Constitutional Framework and Structures of Governance in India:

A Historical Perspective


Series of Weekly Lectures by Sri Devendra Swarup


Lecture XVII, Saturday, October 27, 2012



In the seventeenth talk of this series Shri Devendra Swarup discussed in further detail Mahatma Gandhi’s role in guiding the Congress to participate in parliamentary politics, ultimately leading to the formation of the Constituent Assembly. 


As we have discussed in the previous lecture, Gandhiji had resigned from the Working Committee of the Congress as well as from its primary membership in October 1934. But, in spite of his formal separation from Congress organisation, he continued to steer the Congress up to 1948. In 1934, he had already initiated the Congress on the path of parliamentary politics. He had opposed Council entry during the non-cooperation movement of 1921; and in 1934, he himself induced the Congress towards Council entry. But he did this, not because he liked the idea, but because of the enfeebled state of the Congress. He felt that the Congress had gone into a state of slumber. In his letters, he repeatedly writes that if the Congress can become active only by participating in elections to the Councils, then it would be better to let it move in that direction. An active Congress, he felt, was preferable to a somnambulant Congress, even if the activity was directed towards parliamentary politics. That is why he first blessed the formation of Swaraj Party and then allowed the Congress itself to become part of parliamentary politics. It is for the reason that when Bhulabhai Desai first raised the demand for convening a Constituent Assembly on May 1, 1934, Gandhiji encouraged the Congress to support the idea.


Gandhiji at that time had become disillusioned with the capabilities of the Congress he had built in 1920, and perhaps with the capabilities of the Hindu society that he had so strenuously tried to awaken. In 1935, he says that our Ahimsa (non-violence) is not the Ahimsa of the brave; we are not even capable of wielding the Shastra (weaponry), we do not have the self-discipline required for that. This weakness of the Hindu society was reflected in the weakness of the Congress. The two cannot be separated. And, it is this weakness that forced Gandhiji to encourage Congress on the path of parliamentary democracy.


I have mentioned earlier that when the possibility of the formation of a Constituent Assembly arose in 1945, then Gandhiji had said that a Constituent Assembly was the culmination of parliamentary politics and that he himself had always opposed it though Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das had felt that such politics had a role in the fight for Independence. Gandhiji had further said that he always felt that non-cooperation and parliamentary politics could not go together. But, he was also aware that there never was non-cooperation in the true sense; and since he was unable to invoke such non-cooperation, he had to allow the adoption of parliamentary politics.


It is in view of this that I said in the last lecture that Gandhiji shares the responsibility for the process of the formation of Indian Constitution. It is believed that Gandhiji was ignored from the time the proceedings of Constituent Assembly began on 9th December 1946. This needs to be re-examined. It seems that Gandhiji was not only well aware of the developments in the Constituent Assembly but also gave his reactions and directions on several occasions.  


Elections for the Constituent Assembly were held in July 1946. The Congress, since 1934, had been demanding elections for the Constituent Assembly on the basis of adult franchise. Gandhiji supported the principle of proportional representation. He wrote in the Harijan of 19th October 1939 that a Constituent Assembly elected through universal adult franchise was the only way to solve India’s problems, especially the communal problem. He felt that a Constituent Assembly formed on the basis of adult franchise would give proportionate representation to all interests and thus induce various groups to moderate their positions according to their relative strengths.


The communal problem had by that time become the main issue before the Congress and the nation. In 1928, the efforts to prepare an outline of Constitution for India by the All Parties’ Committee under the leadership of Motilal Nehru had got struck at the communal question. In that Committee, Jinnah had raised demands on behalf of the Muslims which M. R. Jayakar strongly opposed. Jinnah boycotted the Committee. After that he presented his 14-point charter of Muslim demands in Delhi. These demands were obviously completely unacceptable for anyone who was concerned with the unity and integrity of the nation; but then, these demands reflected the Muslim position. We have already discussed Gandhiji’s effort to solve the Muslim question before, during and after the second round table conference. Perhaps, it is because Gandhiji had lost all hopes of any change in the Muslim minds that he almost succumbed to the British offer of disproportionately inflated representation for the Muslims.


In 1933, the British Government published a state paper which became the basis of 1935 Act. The paper was rejected by the Congress; the Congress asked for the formation of the Constituent Assembly.  This was not acceptable to the British. The British policy changed when the Second World War started in 1939. On 8th August 1940, Lord Linlithgow declared that India could make its own Constitution after the War, but he did not give any details. When, in March 1942, Cripps Mission came to India, it mentioned a Constituent Assembly but refused to accept the principle of universal franchise for its election thus changing the nature of the Constituent Assembly from what the Congress had been demanding.


Finally, the Constituent Assembly came into being on the basis of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 16th May, 1946. The several clauses of Cabinet Mission Plan fixed its mandate, composition, working method, limitations and its framework. Congress leadership failed to understand the real implications of this Plan. They welcomed it. There is a letter of Saradar Patel of May 17, in which he says that the danger of the formation of Pakistan has now disappeared.  On the other hand, Muslim League was very clear. They said that the Assembly arising out of this Plan would be dominated by Hindus and would not be acceptable to the Muslim. From the beginning, they decided to boycott the Assembly. The Congress failed to realise that the A, B, C groupings of this Plan contained the seeds of Partition; even Gandhiji accepted the groupings though he expressed his unhappiness about the grouping of Assam.

I feel that we have not yet fully comprehended Gandhiji. There are broadly two kinds of scholars. One of these has blind devotion to Gandhiji and treats him as a spiritual person far above day-to-day politics. The other group harbours a strong prejudice against him and holds him responsible for all the ills of Indian polity, including for the Partition and his imposition of Nehru on Independent India. These extreme positions have made a proper assessment of Gandhiji difficult.


There is no doubt that Mahatma Gandhi was a spiritual personage and commanded veneration of the Hindu society. The conception of India that he placed before us resonated in the psyche of the nation. The ideals that he lived by are the ideals that India has always found venerable. The discipline of Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truth), Brahmacharya (Celibacy) and Aprigraha (Non-Possession) that he followed and wanted the nation to follow is the discipline that India has always held in high esteem. These ideals and discipline inspired the whole nation to stand behind him. It would not be easy to find in Indian history another personality who commanded similarly large mass-following for so long.


But he was not acting in a vacuum. He had to deal with the British diplomacy on the one hand, and on the other, he had to continuously exert to keep Muslim separatism in check. A large section of the Hindu society held him responsible for the Partition of India. Gandhiji had declared that partition would happen only over his dead body, yet it happened. Then he sat on a fast to force the Indian government to pay 55 crore rupees to Pakistan; but, he did not undertake even a token fast against Partition, not even for self purification on this issue. All the conditions that he put to end this fast showed his concern for the safety and rehabilitation of Muslims. The other fast that he undertook on issues concerning Partition was in Calcutta, and that he did on the request of the Muslims, while it was the Hindu society that stood behind him throughout his life and stands behind him even today long after his death.


There may be some justification for the bitterness that some of his critics harbour against him. But, the one name from the times of the freedom struggle that the nation venerates most even today is that of Mahatma Gandhi. Therefore, any assessment that we make of him today must be in the perspective that he wanted to strengthen the society in India; his objective was to raise the society and life in India to a level that Swarajya becomes its natural state. For him swarajya was a civilisational and not a political issue. Before beginning his political life in India, he had forcefully asserted in his Hind Swarajya that if the English left and their civilisation remained in India that for him would be no Swarajya; and, on the other hand, if the English remained but India was rid of their civilisation then for him, Swarajya would have been achieved. Thus he made the establishment of Swarajya and the restoration of the Indian civilisation synonymous. The Indian civilisation he revered was the ancient, sanatana, civilisation of India which was etched deep in the psyche of the nation; and, the yearning for its restoration was there in the soul of every Indian. But the societal regeneration that Gandhiji wanted did not happen; and, the struggle for freedom, in course of time, became the medium only for leading Congress to power within the colonial framework. In this situation, Gandhiji handed over the leadership of the Congress to Nehru. 


The rapid movement of the Congress towards the party in search of power can be gauged from the fact that even C. Rajagopalachari, who had spiritedly opposed Council entry in 1922 and had defeated the combined efforts of C. R. Das, Motilal Nehru, M. R. Jayakar and N. C. Kelkar, later became an ardent supporter of Council entry and was keen to enter the provincial Assembly and wield power.


When the issue of elections to the Councils under the Act of 1935 arose in 1937, the first dilemma that the Congress faced was whether to contest or not. But Gandhiji had, already in 1934, initiated the Congress onto the parliamentary path. He had himself nominated the first Parliamentary Board of the Congress. The Congress contested the elections and reaped the benefits of the national awakening that Gandhiji had brought about through his satyagrahas and other constructive programmes and through his personal austerities. The Congress was rewarded with absolute majority in seven provinces. This raised another dilemma before the Congress, whether to form the governments or not. It seems odd today that it was Nehru who was opposed to it. He said that the objective was to achieve Independence; therefore, we should not accept anything short of that and not become accomplices in the 1935 Act. He wrote a letter to Subhash Chandra Bose asking him to convince the Congress against forming governments. At this stage, it was Rajaji, who took the initiative in favour; after the election results were announced, Madras Provincial Congress Committee, led by Rajaji, was the first to pass a resolution asserting that Congress should form governments. Even Gandhiji was at a loss as to how to react to this resolution!


Madhu Limaye says that Gandhiji himself was responsible for this change in Rajagopachari’s stand. As we have seen that Gandhiji gave his blessings to the Swaraj Party after his release from jail in 1924; Rajaji, according to Madhu Limaye, took this to be a personal affront and another instance of Gandhiji’s soft corner towards Motilal Nehru, which had even earlier offended many leaders of the Congress. Rajaji probably also reacted to the way Gandhiji was promoting Jawaharlal Nehru. It is true that these are only personal issues; but who among us can claim freedom from factors of personal concern. Rajaji, of course, was an intellectual giant. To a large extent, he was coolheaded and foresighted leader. He must have also acutely analysed the situation and foreseen the future trends. He did insist that Congress would be able to wage the struggle of freedom more effectively by becoming part of the governing system.


Immediately after the declaration of results of the election in March 1937, a meeting of the AICC was called in Delhi where a resolution was passed asserting that the Congress would not help in the implementation of the 1935 Act, it wanted the Act to be withdrawn, and that the Congress would not accept any process that offers anything short of swarajya. Following this a meeting of the newly elected Congress MLAs was called in Delhi. Nehru was the President of the Congress then. In that meeting, Nehru stated in clear terms that Congress MLAs would not form the government in any province without the consent of the national leadership. Even if the Governor were to invite the Congress to form the ministry in any province, the invitation was not to be accepted without permission from the central leadership. 


As is widely known, between March and July 1937 there was much discussion in the Congress, especially on the issue of the special powers given to the Governors in the 1935 Act. There was discussion within Britain also; the British government was deeply anxious to make the leadership of the Independence movement part of the constitutional process they had devised for India. Therefore, in July it was declared on behalf of the British government that the Governors shall not use their special powers as far as possible. This left no option before the central leadership of Congress except to go along with those who were keen to get into the ministries.


When the ministries were about to be formed, Nehru sent a circular to the leaders of the legislative parties of all provinces advising them that the first act of legislatures would be to pass a resolution asserting that we do not accept the 1935 Act, that our goal is swarajya, and we shall continue our struggle until that goal is achieved. This was the thinking of the central leadership of the Congress even at that stage. But Gandhiji and the leadership were greatly disturbed to see that within the Congress there was a rush for forming the ministries and becoming a part of the governing system. At that time, Mahadev Desai wrote a letter to Ghanshyam Das Birla regretting that we, meaning the Congress leaders, have little stamina, we cannot hold out for long. He also said that the British were aware of this weakness; they could not be unaware of the large number of telegrams and letters that were reaching the central leadership at that time. Even Sardar Patel, who was indeed a very strong leader and a strong person, he also came to believe that if they could form the ministries then they would be able to restore the lands that had been seized from the peasants by the British and the Congress would regain the popular support. When the Congress ministries were formed, a strong-willed man like Subhash Chandra Bose also felt that this had considerably enhanced the prestige of the Congress and it had come to be seen as the party of the future. Gandhiji was very disturbed by all this. In several contexts he remarked that it had become impossible to contain or control the Congressmen then. The kind of unethical pushing and pulling that we seen in the politics of today was, it seems, foretold already in 1937, when the Congress had not yet brought its struggle for freedom to a satisfactory conclusion.


After 1940, British started hijacking the Congress’ demand for Constituent Assembly. Gandhiji was not ignorant of the developments. On December 4, 1946, just before the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, Gandhiji wrote to Patel that the Constituent Assembly would not be a legitimate body if the Muslim League and the Princes did not participate in it. He emphasized the fact that Constituent Assembly was a creation of the Cabinet Mission Plan, and according to that Plan, convening the Constituent Assembly in the absence of the Muslims and the Princes would require a separate agreement between the British and the Congress. And in any case, if the Muslims and the Princes boycott the Assembly, then it would have to meet under the protection of the army. He wrote a similar letter to G. D. Birla urging him to ensure that the Assembly were not convened. He also gave various directions to Birla to be conveyed to the Working Committee. Gandhiji was obviously not unconcerned about the developments regarding the Constituent Assembly.


When Nehru presented the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly on 13 December 1946, it had no mention of the Panchayats or of the Gandhi’s ideals regarding economy and polity. The resolution was debated and passed in the Assembly without any mention of Panchayats. All this was in Gandhiji’s knowledge. But he expressed his opinion only when in December 1947, Shriman Narayan called his attention to the issue and urged him to do something about the Panchayats. On December 21, 1947, when the Constituent Assembly had already met for three sessions, that Gandhiji wrote in an article in the Harijan that a constitution devoid of Panchayats cannot be the Constitution of India. Gandhiji also told the members of Gandhi Seva Sangh that he did not know what direction the Constituent Assembly was taking; let them do what they were doing, because they were incapable of doing anything better. Even after that there was no reaction for many months from those running the Assembly. Only in May 1948, Rajendra Prasad wrote to B.N. Rau on this issue. Rau replied that it was then too late to raise the issue. Ambedkar, the so called father of Indian Constitution, was in any case convinced that village Panchayats are the cause of India’s ruin. When the issue was discussed in the Assembly, Ambedkar said that he was happy that Constitution did not take the village as a unit and made no mention of Panchayats. Ultimately, the Assembly agreed to take note of the issue in the Directive Principles part of the Constitution; but the language of the relevant article did not mention Panchayats. This happened after the death of Gandhiji in January 1948.


Thus it is clear that till Gandhiji was alive he had kept himself aware of what was happening in the Constituent Assembly, but he was not willing to intervene in the direction it was taking. It can therefore perhaps be included that the framing of the Constitution had his direct or indirect consent. Now we have worked this Constitution for 63 years; the kind of polity it could and has delivered is before our eyes.


With this I conclude what I had to say. From here onwards, we should all together cogitate on the ways of transcending this constitutional framework and getting out of the intolerable state that the nation has reached.




Download PDF         Download Audio             Read Previous     Read Next