[Ed Note: As part of our blog round-table book discussion on Arvind Elangovan’s book Norms & Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-50, this is the third review by H. Kumarasingham. The introductory post and the links for the other reviews (by Gurpreet Mahajan and Vanya Vaidehi Bhargava) can be found here.]
On the floor of the Lok Sabha on 28 November 2015, Narendra Modi, famously announced to Indian parliamentarians and the world that the religion of his government would be ‘India First’ and its ‘holy book’, the Indian Constitution. That the constitution would be utilised in this way by the BJP prime minister, whose rise to power raised fears of religious and nationalistic fervour convulsing the country was unsurprising. Modi, by trying to drape himself with the secular and esteemed constitution of the world’s largest democracy, attempted to subdue his detractors and placate the minorities and others who were concerned that the policies of his government would entail the curbing of the liberties promised to them on 26 January 1950, when the Republic of India came into being and its new constitution inaugurated.
Constitutions are not meant to be staid documents that are ornamentally kept in the background. Instead, it is inevitable that their meaning and influence are constantly contested and reimagined, often for political purposes. In Indian history the constitution has always been at the forefront of debate, both intellectually and politically. It has developed into a tool that Modi, and all is predecessors, have sought in order to buttress their power, while withstanding its restrictions. Arvind Elangovan’s work has consistently sought to demarcate Indian constitutional history from nationalist history, but while uncovering its political history. Elangovan does not search for constitutional utopia, as many nationalist historians and politicians are at pains to do. Norms and Politics is not a book to read of the constitution being a culmination of a righteous anticolonial struggle. This is no constitutional tryst with destiny. Instead, through the career of the remarkable Sir B. N. Rau, Norms and Politics, allows the readers to appreciate the making of the constitution in a different light. Here, we are given insights into key ideas and personalities as well as the fraught conflicts and failures from 1935 to 1950 in the constitutional arena. Through the workings of B. N. Rau, and in the hands of Elangovan, Indian constitutional history emerges more nuanced and layered.
For those who study Indian political history and the constitution in the period surrounding independence, Rau is rarely mentioned in the same breath as B. R. Ambedkar or Vallabhbhai Patel, despite his importance. Yet, to read his clear and erudite memoranda over the climactic path to 1950 is to gain invaluable revelations into the thinking and possibilities of Indian constitutional futures. Though it was fascinating to learn about Rau’s work towards the Government of India Act 1935, it is as Constitutional Adviser to the Constituent Assembly that Rau’s name is most often recalled. In my own examination of Rau’s work in shaping India’s constitution, what always struck me was the span of his learning and knowledge of various constitutions and how he was able to find precedents within Indian history for modern demands rather than making submissive facsimiles of the West. Far more than just Indian figures, Rau, like his younger brother Shiva Rao, were among the most impressive constitutional writers and analysts in the global decolonisation moment aware of the diversity of Commonwealth precedents, law and history and how they could be employed for post-colonial states like India in inventive ways. Elangovan’s book emphasises this and shows how Rau was especially adept at looking at the ‘founding moments’ across continents and contexts when constitutions were being drawn up in combustible circumstances. His intellectual work was buttressed by visits to Europe and the North America where he impressed his interlocutors. However, he never ceased to be critically aware of India’s persistent and peculiar circumstances. Norms and Politics is particularly good at charting Rau’s attempts to find a federal solution to meet Jinnah and the Muslim League’s demands. In this, as with much else, Rau ultimately failed, but not without impressing those from the League as well as the British, Princes and Congress leaders with his determination to build a durable union. Yet, it is not a great stretch to speculate that Rau died in 1953 unhappy that even his constitutional ingenuity could not prevent partition.
A key stimulation of Norms and Politics was that it provided much needed research on the context and influence of B. N. Rau on the constitutional history of India and vice versa. It also made me want to know more about similarly important figures from this period, who though occasionally evoked have had little in-depth study, like Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyer, Sir Girijar Shankar Bajpai, K. M. Munshi and others. Let us hope that this book inspires such treatment as Elangovan has given to Rau, and perhaps even better, that a worthy local successor to Arthur Berriedale Keith might provide a new constitutional history of India. At a time when South Asian history finds itself with ever more hagiography and hatchet jobs, Elangovan has provided a much-needed rejoinder by placing Rau’s record for clear historical examination showing the value of the exercise in understanding a critical period in Indian history with a balanced yet passionate analysis. National history can be done without nationalism, which those in power in India and elsewhere have long failed to comprehend.