November 25th, 1949: Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, chairman of the Drafting Committee, presenting the final draft of the Indian Constitution to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, President of constituent assembly
Government of India in 2015 notified that 26th November of every year would be celebrated as Constitution Day or Samvidhan Divas. The day holds significance since on this date, in 1949, the Constituent Assembly of India passed and adopted the final draft of the Constitution of India. It is on this very day that the Constituent Assembly as a representative of the People of India adopted and enacted the supreme law of the country.
73 years later and the role this document has played, in shaping and guiding Sovereign, Democratic, Republic India, cannot be more emphasised. It has truly stood the test of time. The vision that every member of the Constituent Assembly held for Free India led to shaping of our Constitution. However, the establishment of a Constituent Assembly for India was not an easy task. Thus, Constitution Day is rightly observed to recall the events that led to its setting up in 1946.
TIMELINE OF HOW INDIA’S CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY CAME INTO EXISTENCE:
India’s freedom struggle spanned almost 2 centuries, passing through several phases and changing demands. From representation in the Legislative Assembly to Dominion Status to Complete Independence, every demand was met with several obstructions and half-baked efforts by the colonial government. Moreover, the demand for a Constituent Assembly for India joined the national movement in the 20th century and was won over a two-decade long struggle. This fight is traced below highlighting the major events – background and result.
1924-1928: Demand for a Constitution for India proposed in the Nehru Report
❖ 1924- 1925:
- A resolution was introduced by Motilal Nehru in the Central Legislative Assembly in February, 1924 asking the government to summon a Round Table Conference, to recommend a scheme of a Constitution for India.
- This resolution called the ‘National Demand’ was passed by a large majority. It was the first time a demand for a Constitution and procedure was placed.
- Rejecting the demand Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State in July 1925 challenged Indians: ‘Let them produce a constitution which carries behind it a fair measure of general agreement among great people of India.’
- At the time of the Government of India Act in 1919, the British Government had declared that a commission would be set up 10 years later to examine constitutional reforms and suggest further reforms.
- Accordingly, the Simon Commission, an all-white commission, was set up in November 1927. Set up two years prior, the Simon Commission was rejected by all sections in India, for absence of Indian representation, with large protests across the country.
- In response to the protests, Lord Birkenhead in 1927 repeated his challenge to Indians to prepare a constitution that was in agreement to all.
- May 1928: The challenge was taken up and All Parties Conference appointed a committee headed by Motilal Nehru, ‘to determine principles of the Constitution of India.’
- The Committee submitted the report, August 1928, which came to be known as the Nehru Report.
- It is to be noted that the Nehru Report was visionary as it formed an outline to the Constitution of India. The report envisioned a parliamentary form of government, and fundamental rights for India. 10 out of the 19 rights mentioned in the Nehru Report made it to the final Constitution drafted in 1949.
1928- 1939: A continued demand for Constituent Assembly amidst major episodes in Indian freedom struggle
In the midst of drafting a Constitution for India by the Motilal Nehru led committee, the Simon Commission arrived in India. The commission was met with large scale protests with calls of “Simon, go back!” across the country.
Congress declared complete independence as its goal.
Civil disobedience movement launched
- 3 Round Table Conferences held to discuss constitutional reforms for India. However, the resultant Government of India Act, 1935 failed to satisfy the nationalist demands.
- It was increasingly becoming evident to the British Government that piecemeal measures would not satisfy the Indians’ desire to frame their own constitution.
- A constitution framed by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult suffrage was suggested by M. N. Roy. This idea began to gain more support and the demand for a Constituent Assembly was repeated frequently after 1934.
❖ 1937- 1939:
- On continued pressure by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress Working Committee passed a resolution to repeal the Government of India Act, 1935. It proposed that the Constitution for free India must be framed, without outside interference, by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise.
- This resolution was passed by all the Provincial Assemblies and also introduced in the Central Legislative Assembly in 1937.
- This was reiterated by the Congress Working Committee in 1939.
1939-1947: World War II and beginning of end of Colonial rule in India
The demand for a Constituent Assembly for India was continually rejected by Britain over the years. With the outbreak of World War-2 and with the possibility of being overridden by Axis powers, the British Government began to make concessions for India. This was with the hope to gain support in the war. At this stage, the Indian legislators had resigned as a mark of protest against Britain which had unilaterally announced that India was on its side.
❖ 1940- August Offer:
- A set of proposals made by Viceroy Linlithgow to secure India’s co-operation in war efforts.
- For the first time, it was conceded that Indians held the right to frame their own Constitution.
- It offered to set up a representative body in order to devise the framework of the Constitution after the conclusion of the war. – However the August Offer was rejected by all major political parties in India.
- INC went ahead and began the Individual Civil Disobedience Movement in December 1940.
❖ 1942- Cripps Mission:
- Britain having suffered major losses in South East Asia and Japan at the doors of India, despatched Sir Stafford Cripps to India in March 1942. The British government sought to receive full cooperation from India against the Japanese forces.
- Cripps arrived with a Draft declaration which would be implemented post war.
- Cripps Proposals for the first time recognized that it was the sole responsibility of the Indians to draft a constitution. It also spelt out the procedure for setting up a Constituent Assembly.
- The declaration also included that the Indian Union would be constituted as a Dominion and included aspects which would have divided India.
- Dominion status was unacceptable to INC and ML sought division of India on communal lines. The Cripps Mission was rejected by both.
1942- 1945: Quit India Movement and failure of Simla Conference
- The failure of Cripps Mission led to the launch of Quit India Movement in August 1942.
- With the call to ‘Do or Die’, Quit India was accompanied by mass upsurges across the country making it difficult for the British to control. World War-2 had also weakened Britain’s position economically making it difficult to maintain colonies.
- Therefore, Britain, which was looking for a way out, began to hold negotiations to grant the demands to India. First among those was the Wavell Plan in June 1945. It proposed to set up an Executive Council until a new permanent constitution could be drafted.
- Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India was charged with formulating a plan for future government in India which was agreeable to both INC and ML.
- Simla conference was called to discuss the proposals of Wavell Plan, failed. With ML’s demand to be the sole representative of Muslims in the Council, the talks reached a dead end.
- The failure of the Simla Conference also indicated that it was the last chance to have united India.
❖ 1946: Cabinet Mission: Constituent Assembly Born
- With the end of the war and the Labour government in Britain, the British government announced in February 1946 that it would be sending a Cabinet Mission to resolve the issue of freedom and constitution making.
- INC and ML failed to come up with a mutually acceptable plan, so Cabinet Mission came up with its own proposals in May 1946. – The Mission decided to set up a Constituent assembly whose members would be elected by representatives of Provincial Legislative Assemblies. The Princely States would send their representatives. It also proposed quotas for Muslims, Sikhs.
- As a last straw to ensure a united India, the mission proposed a three tier government, provinces, provincial groups and centre. These provincial groups would decide on a Constitution and then come together to decide on a constitution for the Union.
- ML saw grouping as an in principle acceptance of partition of the country on religious lines. The INC, despite having reservations about the grouping, accepted Cabinet proposals to avoid further delays.
- Elections were held for 389 seats of the Constituent Assembly in July August 1946. Elections were held for 296 from British India and 93 from Princely States.
- In the meantime, differences arose between INC and ML on the issue of grouping. While ML saw grouping of provinces as obligatory, Nehru in July 1946 rejected the idea of provinces joining a group as mandatory.
- This was followed by differences in the constitution of the interim government by Lord Wavell. A cabinet was appointed with Jawaharlal Nehru as the interim Prime Minister.
- Muhammad Ali Jinnah unhappy with modalities of both Constitution Assembly and interim government, called for a Direct Action Day in August 1946. The Muslim Laegue boycotted both Constitution Assembly and interim cabinet to gain support for Pakistan.
- Unhinged by ML’s boycott and British Government’s statement that it would not force a constitution on any unwilling party, the Constituent Assembly of India held its first session on 9th December, 1946. Dr. Sachidanand Sinha, the oldest member, became the provisional President.
- This was an acknowledgement by British Government that two States and two Constituent Assembly was a possibility.
- On 13 December 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru introduced Objective Resolution in the Constituent Assembly. This reflected the aspirations of the constitution makers and acted as a guideline. It was passed by the assembly in January 1947.
❖ 1947: Mountbatten Plan and Indian Independence
- Lord Mountabatten, the last Viceroy of India came to an agreement with INC and ML and announced the plan on June 3, 1947. It came to be known as Mountbatten Plan or June 3rd Plan.
- Mountbatten’s plan included the principle of Partition of British India into two Dominions. Each of them would be given unlimited power to frame and adopt their own constitution.
- The plan was put to action through Indian Independence Act, 1947 and 15th August, 1947 was decided as the date for transfer of power.
August 1947- January 1950: Shaping of India’s Constitution
The long battle for Independent India with the power to draft its own constitution had been won. With India becoming independent, the Constituent assembly became sovereign and also doubled as a legislative assembly. The now 299 member Constituent Assembly of India well represented by members of all communities and eminent members elected from the provinces took over the historic task of drafting the Constitution for Independent India.
The Constituent Assembly set up 13 committees for framing the constitution including a Drafting Committee under the Chairmanship of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. On the basis of the reports of these committees, a draft of the Constitution was prepared by a seven-member Drafting Committee. Over eleven sessions covering a total of 165 days, the Constitution of India was drafted. Taking precisely two years, eleven months and seventeen days, the members gave to us the longest written Constitution.
On 26th November, 1949, the final draft of the Constitution received the signature of Dr. Rajendra Prasad, President of Constituent assembly and was declared as passed. Some provisions of the Constitution were given immediate effect. 26 January 1950, the constitution came into effect. This date was chosen for Republic Day as it was on that day in 1930 the Indian National Congress proclaimed Purna Swaraj as its goal.
CONSTITUTION AT 73
Seventy three years of people of India giving themselves this Constitution, India has stood true to the principles enshrined in it. The Constitutional law has reigned through all political, social and economical changes in the past 75 years. The amendments to the Constitution did not destroy the philosophy on which it was built.
The strength of the Indian Constitution can also be observed in comparison to our neighbouring countries which became independent around the same time. For example, Pakistan despite a democracy on paper is largely run by the military, Myanmar has been overrun by the military, Nepal has experienced 7 different constitutions, and the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan. Despite all naysayers in 1947 on India’s capability to remain united and be ruled constitutionally, India has survived and grown stronger. While the credit goes to our visionary constitution makers, as citizens of India it is also our responsibility to educate, promote and uphold our constitutional values.