A strand of attacks that take aim at the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly revolve around deliberation. While some feel that the Assembly did not deliberate on questions enough, others point out that the Assembly suppressed dissent. In this two-part post, we will engage with these claims about the Assembly’s deliberative credentials.
The Assembly adopted the Constitution of India, 1950 after 165 days of deliberation over the course of 2 years and 11 months. In comparison to other major constitution making projects in the world, the duration of India’s drafting process is on the higher side (Japan: 1 week, USA: 4 months, Canada: 2 years 5 months, Australia: 9 years, South Africa: 1 year). This along with the fact that India’s Constitution is the longest in the world, we can say that the Indian constitution was a product of reasonably comprehensive deliberation.
The drafting of the Indian Constitution took place at two levels: committees and plenary. The committees comprised of smaller groups of Assembly members tasked to prepare draft articles, reports and notes, on specific parts of the Constitution. At the plenary level, the Assembly sat in full strength and discussed the reports of various committees. Amendments were moved, debated, dropped and adopted.
For the Committee stages, the records that we have do not offer a thick account of the proceedings in all cases. However, the records do indicate reasonable levels of discussion and deliberation. Committee decisions were taken on a majority vote. Sub-Committees, like the Fundamental Rights subcommittee, on some occasions, attached dissents and other types of notes to their reports submitted their parent committee.
The plenary level debates decided the fate of every Article. We have a reliable record of what went on in the plenary that we refer to as Constituent Assembly Debates. A cursory glance of these debates reveals that in most cases deliberations were comprehensive, intellectually stimulating, heated, aggressive, and open to dissent. Even during the final days, when the Constitution was more or less settled, Assembly members freely expressed what they felt was wrong about the Constitution they were about to adopt. While individual Articles of the Constitution were voted upon by Assembly members, the Assembly adopted the final Constitution unanimously
An important facet of the Assembly’s plenary debates was that around 2473 amendments were moved. As B.R. Ambedkar reminded the Assembly, comparatively, this was remarkable – ‘The second thing to be remembered is that the makers of the Constitutions of America, Canada, Australia and South Africa did not have to face the problem of amendments. They were passed as moved’
While the Assembly was the primary institution that drafted the Constitution, people outside the Assembly had an opportunity to give their two pennies. The Draft Constitution, after being submitted to the President of the Assembly in February 1948, was publicly circulated for feedback and suggestions to provincial governments, central ministries, Supreme Court, High Courts, and the general public. Many responded and these responses were reviewed by the Drafting Committee between March and October 1948.
In the next part of this post, we look at the role of the party-interest politics in the constitution-making process, particularly the role of the Congress Assembly Party