Book Review: An amendment that wasn’t

Anyone who has gone through the churn of law schools can testify that at a certain point, they are either recommended to read Granville Austin’s ‘The Indian Constitution’ or they develop an urge to read the book. I got my copy of the book during the second year of law school and devoured through it within two weeks while attending, but not paying much attention to – and the irony is stark here – my constitutional law classes. The book is rather unique for capturing the history of our constitutional development. There are very few books that deal with this niche subject, much less that extensively. Needless to say, when I first heard of Sixteen Stormy Days, I knew I had to get myself a copy. Written by a Cambridge-trained historian Tripurdaman Singh, the book captures the historical background under which the first amendment was brought about.

The title as well as the chapters in the book, all carry allusions to a storm, which as a forecast of things to come, did that hit the parliament on May 31, 1951, when the draft amendment was making its way through the parliament, prompting H.V Kamnath to utter, ‘Freedom of speech is being taken away and there is a storm over it’.

However, unlike that storm, the first amendment left the constitutional edifice of this country permanently ravaged. The first amendment brought about three major changes – it provided additional restrictions to the right to freedom of speech enshrined under Article 19, it paved the way for reservations in educational institutions based on socially and educationally backward classes by amending Article 15, and finally, it introduced Article 31A and Article 31B, which put land acquisition laws beyond the purview of the judiciary and introduced the odious ninth schedule in the constitution that insulated legislations from judicial scrutiny.

To this day, all three issues have remained contentious. The government’s attempts to abolish zamindari ultimately led to the repeal of the fundamental right to property, forever denying the farmers and the tribals of a direct constitutional remedy. The reservation policy in India also has produced dubious results, where instead of slowly reducing the quota with progress, the share has consistently gone up, culminating in an additional 10% quota for the economically backward citizens given by the previous government. Any alternative welfare measures which might require some intuitive thinking have been given a farewell at the altar. Finally, the right to freedom of speech and expression remains as one of the most mutilated and suppressed rights of all, and continues to be violated persistently.

Tripurdaman in his book rewinds the clock and takes us back to the time when the groundwork for this constant flagellation of fundamental rights was laid. The author has brilliantly and painstakingly gone through the contemporaneous newspaper records to weave them into a seamless narrative. The book presents a scenario which at odds with the current dispensation when the bulk of the agitation for civil rights was led by the conservative wing of the Indian politics of – Jana Sangh and RSS. Of course, this was supplemented by the ingenious socialist tribe led by Kriplani and the conviction of the yesteryear communists like Romesh Thapar.

The book questions long-held beliefs regarding some of our founding fathers, chief among them, the belief of Nehru being a generous, democratically committed and accommodative leader. It shed a light on the rather petulant aspect of his character and the dismissive ways of his dealing with opposition. The book provides a detailed account of the resignation of John Mathai, the second finance minister of India over excessive emphasis on planning, the quibbling of Nehru with G.V Mavlankar over being warned against the constant promulgation of ordinances and his disagreement with Dr. Prasad, who can be found to be much more level-headed in his dealing with constitutional apparatus. Curiously enough, it also offers food for thought of Patel’s own perception of fundamental rights as the no-nonsense Home Ministry and rightfully discredits Rajaji as a hero of civil liberties in this era. Rajaji’s political awakening as the founder of Swatantra Party championing individual liberty was to be reserved for a subsequent date.

Yet, if there was a hero in the entire saga of solidifying the first amendment, it was the towering persona of Syama Prasad Mukherji. An orator par excellence, equipped with a sharp wit and an unparalleled clarity of thought, the book presents a detailed account of how Mukherjee incisively took the case of the first amendment apart. The excerpts of his speech reproduced in the book highlight some of the most glaring drawbacks of the amendment. In his speech, Mukherjee implores Nehru for putting the cart before the horse by amending the constitution for laws that don’t fit in instead of amending the laws themselves. He questions the need for an amendment by aptly providing Nehru with the logic of having a written constitution and a separate chapter on fundamental rights, indicating their inherent permanence. The wisdom of Mukherjee’s powerful speech can be best captured from the following bidding lines reminding Nehru of the everlasting impact of the amendment:

For the saddest epitaph which can be carved in memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while there was time’.

The book is punctuated with interesting trivia like Raja Kamkhya Narain being the first politician to use a helicopter for campaigning and V.K.T Chari, the advocate general of Madras being the brains behind what ultimately became the 9th schedule, which makes it an interesting read. I would definitely recommend this book and it might prompt you to buy Syama Prasad Mukherjee’s biography as it did for me.

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