Skip over navigation

Fortunately There were Rebels

Indian Constituent Assembly

A workshop on the constituent assembly debates

Between 1946 and 1949 the Constituent Assembly of India held eleven sessions over 165 days. Its members spent 114 days debating drafts of a constitution, during which time they tabled more than 7,000 amendments and moved nearly 2,500 of them. Recounting the proceedings in November 1949, B. R. Ambedkar, the nation's first minister of law and chair of the constitution drafting committee, acknowledged that the assembly had been able to accomplish the “formidable” task before it in a relatively timely manner due to the presence of the Congress Party, whose discipline had brought “a sense of order” to the proceedings. Yet, the proceedings “would have been very dull if all members had yielded to the rule of party discipline” because it would have reduced the assembly “into a gathering of ‘yes men’," he said. "Fortunately,” he added, “there were rebels.”

Ambedkar was not merely being mischievous. As he went on to explain, had there not been critical voices, he would not have had the chance to expound “the principles underlying the Constitution,” a task that “was more important than the mere mechanical work of passing the Constitution.” He admitted that not all the critics had been silenced or appeased. Nonetheless, a broader consensus was realized. The principles embodied in the final draft of the Constitution, he argued, “are the views of the present generation or if you think this to be an over-statement, I say they are the views of the members of the Constituent Assembly.”
Ambedkar's summary  raises a number of questions. What exactly were the views of the members of the Constituent Assembly? What political positions did they represent and what intellectual currents did they owe their ideas to? Who, by contrast, did the “rebels” represent, and to whom and what did they owe their ideas? How fierce were the disagreements in the Constituent Assembly, and what light do these disagreements shed on the subsequent trajectory of Indian politics? These are some of the questions the workshop will examine. The objective is to recover voices, positions, ideas, and claims that have been forgotten, transformed, or obscured by the passage of time.




Rochana Bajpai is a senior lecturer in the politics of Asia/Africa in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. She is the author of Debating Difference: Group Rights and Liberal Democracy in India (2011).

Manu Bhagavan teaches at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where he is an associate professor of history and chair of the Human Rights Program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. He is the author of a number of books and essays. His most recent book, The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World, was published in 2012. 

Sandipto Dasgupta is a lecturer in social studies at Harvard University.

Rohit De is a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for History and Economics and Trinity Hall at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of “The Federal Court and Civil Liberties in Late Colonial India” in T. Halliday, L. Karpik, M. Feeley, eds., Fates of Political Liberalism in the British Post-Colony: The Politics of the Legal Complex (2012), as well as of articles in the Law and History Review and the Indian Economic and Social History Review.

Arvind Elangovan is an assistant professor in the History Department at Wright State University.

Christophe Jaffrelot  is research director at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), a professor at Sciences Po, Paris, and a Princeton Global Scholar.  He is the author of Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste (2005), India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India (2003), and The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s (1999).

Niraja Gopal Jayal  is a professor at the Center for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University.  She is the author of Citizenship and Its Discontents: An Indian History  (2013),  Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions (2006) and Democracy and the State: Welfare, Secularism and Development in Contemporary India (1999).  She has coedited The Oxford Companion to Politics in India (2010).

Sudipta Kaviraj is a professor of Indian politics and intellectual history and in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of The Imaginary Institution of India (2010) and The Unhappy Consciousness: Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and the Formation of Nationalist Discourse in India (1995). 

Madhav Khosla is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. He is the author of The Indian Constitution (2012), and of articles that have been published in the American Journal of Comparative Law and the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Sudhir Krishnaswamy is on the faculty of Azim Premji University. Perviously he was a professor of law at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata India, where he taught constitutional law and jurisprudence. Previously, he taught at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore and Pembroke College, University of Oxford. He has published widely in various academic and non-academic journals and newspapers. His book Democracy and Constitutionalism in India was published by OUP in 2009.

Hanna Lerner is an assistant professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of Making Constitutions in Deeply Divided Societies (2011) and coeditor of Constitution Writing, Religion and Democracy (forthcoming). Her articles haveappeared in journals including World Politics, Michigan Journal of International Law, Constellations, Nations and Nationalism, and Theoretical Inquiries in Law, among others.

Karuna Mantena is an associate professor of political science at Yale University. She is the author of Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (2010). An article, "On Gandhi’s Critique of the State: Sources, Contexts, Conjunctures,”  is forthcoming in Modern Intellectual History.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president of the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi. He is the author of The Burden of Democracy (2003), and coeditor of  Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order (2013), The Oxford Companion to Politics in India (2010) and Public Institutions in India: Performance and Design (2005).

Uday Mehta is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York. He is the author of Liberalism and Empire: Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought (1999), and The Anxiety of Freedom: Imagination and Individuality in the Political Thought of John Locke  (1992).

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, and a senior research fellow at the King’s India Institute at King’s College, London. He is the author of 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (2013) and War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years (2010).

Rahul Sagar is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His first book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, was recently published by Princeton University Press. His work has been published in a number of edited volumes and peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Political Philosophy, The Journal of PoliticsInternational Affairs, and Polity


Breakfast  8:30 a.m.
Prospect  House, Library Room

PANEL 1: The Historical Context
9 a.m.
Niraja Gopal Jayal (Jawaharal Nehru University), "Imagining a Constitution"
Rohit De  (University of Cambridge), "Beyond the Oligarchy

Chair: Karuna Mantena (Yale University)

Break 10:45 a.m.

PANEL 2: Key Personalities: Ambedkar, Nehru, Gandhi,  Rau, and Munshi
11 a.m.

Christophe Jaffrelot  (CNRS/Sciences Po/PRinceton Global Scholar), "For Progressive Achievements Only?"
Karuna Mantena (Yale University), "Making Sense of Gandhi's Absence"
Manu Bhagavan (Hunter College), "K. M. Munshi and the Origins of Fundamental Rights in India's Constitution"
Arvind Elangovan (Wright State University), "Indian Constitutionalism: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau and the Articulation of an Apolitical Vision"

Chair: Rahul Sagar

Lunch 1:15 p.m.
Prospect House, Room G

PANEL 3: Key Themes: Religion, Group RIghts, Property, and International Relations
2  p.m.

Hanna Lerner (Tel Aviv University), "Crafting a Permissive Constitution in India"
Rochana Bajpai  (School of Oriental and African Studies, London), "Rethinking Hegemony: Ideas and Minority Rights in India's Constitutional Settlement"
Sandipto Dasgupta (Harvard University), "Property"
Rahul Sagar and Ankit Panda (Princeton University), "Pledges and Pious Wishes: Debates on the Nature of International Relations" 

Chair: Niraja Gopal Jayal

Coffee Break 4:15 p.m.

PANEL 4: Overarching Principles: Democracy, Rights, and the State
4:30 p.m.
Madhav Khosla (Harvard University), "Bound by Law: The Creation of India’s Constitution"
Uday Mehta (City University of New York),  "Anarchy and the Problem of Constitutional Vision"

Chair: Christophe Jaffrelot

Break 6:15 p.m.

Dinner 6:45 p.m.
Prospect House, Room C

"Reading the CAD: Originalism in Indian Constitutional Interpretation", address by Sudhir Krishnaswamy (Azim Premji University/Columbia University) 7:15 p.m.

Conclude 8:30 p.m.




Nehru signing Indian constitution


Constitution of India


B. R. Ambedkar