M.N. Roy was the first to demand a Constituent Assembly for India in 1934. A year later, the Indian National Congress made this a formal demand in a resolution that rejected a British proposal (‘White Paper’) on constitutional reforms for India (what would later become the Government of India Act, 1935).
The resolution stated that ‘the only satisfactory alternative to the White Paper is constitution drawn by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult suffrage or as near it as possible...’. In the years that followed, this demand for a Constituent Assembly was reiterated in a range of Congress Party resolutions and its leaders' speeches at various forums.
While the Congress was firm in its demand for a Constituent Assembly, it was nonetheless was uncertain about the strategic upshot this demand vis-a-vis viz getting the British to agree to India’s independence and the ‘communal problem’. Jawaharlal Nehru asked Gandhi to study the implication of the Constituent Assembly; In an article ‘The Only Way’ (Harijan, 1939), Gandhi confessed that when Nehru first introduced the demand in the Congress resolutions, he was skeptical but ‘...Hard facts have, however, made me a convert and, for that reason perhaps, more enthusiastic than Jawaharlal himself. For I seem to see in it a remedy, which Jawaharlal may not, for our communal and other distempers, besides being a vehicle for mass political and other education...’
For Gandhi, a Constituent Assembly would not just produce a Constitution ‘indigenous to the country and truly and fully representing the will of the people’, but would also solve the ‘communal problem’ – all communities would be represented in the Assembly ‘in their exact proportion’. Gandhi seemed convinced that the setting up of a Constituent Assembly was the ‘only way out’ and urged Indian leaders to work towards this goal and steer the freedom movement in this direction: ‘All resources must, therefore, be exhausted to reach the Constituent Assembly before direct action is thought. A stage may be reached when direct action may become the necessary prelude to the Constituent Assembly.
Eight years later, in 1946, the British government announced a scheme – Cabinet Mission Plan – that proposed the setting up of a Constituent Assembly. Many aspects of the Plan were controversial that included: limited franchise and the federal arrangement of ‘grouping’ provinces on the basis of religion.
While these provisions triggered conflict among the Indian political class, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), in spite of its deep concerns about the Plan, passed a resolution stating that the Congress Party would join the Constituent Assembly. This resolution, however, had to be ratified by the All India Congress Committee (AICC).
In June 1946, Gandhi arrived in Bombay to attend a critical AICC meeting to help the Congress take a final decision on the question of joining the Assembly. Many members of the Congress wanted to reject the Plan and stay out of the Assembly. Gandhi responded: ‘the proposed constituent assembly is not the parliament of the people. It has many defects…it is for you to get them removed. It should be a challenge for combat, and not a ground for rejection’.
Gandhi urged the house to ratify the resolution of the CWC and clear the way for the Congress Party to join the Assembly. Pre-empting suggestions that Satyagraha should be launched to protest the Plan, Gandhi argued that ‘…this is no occasion for a fast or civil disobedience. I regard the Constituent Assembly as the substitute of satyagraha. It is constructive satyagraha’. On July 7, the AICC ratified the resolution and confirmed its participation in the constitution-making process.
Gandhi’s interventions in 1939 and 1946 on the Constituent Assembly question played a key role in the Constituent Assembly becoming a reality. On 6 December 1946, the Assembly sat of the first time, and in the span of 2 years and 11 months produced a Constitution for India.