Samvidhaan – A Review

Do we learn anything new from Shyam Benegal’s new show on the making of the Indian Constitution?

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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“The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defense are the constitutional rights secure.” 


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In order to be able to defend, it is only fair that one has a complete understanding of the Constitution. Unfortunately, we as a people have not exercised ourselves to understand the Indian Constitution. There has also been no real effort made by opinion makers to provide us with constitutional insights so essential to the functioning of a democracy.

There are enough documents in the public domain to enlighten people about what was going through the minds of those who drafted the Indian Constitution. The US Constitution during its inception borrowed heavily from the wisdom of John Locke and the ancient philosopher, Polybius. The Indian Constitution framers felt that reliance on these political philosophers alone would not do justice to the complex needs of India. Which is why they relied heavily on the British Constitution. The only problem is that Britain does not have a written Constitution. Additionally, private papers of many members of the Constituent Assembly throw light on what transpired during the painstaking process.

Therefore, it was with a great deal of anticipation that I looked forward to ShyamBenegal’s Samvidhaan, on the making of the Indian Constitution. The first episode of the 10-part series was broadcast on Sunday, March 2nd on Rajya Sabha TV.

ShyamBenegal had once told me that one principle he religiously followed was much greater reliance on characters rather than storyline. It certainly would be somewhat premature to draw inferences from just one episode, but on that yardstick alone I felt somewhat disappointed. At least I did not feel that I understood the dramatis personae any better that what I already knew about them. From the historical standpoint there were no new revelations at least after the first episode- and given Benegal’s penchant for meticulous research, that was something I expected.

As far as the events are concerned, there were some omissions which I felt merited mention. The most notable was the lack of reference to the controversy that had arisen over the election of the Permanent Chairman of the Constituent Assembly. As described by ArunaAsaf Ali in her memoirs, Jawaharlal Nehru had already made up his mind that the post should go to a South Indian and had even had preliminary meetings with Gopalaswami Ayyangar, whose name he intended to propose. He felt that Mr.Gopalaswami Ayyangar with his wealth of administrative experience was best qualified to hold this position and being a South Indian was an additional factor-this appears in a letter Seth Govind Das, one of the members of the Assembly wrote to Maulana Azad. Apart from Seth Govind Das, there were others who had reservations -Asaf Ali, Minoo Masani, Shyama Prasad Mookerji, HarekrushnaMahtab, Kailas NathKatju, Govind Ballabh Pant, Sri Krishan Sinha and the Maulana Azad were prominent among those. MaulanaAzad felt that a freedom fighter would be better attuned to the aspirations of the country and with the others mentioned made a strong pitch for DrRajendra Prasad. Nehru gave in and the first felicitatory message that Prasad received was from Gopalaswami. Asaf Ali was supposed to have persuaded Nehru in favour of Prasad.

What is remarkable is the name of the international statesman who sent the first congratulatory message to Prasad on his election. It was Irish statesman, EamonnDeValera who was his country’s Prime Minister at the time. DeValera in his note, which can be accessed in his correspondence which has been published, shared the difficulties he had faced in drafting the Irish Constitution. He and Prasad remained in touch for a long time and it is unfortunate that DeValera’s goodwill towards India is not generally known. Not commonly appreciated,but the constitution that the Indian Constitution perhaps resembles most is the Irish Constitution-morethan the US or the French Constitutions. I am hopeful that this fact would emerge in the coming episodes. One example of the Indian Constitution borrowing from the Irish is the position of the Attorney General.DeValera during his constitution making felt that the country’s chief law officer should not be a politician but a civil servant (unlike UK, US, Australia and Canada). He shared this experience with many Indian leaders he corresponded with.

The other surprising disclosure that emerged was Jagjivan Ram’s visit to MK Gandhi and his words of wisdom. The words of course were familiar and in keeping with Gandhi’s inclinations but I was not aware that they were imparted to Ram. I was left with the uneasy feeling that with Meira Kumar being one of the engines behind the project, this reference was almost inevitable.

I also had some reservations about Benegal’s choice of advisors for the project. ChandanMitra, with a doctorate in Modern History from Oxford was an appropriate choice but Rajeev Shukla’s name on the list did not in any way enhance the value of the exercise.

My own understanding is that all the leaders had recognised a remarkable civil servant right at the outset and decided to seek his expertise. The name of this gentleman was Benegal Narsimha Rau (I believe he is related to Shyam Benegal). Among his other spectacular achievements was his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for his international work. A reference to him in the very first episode would have been desirable. I look forward to the elaboration of the role of this forgotten genius in the coming episodes.

But on the positive side, Benegal gets full marks for his choice of Shama Zaidi as the dialogue writer. Being the daughter of a member of the Assembly herself, she was uniquely placed to do justice to the project with her dialogue writing skills-and she did. Tom Alter was absolutely superb as the Maulana.

With those caveats, I was pleased that this series was made and is being telecast. I look forward to the forthcoming episodes.

Samvidhaan is aired on Rajya Sabha TV every Sunday.


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