Granville Austin

Interpreter of a Constitution

Print edition : August 08, 2014

November 1949: President Rajendra Prasad signing the new Constitution of the Indian Republic, passed by the Constituent Assembly. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Granville Austin (1927-2014) decisively paved the way for Indians to understand the meaning of their Constitution through two outstanding, groundbreaking books.

IN Granville Austin’s passing on July 6, India has lost one of its most celebrated constitutional historians and an ardent believer in the dreams of the “founding fathers and mothers” of modern India. Growing up in Norwich, Vermont, United States, and having procured a doctorate in Indian history at Oxford University, Austin developed an interest in the Indian Constitution, which by all accounts was a product of a unique experiment in a world still reeling under the effects of the Second World War, decolonisation and the beginning of the Cold War. Intrigued by this brazen experiment, Austin spent several years in India researching the history of the Constitution. The result was truly outstanding and led to two groundbreaking books, in which Austin decisively paved the way for Indians to understand the meaning of not only their Constitution but also the raison d’etre of India’s postcoloniality.

Indeed, such was the influence of Austin’s first book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation (1966), that since its publication there has not been another book on India’s constitutional founding that has matched it for clarity of thought, depth of research, and mastery of primary sources. Equally, his second book, Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience (1999), has not yet been rivalled for its acute insights, perceptive judgments, and its extensively researched account of independent India’s Constitution at work. Between these two books, Austin has provided a vivid account of the predicaments and constraints that guided the vision of the framers of the Constitution and the dangers that follow when such a vision is sacrificed at the altar of securing political power. In recognition of his unique contribution, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri in 2011.

For Austin, at the heart of the constitutional document was the indelible faith in Indian nationalism the visionary founders espoused to deliver the promise of freedom to the masses. Austin imbibed this faith, and his writings reflected a sense of nationalism that was at once characterised by unity, consensus, conciliation and accommodation amidst India’s many diversities and differences. Setting aside what Aditya Nigam (“A Text Without Author: Locating Constituent Assembly as Event”, Economic & Political Weekly, May 22, 2004) described as the “polyphonic voices” inside the Constituent Assembly, Austin boldly unified the voice of the framers and argued that the primary aim of the members of the Assembly was fostering the goal of social revolution, and this was matched only by an interest in securing “national unity and stability”.

In this sense, the Constitution was above all a social, and not simply a political, document. For Austin, the engine of this social revolution emerged from both the pressing needs of the newly independent country and the Indian National Congress’ long experience of anti-colonial nationalism. Indeed, Austin credited the leaders of the Congress with successfully transplanting the goals of the freedom struggle as constitutional maxims. Quite understandably, Austin’s Cornerstone began with an epitaph drawn from Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech on “tryst with destiny” and concluded by saying that “Indians did not default their tryst with destiny”.

In explaining his argument, Austin not only painstakingly laid bare the mechanism of the making the Constitution but also carefully examined each of its features, such as fundamental rights, directive principles, the design of federalism, and the branches of legislature, executive and judiciary, as being primarily oriented towards the achievement of this social revolution.

In his detailed analysis of the political developments leading up to the making of the Constitution, Austin represented it not as a lumbering and unwieldy document formed from the coming together of a set of disparate clauses but rather as one that had a body and a soul. Most famously, Austin described the fundamental rights and directive principles, found in Parts III and IV of the Constitution, as the “conscience”, an analogy that has since been widely invoked by academics and non-academics alike.

In Working a Democratic Constitution, Austin revisited an India that had undergone profound transformations studded with social and political crises ranging from tensions between the executive and the judiciary, the imposition of the Emergency in 1975, increasing demands for further democratisation and empowerment among the economically and socially deprived, and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, to name only a few. This time, however, Austin was more cautious about speaking for Indians and said that “Indians must be the ones speaking. This is their book, in their words….” However, in reviewing the constitutional developments from 1950 to 1984 with references to developments in the 1990s, Austin concluded that the founders’ visions of social revolution, national unity, and stability through democracy that formed a “seamless web” continued to both influence and pose problems for their successors.

For Austin, if there was a fault, it clearly lay in the way the Constitution was worked and not in the way it had been conceived and framed. Presenting an organic theory of the growth of the Constitution, Austin famously noted: “The country lost its maternal immunity late in the sixties with the decline of the founding generation…. Approaching maturity in the nineties, its most difficult times lie ahead.” Indeed, unlike in Cornerstone, which began and ended with a quote from Nehru, Austin’s Democratic Constitution began and ended with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, popularly known as “Gandhi’s Talisman”, which prompted self-serving individuals to think whether their actions would better the lives of the most deprived in any way.

By moving from Nehru to Gandhi, Austin graphically laid bare the insufficiency and disappointment of India’s postcolonial journey, one that A.G. Noorani (“The Constitution and the course of politics”, Frontline, April 14, 2000) has aptly described as “India’s political development” and not merely as India’s constitutional history. Fittingly, Austin concluded that the nation had progressed but still had a long way to go, an idea that he recorded as recently as 2010 (“The Republic in retrospect”, Frontline, February 26, 2010), when he posed the question, “Can India be a great democracy, strong in itself and in the eyes of the world, so long as so many of its people are denied the promise of the Preamble?”. Austin’s solution was for Indians to remember the dreams of the founders, who had authored an incredible Constitution.

The underlying idea of Austin’s thought of a set of nationalistic visionary founders coming together and framing a Constitution with the singular purpose of generating conditions for a peaceful social revolution and the subsequent partial unmaking of the Constitution in its implementation because of political machinations truly gripped the social and intellectual world of Indian academics and the general public alike. This story of a well-conceived nation being torn apart by the ill-conceived politics of the successor generations has today attained the status of a “common sense” understanding of modern postcolonial India.

Austin’s influence

In the popular imagination, perhaps, the most telling evidence of Austin’s influence is the fact that his books are actively recommended to those preparing for the competitive Indian civil service examinations. Generations of aspirants over the years have had to read Austin for a qualified understanding of the Indian polity. Across colleges and universities in India and abroad, especially in political science departments, Cornerstone and Working a Democratic Constitution are perhaps the textbooks most commonly prescribed for an introduction to and an analysis of India’s Constitution.

Perhaps most prominently, Austin’s influence can be gauged by the number of times that Supreme Court justices have cited Cornerstone, which in itself is a rare privilege for scholars. In a fitting tribute to Austin during commemorations of 60 years of the Indian Constitution, Vikram Raghavan (Seminar 615, November 2010) noted that the concurring, and sometimes also the dissenting, judges had extensively cited Austin in court and in several landmark judgments, including, among others, Golak Nath (1967), Kesavananda Bharati (1973) and Minerva (1980), and in several High Court cases, including the influential case of Naz (2009). In these judgments, on issues of fundamental rights, directive principles, federalism, and limits on legislative and executive actions, the justices often subscribed to Austin’s fundamental idea that the Constitution was the finest expression of Indian nationalism and in their judgments strove to implement Austin’s evocation of the noblest expressions involved in the process of constitution making. In other words, Austin’s view of Indian political history imbued with unbridled nationalism and a unified voice provided the much-needed ethical framework to understand the Constitution in particular and Indian polity in general.

Given the enormous significance that is attached to Austin’s historical account of the framing of the Constitution in the understanding of modern postcolonial India, one may question whether such a history as Austin described it really occurred or whether he invented a venerable historical fiction. Austin’s powerful narrative dotted with the “demigod” -like qualities of the founding fathers overlooked certain key political developments surrounding the creation of the Constituent Assembly and the events that followed the crafting of the Constitution.

The Constituent Assembly, for instance, was at no point of time a neutral space where members could gather and exchange ideas freely. Rather, the body came into existence in 1946 after an extended series of bitter political negotiations between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League on the one hand and the British administration on the other. Indeed, in the immediate context of the deliberations around the Cabinet Mission Scheme in 1946, British efforts tended to predetermine the outcome of the Assembly by arriving at political decisions even before it could organise its first meeting. For both the Congress and the League, the implications of setting up the Assembly were quite clear.

The Congress believed that the arithmetic of the Assembly, which gave it a numerical majority, would aid it in pressing forward its agenda of retaining unity in the country with some provisions for provincial autonomy as a concession to the Muslim League. For the League, on the other hand, owing to its insistence on parity of representation, the numerical majority of Congressmen in the Assembly became a serious disincentive for its unfettered participation in the Assembly. As is well known, this led to the Muslim League’s boycott of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly.

When Sir Benegal Narsing Rau (1887-1953), a prominent civil servant and constitutional adviser, posed the problem of the legality of the Constituent Assembly meeting in the absence of the Muslim League, the eminent Congress leader K.M. Munshi dismissed such legal objections by arguing that the Assembly, despite the absence of the Muslim League, nevertheless represented India. It is important to note, though, that the absence of the Muslim League from the Constituent Assembly profoundly impacted the nature of the Indian Constitution adopted in 1950. The presence of the Muslim League would have meant a deeply federal Constitution with considerable provincial autonomy and a federal government whose powers would have been limited to defence, communications and foreign affairs. While one might speculate on the implications of such a Constitution for a multicultural polity like India, it is important to remember that the Constitution that was eventually adopted emerged after multiple failed attempts to make the Congress and the League, to name just two of the most prominent parties, reconcile their differences in a single constitution.

A sense of this failure of constitutionalism can also be gleaned from another well-known, although not well-discussed, fact, which relates to one of modern India’s prominent leaders, Bhimrao Ambedkar. Often considered the architect of the Constitution owing to his chairing of the drafting committee, in 1953 Ambedkar actually disowned the Constitution that he helped write, thus giving rise to the following question: Why, if the Constitution was the finest expression of Indian nationalism, did it not enchant two of the most significant communities of India, Muslims and Dalits?

Traditionally, however, historical fictions have played an important role in the constitution of political societies. Most famously, the social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, more recently, John Rawls have innovatively used the fiction of a “state of nature” or an “original position” to derive rights of citizens and duties of the sovereign from an imagined position of individuals coming together because of the common need of ordered living in a polity. Although unhistorical, these theories nevertheless are derived from an in-depth study of human nature both in its individual and in its collective forms, and despite being abstract they resonate with one’s experiences and hence “feel true”.

Therefore, scholars continue to return to these “masters” in order to grapple with the political complexity of the contemporary world. Likewise, Austin’s historical fiction, I would like to suggest, offers a window into a history that may not have necessarily unfolded as Austin would have one believe but nevertheless is a likeable fiction to which one feels compelled to return each time one is presented with seemingly insurmountable difficulties. This is perhaps one reason why the learned judges who themselves are only too familiar with the diverse histories of Indian nationalism continue to return to Austin’s history for direction in difficult times.

constitutional historian

Of course, it must be remembered that Austin himself never described his account as historical fiction, but as he clearly states in Cornerstone, the book “…is a political history of the framing of the Constitution”. But, I suggest that Austin’s abiding impact on the understanding of independent India was not necessarily because his account was historically true but rather because it spoke to the deepest desire to be a constituent part of the history that he narrated. However, this does not mean that Austin cannot be considered a credible constitutional historian. Rather, the obverse is true. Just as any of the social contract theorists cannot be faulted for their lack of historical accuracy, Austin cannot be criticised for his historical fiction. Indeed, as one knows, globally political societies are founded on such powerful fictions. Owing to Austin’s historical account, India’s place among such communities of nation-states is not questioned although its nature may be debated.

Austin’s belief in Indian history and nationalism can best be appreciated through an anecdote that is widely known, and which he also shared personally with this author during a visit to his home in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2008. Austin recalled that in the days of researching for his first book, when he visited President Rajendra Prasad to seek his permission to peruse his papers, Prasad was seated on the floor, almost oblivious of the presidential office that he held, and spoke warmly to him. Furthermore, Prasad also called for his assistants and asked them to immediately grant Austin access to all of his papers. It is little wonder, then, that Austin’s account of the Constitution is replete with such paeans of India’s founding fathers and is an unapologetic tribute to Indian nationalism. Through such a history, Austin not only invented an ideal Indian nationalist but also placed him at the heart of the founding document, the Constitution. Such a nationalist believed in democratising power, in accommodating differences and in integrated pluralism and, above all, sought to uplift the downtrodden through a social revolution. In recent times, when India has witnessed a recrudescence of nationalism, Austin’s account remains a sobering antidote that could potentially reveal an alternative genealogy of a nationalist, who could well be an aspirational figure for the future, if not of the past. For this remarkable contribution, Austin must not be forgotten.

Arvind Elangovan teaches history at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, U.S. He is currently working on a book that examines the role played by Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the making of the Indian Constitution and its implications for late colonial and postcolonial political and constitutional history of India.

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