Samvidhaan: Reflections on Shyam Benegal’s rendition of Indian Constitutional history

[Ed Note: As part of our series marking 15 Years of Law and Other Things, we bring to you posts from our long-time contributors and supporters! In this post, Professor Arvind Elangovan reflects upon the famous television series “Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India” by Shyam Benegal. He argues that despite the accomplishments of the series, which ostensibly aims to teach the viewer about the story of the making of the Indian constitution, it obfuscates more than it edifies.]

Over the years, among the many news items that have appeared in Indian mainstream newspapers discussing Shyam Benegal’s made for Television series, SamvidhaanThe Making of the Constitution of India (2014), one was particularly striking. In a report filed by Times of India correspondent, Niharika Lal, the headline read, “Tihar inmates learn about the Constitution through Benegal’s show” (Times of India, Nov. 28th, 2016). Lal reported that Benegal’s ten-part series was streamed to all the Television sets within Tihar and that after airing of every episode or two per day, there were discussions among the inmates. Stressing the pedagogical function of the series, Lal quoted the Director General of Prisons, Sudhir Yadav, who said, “Most of the inmates know very little about how the Constitution was created. In India, we have such an extraordinary Constitution that gives us the definition and parameters of our nation, and tells us how we are supposed to function. Hence, it’s very important for each one of us to know and understand the Constitution, including the inmates.” Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘inmates’ were in Tihar in the first place due to their intimate encounters with the law of the land, for which the Constitution is the foundation, Yadav’s comment nevertheless gestures towards an interesting irony. While there is an acknowledgment that the Indian constitution is ‘extraordinary,’ giving shape to the idea of our nation and the state, most inhabitants – citizens – of India are unaware of such a rich document. A distance is presumed between the people and their constitution, a deficit that can only be bridged by instituting a pedagogical project. In Yadav’s understanding, then, Shyam Benegal’s Samvidhaan is supposed to serve a pedagogical purpose in educating the ill informed about the greatness of their constitution. Indeed, Samvidhaan is made for such a pedagogical need. In what follows, I present a few observations based on viewing the 10-part series, not necessarily to explain whether or not the series reflects the actual proceedings of the constituent assembly (which would be interesting of course), but to suggest that perhaps, in the name of edification, the makers of the film nevertheless may have erred towards obfuscation, which is revealing nonetheless in interesting ways. 

As readers of this blog would know, Shyam Benegal, the veteran filmmaker and director of highly successful Television shows such as Bharat Ek Khoj and Yatra, is the director of Samvidhaan. In multiple interviews, Benegal has stated that his stint in the Parliament as a member of the Rajya Sabha (2006-2012) gave him the idea to make a series on the making of India’s constitution. Then-vice president (Hamid Ansari) is reported to have encouraged Benegal to make such a show for Rajya Sabha TV. (Hindustan Times, March 16th, 2014). In words that would be echoed by Mr. Yadav of Tihar jail later, Benegal had said, “The Constitution gives us the definition and parameters of our nation, and it tells us how we are supposed to function.” (Mint, September 24th, 2013). Clearly, Benegal was proud to make this series. For, after viewing the series, one certainly walks away with a sense of awe about the process of the making of the document. This awe stems from understanding that the framing of the constitution at a fundamental level was a deeply intellectual exercise, a fact that is mostly forgotten in popular political discourses. Simply put, for the uninitiated, seeing this process on television could be the spark that inspires further exploration of the constitution. 

In an effort to remain true to the letter and spirit of the making of the document, the writers and the Director depended on existing primary documents as well as, most importantly, Granville Austin’s The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1966). Austin’s work acutely informs the imagination of the writers of the series, Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari (who also plays the role of Govind Ballabh Pant in the series). Importantly, this can be seen both in the thematic presentation of the 10 part series – a division that largely follows the chapters in Austin’s book (with some minor differences, of course), including the progress of debates within each theme – as well as in adopting Austin’s fundamental idea that the Indian constitution was ultimately a successful product of nationalism. Indeed, apart from mentioning Austin in different parts of the series, the final line in the last episode is devoted to reading the last line written by Austin in his book, which in part reads, “Indians did not default their tryst with destiny.” Thus, in remaining true to the letter and spirit of Austin’s work, Benegal’s Samvidhaan is as much a documentation of the making of the Indian constitution as it was a televised rendition of Austin’s account of the process. Like Austin’s work, then, Samvidhaan is portrayed as a successful embodiment of nationalism – in the way in which Indian political leaders, despite differences, came together – to frame India’s constitution. 

While Austin’s approach may be problematic in some ways (as most authoritatively elucidated by Upendra Baxi in his famous review, The Little Done, The Vast Undone – Some Reflections on reading Granville Austin’s “The Indian Constitution”)[1], it is worthwhile to point out that Benegal’s adaptation for television achieves something remarkable. For the first time, we – as the general audience – are privy to the many historical actors who graced the national stage, debated the constitution in the constituent assembly, and played an important role in the framing of the constitution. We thus get a glimpse of political representatives such as V I Muniswamy Pillai, K Santhanam, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Begum Aizaz Rasul, R V Dhulekar, Narayan Agarwal, and Naziruddin Ahmad, to mention only a few. In addition, Sir Benegal Narsing Rau, the civil servant extraordinaire chosen as the constitutional advisor to the constituent assembly, is depicted as well. For the first time, then, viewers get a broad but abbreviated view of political leaders other than Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr. B R Ambedkar, and other luminaries on the national stage. Indeed, a remarkable effect of this television series is that it highlights how little Nehru, for instance, actually spoke in the constituent assembly. This is reflected in the constituent assembly debates as well. Of course, Nehru was also occupied with being the Prime Minister of the country, and thus much of the constituent assembly work was deputized to other Congress leaders and Ambedkar. Nevertheless, the optical effect of seeing Nehru largely silent in the many scenes shown in the series is quite telling and makes us think about the idea that the larger process of constitution making was clearly beyond a single individual. Though unintended, this process of decentering Nehru is one of the important and thought-provoking lessons that a viewer gleans from a story that expressly celebrates Indian nationalism. 

Naturally, this does not mean that Nehru is absent in the series or in the constitution-making process. Indeed, Nehru becomes a vehicle to enable us to view a somewhat lost world as well. In one telling scene, in episode 8 of the series (titled, Federalism: Linking the States and the Center), Nehru, played by Dalip Tahil, is shown working at his desk, away from the assembly hall where much of the action in the series unfolds. In filming such a scene, Benegal portrays an aspect of a politician’s life that we rarely see in public anymore, namely the contemplative reflections of a thoughtful political leader. Historically, we do know that most of India’s nationalist leaders were thoughtful and engaging not only in their public life but also privately, where they wrote letters, books, and short stories even. However, rarely have we seen such depiction in commercial cinema, for instance. Conventionally, in such a medium, politicians are shown either as scheming, cunning, or manipulative, or as someone who is so extraordinarily gifted that a common person just remains stupefied in the face of such genius. Instead, Benegal underscores the contemplative nature of a political life and correspondingly of the writing of the constitution. In depicting Nehru in such a way and in retelling the many thoughtful interjections and comments made by many members of the constituent assembly, the idea of politics itself undergoes a transformation in Samvidhaan – from the popular understanding of politics as a pursuit of narrow self-interest to an articulation of the collective good. While this may not necessarily be accurate even in the context of the constituent assembly, it is nevertheless worth noting that the constituent assembly was a rare occasion in India’s postcolonial history where collective interests had the potential to surpass individual political ambitions. Benegal’s portrayal is a rich tribute to such a moment. 

In other ways, too, Benegal captures the spirit of the constituent assembly debates. In places, he departs from focusing exclusively on the central hall of the parliament, where members of the constituent assembly debated, to the somewhat ‘behind the scenes’ discussions that were central to decision-making in the constituent assembly. For instance, in the second episode (titled, Independence – A Divided Legacy), Gandhi, played by Neeraj Kabi, is seen advising and recommending to Nehru and Sardar Patel, played by Utkarsh Majumdar, to include Ambedkar in the constitution making process. Likewise, there is a scene in the fifth episode (titled, Strengthening the Weak: Minority, Women and Backward Rights) where a private, brief, and intense exchange occurs between K M Munshi, played by K K Raina, and Ambedkar, played by Sachin Khedekar. Here, Munshi asks Ambedkar to give up on the demand for affirmative action to which Ambedkar threatens to remove himself from the drafting committee. While this scene and the following one in which Patel has a private meeting with Ambedkar denote a larger documented disagreement between Patel and Munshi with Ambedkar on the question of affirmative action, the fact that there were serious disagreements even among the close-knit leaders of the constituent assembly is captured quite admirably. This is especially true in the ninth episode (titled, Three Pillars – Executive, Legislature, Judiciary) where a disagreement is shown between Nehru and Patel on the use of whips. While Patel suggests using whips to ensure conformity, Nehru strongly disagrees and walks away from him. This scene speaks to the volume of tensions that persisted between these two men, which is again well documented in the literature. In moving away from the central hall and speculating on how private conversations might have occurred among members of the constituent assembly, Benegal has done a huge service to his viewers who may not be as aware as constitutional scholars that many of the decisions actually took place outside the central hall. Indeed, it has been frustrating for scholars that many of these discussions are not documented; hence the nature and content of these discussions remain open to creative interpretation. But, these imagined private conversations provide a rich and fertile field for a creative filmmaker. Needless to say, though Benegal does not venture extensively in this regard, in the scenes where he does depart from the available script of the constituent assembly debates, he does so effectively. 

But, despite these wonderful accomplishments, I would argue that the series, which ostensibly aims to teach the general viewer about the story of the making of the Indian constitution, somehow obfuscates more than it edifies. Let me point out three instances in which this happens throughout the series and reflect on some implications of this obfuscation. 

First, it is striking to note that when members of the constituent assembly rise to speak, their names appear below to help us identify them. However, we are not informed about the state or the constituency they were representing. Readers of the official debates of the constituent assembly of course know that the members represented specific regions and constituencies. By eliding this piece of information, perhaps for the sake of presentation or otherwise, the series implicitly partakes in a particular project of nation building wherein specific markers of the contested ways in which members got elected to the constituent assembly are removed. As we know, elections to the constituent assembly were held on an indirect basis wherein the provincial legislatures, constituted on the basis of limited franchise and separate electorates, voted to send representatives to the assembly. These elections, held in 1946, became a critical factor in the ongoing raging debate on the partition of the subcontinent. Thus, the state and the constituency that voted for each becomes an important historical fact. It is not difficult, of course, to imagine why the makers of the series chose not to highlight the same. It seems that such an omission was an attempt to underscore the nationalistic nature of the enterprise of constitution making. However lofty an ideal, it is interesting to note that it leads to a subtle if not emphatic elision of some important historical details associated with the constitution making. 

Secondly, the series uses the ‘text’ of the constitution in curious, if not coy, ways that prevents the viewer from easily accessing such a text. Consider the very beginning of the series in the first episode. Somewhat inexplicably, it begins in an auction room where the auctioneer welcomes bidders for a “very exclusive auction” in which up for a bid is the ‘original’ copy of the Indian constitution. He describes the document as one that was specially prepared for members of the constituent assembly, capping it with the following description – “a very rare and truly a collector’s item.” In this vein, the document is also shown in an encased glass that is sufficiently far from prying eyes and indeed hands. One must wonder and ask: why is it that the constitution, a text that apart from enumerating the foundational features of the Indian state also affirms the rights of the citizenry, should be imagined to be always unreachable to a common citizen? Why should the series begin by focusing on the exclusivity of the document instead of perhaps signifying its deep roots and reach in the Indian society? Why should the imagination of the constitution be so elitist? This elision of the text would become a recurrent feature in the 10 part series. For instance, at no point are we shown the text or other important associated texts in any great detail (with one exception as described below). Indeed, as readers would know, both the debates of the constituent assembly as well as the edited volumes containing the committee deliberations and reports of the constituent assembly are published and available for public consumption. If ‘viewing’ the making of the Indian constitution is a critical enterprise, then part of this phenomenological experience should extend to the texts that are critical to this enterprise. At least one shot of the texts would have been helpful to convey to the viewers that these texts exist in the public sphere. Equally, showing the cover of Granville Austin’s book would have the effect of connecting the viewer to the text in an intimate way and thereby erase the distance created between the citizen and the constitution.

Finally, and this relates to the exception mentioned in the previous point, in one of the episodes the makers of the series make the text of the constitution visible. In the fourth episode (titled, People’s Rights – Principles of Governance and Duties), the anchor Swara Bhasker mentions that the Indian constitution not only has a set of fundamental rights for the citizens but also a list of fundamental duties for them. Bhasker notes that it took 25 years for fundamental duties to be incorporated in the Indian constitution but curiously, fails to mention that these duties were added to the Indian constitution at a time when Indira Gandhi had declared a national emergency, which involved the suspension of fundamental rights. In order to further emphasize the pedagogical nature of the enterprise of making this series, Bhasker then proceeds to read out the list of fundamental duties. It is striking that in an episode that enumerated the making of fundamental rights and the directive principles of state policy, the makers of the series only chose to read out the fundamental duties of Indian citizens. Indeed, this also marks the first time in the series when Bhasker is seen holding a text of the Indian constitution. Thus, the first time that the constitution comes visually and textually close to the viewer is in the instructions provided by the state about the duties of the citizen – not rights. Indeed, it is not hard to speculate why this series is shown with much aplomb in Tihar jail. 

Highlighting these critical elisions or the process of obfuscation embedded in the very action of edification is not meant to critique a well intentioned and, for the most part, well-made series, but to suggest that the series ultimately reproduces the very gap that it sought to erase in the first place. To recall, Benegal intended to bring to a television audience a process that has by and large remained obscured from public view. Much like his previous series, such as Bharat Ek Khoj, Benegal hoped to educate the general population about the arguably impressive process of the making of the Indian constitution. However, in doing so, the public (especially the Indian public) only gets a very partial view of the foundational document. The text of the constitution is socially distanced – to use a very contemporary terminology – and safely kept away from the hands and eyes of the public. We are shown glimpses of brilliant arguments made by different members of the constituent assembly, but we are not told where they come from and or whom they represent, lest their parochial origins sully the grand nationalistic narrative at work. Finally, the only time that the text comes close to the viewer is when the latter is reminded of his/her fundamental duties. Law thus becomes intimate not when it fosters liberty, but rather when it demands its due. 

The pedagogical project undergirding Samvidhaan is certainly laudable. However, obfuscating the process in an enterprise that seeks to edify speaks volumes about the way it is assumed that most of us understand the constitution. While we can certainly respect the process of framing the constitution, we do not have to locate the document outside the citizen’s reach. Indeed, as the protestors at Shaheen Bagh and other parts of the country demonstrated in late 2019 and early 2020, the constitution can become a document of the people, at least partially. Worshipping the document, then, must give way to introspection. This may yet be the unintended and welcoming consequence of viewing Benegal’s Samvidhaan.

[1] Journal of the Indian Law Institute 9, no. 3 (1967): 323-430. Accessed November 23, 2020.

Dr. Arvind Elangovan
Dr. Arvind Elangovan is an Associate Professor of History at Wright State University, USA. His research interests lie in exploring the political and constitutional histories of South Asia from the nineteenth century to the present. In particular, he is interested in examining the political histories within which the constitutional developments unfolded in late colonial and postcolonial South Asia. He is the author of "Norms and Politics" which details Sir Benegal Narsing Rau's role in the Making of the Indian Constitution from 1935-50. 
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