The Constitution of India was not prepared in haste but the process of the evolution of the constitution began many decades before India became independent in 1947.
The process continued unabated since it originated in the freedom struggle till a new constitution was drafted after prolonged debates and discussions in the Constituent Assembly.
The day 26th of January, 1950 was a red-letter day in the history of India. On that day the written constitution of India came into operation.
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January 26th was purposefully chosen (as the date on which the constitution became operative) because since 1930, the day has been celebrated as the day of complete independence throughout India by millions of people. It is very befitting to declare such a historic day as the day of operation of the Constitution of Republic of India. The Constitution of India was the longest written constitution having the best elements of all the existing constitutions up to that date.
The Constitution of India is the modern sacred text of the contemporary India. It reflects the new aspirations and values of the people of India and testifies how the people of India are the supreme masters in all matters concerning the welfare of Indians.
A galaxy of learned wise men interested in the longevity of the emerging nation of India framed the constitution in its present form after a thorough debate and discussion of each proposal. The nationalists consciously, popularized the concepts of parliamentary democracy, republicanism, civil liberties, social and economic justice which happen to be the most basic tenets of the constitution.
Bipan Chandra rightly remarks, “When the constitution in 1950 adopted a parliamentary form of government, with a cabinet led by a prime minister it was not, as is commonly supposed, the British parliament that it was emulating. It was formalizing nationalist practices, which the people were already familiar with”. Even the spirit of democracy was familiarized by the national movement. Bipan Chandra correctly points out, “this found expression in widespread mass participation. It ensured a place for adult franchise after independence”.
A view is in circulation that the British initiated a modern responsible constitutional government in India and the constitution was merely the culmination of the series of constitutional initiatives made by them in 1861, 1892, 1909, 1919 and 1935. This view is not totally correct as the British government conceded reluctantly and belatedly only partially the demands of the leaders of the national movement and tried to reduce the intensity of the movement as a last resort from time to time.
Gandhi’s statement made in 1922 proves “Swaraj will not be a free gift of the British Parliament. It will be a declaration of India’s full self-expression. That it will be expressed through an act of Parliament is true. Swaraj can never be a free gift by one nation to another. It is a treasure to be purchased with a nation’s best blood. It will cease to be a gift when we have paid clearly for it”.
This statement of Gandhi clearly proves beyond doubt that the British did introduce constitutional reforms by their voluntary initiative is a myth. No doubt, the British introduced the principle of election in the 1892 Indian Council Act in partial response to a sustained struggle by the press and the Indian nationalists for more than two decades and while the nationalists demanded elections to the councils and elected majorities and greater powers to the non-official members, the British by the Act of 1892 provided for election principle but limited it to minority only.
There was a see-saw battle between the demands of the national movement and the concessions granted through the Acts of 1909, 1919 and 1935. The leaders of the national movement started demanding for grant of responsible government in India from 1890 onwards and by 1916 they began to “espouse the doctrine of self-determination or the right of the Indians to frame their own constitution”. Thus, the desire to have a constitution based on self-determination was as old as 1916.
In response to the continuous demand of the national movement, the British government appointed all-white Simon Commission in November 1927 to recommend constitutional changes. The Secretary of State, Lord Borkenhead, challenged the Indians “Let them produce a constitution which carries behind it a fair measure of general agreement among the great peoples of India” in 1925 and reiterated the challenge again in 1927, moving a bill for the appointment of the Simon Commission.
In response the national movement as one man boycotted the Simon Commission in all parts of India and appointed a committee with Motilal Nehru as the Chairman in 1928 “to determine the principles of the constitution for India”. The Nehru report was submitted on 10 August, 1928. It was an outline of a draft constitution for India. Most of its features were later included in the Constitution of India. It visualized a parliamentary system with full responsible government and joint electorates with time bound reservation of seats for minorities. The Nehru’s report laid special emphasis on securing fundamental human rights for the people of India. Of the nineteen rights listed in the Nehru report, ten were incorporated into the constitution. The Nehru report has recommended that “the redistribution of provinces should take place on a linguistic basis”.
This was followed by the declaration of complete independence as their objective and followed with the launching of mass civil disobedience movement in April 1930. In 1934, the Congress Working Committee rejected the white paper presented by the British government on further constitutional reforms and resolved that the “only satisfactory alternative to the white paper is a constitution drawn by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult suffrage or as near it as possible”.
After 1934 the demand for the Constituent Assembly became very frequent and they included it in the Congress manifesto for the year 1936-37 elections. The Congress won majority of states in 1937 elections and in its Faizpur session demanded the newly elected members of the assemblies to articulate the demand for a Constituent Assembly as soon as possible in the new legislatures.
The demand for the Constituent Assembly become vociferous and in the meanwhile the Second World War broke out in 1939 and in order to secure the cooperation of the Indians in the Second World War, the British for the first time announced in 1940 by August offer that the framing of the new constitution should be primarily the responsibility of the Indians themselves. It also offered to set up, after the end of the war, “a body representative of the principal elements in India’s national life, in order to devise the framework of the new constitution”.
This offer, unfortunately, did not spell out, how the body is going to be constituted, and also the method to be followed in deciding the membership of the body to be constituted. This vague aspect proves that the British reluctantly agreed to this idea of Constituent Assembly and were not serious about its implementation.
Consequently, this offer of 1940 was rejected by all the shades of nationalists and the Congress Party started the Individual Civil Disobedience movement to register their protest. In 1942, the British government appointed Cripps Mission. The Cripps proposals categorically stated that the constitution would be the sole responsibility of the Indians alone.
The idea of the Constituent Assembly was also accepted and they spelt out its modalities and in other respeas, it failed. Once again there was confrontation between the Congress and the British, which resulted in the Quit India movement of 9 August, 1942. For the first time openly and vehemently, the nationalists demanded the British to ‘Quit India’ and exhorted the Indians ‘do or die’ in this struggle. The Government of India took all measures to suppress this Quit India struggle and at the end of the war in 1945, they issued a white paper, which was followed by the abortive Simla Conference.
The victory of the Labour Party in England and change in the guard enabled the British government to declare and promise to convene a constitution-making body as soon as possible. The Cabinet Mission was appointed to carry out this purpose and it visited India in 1946, on 24 March. After a lot of deliberation between the Congress and the Muslim League and the British, finally the Constituent Assembly came into existence.
While interacting with a group of school teachers recently, I tried to assess their knowledge of the Constitution of India by asking them a few questions. Who is its architect? When did it come into effect? How many Articles and Schedules are there in the Constitution? What is stated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India? Do you know your Constitutional rights? The teachers’ responses to these questions revealed their lack of knowledge about it. If this sample were a representative of the whole teaching community in India, it could be considered an unhealthy trend. If teachers’ knowledge about the Constitution of India is bad, the logical conclusion is that students’ knowledge about it must be worse.
A month ago, while laying the foundation stone of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Memorial in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that this year onwards, November 26 would be observed as Constitution Day and he added saying that on that day, school children would be taught about the Constitution and Dr. Ambedkar. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) in its recent circular has instructed all schools to conduct activities to observe the first Constitution Day. It is a good move but mere observance of the day will not suffice. What is important is incorporating Constitution education in the school curriculum. Here, the term ‘Constitution education’ does not imply teaching students the A to Z of the Constitution or enabling them to become experts in it. Rather, it implies exposing them to the Constitution, teaching them its salient features, enlightening them about their fundamental rights, enabling them to critically evaluate the relevance of various Articles, shaping their mind to develop a positive attitude towards it and helping them appreciate the wisdom found in it.
Why is Constitution education important? In every country across the globe, people are expected to revere their Constitution and feel that it is their duty to know what is in it. It is a vital document that is the basis of all laws enacted by any government in power. It is based on noble principles. As John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, rightly said, “The Constitution is colour blind, and it neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
The Constitution of India, which has borrowed many features from different countries such as the U.S., the U.K., France, Japan, Germany, the former Soviet Union (USSR) and a few other countries, besides defining the power of the government, spells out the rights and duties of the citizen. As it protects the rights of all the citizens and serves as the framework for good governance, it functions as a social contract between the government and the people governed. According to Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India, “The Constitution is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peacetime and in wartime.”
At a time when there are so many ideological clashes, rising intolerance among people of various communities, growing inequality, suppression of women’s rights, it is only the Constitution of our country that can bind everyone together and help find solutions to various problems. In these difficult times, it is important to have knowledge and a better understanding of the Constitution. For example, since the concept of ‘secularism’ is not clearly understood by most people, there has been a clash of minds and hearts. If basic concepts such as secularism, justice, liberty, equality, fraternity and fundamental rights (the right to equality, the right to freedom, the right against exploitation, the right to freedom of religion, cultural and educational rights, and the right to Constitutional remedies) had been discussed in the classroom in a meaningful way, our society would have been different in a positive way.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. It is the responsibility of the teaching community to educate students about the Constitution and make them informed citizens. Constitution Day is a one-day affair with some activities but Constitution education is a process leading to right thinking and noble behaviour. Mere Constitutional knowledge, disseminated through certain activities such as reading out the Preamble, conducting quiz or essay competitions in schools, will not help students become patriotic citizens who accept their fellow citizens as they are regardless of their caste, creed and social status and consider everyone equal. It is their proper understanding of the Constitution, their right attitude towards it, their ability to interpret it to the current situation and their willingness to keep its spirit alive which will make them patriotic.
How can we lay the foundation for the first Constitution Day and make it a meaningful first step for a great journey? Here are some suggestions.
Educational institutions can initiate purposeful discussions on the significance of incorporating Constitution education in the curriculum and teachers can come up with some innovative ideas which can be sent to the HRD ministry so that it can give shape to the body of ideas.
Teachers can be educated about the Constitution. Educationists, lawyers, human rights activists, writers and experts having through knowledge of the Constitution of India can be invited to talk about it and interact with the teachers. When teachers are equipped with the basic knowledge of the Constitution, they, in their turn, will be able to enlighten the student community.
Awareness about the importance of observing Constitution Day and incorporating Constitution education in the curriculum can be created among students through various activities. Teachers can initiate discussion on current issues and events and encourage students to discuss them in the light of the Constitution. This practice will not only make the students informed citizens but will also help them acquire life skills.
A country can be considered a developed nation only if it has informed citizenry. A major role of educators is to create informed citizenry who know their Constitutional rights. Educators can play the role successfully only if they become enlightened themselves.
The author is Professor of English and Head, Higher Education at KCG College of Technology, Chennai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.