When the foundation of India’s liberalism showed the first crack

Tripurdaman Singh’s new book is a meticulously researched and zestfully told narrative of the First Amendment

GN Bureau | March 2, 2020


#Tripurdaman Singh   #Jawaharlal Nehru   #liberalism   #Fundamental Rights   #The Constitution   #J. B. Kripalani   #S. P. Mukerjee  


Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India
By Tripurdaman Singh
Vintage Penguin Random House, xx+268 pages, Rs 599


Amulya Leona Noronha is only 19 but old enough to be booked under the sedition law. She is only the latest in the long list of those booked under a law that dates back to the colonial times. Freedom fighters, Maoists, fundamentalists, authors, activists, and middle-class students – not to forget a cartoonist – have faced charges under a law that is routinely described as draconian. Whenever the government of the day chooses to come down heavily on dissent, it resorts to this provision, leaving its critics to wonder why this colonial-era relic is not struck down from the statute.

Section 124A is the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”, in Mahatma Gandhi’s words during his famous trial of 1922. Why was it not repealed after the independence? These days, students, civil society and liberals hold the readings of the Preamble of the Constitution, and brace up against any changes in its core. Little do we know about the very first amendment, which radical revised the crucial part of the Constitution relating to the Fundamental Rights.

More surprising is the fact that this large-scale rewriting came within slightly over a year of the adoption of the Constitution. The most surprising is the fact that this was the handiwork of Jawaharlal Nehru, the epitome of liberal values. These facts are of course in public domain, but remain surprising because they are not in public discourse. It is difficult to believe, unless you know, that the curtailing of Freedom of Speech was a decision of Nehru. It might be even more difficult to believe that those who fought hard against him then included Syama Prasad Mukerjee, the founder of the Jan Sangh, alongside diehard liberals.

The first amendment to the Constitution not only hastily undid some of the best intentions of those who framed the founding document but also set a precedent for future amendments. The story of the first amendment is not a state secret, but it has not been studied beyond the basic facts, except for an essay by Nivedita Menon.

Tripurdaman Singh needs to be thanked for recalibrating our naïve understanding of the opening chapter of India’s post-independence history. ‘Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India’ is a counterintuitive reading, more so in these times when liberalism is under heavy attack at home and abroad.

Indeed, this excellent narrative can be read as part of those works that are making an appraisal of the Big Idea in the aftermath of the Trump victory and Brexit; for example, ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ by Patrick J Deneen and ‘The Light that Failed: A Reckoning’ by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. Singh, though, is not joining the larger debate, but does the more important job of meticulously documenting how the first crack came up in the foundation of liberalism in India.

Singh, who holds a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, explores the parliament archives and newspapers of the day to bring alive the historic and hot-tempered debate as Nehru piloted the bill for the amendment in parliament in June 1951. In the face of a series of court judgments going against the Congress party’s social agenda, Nehru found no way out but to create a leeway within the Constitution and give the executive – himself, then – the free hand to shape the nascent republic.

“What had come to pass was nothing short of a radical rewriting of Part III of the Constitution. The original constitutional provisions on fundamental rights were effectively ripped apart. The relationship between the state and the citizen was altered for all time. A precedent was set for easy, almost casual amending of the Constitution and the passing of retrospective legislation. A mechanism for bypassing judicial review was created. Sedition had been retrospectively validated. A host of public safety and press control laws had been made operational again. Free speech was curtailed … The subservience of the Constitution to government policy was demonstrated. The Constitutional groundwork was laid for a host of repressive legislations to follow. A vital, cardinal change had occurred, which would have immense long-term consequences for India, its people, and its politics,” Singh writes in the introduction.

As those sixteen stormy days unfolded, the narration lets a curious cast of characters to do the talking. Gandhians and renegade Congressmen, now-forgotten champions of liberty and leading lights of the right wing cornered Nehru and raised foundational questions. Here is Acharya JB Kripalani, among Mahatma Gandhi’s first disciples on his return to India and also the president of the Congress at the time of the Independence, who disagreed vehemently with Nehru, another Gandhi disciple, on the roadmap for a democratic India.

“A government that cannot dismiss a peon in office wants to clothe itself with extraordinary powers! I submit, these extraordinary powers will be used to your injury; and who will use them? It will be they that come after you. You are not going to be eternal. … More powers will only injure you. So please be satisfied with limited power, because your capacity is very limited indeed.”

The aftermath of the first amendment is, of course, beyond doubt. There is a school of thought these days that, in the face of disastrous results of a radical decision, looks for best intentions. Nehru’s intentions, then, were not to amass more power but to hasten execution of the social agenda. Elsewhere in his life and in the public domain, there is little to show him in illiberal light, much more to show his respect for liberal values. Instead of jumping to conclusions about Nehru’s political virtues, one can consider ‘Sixteen Stormy Days’ as the exception that proves the rule. Nehru’s liberalism or otherwise will have to be evaluated on the basis of his 75 years and not these sixteen days alone.

That benefit of doubt, however, cannot be extended to the Indian state, in whose history the first amendment was the first step backwards. Singh’s pioneering work opens a new vista for further research in less investigated aspects of contemporary history.

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