How India Borrowed From the US Constitution to Draft its Own
A mural depicting Balasaheb Ambedkar (R), the author of the Indian constitution handing it over to Rajendra Prasad (R), the former President of India. (Photo: Reuters)
A mural depicting Balasaheb Ambedkar (R), the author of the Indian constitution handing it over to Rajendra Prasad (R), the former President of India. (Photo: Reuters)

How India Borrowed From the US Constitution to Draft its Own

No wonder the architects of modern India paid such close attention to the democratic cornerstones laid by their American stepbrothers. (It didn’t hurt that democracy had just trounced tyranny in the Second World War, giving representative government an attractive sheen).

When India’s first constituent assembly convened on 9 December 1946 to begin hammering out its constitution, chairman Sachchidanand Sinha urged the 200-plus delegates in attendance to look first and foremost to the US Constitution. Drafted in 1787 by what Thomas Jefferson, then stationed in Paris, described as ‘an assembly of demigods,’ Sinha called it ‘the soundest and most practical and workable republican constitution in existence.’

The Oldest Democracy, One of India’s First Friends

Noting that it had served as a model for the republics of France, Canada, Australia and South Africa, he continued, ‘I have no doubt that you will also, in the nature of things, pay in the course of your work greater attention to the provisions of the American constitution than to any other.’

The congratulatory messages he read to the assembly members included one from acting US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, which showed just how deeply invested America was in their success.

‘India has a great contribution to make to the peace, stability and cultural advancement of mankind, and your deliberations will be watched with deep interest and hope by freedom-loving people throughout the entire world,’ it said. Even so, Sinha cautioned, India’s unique circumstances meant that the US Constitution should be studied ‘not for wholesale adoption, but for judicious adaptation of its provisions.’

People scatter rose petals in front of a portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar, the author of the Indian Constitution. (Photo: Reuters)
People scatter rose petals in front of a portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar, the author of the Indian Constitution. (Photo: Reuters)

When the great untouchable leader BR Ambedkar sat down to write India’s Constitution the following year, that’s exactly how he proceeded. A widely respected lawyer who had shattered the confines of his caste to study abroad, Ambedkar became the country’s first law minister, and was tapped by the Congress-led government to head the Constitution committee – presumably to guarantee a fair and inclusive document. Indeed, India’s Constitution – the longest in the world, with 395 original articles and 98 amendments at last count – spelled out more civil liberties than any other.

From the start, India’s leaders were enamored of the American concept of a document written by the people, for the people. For Nehru and Gandhi, the example of the US ‘drafting its own Constitution right after its independence, was very strong.’

It instituted universal suffrage for all men and women over twenty-one, established a secular state, guaranteed free speech, and banned the caste system, freeing 60 million untouchables. In a gesture way ahead of its time, it even called for ‘equal pay for equal work for both men and women.’ Constitutional scholar Granville Austin wrote that no other country’s constitution ‘has provided so much impetus toward changing and rebuilding society for the common good.’

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Did You Know?

  • The Indian Constitution borrowed heavily from its American counterpart.
  • The first Republican Constitution, the Declaration of Independence had already served as a model for France, Canada and Australia.
  • For Nehru and Gandhi, a people drafting their own Constitution set a strong example. From the Preamble to Fundamental Rights, the inspiration of the American Constitution is very visible in ours.
  • The American government and people extended support and solidarity to young India.

Similarities in Language and Principles 

From the start, India’s leaders were enamored of the American concept of a document written by the people, for the people. For Nehru and Gandhi, the example of the US ‘drafting its own Constitution right after its independence, was very strong,’ said Austin. Indeed, the preamble to both documents starts with the same three stirring words: ‘We the people,’ a phrase that somehow confers equality, humility and self-possession all at once.

Founding fathers of the US Constitution sign the Declaration of Independence. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Founding fathers of the US Constitution sign the Declaration of Independence. (Photo: iStockphoto)

While the preamble to America’s Constitution announces its intention ‘to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,’ India’s takes the idea a step further, specifying what those blessings are: ‘Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.’ Other echoes abound; India’s Fundamental Rights—which include the abolishment of untouchability – mirror America’s Bill of Rights: both guarantee freedom of speech (though India’s does not explicitly mention ‘the press’) and the right of citizens ‘peaceably to assemble’ (America’s) or ‘to assemble peaceably’ (India’s).

The language of America’s fifth amendment, dictating due process before the law, can also be glimpsed in India’s Fundamental Rights: both prohibit citizens from being tried for the same crime twice, and both ensure that a suspected criminal cannot be ‘compelled’ to ‘be a witness against himself.’ Like America’s, India’s Constitution stipulates that the president appoint the justices to the federal Supreme Court. And it mandates a highly flexible process of amendment, ‘to conform with the Jeffersonian idea that each generation should be free to adapt the Constitution to the conditions of its time,’ wrote Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn in the International Journal of Constitutional Law.

That may explain why India’s Constitution is among the world’s most frequently altered, averaging roughly two amendments per year. Even the minimum age requirements for president (thirty-five) and parliament (twenty-five) are the same as America’s.

The world’s other democracies rejoiced, welcoming India into their club; in New York, hundreds of diplomats gathered to celebrate at India House, while the India League of America sponsored a packed public meeting in a midtown church. League President Sirdar JJ Singh praised Americans for their steadfast support. ‘American criticism of British rule in India had a tremendous effect upon British public opinion,’ he said.
A vendor sells portraits of BR Ambedkar on a pavement in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)
A vendor sells portraits of BR Ambedkar on a pavement in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

USA Celebrates the World’s Largest Democracy

After three years of drafting and revising, negotiation and debate, India’s Constitution went into effect on 26 January 1950 – exactly twenty years after the Congress declared independence as its goal. Ambedkar proclaimed the document ‘workable… flexible and… strong enough to hold the country together,’ in times of war as well as peace. ‘If thing go wrong under the new Constitution,’ he said, ‘the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.’

The world’s other democracies rejoiced, welcoming India into their club; in New York, hundreds of diplomats gathered to celebrate at India House, while the India League of America sponsored a packed public meeting in a midtown church. League President Sirdar JJ Singh praised Americans for their steadfast support. ‘American criticism of British rule in India had a tremendous effect upon British public opinion,’ he said.

Responding to a congratulatory message from US president Harry Truman, India’s new president, Rajendra Prasad, reiterated India’s commitment to working for world peace, adding: ‘In this task, I am sure we can count on the cooperation of the government and people of the United States, whose principles of individual liberty and rule of law are reflected in provisions in our own constitution.’

Many Americans were deeply moved by the notion of such a poor yet proud country embracing the values they’d cherished for so long. In fact, a number of US institutions sought to get involved and help India along; the Ford Foundation, for one, spent a great deal of time and money trying to improve the country’s legal education system, with mixed results. Ultimately, like so many Western concepts adopted for India, what worked best was using the American model of law school to develop a uniquely Indian one.

(Excerpted from SuperEconomies: America, India, China and the Future of the World)

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