Monday, July 09, 2007

Desh: an alternative history — the constitution

Some time ago, we started exploring the possibility of a Desi Commonwealth coming out of a violent non-cooperation movement. In this post, we follow up on the idea.


As par the Government of India Act of 1930, a constitution was drafted for the new country to be formally named the Commonwealth of India (somewhere along the way, Desh has become the popularly used term). The constitution was drafted by Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, or CR. Head of the Congress party in the southern province of Madras (now Tamil Nadu), CR was known for his conservative leanings, and these were apparent in the constitution.

There were two major issues that the constitution needed to tackle. First of these, the relationship between the Commonwealth and Britain, is no longer an issue in 2007. But the second — how Desh's mosaic of religious, ethnic, caste and class of peoples coexist — still very much is.

The British were concerned that the new Commonwealth would ally itself with hostile powers, and appropriate substantial British economic interests. To assuage such fears, the constitution included a 25 year Indo-British defence pact.

The constitution was modelled on that of the United States, with a very weak centre and strong states. The centre had power over nothing more than defence, foreign affairs including trade, and monetary policy. Unlike any other federation in the modern world (including the Commonwealth in 2007), the centre had no fiscal power except for tariff and customs duty. The states made constitutionally guaranteed contribution (based on the size of the economy, revised once every decade) for defence and the functioning of the central government. Only in the time of national emergency, such as a state of war, could the centre raise taxes.

No independent source of revenue meant that the central government could not intrude on the states' affairs — or so the framers of the constitution thought (oh how wrong they were). Only effective constraints on the state’s rights were that: there were to be no economic barriers between the states — common currency and market; and states had no powers to deal with foreign countries — war and peace were the domain of the centre.

And there was a bill of rights, but only for those eligible to vote (see below). Everything else, from roads and railways, to health and education, to police and courts (except the federal court), to land regulations, to the thorny issues surrounding Hindu-Muslim relations and untouchability, belonged to the states. Why were the states given so much power? CR, with the blessing of the founding trinity of Jinnah-Nehru-Das, thought that this was the best way to maintain political stability and territorial integrity of the new Commonwealth.

While silent on untouchability, the constitution guaranteed property rights — Desi business and land owning elites would not have it any other way. In fact, voting rights for the centre was tied to property ownership (states could widen suffrage, but none did so voluntarily), and only 10 per cent of the population, overwhelmingly men, had suffrage.

But Congress insisted on, and the British conceded, a republic. Desis, or those Desis who owned property, would vote their own president. There were to be a bi-cameral legislature, with a 500‑member House of Representatives, each elected by an equal number of voters (boundaries to be drawn once every decade) through the first-past-the-post system, and a Senate with 5 members from each state regardless of the state’s size. States would decide how their senators would be selected (these days of course senators are popularly elected, but this wouldn’t happen until much later). There would also be an independent judiciary, with ample checks and balances.

Ten provinces of British India — Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Central Province, Frontier Province, Madras, Orissa, the Punjab and the United Provinces — were to be the first 10 states of the Commonwealth. Each state of course had their own constitution.

Between 1932 and 1935, states held their elections according to their constitutions. In 1935, a central legislature was elected. In 1936 the states ratified the constitution. In January 1937, the Congress nominee Mohammed Ali Jinnah was elected to the office of the president unopposed. On 23 march 1937, Jinnah was inaugurated as the first president of the Commonwealth of India, and the Raj had ended.


Next: the Jinnah presidency.