolonged cheers the motion was adopted by the Assembly and India had a new Constitution. The Assembly was then adjourned for 26th January 1950, which was the official date when the Constitution would come in force.

The speech of Dr. Prasad is extremely relevant in today’s time. It raises the issues of powers of titular heads like President and Governor, national language, qualifications for legislators and independence of judiciary and other agencies, which are relevant even today and keep recurring in our everyday debate.

Concluding Remarks:

I sometimes wonder about the euphoria shared by the members of the Assembly, when they adopted a self-made Constitution which would govern over 300 million people. I wish I could relieve it and witness India’s moment of moving from a dominion to a republic.

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