First amendment and 'original sin'

Topics BOOK REVIEW

Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India | Image: Amazon
Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India

Author: Tripurdaman Singh
Publisher:  Penguin
Price: Rs 600

The Indian Constitution has been amended more than a hundred times in 73 years. The US Constitution has been amended only 33 times in 227 years. The Australian Constitution has been amended eight times in 119 years.  The French have made about 30 amendments in 59 years, mostly about decolonisation. 

India is peculiar in this respect. It amends the Constitution at the drop of a hat. The first time it did so was when the ink wasn’t dry on it, within a year of it being adopted in 1950. That amendment abridged our freedom of speech. 

The author of this book has written about that first amendment of 1951. He has a PhD in history from St John’s College, Cambridge. He has published a book before this one. It’s called Imperial Sovereignty and Local Politics: The Bhadauria Rajputs and the Transition from Mughal to British India 1600-1900,  published last year by Cambridge University Press.  

And I might add, he is very young. So it jars a bit when the book seeks, quite unabashedly, to portray Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, in a poor light. I can’t imagine why. There is absolutely no need for that. 

That said, no one can quarrel with the substance of his argument, which is the process by  which the freedom of speech, unconditionally guaranteed in Article 19, was qualified by putting some restrictions on it. 

The book’s form, however, is a different matter altogether because of the needless use of avoidable adjectives. These appear designed to portray Nehru as a sort of spoilt brat. 

The publishers also bear some responsibility here. They should have exercised editorial prerogative. The point is this: As the saying went, you mustn’t spoil the ship for a ha’penny’s-worth of tar. 

Nehru, always Nehru: The evidence that Mr Singh has marshalled is, however, impressive and indisputable. The burden of Mr Singh’s song is that as early as 1950 an impatient Nehru had begun to chafe at the bit in  the Constitution that placed restrictions on the government’s freedom of action. 

The unhindered freedom of speech, which the Constitution guaranteed, annoyed him hugely. So in the face of stiff opposition from others, which Mr Singh has put together very well, Nehru decided to restrict it and succeeded. He piloted the amendment himself and the stated objects and reasons reveal his fury. 

The way Mr Singh tells it, a spoilt kid threw tantrums and got his way. It’s not a flattering portrait of Nehru because it’s incomplete. The fact that he wanted to initiate much needed social and economic reforms gets brushed aside quite peremptorily, as is the fact that for all his several faults, Nehru meant well and what he was proposing made eminent sense. 

Amongst other things, this means we must all ask the question: Was he justified in abridging the freedom of speech to get his changes through? The author provides a very informative account of all that happened when the matter was being discussed. 

But he doesn’t quite deal with the question of what is a reasonable restriction. In mitigation, no one has been able to do that because the interpretation must necessarily be contextual. 

For example, Nehru wanted to get on with land reform but when three states passed legislation in that regard, the whole thing got tied up in courts. This was one of the reasons given by Nehru for demanding the amendment. He thought the judiciary needed to be aware of the socioeconomic and constitutional context. 

The latter was a reference to Article 31, which gives the right to hold private property and the government’s intention to circumscribe it for the “common good”. 

The concluding chapter is an angry denunciation of the Congress, which, the author says, had despotic tendencies that ran counter to the liberal spirit of the Constitution. That may well be true but in the light of recent events, readers are entitled to ask if that tendency is restricted to the Congress alone. 

The fault, dear Brutus, is not our Constitution but in ourselves. 



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