Granville Austin’s The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation would be, if not the first, one of the earliest attempts at documenting the years between 1946 and 1950 during which Indians would craft their own constitution. The book quickly attained canonical status. Everybody from students, scholar, lawyers and judges very rarely could speak about the history and making of the Indian Constitution without referring to Austin. But who was Granville Austin anyway? How did he manage to jump the political and bureaucratic hurdles to access the archives? What did he do after he wrote his magnum opus? Why is it that Cornerstone even today has retained its authoritative status?
On the 31st July 2015, Vikram Raghavan – Senior Counsel – World Bank, in his talk titled – ‘Granville Austin and the Making of India’s Constitution’ attempted to answer these questions in front of a diverse audience at the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR), Bangalore. The talk was able to successfully juxtapose the making of the Indian Constitution with details of Austin’s incredible life. Vikram, with the aid of rare archival pictures and documents, traced the trajectory of Austin’s life from the moment of his arrival in India to research the Indian Constitution, to his death last year. Keeping aside the biographical details which happen to be the meat of his talk, Vikram’s presentation contained some important points that are worth highlighting.
Vikram tells us that Austin was primarily nudged into undertaking a study of the Indian Constitution by his professor at Oxford. Even though studies on newly independent colonial states were blooming everywhere, apart from Ivor Jennings and Charles Henry Alexandrowicz, no one else had really investigated or even showed interest in the origins of the Indian Constitution. Arriving at Delhi in 1960 and embarking on his research, Austin quickly hits roadblocks in accessing crucial archival materials. He realises that the ‘formal’ approach of getting hands-on archival documents was not going to work and begins to leverage his contacts in Delhi. This informal approach led to Austin meeting top politicians who were involved in Constituent Assembly and also other influential individuals – whose generosity with conversation and important documents – allowed Austin to begin crafting his narrative of the making of the Indian Constitution.
Many have argued that it was Austin’s ‘foreigner/white skin’ effect that allowed him access to documents that would have otherwise been denied to Indian scholars. While Vikram in his talk agreed to this proposition to some extent, based on his reading of Austin’s journal and conversations with people who’ve met Austin, he made the argument that Austin’s powers of social charm played an even more crucial role. Vikram was able to reinforce the advice that researchers and academics are often subjected to – social intelligence is a quality worth cultivating, especially in the context of research that demands materials that are in the hands of other individuals or authorities.
Engaging with the accusations made against Austin, of the romance-drenched narrative of Cornerstone being the cause of its popularity and attraction, Vikram while not completely discarding this, argues that the novelty of Austin’s methodology of studying the making of the constitution should also be given the credit. Vikram buys into Austin’s view that the real action of constitution-making happened outside the Constituent Assembly – in informal meetings at clubs, Congress party offices, morning walks, over drinks etc. Since these informal spaces are where crucial aspects of the constitution were debated, discussed and decided, Austin’s masterly narrative based on personal interviews that gave him a peep into these informal spaces, rather than an emphasis on the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly, is what makes Cornerstone special and popular. This is a view that must be taken with a pinch of salt. A cursory glance at the Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD) reveals a vigorous deliberative process that involved decisive debates which often culminated in the inclusion of one provision into the constitution or the deletion of another from it. In any case, the frequent citations and footnotes referring to the CAD in Cornerstone show us that Austin himself is a lot more dependent on CAD rather than his piercing into so-called informal spaces of Indian Constitution making.
If Austin primarily relied on CAD (which was available to the public and extensively cited in Cornerstone) rather than his personal interviews with important individuals and their generosity with archival materials – then what makes Cornerstone special? This was the underlying concern that animated one of the questions posed to Mr. Raghavan by an audience member at the talk – Does Conerstone’s popularity have more to do with it being the first narrative of the making of the Indian Constitution, rather than some inherent quality of its academic scholarship? Vikram replied to the question somewhat in affirmative but added that Austin’s accessible and poetic prose in addition to his rigorous scholarship, played a part as well. Also, he reminded the audience – it is often forgotten that Cornerstone, even though read mostly by lawyers, judges and legal academics, is not legalistic. Austin himself mentions that his book is a political history of the Indian Constitution-making process and not a legal account. Combine this with the gripping narrative that Austin superimposes on the making of the Indian constitution, and we can see why Cornerstone enjoyed and continues to enjoy the status that it does.
Vikram Raghavan’s talk was geared to resonate with diverse audiences. For the layman, the talk would have given him/her a useful and exciting nudge into exploring the history of the Indian constitution. For lawyers and academics already familiar with Cornerstone, unknown biographical details of Austin Granville was a treat. But the success of Vikram’s talk lies in provoking a debate on reinvestigating the role of the Constituent Assembly and even further – the role of important personalities within the assembly itself. A renewed understanding of the motivations, ideas, and conflicts within the assembly and the larger constitutional making process, would help us leveraging the same in moulding a vigorous and new conception of civic citizenship in India. We at the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR) have embarked on a project – Constitutional and Civic Citizenship – where we aim to do just that. And so, we are grateful for Vikram’s talk at CLPR, but even more so, for the timing of the same.