Parliament House, New Delhi

Monday, December 9, 1996 18 Agrahyana, 1918 (Saka)

It gives me immense pleasure to participate in this function to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly of India.

On behalf of the nation I pay tribute to all Members of the Constituent Assembly. Their painstaking efforts provided India with the basic legal and ethical framework for progress and development.

It is also my privilege to felicitate some members of the Constituent Assembly who are with us today.

The 9th of December, like the 9th of August, is important in the history of our long struggle for Freedom. Indeed, the demand for a Constituent Assembly was intrinsically linked to our larger goal of Freedom and Independence. The resolution for Purna Swaraj in 1929 had aroused great nationalist fervour and galvanized the people to take part with renewed vigour in the Freedom Movement. The clear and unambiguous articulation of this deep-rooted longing of the people of India to be in control of their own destiny contained within itself the idea of a democratic Constitution which would provide a framework for the governance of independent India by the Indian people. Clearly, such a Constitution could only be drawn up by the elected representatives of the people of India. It was from this unassailable logic that the demand for a Constituent Assembly was articulated by Panditji. The proposal was accepted by the Indian National Congress in 1934, whereafter it became a significant part of the nationalist agenda for Independent India. Mahatma Gandhi himself fully endorsed this proposal. Writing in the `Harijan' on 25th November, 1939, he said: [I quote]

"Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has compelled me to study, among other things, the implications of a Constituent Assembly. When he first introduced it in the Congress resolutions, I reconciled myself to it because of my belief in his superior knowledge of the technicalities of democracy. But I was not free from scepticism. Hard facts have, however, made me a convert and, for that reason perhaps, more enthusiastic than Jawaharlal himself." [Unquote]

It was to take seven more years before the Constituent Assembly became a reality. This was a period which saw dramatic developments not merely in India but throughout the world. In India, our Freedom Struggle was at its peak in 1942 during the historic Quit India Movement. Internationally, there was a fundamental transformation in the geo-political situation after the Second World War. The world was in a state of flux when our peaceful and non-violent struggle attained success. It was a struggle led by women and men of character, leaders who had braved the trials and tribulations of colonial rule and had undergone tremendous suffering and hardship.

It was our beloved leaders who belonged to the masses, individuals with deep knowledge and learning and imbued with the values of our civilization, who were elected to participate in the Constituent Assembly. They had a broad global vision which encompassed all humanity and sought to harmonize the great spiritual values of our culture with the modern dynamic approach of other traditions.

The values of our ethos and their own experiences during the Freedom Struggle spurred the constant striving of our people for the ideals of liberty, equality, justice, respect for human dignity and democracy. These ideals, the goals and values of the Freedom Struggle form the real essence, the life-breath of our Constitution and are enshrined in the Preamble.

Already, in the decades before Independence our people were giving thought to their vision of an Independent India. Pandit Motilal Nehru drafted the well-known Nehru Report on the Constitution of free India. The Karachi Session of the Indian National Congress held in March, 1931 adopted the famous Resolution moved by Mahatma Gandhi which contained our charter on Fundamental Rights. It is against this historical backdrop of a long and arduous struggle and the crystallization of our vision of a sovereign, democratic nation that the first session of the Constituent Assembly was held in 1946, when, as Panditji said, we embarked on `the high adventure of giving shape, in the printed and written word, to a nation's dream and aspiration'.

There was a sense of mission in the members of the Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution which would preserve the pluralism and essential oneness, and the unity and integrity of India. Our Constitution ensures that India remains a secular State. People belonging to different religious denominations who are all part of our vibrant pluralistic society, are guaranteed the freedom to practice their own religions. I might add that these Rights under our Constitution are available even to those who are not citizens of India.

Our Constitution is not merely a political document which provides the framework and institutions for democratic governance - our Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. It provides a framework for the economic and social emancipation of society and particularly, the poor, the underprivileged and the downtrodden. As Granville Austine has said, "the core of the commitment to the social revolution lies in Parts III and IV, in the Fundamental Rights and in the Directive Principles of State Policy. These are the conscience of the Constitution." It is of profound import that the Fundamental Rights are enforceable by Courts of Law. Article 32 of the Constitution guarantees the implementation of these Rights. This is a very crucial safeguard against excesses by executive authority and casts a very heavy responsibility on our Judiciary, a vital pillar of our democratic polity, to ensure that fundamental human freedoms are guaranteed.

When our Constitution was adopted on 26th November, 1949 our statesmen and visionaries had said that the Constitution is as good or bad as people who are entrusted to administer it, wish it to be. The Chairman of the Drafting Committee, the brilliant jurist, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, speaking a day before the adoption of the Constitution, had said: [I quote]

"The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution ... The factor on which the working of (the) organs of State depends are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics." [Unquote]

India has been fortunate to have leaders of outstanding calibre. They brought to bear the profound moral and ethical values of our ethos to the functioning of the institutions of our Parliamentary Democracy. In this way they ensured that democracy flourished and developed even stronger roots in our society. Many of you would recall the great care and attention, the interest and personal involvement of Panditji in the work of the Parliament, the jewel in the crown of Democracy.

During the last five decades, India can be proud to have safeguarded and enlarged the gains of freedom. We have provided flesh and blood to the constitutional edifice bequeathed to us by the founding fathers. Our Constitution has given us the framework for a strong nation, a Union of States; a nation of harmony between the Union and States and between the various institutions of our democratic polity. We can claim to have achieved significant success in the diverse and inter-connected spheres of democratic governance, our Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. The philosophy of the Constitution nurtures a polity where the precepts and practices of democracy can become second nature to the people. Through the elections to eleven Lok Sabhas, the people of India have repeatedly displayed their determination to fulfil their duties as responsible citizens of the Republic.

Our Parliament is the pre-eminent institution of our polity. Members of Parliament are the true representatives of the people and it is the people's interests which they articulate in the context of a larger and broader national vision. As Panditji said in the Lok Sabha on 21 December, 1955: [I quote]

"(Members of Parliament) are not only Members of this or that particular area of India, but each Member of Parliament is a Member for India and represents India. ..." [Unquote]

Our Constitutional framework has also resulted in economic progress and the social emancipation of society. Effective representation is provided to the socially depressed groups in legislatures and steps are underway to ensure a strong representation for women. In recent years, we have provided a new impetus to our Panchayati Raj institutions. This has fostered the participation of the people at the grassroots level in our democratic processes in a very tangible and effective manner.

If we look at nations around us, we can be proud of our resilient, living Constitution which has adapted over time, to changing circumstances, needs and requirements. Indeed, it has become a model for constitutions in other countries.

I believe this is an important occasion for all of us to contemplate ways and means of improving the functioning of the institutions of our democratic polity. We should bring the meaning and import of the Constitution closer to the common man. This would be possible if we take up the challenge of making our institutions, our administration and systems of work, more and more directly accountable and fully mindful and sensitive to the needs and feelings of our people.

We must all comprehend the importance of unity, the true significance of canons of propriety and the value of having the freedom to voice different viewpoints which, indeed, are the hallmarks of any pluralistic society. As our sages of yore said, our aims are common, our endeavours common, and there are diverse ways to reach our goals.

At this moment in our history, as we prepare to step into a new century and millennia, let us all ask ourselves what our goals and tasks are as citizens of this great and ancient nation striving to develop and modernize. What are our responsibilities in nation building ? How best can we discharge them ? The answers are not far, nor difficult to seek. Many have been provided to us by the life and work of the great stalwarts who have preceded us. We also find them in our tradition of selfless service and sacrifice and in the timeless moral and ethical ideals of our society. Let us draw inspiration from Bapu's life and work and live up to his message of `Anasakti' and `Nishkaam Karm' or selfless service i.e. service without regard to the fruits of action.

This anniversary provides an opportunity for every citizen of India to renew the pledge to work for `Purna Swaraj', for the well-being of our people, for peace and harmony in our society and indeed, the world.