How did India become a sovereign, democratic, republic?
A cursory search on the internet will take you through the freedom struggle, the formation of the Constituent Assembly and a series of critical discussions their members had in the process of crafting a Constitution for the people of India.
Any reading of this history is bound to throw up your usual set of political heavyweights like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr BR Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad and the likes.
Often forgotten in this journey from colonial subject to a sovereign republic are the civil servants working in the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) – without whom the Indian democratic project would have probably never got off the ground.
Set up in May 1946, the CAS was an interim bureaucratic agency tasked with helping the Constituent Assembly draft a new Constitution.
Leading the charge for the CAS was Sir Benegal Narsing Rau, the Constitutional Advisor. Holding the office of Joint Secretary, Surendra Nath Mukherjee played the all-important role of Chief Draftsman of the Constituent Assembly of India for drafting India’s Constitution.
Other key officials in the CAS’s Franchise Section, which played a fundamental role in laying the basis of electoral democracy in India, were Under Secretaries KV Padmanabhan and PS Subramanian, and research officers AA Abidi and Brij Bhushan.
Besides assisting in the drafting process, the CAS’s Franchise Section also helped prepare the first electoral rolls of an Independent India.
India could not have never had her first election (from 25 October 1951 to 21 February 1952) if that historic list, with 173 million voters based on the principle of the universal adult franchise, had not been made.
Alongside bureaucrats in the provinces and ordinary Indian citizens, these are the unsung heroes of India’s democracy.
This article will look at the contributions of Sir BN Rau and SN Mukherjee, the two key civil servants in this entire endeavour.
Dr Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly, said Rau “was the person who visualised the plan and laid the foundation” of the Indian Constitution.
High praise, indeed.
As Constitutional Advisor of the Constituent Assembly, Rau not only oversaw the preparation of the draft electoral roll but also laid the groundwork for how members of the Constituent Assembly would draft India’s Constitution.
Born on 26 February 1887, in Mangalore (Mangaluru), Karnataka, Rau grew up in a family of intellectuals with his father BR Rau being a leading doctor in the city. One of his brothers, Benegal Rama Rau, would go onto become the second Reserve Bank of India governor of Independent India.
Earning a scholarship to the illustrious Trinity College, Cambridge, Rau eventually passed the Indian Civil Service Examination in 1909 and was posted to Bengal for his first assignment.
For the next two decades, he would go onto serve both in the ICS and the judiciary, serving as a judge in the Calcutta High Court. He retired from the service in 1944, before being appointed as the Prime Minister of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, he soon left the job – citing differences with the then Maharaja of Kashmir on issues of policy.
Before his tenure as Constitutional Advisor, he served as a Secretary in the Governor-General’s office working on the subject of constitutional reforms.
When he took over the position of Constitutional Advisor and led the establishment of the CAS in July 1946, he laid down firm conditions before the Constituent Assembly.
“The whole organisation is non-political and non-party in character. Its services are equally available to every member, irrespective of party and creed,” he wrote.
This is in stark contrast to the deeply politicised nature of the Indian bureaucracy today.
“Rau was the leading authority in guiding the process of making the universal franchise from a constitutional perspective…Rau’s sense of justice and his pursuit of pragmatic, satisfying solutions under very difficult circumstances were the same qualities that he demonstrated when he found solutions to the problems of implementing the franchise,” writes Ornit Shani, a scholar of Indian politics and modern history, in her seminal book ‘How India Became Democratic’.
We know that the Indian Constitution borrows heavily from constitutions of other nations. Soon after taking office, Rau and his team including KV Padmanabhan travelled to the USA, Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, where he had personal consultations with scholars, judges and authorities on constitutional law.
Before the Constituent Assembly prepared its first draft of the Constitution in October 1947, he wrote Constitutional Precedents—an in-depth analysis “comparing the basic elements of the constitutions” of different nation states.
He also has the unique distinction of participating in the drafting a new Constitution for the then Union of Burma (Myanmar). For Constituent Assembly members in India, he took up the responsibility of preparing all the necessary background materials.
Overseeing the drafting of the electoral roll since its inception in 1946 till 1948, Rau found solutions to some the most difficult logistical problems that arose from registering voters, particularly the refugees entering India following Partition who weren’t technically ‘citizens’ and whose residential status was undetermined.
A firm believer of universal adult franchise, Rau believed that no Indian voter should be left behind in the process.
In a letter he wrote to Rajendra Prasad on May 12, 1948, he said: “The electoral rolls now under preparation are merely the preliminary rolls. Before a general election is held on the basis of these new rolls, they will have to be…published and revised under the electoral law. There should, therefore, be no objection to ‘refugees’ being registered in the rolls for their province on a mere declaration by them of their intention to reside permanently in the town or village concerned.”
Following his decision to quit office in late 1948, Rau represented India in various capacities in the United Nations before being elected to the International Law Commission in October 1948.
He served as India’s representative in the United Nations Security Council from 1950 to 1952 before getting elected as a judge in the International Court of Justice in The Hague—the first Indian to earn that position.
Unfortunately, he passed away in November 1953 in Zurich, Switzerland.
At the end of debates in the Constituent Assembly, Dr BR Ambedkar, the chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, praised Mukherjee’s “ability to put the most intricate proposals in the simplest and clearest legal form, can rarely be equalled, nor his capacity for hard work.”
“Without his help, this assembly would have taken many more years to finalise the Constitution,” added Ambedkar.
As Joint Secretary of the CAS and Chief Draftsman for drafting independent India’s Constitution, Mukherjee played an integral role in imbibing into the citizens of India what Ambedkar called ‘constitutional morality’, despite the existence of stark social hierarchies.
While BN Rau oversaw the process of drafting the electoral roll, Mukherjee led the everyday process.
Before every major decision, Rau would always consult Mukherjee. Through his time at the CAS, Mukherjee ensured that the preparation of electoral rolls was in accordance with the constitutional framework established by our Founding Fathers.
He would address any concern emerging out of the provinces and a multitude of citizen groups on logistical, legal and moral concerns in the electoral roll-making process. This constant engagement not only helped everyday citizens and the bureaucracy form a real stake in the democratic process, but also helped cultivate what Ambedkar called ‘constitutional morality’—adherence to the core principles of the constitutional democracy.
“There is no doubt, I suggest, that Mukherjee’s deep engagement with the public and administrators throughout the country, and the seriousness with which he took into account and addressed their disparate concerns, played a critical role in the successful institutionalization of the universal franchise.
He was the main person who corresponded directly with administrators and the public about constitutional and franchise matters. In doing so he became a role model for the process of mentoring bureaucrats and the public in the institutional procedural principles of electoral democracy,” writes Ornit Shani.
This constant engagement with the public carried onto January 26, 1950 (Republic Day), when he presented a detailed analysis of the Indian Constitution in both the Times of India and Hindustan Times. “It is true that many of the provisions in the Indian Constitution are in other Constitutions left to be dealt with by common law, but the reasons for such detailed provisions will be apparent if one only remembers the vastness of the country, the diversities of its population and the varieties of interests therein requiring safeguards,” wrote Mukherjee.
In 1952, Mukherjee was appointed Secretary, Rajya Sabha. A decade later he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India, before his demise in 1963.
What’s particularly amazing about the work these legal and bureaucratic luminaries did was the circumstances under which they worked.
In a feudal country, which had just emerged out of the shadow of colonial rule marked by stark social hierarchies and the utter chaos generated by Partition, these men successfully engaged in the strenuous task of nation-building from literally the ground up with the spirit of social justice embedded in it.
Mind you, these men began work on the Indian democratic project at a time when nothing was determined. Everything was up for grabs.
Fortunately, we had civil servants who were dedicated to the cause of nation-building.
Sadly, these heroes remain largely forgotten. It’s time we honour them.
For additional reading please refer to ‘How India Became Democratic’ by Ornit Shani.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)