Our blog post over the weekend looked at how the Constituent Assembly reacted to proposals that wanted to include referendums into the Constitution. Today, we highlight an instance in which some members demanded referendums on the Assembly’s constitutional choices and the Constitution itself.
In September 1949, the Assembly was trying to decide which numeral system should be officially adopted by India. Very quickly into the debate, things started getting heated. Three warring camps emerged: the first supported the international numeral system, the second wanted the Hindi-Devanagari system and the third did not want either.
In the middle of the debate, Purushottam Das Tandon said that a referendum in Maharashtra would show that Maharashtrians would not accept the international numeral system. As if on cue, the floodgates opened and members began to aggressively demand referendums in their home provinces.
At some point, it appears that Shankarrao Deo said that if a referendum was taken on the Constitution itself, the people would reject it. The President of the Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, was not pleased with the direction that the debate was taking and reminded members -
‘May I just point out that this Constituent Assembly has been charged with the duty of framing a constitution for the country? There is no provision in the Constitution of this Assembly for any referendum and therefore there is no question of a referendum either on the whole or a part of it So that need not give rise to any controversy, because it would be futile.’
To which Tandon responded that a referendum was ‘…simply means the will of the people., If it was left to the people, what would they say?...’. Prasad retorted ‘..So far as the Constituent Assembly is concerned it reflects the will of the people…’
This exchange and the invocation of referendums resonates with a particular strand of criticism of the Constitution of India 1950 which argues that that ‘the people’ were not really involved in the constitution-making process – the Constitution was never ratified by the Indian people. Indeed, the Constitution did not go through a ratification process; however, the Assembly did involve the larger public in constitution-making.
In February 1948, the Drafting Committee submitted the Draft Constitution to the Assembly President. The Draft was then published and publicly circulated. Over the next couple of months, the Drafting Committee received a significant number of comments, suggestions and critiques from trade unions, lawyers, journalists, ministries, state governments, civic associations and the general public.
In the months of March and October, the Drafting Committee convened meetings that were exclusively meant to consider the responses, deliberate over them and make any changes to the Draft Constitution before the Assembly formally took up the Draft for plenary discussion.
While this might not satisfy the benchmark of putting the Constitution as a whole (or in part) to a referendum/ratification, it is nonetheless untenable to make the claim that India’s constitutional founding was bereft of the people’s will.
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