When enacted, a written constitution takes on a life of its own. It has its own ethos, and its own philosophy. It ultimately guides the destiny of the country for which it is written. In the long and detailed Constitution of India ,1950, Professor Granville Austin, who passed away on June 6, perceptively saw three distinct strands: one, protecting and enhancing national unity and integrity; two, establishing the institution and spirit of democracy; and three, fostering social reform. The “strands are mutually dependent, inextricably intertwined”, he wrote — “a seamless web”.
His magnum opus, Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience, published by Oxford University Press in 1999 (fourth impression, 2011), had offered an intense critical insight into more than four decades of India’s constitutional history. Superbly written with a buoyant empathy, the book is a testament to hope — except the complaint in the introduction to the book’s 11th impression (2013), where it is written that “even the files on constitutional amendments in the law ministry remain hidden by a conspiracy of silence”!
With intimate knowledge gained by living in India for long periods and talking to people who saw it all happen, “Red” (as he was universally known) unfolded the triumphs and strains of working a truly democratic Constitution. The richly personalised account flows effortlessly. It pulls no punches — the gripping narrative tempts the reader to move on, from one chapter to the next. The author’s manifest and transparent affection for India and its people has made it a truly inspiring work.
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Predicting at the end that “India’s most difficult times lie ahead”, Austin has stopped short at unfolding the ultimate destiny of India and of its document of governance. But the message, though muted, has not been concealed from the reader. It is the following. When the author’s own country, the United States, was a young struggling republic, riven with dissension (as India has been since 1969), leading to the great conflict between north and south and to a war that nearly destroyed that nation, legend has it that the American ambassador in London was asked (somewhat contemptuously by his counterpart, the French ambassador to the Court of St James) as to how long “this United States of yours will last?”
Ambassador (James Russell) Lowell’s reply was as courteous and courageous as it was prophetic: “Sir, as long as our leaders live up to and cherish the ideals of its Founding Fathers.”
The writer is a constitutional jurist and senior Supreme Court advocate