Blog 1 - Celebrating Scholarship on the Indian Constitution Uncategorized

The Indian Constitution: A Historical and Political Project – Arvind Elangovan

Arvind Elangovan

When Granville Austin wrote his magnum opus, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation in 1966, he opened up the possibility for imagining India’s ‘founding document’ in ways that were difficult previously. He demonstrated that the Indian constitution was not only a legal document produced in the elite boardrooms but had a deep connection to the popular and populist anticolonial struggle of the previous decades. In connecting the legal with both history and the political, Austin paved the path to think about the Indian constitution in innovative ways that would encumber the social, cultural, political, and economic worlds in which the constitution remained imbricated. If anything, scholarship on the constitution since Austin and in contemporary times owes an enormous debt Austin’s pioneering insights in this regard.

Indeed, in my own work, though I depart from some of Austin’s readings of the constitution, I take Austin’s fundamental proposition, of writing a historical and political history of the Indian constitution seriously. In my first book, Norms and Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-50 (OUP, Delhi, 2019), I argued how the work of this impeccable bureaucrat quite illuminatingly illustrated the faultlines that existed in debates around the constitution vis-à-vis both the colonial state and Indian anticolonial nationalist leaders. In other words, the constitution as a document never fully represented the interests of either the colonial state or nationalist thought. This has interesting implications for the subsequent debates in the constituent assembly and the writing of the Indian constitution, completed between 1946 and 1949, and adopted in 1950. The most significant being that at the moment of the framing of the constitution, the primary objectives of building a nation had to be set aside in the interest of a strong state. Thus, in the interest of historical accuracy, we can never view the making of the Indian constitution synonymously with the making of the Indian nation. If anything, the latter is a project that will always be removed from the constitution and will be in tension with the founding document because of the historical, political process through which the constitution emerged.

In my current project, building on Norms and Politics, I aim to write a history of the Indian constitution in the long twentieth century by focusing on the idea, category, and lived experiences of Minorities. From a historical standpoint, it would be interesting to account for the multiple ways in which the ‘imperial’ framework and the postcolonial ‘global’ framework intersected with ideas of the constitution thus underscoring the complicated historical terrain on which any nation’s ‘founding document’ stands, including and especially India’s.