What our Constituent Assembly debates reveal about a vital process

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The drafting of the Indian constitution was a carnival of democracy. Coming out of the shackles of foreign domination, our Constituent Assembly is scripting a collective vision of the future of the country. Between December 1946 and 1949, the Assembly met for 165 days and spoke about 3.6 million words in total. This would represent approximately 8,000 pages of written material. These laid the foundations for our Constitution. It is therefore not surprising that these debates, richly embellished with philosophy and emotion, capture the minds not only of jurists, but also of anyone interested, even remotely, in policymaking.

We conducted a textual analysis of the country’s Constituent Assembly debates as part of a larger project. As we celebrate Constitution Day, it may be interesting to review some findings.

Diversity and participation: The Assembly was somewhat diverse, and this is generally known. Almost a quarter of the membership came from princely states, a considerable proportion. In terms of gender, there were only 15 women, which perhaps by India’s 1947 standards (with around 8% literate women) can be considered admirable. About 90% were Hindus. But, more interestingly, despite an overwhelming presence of Congress Party members, there was great diversity in their ideological positions. Between socialist KT Shah, Hindu leader Mahasabha Syama Prasad Mukherjee and liberal Minoo Masani, the party exhibited kaleidoscopic diversity. In general, academics have often asserted – in light of the historical and colonial context of the 1940s – that the Assembly was quite diverse.

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Voice sharing

But the mere presence of certain members does not necessarily imply that various points of view have been taken into account. A more useful measure of representativeness is the participation of members in debates. We establish a Lorenz curve for the number of words spoken by each member. When we line up the number of words spoken by each member, the graph shows an extremely uneven distribution. Less than 6% of members said 50% of all words spoken in the Assembly. Women members spoke less than 2%. (Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Sucheta Kriplani, among others, did not say anything). The most talkative speakers were Rajendra Prasad and Ambedkar (7.5% and 7.2% respectively). Prominent national leaders like Nehru and Patel contributed only 2.18% and 1.47% of the debate in terms of word count. The Gini coefficient for the number of words spoken in Constituent Assembly debates is 0.756, a very high figure, indicating a strong imbalance. This is worse than the Gini income index in South Africa, the most unequal country in the world in terms of income.

Of course, not participating in the debates does not mean that non-participants did not contribute to the constitution of the constitution. For example, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur has served on many sub-committees, such as the one on fundamental rights. Yet this is arguably a good, albeit crude, measure of the degree of deliberation in the process.

Constitutional Ideas: We also selected a few important constitutional concepts and mapped their frequency of expression against the number of people who invoked them. This measure is also approximate, but it allows us to see which concepts dominated the discussions and which were barely discussed. Lack of discussion doesn’t mean something is less important; this may well mean that an idea did not merit debate because of a convergence of opinion. But even then, the measure gives us a glimpse into the minds of our founding fathers and mothers.

We have eliminated frequently used words such as “elections”, “union”, “constitution”, “amendment”, “article” and “state”, and have taken up some important concepts that are still relevant today. Among these, as visible in the graph, “rights” became the most used word (the size of the bubble indicates the frequency of utterance). Members spoke a lot about ideas involving ‘religion’, ‘caste’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, unsurprisingly, although much less than ‘freedom’. More members said “education” versus “health”, and that too, many more times. “Gandhi” featured in discussions more than “god”, and words like “layman” were used much more than “dharma” or “morality”. “Women” has been invoked more than “adivasis”. It is interesting to note that the invocations of “freedom” far exceeded “equality”, which in turn was used much more than “socialism”.

Counting single words doesn’t tell us much about the nature and direction of the debates, but the co-occurrence of words in speech is indicative of how speakers feel about a topic. The alcohol ban, for example, was hotly debated in the Assembly by 51 members and the term was used 212 times. Gandhi’s views advocating the ban resonated strongly in the Assembly. Mahavir Tyagi and HV Kamath, who used “Gandhi” most often in their speeches, also argued for the ban. Although Ambedkar never invoked “Gandhi”, he used the word “ban” 11 times (and did not commit to it). Opposition to the ban actually came mainly from Dalit and Adivasis leaders like Jaipal Singh Munda, then president of the Adibasi (Tribals) Mahasabha and Olympic hockey player.

Again, these estimates may not signal anything concrete, but they provide a window into what occupied the collective mind of the Assembly. This project aims to further research into how we, the people, got where we got to. And the path is not as linear as you might think.

Shivkumar Jolad and Yugank Goyal are Associate Professors of Public Policy at FLAME University.

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Shanta Harris

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