Gandhi, Congress and the Constitution


With official support extended by the Colonial Government the Congress party was founded on 28th Dec, 1885 in Bombay by Allen Octavian Hume, a retired ICS officer. It was a small elite gathering of about 72 delegates comprising several Indian lawyers and Englishmen. They pledged loyalty to the British Crown. The genesis of the Congress was not to liberate India but primarily to fulfill British interest and secondly, the Indian bourgeoisie interests. The party membership grew with only urban based English educated people.

The Congress eulogized the development works undertaken by the Colonial Govt.  The Congress party worked for undisturbed British rule in India. The Congress was a bourgeoisie party representing upper class interests. The Congress considered western civilization far advanced and followed the English life style. For them, the British Crown was the sovereign power and had no regard for people’s sovereign authority. So they never encouraged the common people’s participation in the administration. They wanted to maintain their exclusivity and thought that the uneducated masses did not know the nitty-gritty of the English governance. That was why the Congress supported the limited franchise based on property and high income. The Congress leaders believed that the British Govt. was progressive with a liberal justice system.

The Congress leaders had by then exerted influence on the common people and acted as the power brokers between the Govt. and the masses. Whenever necessary to the Government, they mobilize support and manipulated the public for the benefit of the govt. and to fulfill their interests. That was the main reason why the colonial administration was free from public pressure. Hence, the British felt that by satisfying the few Congress leaders there were no need to do any welfare job for the uplift of the masses. The Congress leaders even supported the marketing of British products in India.

Apart from the Congressmen, the British had another group of faithful agents serving them known as the Indian Princes, who numbering about six hundred remained the most loyal agents till the end of the Raj. They ruled two-thirds of India on behalf of the British. The Indian princely states were simply vassals of the Crown. With the support of the Congress and the Indian princes, a few British officials were able to rule the huge Indian sub-continent for about two centuries without many difficulties.  The Colonial Govt. was strongly centralized. The British had the real power and absolute control on the administration. The Congress sought minimum reforms by being a part of the Govt. The demands were minimal and placed by constitutional means. The demands were addressed to the British Parliament through petitions. The Congress leaders were opposed to any revolutionary struggle and discouraged radical ideas. They advocated reforms to diffuse any possible armed uprising. The participation of the Congressman in the British administration made the colonial rule more secure. Though powerless, they were proud members in the Govt. The Congress leaders were afraid of the might and invincibility of the British forces. Hence their demands were always within the framework of the administrative set up. The council members had no say in the Govt. business and remained as mere spectators. The British displayed their superiority and decided everything.

The petition agitations became frustrating because most of the petitions were rejected by the Govt. The helplessness and humiliation in the Legislative Councils led to the growth of extremism within the Congress. The partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon radicalized the Congress. In 1906, the Congress session in Calcutta opposed the partition of Bengal and declared Swaraj or self-rule. The Congress also called for the boycott of British products and urged upon the people to use indigenous goods. In the meantime, Nawab Salimulla formed the Muslim League in Dacca to further Muslim interests. The league supported the partition of Bengal and opposed the boycott call of British products by the Congress.

In 1915, Gandhi emerged in the political scene after his almost twenty years stay in South Africa. The advent of Gandhi in the Congress changed the equation from an elite group to a people’s party. On his arrival in Bombay, the moderate Congress leader Gokhale became his mentor. In South Africa, Gandhi had developed a very unconventional mode of protest called Satyagraha, a civil resistance movement. Satyagraha basically means search for truth or truth-force, and non-violence was his guiding philosophy. Gandhi travelled across the country to galvanize the people through non-violence discourse. His identification and interaction with the common people created a new political awareness. By engaging the people through his non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements he disengaged the people from the British administration. The moral authority of the British was slowly eroded by the public exercise. He believes in popular sovereignty and engaged the masses in political activity. He preached public virtue and religious tolerance. Gandhi visualized that, India would be a loosely united, minimally centralized, federally constituted polity based on long established regional and local units and governed by local customs (The Constitution of India. By – Sarbani Sen)

In 1934, Congress demanded a Constitution for India to be drafted by a Constituent Assembly duly elected by adult franchise. The British Govt. recommended Constitutional reforms for India. As a result a bill was passed by the British parliament to become an Act in 1935 which came to be known as the Govt. of India Act 1935. This Act become effective from 1937 and laid the foundation on which British India was governed till the end of the Raj in 1947. The Act of 1935 formulated a federation for India and provided provincial Autonomy. The Act changed the basic character of the Govt. of India from Unitary to Federal. The Congress swept the election of 1937 and formed govt. in seven out of eleven provinces.

On 8th August 1942, the Congress demanded the British to ‘Quit India’. The Congress was banned on 9th August and their officials were sealed and thousands of Congressmen were imprisoned. After the end of Second World War in 1945, the Labor Party formed the British Govt. and promised a Constitution making body for India and announced election. The Cabinet Mission was sent to find ways and means to the Constitution making procedure and realization of self Govt. for the Indians.  The 1946 election was held on a limited franchise of 15% of the total population based on communal electorate. The British Prime Minister, Atlee appointed Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy of India to expedite the transfer of power before June 1948 and based on his plan, the Indian Independence bill, 1947 was passed. India became independent on 15th August 1947. The Indian Constitution was drafted by the Constituent Assembly which was not elected by adult suffrage and therefore cannot claim to represent We, the people of India. But the Assembly claimed legitimacy to speak for the people. Even Ambedkar questioned the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly. Later, he was made the Chairman of the drafting committee.

On 22nd January, 1947 when the Objectives Resolution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly as guidelines to frame the Constitution, it promised a federal structure for India with residuary powers vested in the autonomous states. But when the Constitution was adopted on 26th Nov, 1949 the residuary powers were vested in the Central Government. The Constitution was custom-made according to Nehru’s strong Central rule policy. Gandhi’s vision of a decentralized India was nullified. The hammered-out Indian Constitution which became operational from 26th Jan, 1950 empowered the Centre with authoritarian and emergency powers as enlisted in the Union list and the powers delegated to the states as enlisted in the State list remained similar as the Colonial Constitution of 1935. The remaining important power related to trade and commerce, economic and social planning etc are shared between the Centre and the states as enlisted in the Concurrent list. Thus the states’ autonomy was reduced and began functioning like some vassal states.

The Indian Constitution was written to fulfill only the Central hegemony and it was not equipped to fulfill the diversified aspirations of the Constituent states. The Constitution which has undergone more than a 100 amendments in the last six decades has only strengthened Central control over the states. Though India’s urban based economy is growing at the rate of 8 to 9% per annum, it is heading towards a political and social crisis. Hence, the Constitution has to be reviewed and re-written in the present political and socio-economic context, restoring the true federal structure where the Centre has limited power (defense, communications, foreign affairs and currency) and the rest residuary powers vested in the constituent states as envisaged by Gandhi.

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Gandhi, Congress and the Constitution

By: Hiranya Saikia Read time: 7 min