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The forgotten founders of India

Many of our republic’s founders are national icons. But beyond the inner circle, there were hundreds of others.

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Last Updated: Jan 26, 2020, 10.34 AM IST
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Jawaharlal Nehru addresses the Constituent Assembly in New Delhi in February 1947
By Vikram Raghavan

Our republic, which turns 70 today, has many founders. Some are national icons — Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, BR Ambedkar, and Maulana Azad. They were vitally involved in the debates and decisions of the Constituent Assembly. Govind Ballabh Pant, Alladi Krishnaswamy and KM Munshi are also well known for their role in framing the Constitution. Beyond this inner circle, however, there are hundreds of unsung men and women who made important contributions to the republic’s creation.

In recent years, as popular interest in the Constitution has surged, a few previously overlooked founders have come to light. They include Hansa Mehta, the gender-equality champion and educationist; Dakshayani Velayudhan, the young Dalit who fought untouchability; and Jaspal Singh, the Olympic gold medalist who was a passionate advocate for India’s tribal communities. Yet, many others continue to remain obscure, despite having roads and buildings named after them or being featured on postage stamps.

In his magisterial book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, Granville Austin lists 21 important figures in the Assembly whose total membership exceeded 300. Besides the wellknown founders already mentioned, the list includes a number of persons who have either receded from public memory or whose founding contributions are overlooked.

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Durgabai Deshmukh is one such figure. She was among the Assembly’s 15 women but the only one to make it to Austin’s list. A close associate of Gandhi, Deshmukh enthusiastically joined the Mahatma’s quixotic quest to spread Hindustani in South India. Surprisingly, however, Deshmukh railed in the Assembly against imposition of Hindi and supported the formation of linguistic provinces.

She enjoyed near perfect attendance and was a regular participant in the meetings of the Congress Assembly Party at which many contentious issues were discussed and resolved.

Deshmukh belonged to the so-called “Canning Lane Group” that took its name from the street on which members stayed when in Delhi. Participants from this informal group were particularly vocal at Assembly sessions and moved many amendments to the draft Constitution. In her autobiography, Durgabai claimed she was involved with close to 750 amendments! A patron of many charitable causes, Deshmukh subsequently revealed that Rajaji and Patel wanted to nominate her as a Supreme Court judge. Nehru, she alleges, scuttled the proposal. This meant the Supreme Court had to wait several decades to get its first woman justice.

A Muslim Leaguer, Saiyid Mohammed Saadulla was Assam’s provincial prime minister and joined the Constituent Assembly only after Partition. He served on the drafting committee but maintained a fiercely independent position on most issues.

Among other things, Saadulla supported the inclusion of due-process rights, championed state autonomy, and canvassed for separate electorates.

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Jairamdas Daulatram was a Congressman from Sind. During Partition, he lost his seat, and was appointed Bihar's governor on Independence Day. But he quickly got into a bitter quarrel with the chief minister over gubernatorial privileges. He resigned and returned to Delhi and was reelected to the Constituent Assembly from East Punjab. A member of three major committees, Daulatram proposed a special court to handle complaints from minorities regarding unfair treatment.

A Gandhian, Shankarrao Deo began his political career by participating in the Champaran Satyagraha. He rose steadily through the Congress ranks to become the party's general secretary and eventually joined the working committee. In the Assembly, Deo suggested entrenching the Constitution's fundamental rights to render them immune from amendments.

During the divisive language debate, Deo made a strong plea for India's cultural diversity. As a Marathi speaker, he declared that he was opposed to Hindi as a single language for the whole country. Deo later played an important role in the formation of the Maharashtra state.

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A mathematician-turned-lawyer, Ananthasayanam Ayyangar represented Madras in the Assembly. He was active on a number of issues, including due process rights, the rights of arrested persons, and the Supreme Court's powers. Distrustful of universal adult franchise, Ayyangar was convinced that village panchayats ought to be the cornerstone of India's constitutional edifice. He also advocated a special tribunal for the removal of judges rather than impeachment by Parliament. After the first general elections, Ayyangar became the Lok Sabha's deputy speaker and later took over as speaker.

A graduate of London School of Economics, KT Shah was a rare economist in the Assembly. His exposure to Constitutionmaking began with the Second Round Table Conference, which he attended as an adviser. Shah was a member of the Congress Experts Committee, which made important recommendations, notably on fundamental rights, before the Assembly opened in December 1946.

During the debates, Shah insisted on a time-bound plan to implement the Directive Principles. Otherwise, he feared, they would be mere "pious superfluities." He was a strong advocate for state control over natural resources and industry, which led Austin to describe him as the Assembly's most doctrinaire socialist. At the same time, Shah also held some rather progressive views. He argued, for instance, that housewives' work should be covered by the equal-pay-for-equalwork principle and properly reflected in national accounts.

HC Mookerjee was an English professor at Calcutta University. While teaching, he dabbled in politics and became an MLA in Bengal. Elected to the Assembly on a Congress ticket, Mookerjee was one of the house's two vicepresidents. He often took the chair when Rajendra Prasad wasn't present. The professor was a member of several committees and chaired the minority rights sub-committee.

A prominent Christian leader, he was in two minds about whether legislative seats should be reserved for minorities. Ultimately, Patel and Munshi persuaded him to oppose the proposal.

An officer of the Mysore civil service, N Madhava Rau rose to become the princely state's dewan. He attended the Second Round Table Conference and later joined the viceroy's executive council (on which Ambedkar also served). In July 1947, Rau was elected to the Assembly to represent Orissa's princely states. He participated in the drafting committee and spoke up for village panchayats and federalism.

Hailing from Bihar, Satya Narayan Sinha was an agriculturalist and a zamindar who later became a politician. As chief whip for the Congress Assembly Party, Sinha was responsible for corralling his colleagues to vote on specific issues or motions. As Austin tells us, the whip was rarely enforced. After the Assembly, Sinha held several cabinet posts and became Madhya Pradesh's governor in 1971.

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N Gopalaswami Ayyangar or "NGA" began his career in Madras as a civil servant. In 1937, he was appointed Jammu & Kashmir's prime minister and oversaw significant reforms in the state. Elected to the Assembly from his home province, NGA was a member of five important committees. He made significant interventions on many issues ¡X free speech; compensation for land acquisition; and the need for a second legislative chamb er. He was an emphatic advocate for a strong central government. In August 1947, NGA relinquished several honours conferred on him by the British Raj, including a knighthood.

NGA told Governor-General Louis Mountbatten that the Assembly wanted Indians to refrain from accepting foreign titles and that he fully agreed with that expectation.

NGA co-authored with KM Munshi the famous Munshi-Ayyangar formula to end the bitter impasse in the Assembly over language. Under the formula, Hindi was selected as an official language while English would continue for an interim period. NGA was also closely involved in negotiating Kashmir's constitutional status with Sheikh Abdullah. He was responsible for the drafting and adoption of Article 370 in the Assembly.
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Not on Austin's list is Jagjivan Ram, whose contributions to constitution-making are often overlooked. Besides Ambedkar, there were several Dalit members in the Assembly, many of whom were associated with the All India Depressed Classes League, of which Ram was president.

Ram was a member of several Assembly committees, including the sub-committee on fundamental rights.

Also missing from Austin's list is Jerome D'Souza, the Jesuit principal of Loyola College, Madras. Impressed by the priest's oratorical eloquence, Rajaji had D'Souza nominated to the Assembly. Fr. Jerome's primary concern was to speak up for minority interests and religious freedoms.

Somewhat controversially, D'Souza opposed the proposal to reserve legislative seats for minorities to further national integration. Impressed with D'Souza's sincerity, Nehru included him in the early Indian delegations to the UN.

Not all our founders were Assembly members.

A prominent example is BN Rau, who was closely involved in the framing process, although he was never actually elected to the house.

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Another such person is Mridula Sarabhai. As the first woman general secretary of the Congress, she was an unrelenting champion for greater women representation in the Assembly. Although she did not join the Assembly herself, Sarabhai and other prominent Indian women participated in the house's flag presentation committee. There is still much we don't know about the Assembly members and others associated with it. Private papers don't exist for many. Few have left behind memoirs or oral histories.

And decent biographies on these neglected founders are hard to come by. Despite these challenges, research about the founders is critical to deepening our understanding of India's republican and democratic foundations.

Studying the founders is, however, not an exercise in hero worship. No one in the Assembly was perfect or claimed to be infallible. Rather, understanding the founders' lives and deeds might help us better appreciate how this diverse group of men and women functioned as a cohesive team of rivals in the Assembly. They displayed a remarkable unity of purpose in drafting, debating, and adopting an inclusive and enduring constitution.

It is this founding legacy that we commemorate on January 26 when we renew our shared constitutional faith as citizens. After all, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, it is the day that the founders gave us a republic, ¡§if we can keep it.

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Vikram Raghavan studied law in India and retains an abiding interest in constitutional history. His views are personal
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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