Jawaharlal Nehru and the Art of Debate 

On his death anniversary, we dig through the Constituent Assembly debates for glimpses of Nehru’s legacy.

10 min read
Jawaharlal Nehru and the Art of Debate 

(This article It was originally published on 26 May 2018. It is being republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death anniversary on 27 May 2022)

Differences in political ideology aside, few can argue that Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the greatest public intellectuals and egalitarians of our age. As early as 1938, when India was only just beginning to muster strength to oust the British, Nehru was writing that the political freedom India sought was not an end in itself, but a means to an end – "the end being the raising of the people... to higher levels and hence general advancement of humanity".

In July 1946, he was unanimously elected the chairman of the Congress Expert Committee, to prepare the materials for the Constituent Assembly. It was this committee that set India on the road to her lofty Constitution. The Objective Resolution, moved by Nehru on 13 December 1946, provided the blueprint for the future Constitution and eventually became the Preamble.

The drafting process, that ended in January 1950 – over three years after India’s Independence – overcame grave challenges to the process itself: conditions of limited sovereignty, partition of the country, great need for economic development, and glaring internal differences along ethnic, linguistic, religious, and socio-economic lines.

It was Nehru who, for the most part, steered the ship to calm waters over the years, until the Constituent Assembly laid down the legal foundation for the world’s largest democracy.

Apart from the Preamble, Nehru's intellectual fingerprints are all over the Constitution. The tirelessly detailed Constituent Assembly debates are a treasure trove for anyone who is interested in drowning in Nehru's idealism and exalted aspirations for India, his star oratory during the Assembly, or his conviction and clarity of thoughts while presenting his arguments.

He was acknowledged by the entire nation as its leading constitutional thinker. Well-read in political theory and exposed to the realities of other countries, Nehru is also credited with securing mass acceptance of a democratic and egalitarian new India.

From directing events during the making of the Constitution, to fending off the disruptive political and social waves that were lashing India, to serving as a direct catalyst of Constitutional progress, it is small wonder why Nehru’s feats have won him the tag of a colossus.

On his 54th death anniversary, The Quint digs through the debates in the Constituent Assembly to bring you a few gems that are testament to Nehru's legacy.

Let his fervour for the nation remind you to turn the golden pages of Indian history, read and re-read the political philosophy and sincerity that went into creating the idea of India, and subsequently, emulate it at a time when little seems sacred to those who lead us, across party lines.


Nehru's Pledge

The first resolution raised by Nehru, in December 1946, placed before the Constituent Assembly an outline of the plan for the Constitution’s structure and defined their collective aims for a new India.

This was still when the Princely States and the Muslim League were yet to be represented in the Constituent Assembly, and committees were still in the process of being formed by all parties involved to negotiate the terms of representation of the stakeholders. Nevertheless, Nehru thought it correct that the very first objective approved by the Constituent Assembly must be something that is “higher than a law”, “something that breathes life in human minds.”

He was criticised for rushing the discussion; his colleagues asked to postpone the discussion so that all affected parties could be present to take a call on the resolution, especially since the world “republic” may not sit well with some of rulers of the states. But Nehru was convinced of his “intentions regarding the states”. He stressed that the states were free to participate in the future Indian Union in whichever way and sort of governance as demanded by the people, as long as they function with the Union of new India.

To those who objected to the absence of the word “democratic” in the pledge, Nehru explained that while democracy was the ultimate aim, the Constituent Assembly will determine the shape it would take.

To those who objected that that resolution didn’t mention that India should be a Socialist state, Nehru argued that he personally believed that all countries will have to slowly move in that direction, but added that delineating socialism with “theoretical worms or formulae” would take away from the autonomy of the CA.

This pledge often draws comparisons to Nehru’s 15 August 1947 ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech, for its loftiness and ability to inspire. The pledge gains context with the six weeks worth of speeches by Constituent Assembly members, either for or against Nehru’s motion. Chairman Dr Rajendra Prasad had even imposed a 10-minute cap on the speeches – but it was a time-limit Nehru never quite adhered to!

In the end, Nehru had the upper hand. Many members of the Constituent Assembly withdrew their amendments and motions to postpone; the resolution – nay, pledge – was undertaken with all the assembly members standing up together, instead of loud ayes and nays.

It ultimately went on to constitute the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, albeit with several changes, all of which were yet another point of debate in the Constituent Assembly. Take for instance, the stance of freedom fighter and Urdu poet Maulana Hasrat Mohani in 1949, when the draft Constitution was being scrutinised, years later.

To watch the full speech, click here. Let’s take a closer look at some of the debates.


On Secularism

When the debate in the Constituent Assembly moved to the wording of the original Preamble – that talked of "sovereign", "democratic" and "republic" India – Professor KT Shah, a member from Bihar, moved an amendment for the insertion of the words, "Secular, Federal, Socialist" into the statement. But Nehru, BR Ambedkar, and others did not agree.

It’s not that Nehru was not for India being a secular state. What Nehru had a problem with the ambiguity inherent in the word when applied in the Indian context and hence, its inclusion in the Constitution. He felt that including the word in the founding document of the country would never work, or worse, be a fraudulent representation of a country where rulers and the religious public have interacted since the beginning.

He understood that that if ‘secularism’ was to be truly followed, the state would not be able to make any religious interventions, like reservations for religious minorities, protection of the Muslim personal law, or even the directive principle to protect cows – all of which the Constitution went on to incorporate.

Consequently, the Constituent Assembly adopted Articles 25, 26 and 27 of the Constitution with the intention of furthering secularism and embedding it in India’s core philosophy, but dropped the word ‘Secular’ from the preamble.

In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and passed a series of amendments to the Constitution (many of which were to prolong her rule). The 42nd amendment, passed in 1976, changed the description of India from “sovereign, democratic republic” to a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic”.


On National Language

Nehru did not want either English or Hindi to be India’s national language. Instead, he  was keen to use the word ‘Hindustani’ over Hindi as it represented the composite culture of India, in what he called a “linguistic revolution”.

That said, he was also accepting of the fact that if India wanted to be a powerful nation, connected with the rest of the world, it could not afford to completely dismiss English.

Ever the rationalist, Nehru reitirated stance of Mahatma Gandhi, who observed that adapting a foreign language as the language of the people will always end in the stratification of society between people who think and live in different languages.

The thing of beauty about this debate is Nehru’s way of seeing the choice itself: not as one of leaving behind versus choosing culture but of moving forward and not looking back as often.

On Foreign Policy

Nehru was vociferous when it came to discussing how independent India should interact with other global powers and strongly advocated the link between foreign policy and nation-building. He truly believed India was destined to play a major role in world politics.

This also explains India’s policy of non-alignment – spearheaded by Nehru, of course – where sometimes, India simultaneously received economic aid from both blocs.

Curiously, non-alignment rarely came up for discussion in the Constituent Assembly.

Nehru did, however, accept that India would have to use “weapons of the weak” to “function as peacemakers and peace-bringers”.


On the Right to Property

One of the most significant and controversial debates that Jawaharlal Nehru was a part of was whether the Right to Property and protection from takings should be a constitutionally protected Fundamental Right or not. This was debated upon by the likes of liberals like lawyer KM Munshi, socialists like KT Shah and thinkers like BR Ambedkar, who sought to find a balance between individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the government’s duty to pursue socialist welfare policies.

Nehru was against the Right to Property being constitutionally protected. He argued that only the legislature could determine the quantum and manner of compensation in case it needs to take private land for “large schemes of social reform”. He argued that the judiciary had no place in this process unless there was a “fraud on the Constitution” or a “gross abuse of law”. In other words, where measures are taken to give effect to socio-economic justice schemes which will benefit the society as a whole, the state should not be burdened with the obligations of paying huge amount as compensation.

He introduced the law by an Amendment as Article 31 in September 1949 for its incorporation into part III of the Constitution.

In March 1948, the sub-committee of Fundamental Rights drafted the clause as: “No property, movable or immovable, of any person or corporation, including any interest in commercial or industrial undertaking, shall be taken or acquired for public use unless the law provides for the payment of just compensation for the property taken or acquired and specifies the principles on which and the manner in which compensation is to be determined.”

His socialism notwithstanding, as an example of Nehru’s forward thinking is the way he viewed property and how it was changing as human society further developed.


On the Taxation of Salt

“No duties on salt shall be levied by the Union”. When Article 253 of the Draft Constitution came up, Nehru stepped in and argued for the autonomy of the legislature.

While stressing that no one present in the Constituent Assembly would even think about taxing something as basic as salt, he also said future decisions to tax, or not tax, should lay solely with the legislative. But to do it on paper, and forever set it in stone in the Constitution would be akin to painting oneself into the corner, should the need arise to tax foreign salt dumping in the future.


On the Nomination of A Governor

On whether the post of Governor should be an elected or nominated one, Nehru reiterated that discouraging communalism and reducing the creation of separate groups must remain the goal. To this end, he felt that an elected Governor would encourage that separatist provincial tendency more than otherwise.

Apart from the burden of elections for provincial and central legislatures, adding another election of this scale to the mix would also lead to a wastage of India’s energy, time and money. which the nation could use for several other worthwhile projects, he argued.

While many argued in the Constituent Assembly that a more active domain is better suited for the role of a Governor, Nehru believed that eminent people, who were entirely removed from politics, would better aid the government in carrying out its policies – by always placing the nation over everything else, in the absence of a party or group-affiliation.

He stresses upon his staunch belief in basing a democracy on the electoral process, but warns that blindly duplicating it repeatedly makes little sense.

On Being A Part of the Commonwealth

Perhaps what Nehru received the most flak for, and continues to do so till this day, is his move to sign the Declaration of London, the 1949 pact that extended independent India’s membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. Some called Nehru a sellout, while others called him a visionary. Regardless, his move to remain a part of a bloc led by those who oppressed India shed light on the nuance in Nehru’s debating and linguistic skills.

While laying down the foundation of the Constitution, he argued that cutting off ties with the Commonwealth would isolate India too soon after getting on her own two feet.

Besides, he wanted to show the world “that India does not lack faith in herself, and that India is prepared to co-operate even with those with whom she had been fighting in the past.”

Apart from using economic progress as a reason, which he consistently maintained as a good argument to base foreign policy on, Nehru also believed that joining the Commonwealth would promote peace around the world.

He viewed the declaration as a ‘touch of healing’ in the relationship between the two countries; India was not subordinate to the British or vice versa.

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