Introduction to a Book Discussion on Arvind Elangovan’s Norms & Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-50

[Ed Note: Over the next few weeks, we will run a book discussion on Prof. Arvind Elangovan’s Norms & Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-50. This is the introductory post by Prof. Rohit De. We are extremely grateful to Prof. De for his time and assistance in helping us put together this Book Discussion.]

Arvind Elangovan’s Norms and Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-1950 is the culmination of close to a decade of writing and research seeking to transform how we understand and study constitutional history. In 2014, Elangovan made a call to delink the making of the Indian constitution as a logical culmination of Indian nationalism, arguing that we needed to be “focusing on the long, multi-pronged, and ‘conflictual’ path traversed in the process of the making of the constitution” and see it not as a successful consensus but ” to viewing the document as a product of series of conflicts – ones that were both resolved and unresolved, as well as ones that challenged any imposition of nationalism.” It’s a theme he returned to in a number of writings, including an article where he examined the dominant narrative of the constitution through a review of the Shyam Benegal directed documentary, Samvidhaan (Shyam Benegal incidentally is a great nephew to Sir B.N Rau).

In his recent book, Elangovan turns to the well-known but little studied figure of Sir B.N Rau to show the tensions that underlay the project of constitution making. Norms and Politics shows that “at the twilight of the British rule in India, a little-known civil servant, Sir Benegal Narsing Rau (1887-1953) was sought after by the ruling elites – both British and Indian, for his immense knowledge of the nature and working of the constitutions of the world as well as his reputation for being just and impartial between competing political interests. Yet, Rau’s ideas and his voice have largely been forgotten today. By examining Rau’s constitutional ideas and following its trajectory in late colonial Indian politics, this book shows how the process of the making of the Indian constitution was actually never separated from the politics of conflict that dominated this period. This book demonstrates that it is only by foregrounding this political history that we can simultaneously remember Rau’s critical contributions as well as understand why he was forgotten in the first place.”

Described as one of the finest Indian jurists of his time, Sir B.N Rau did not have legal training. Trained in English, Physics and Sanskrit, and a Cambridge degree in Mathematics, Rau was one of a small handful of Indians who joined and rose through the ranks of the Indian Civil Service, serving as a district judge in east India and Burma, and legal remembrancer for the government of Assam. He spent the 1930s closely working as an advisor for a series of constitutional reforms, from advisor to the Simon Commission and the Round Table Conferences and draftsman for the Government of India Act 1935, judge of the Calcutta High Court, Prime Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, advisor to the Constituent Assembly of Burma and as Constitutional Advisor to the Constituent Assembly of India until 1949. He then served as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and judge on the International Court of Justice. 

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.

We are pleased that the following leading scholars will contribute to this book round-table on Norms and Politics, which will be followed by a response from Prof. Elangovan.

This book discussion was moderated by Prof. Rohit De and has been co-edited and coordinated by Anushree Verma, Gayatri Gupta, and Shanthan Reddy from our Student Editorial Team. You can follow Law and Other Things on our social media handles. (FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram)

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