When Granville Austin came to India in the early 1960s to write a history of its constitutional founding, research was hard. Jawaharlal Nehru helped him gain access to materials, Rajendra Prasad and K.M. Munshi shared their private papers, the law ministry worked to uncover documents and in 1966, Austin delivered on his promise. What he produced — The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation — was and remains the most meticulous and carefully constructed account of the constitution-making process between 1946 and 1949. Three decades later, Austin, an “independent scholar” in Washington, returned with another book, Working a Democratic Constitution: A History of the Indian Experience. The second began where the first had ended, offering a remarkable narrative history of Indian constitutional development. Both works made the man, who was awarded a Padma Shri in 2011 and died earlier this week at the age of 87, the pre-eminent chronicler of India’s constitutional journey.
When Austin began his first book, little had been written about the post-1947 Indian constitution-making process. Constitutional histories typically stopped with the coming of independence and, unsurprisingly, Cornerstone became an instant classic. From reviews in the world’s leading magazines and law journals to citations by the Supreme Court, the book became the definitive reference point on India’s constitutional founding for scholars and lawyers alike. Steeped in archival material, it covered key decisions made by the Constituent Assembly, from the relationship between the Centre and states, to emergency powers, to the nation’s official language. Through unpacking the various negotiating positions and their resolution, Austin demonstrated that the debates were an intellectual resource that had received far less attention than they deserved. This is still a controversial argument, for many continue to suggest that the Constitution was a replica of the Government of India Act, 1935. While Austin challenged this view, his book couldn’t quite immortalise the Indian founding as a constitutional moment. In some ways, Cornerstone was a victim of its own detail, missing conceptual linkages with the broader currents of Indian intellectual history and the wider traditions of global constitutionalism.
In Austin’s second project, he moved from history to practice. Working a Democratic Constitution placed the Constitution at the heart of India’s democratic story. There have only been a select few books, such as Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, that have managed to successfully find a way to tell the history of independent India. Austin must belong in that small category of victors. The focal point he offered was not political actors or economic transitions but instead constitutional development, and his book remains the only one to have embraced this methodological vision. Interviews, newspaper articles, private papers, parliamentary debates and judicial cases were deployed to cover themes such as land redistribution and the right to continued…