A Commission, a Report and a Constitution

The Constitution of India is the most sacred document of India today. Every official takes his oath affirming allegiance to this Constitution. Many believe that our institutions can fail us but not the Constitution. Such is its aura. It can be conceived as an ideal document that can be referred to, to achieve good governance, taken from the ‘theory of forms’ proposed by Plato. The Constitution was adopted in 1949 and it came into force in 1950, few years ‘after’ we got independence from the British rule. It was drafted by a Drafting Committee setup under the Constituent Assembly. What makes this drafting a feat is that it was done by an ‘all-Indian’ committee with B.R. Ambedkar as the chairperson. However, an attempt to draft the Constitution was done even ‘during’ the British rule by Indians under the chairmanship of Motilal Nehru. The final report was called the Nehru Report.

In the year 1927, the British decided to appoint a commission to review and suggest reforms to the Government of India (GOI) Act of 1919. It was one of the milestone acts enacted by the British to set up a system of governance in India. It was also a controversial act that was labeled as an eye wash by many prominent Indian parties due to its failure to recognize their demands. Regardless of the opposition by the Indians, the Simon Commission, as the commission was called, submitted its report in 1930. This report was then tabled for discussion in London via the three Round Table Conferences of 1930, 1931 and 1932, respectively. The deliberations in the three Conferences were then discussed in the British Parliament which led to the enactment of the iconic Government of India Act of 1935, also called the ‘Interim Constitution’ as it served as such until we drafted our own Constitution.

This is a story which most of us know. But there is a catch in between, an important event that would be injustice to Indian history if forgotten or not mentioned – The Nehru Report of 1928. The importance of this report is evident from the fact that failure of the British to accept it became one of the reasons why we, Indians, shifted our goal from mere ‘Swaraj’ to ‘Poorna Swaraj’ adopted through the Lahore Session of 1929. Just like many historians refer to the Revolt of 1857 as the first war of independence despite, technically speaking, the first agitation for attaining independence being the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930), the Nehru Report can be called first attempt of drafting an Indian Constitution.

The composition of Simon Commission, an all-White Commission, attracted huge opposition from the Indians. The Indians argued that how can the British constitute a commission for governing Indians without a single Indian being its member? (Though, this is a common sight in contemporary world. For example, laws are made by men for women without women being adequately represented in the legislature) The Indians demanded representation. The phrase, popularized during the American Revolution, was evident here – “No taxation without representation”. The Americans had refused an attempt by British to tax them from London when none of the Americans were involved in decision making there. The British refused to change the composition of the Commission. Instead, they threw a challenge at the Indians to draft a Constitution that would be acceptable by majority. The challenge is an evidence of the thinking of the British during that time regarding incompetence of Indians to govern themselves.

However, Indians did accept the challenge and drafted the first ever Constitution. The Nehru Report had some features that British India never had and some features that contemporary India has. It is a pity that the people, who considered it a burden on their white-race to civilize the barbaric East, never gave the women of their most prized colony, India, voting right throughout their reign of 200 years. Despite the fact that the British considered removing Sati practice or bringing Widow Remarriage Act as an achievement, never did it happened that the Indian women got a right to vote during the British Raj. Equality of men and women explicitly and through universal adult suffrage was mentioned in the Nehru Report.

Another notable feature of the Nehru Report was its rejection of a Separate electorate for Muslims. Instead it gave the provision of reservation for Muslims, to be elected through a joint electorate (all eligible voters), in provinces in which they were in minority. To complement this, reservation was given to non-Muslims in provinces of Muslim majority (like the North West Frontier Province). Separate electorate was a concept which Gandhi ji swore against till his last breath. Even during the second Round Table Conference, he rejected B.R. Ambedkar’s demand for a separate electorate for untouchables. Separate electorate is a system in which only those people belonging to the religion for whom the constituency is reserved can vote. For example, if a constituency is reserved for Muslims, only Muslim candidates can contest election and only eligible (i.e. above the age of 21) Muslim citizens can vote. The non-Muslims cannot vote in such a constituency. Separate electorate was provided to Muslims through GOI Act 1909 and to Sikhs, Anglo Indians and Europeans through GOI Act 1919. Rather than this system, the Nehru Report preferred joint electorate with reservation for the minorities, a system still followed today, where everyone can vote in the constituency but only candidates of the reserved category can contest elections.

Nehru Report gave India the status of dominion, a long pending demand of the Indian National Congress. It also included many firsts for India like the concept of citizenship, inclusion of fundamental rights, etc. Earlier Indians were referred to as subjects of the British Crown. Moreover, even the GOI Act, 1935 excluded the Bill of Rights from its provisions. Modern day concepts of Division of Power between the Centre (the commonwealth of India as it was to be called) and the province, Separation of power among the legislature, executive and the judiciary, Rule of law, etc. were included in the Nehru Report. This indicated not only the ability but also willingness of the Indians to self-govern.

The report was undecided upon by the British. Many parties within India rejected the report like the All India Muslim League. The Congress understood that the British had no intention to do good for Indians and hence they decided not to fall prey of eye washes given by the British. This led to the adoption of the ‘Poorna Swaraj’ or complete independence in 1929. Every struggle thereafter took place to achieve this goal and every concession proposed by the British was met with a clear will of non-subjugation. The Nehru Report had its limitations but it proved that India was not far enough in achieving Swaraj.

-Aastha Kursija (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: Wikipedia Commons

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