On 17 October 1949 the Constituent Assembly took up the Draft Constitution’s preamble for debate. Brajeshwar Prasad, eminent freedom fighter and Congress party member, in a rather unexpected turn in the debate, objected to the use of ‘sovereignty’ in the preamble and proposed that it be removed. He argued that ‘… the whole concept of Austinian sovereignty has been exploded. A legal concept must have some relation with real facts. If it is not so, it has got no value…’
Prasad here is referring to the legal philosopher John Austin’s highly influential conception(s) of sovereignty. However, Prasad does not elaborate sufficiently on what he meant by or how he interpreted ‘Austinian’ sovereignty. But nonetheless, he did elaborate, in political philosophical terms, why he was opposed to sovereignty:
‘The State consists of individuals. Are individuals sovereign in any sense of the term? If individuals are not sovereign, how can a State which consists of individuals be sovereign. It is a very well-known fact that man has no free will of his own, that he is circumscribed by factors of heredity and environment. Both qualitatively and quantitatively he holds a very insignificant place in the universe. If man is so insignificant, if man is a non-entity in the world how can a State which consists of individuals be a sovereign State? Therefore, Sir, I am opposed to this idea of sovereignty.’
Interestingly, Prasad here hints at and touches upon age-old debates in political and legal philosophy regarding the relationship between citizens, sovereignty and the state – debates that continue to this today.
Prasad then clarified that he was not against the idea of sovereignty and its exercise by the government of India: he was only against the inclusion of the term in the preamble – which he felt would signal Austinian sovereignty.
It is quite unlikely that the Drafting Committee included the ‘sovereignty’ in the preamble in the Austinian sense. The Committee merely wanted to indicate that independent India would not be under the control or direction of any foreign nation or body. After all, this was the core idea of the Indian freedom movement from the late 1920s.
So it very well might be the case that Prasad was making a straw man argument – indeed, the Constituent Assembly rejected his proposal. That said, his intervention in this debate is illustrative of the range of argumentative and rhetorical strategies (philosophical, moral, legal etc.) that members adopted during the course of their deliberations.