The Anonymous Constitution: The Birth of India’s Constitutional Movement
The Constitution of India Bill, popularly known as the Swaraj Bill, was the first attempt at drafting and trying to enact a constitution for the people of India. The Swaraj Bill went on to be the prototype for future attempts at drafting constitutional documents.
This, however, was not the first foray of Indian leaders into constitutionalism. The constitutional movements of the Napoleonic era had been followed with great interest in Calcutta. The Spanish liberal revolutionaries had even dedicated the Cadiz constitution to Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Within India too, the upper classes had become increasingly adept at using the British courts to try and defend their rights. A telling example is the case that came to be known as Queen Empress vs Tegha Singh: The British authorities had seized a store of weapons from a temple. The temple custodians had argued that they were entitled to store the weapons, as they worshipped the weapons and religious freedom was protected under the Queen’s proclamation. The court accepted the validity of the argument, but went on to state that the British in India were free to act in violation of British law. It was in this environment that the Indian constitutional movement began to take shape, and the Swaraj Bill was drafted. While the author of the bill remains a mystery, Tilak, as part of his struggle for Swaraj, was a great proponent of the Bill. Annie Beasant even suggests that Tilak must have been highly influential in the drafting of the bill.
The constitution was well ahead of its time, including rights such as religious freedom, free education, compulsory primary education and freedom of expression. It even stipulated universal suffrage almost 25 years before women in Britain and the U.S gained the right to vote. The bill also includes the right to bear arms, a right we quite evidently don’t enjoy today. However, the right to bear arms was a consistent part of draft constitutions throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, it was one of the only rights included in the 1931 Congress resolution on fundamental rights that did not make it into independent India’s constitution. Historian Rohit De believes that the violence that preceded the Partition was the reason for the constitutional assembly rescinding this right.
Interestingly, the Swaraj Bill made no mention of how the transition would be made from princely state to province, even though it listed provinces such as ‘Rajputana’ and ‘Hyderabad Dominions’. In its defense, this question remained unresolved under the 1935 ‘Dyarchy’ system and post independence, the integration of the princely states would turn out to be a messy affair.
While the Swaraj bill was a radical constitution for India that gave the executive powers of state to an indigenous cabinet and parliament, it nevertheless granted the viceroy an absolute veto over all legislation.
Thus, the constitution called for Indian self governance, while still recognizing the British Monarch as the sovereign of India . This was quite likely influenced by the 1867 British North America Act that granted Canada nationhood within the empire. Looking back, the transformation of the British empire into a commonwealth of nations may seem inevitable. It is worth noting, however, that the Swaraj Bill was written six years before even Australia was granted “dominion status”. It was thus a visionary document, both in the context of the Indian struggle for independence, and in the broader context of the British empire.
Another influence on the Swaraj Bill may have been the Meiji restoration in Japan. In ‘The Gun, The Ship and The Pen’, Linda Colley writes that the 1889 Meiji constitution of Japan served as an influence not just on Indians, but on Ottoman(Turkish), Chinese reformers and nationalists as well. This is hardly surprising given that the Meiji constitution was able to modernize and westernize a society with strongly entrenched traditional power systems.
While the Swaraj Bill may not have been enacted or even brought before the House of Commons, it did have a great impact on the future of India. First, it galvanized the Independence movement by creating a clear vision of how a self governing India would be organized. Second, it served as the basis for documents such as the Congress’s response to the “Simon commission” and the Commonwealth of India bill. Through the influence of these documents on independent India’s constitution, the Swaraj bill’s legacy lives on.