How the Congress's Karachi Session gave the blueprint of India's Constitution
As the Congress's 85th plenary session concluded yesterday, historian Mridula Mukherjee recalls how the party's landmark Karachi session in 1931 gave the nation the first draft of its Constitution
The Congress plenary session at Raipur has generated considerable interest, coming as it does on the heels of a remarkably successful Bharat Jodo Yatra and the election of a new Congress president.
The Congress party’s 137-year-old history is replete with examples of contentious issues being resolved through open debate and voting. The Calcutta session in 1920 was one such, when Gandhi’s idea of non-cooperation was put to vote, in the teeth of opposition by stalwarts like Lala Lajpat Rai, who was presiding, Bipin Chandra Pal and C.R. Das.
The voting endorsed the suggestion with 1,886 votes in favour and 884 against. This landmark decision committed the Congress to a radical new phase of mass politics, which remained its hallmark thereafter.
Karachi, 1931, was another such landmark session. It was held immediately after the Gandhi-Irwin pact, which brought to an end the first phase of the civil disobedience movement that had begun with the Dandi March.
The Congress, while endorsing the Gandhi-Irwin pact, reiterated the goal of Purna Swaraj. The young revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru had been executed just six days earlier. Even though Gandhi had made every attempt to save their lives, there was anger among the people, especially the youth, who demanded to know why he had not refused, even after their execution, to sign the pact with Irwin.
On his way to Karachi, Gandhi was greeted with black flags. The Congress passed a resolution, drafted by Gandhi, which ‘while dissociating itself from and disapproving of political violence in any shape or form’ applauded ‘the bravery and sacrifice of the three martyrs’.
However, what the Karachi session became memorable for was its resolution on fundamental rights and the National Economic Programme. It came to be known as the ‘Karachi Resolution’, and outlined most of the principles that gave the Constitution of independent India its distinctive character.
In the words of the resolution: ‘…to enable the masses to appreciate what Swaraj, as conceived by the Congress, will mean to them. It is desirable to state the position of the Congress in a manner easily understood by them.’
Even though the Congress had from its inception fought for the economic interests, civil liberties and political rights of the people, this was the first time that the Congress defined what Swaraj would mean for the masses. It also declared that, ‘in order to end the exploitation of the masses, political freedom must include real economic freedom of the starving millions.’
In the first section titled ‘Fundamental Rights and Duties’, every citizen of India was guaranteed the basic civil rights of free speech, free press, free assembly, and freedom of association; equality before the law and equal right to public employment and access to public goods irrespective of caste, creed or sex; freedom to practise one’s religion, neutrality of the state in regard to all religions; elections on the basis of universal adult franchise; and free and compulsory primary education.
It also maintained that ‘the culture, language and script of the minorities and of the different linguistic areas shall be protected’. The resolution also said there would be no capital punishment. It also guaranteed freedom of movement and right to reside and to legal protection throughout India.
In the second section titled ‘Labour’, it promised better conditions for workers including a living wage, limited hours of work and protection of women workers; children of school-going age not to be employed in factories and mines; the right to organise and form unions to workers and peasants.
The third section titled ‘Taxation and Expenditure’ envisaged a reform of the system of land tenure and rent, relief to the small peasantry by a substantial reduction in rent and revenue paid by them, exemption from rent in case of uneconomic holdings, graded tax and death duties on income and property above a certain minimum. It also suggested a ceiling of Rs 500 on the salaries of civil servants and reduction of military expenditure to at least half of the present level. Duties on salt were to be abolished.
In the fourth and last section, titled ‘Economic and Social Programme’, indigenous cloth and yarn and other indigenous industries were promised protection against foreign competition. Also included were state ownership or control of key industries, mines and means of transport, and regulation of currency and exchange in national interest. There was also to be relief for agricultural indebtedness.
This resolution was drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru and revised by Gandhi. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his autobiography, while narrating the course of events in Karachi, tells us how alarmed the Government of India was by the ‘socialist’ content of the resolution. “Perhaps”, he says, “they even pictured, with their usual perspicacity, the red gold of the Bolsheviks stealing its way into Karachi and corrupting the Congress leaders.”
“They then put out a story that a certain mysterious individual with communist affiliations drew up this resolution, or the greater part of it, and thrust it down upon me at Karachi; that thereupon I issued an ultimatum to Mr. Gandhi to accept this or to free my opposition on the Delhi Pact issue, and Mr. Gandhi accepted it as a sop to me, and forced it down on a tired Subjects Committee and Congress on the concluding day.”
The mysterious individual, Nehru says, was supposed to be M.N. Roy. He, then, goes on to debunk this story, and says, “While I was drafting this resolution, various people, who used to come to my tent, were sometimes consulted by me about it. But M.N. Roy had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
“I had to make several drafts, and this delayed matters for a few days, and we were otherwise very much occupied with other matters. Ultimately Gandhiji and I agreed on a draft, and this was placed before the Working Committee, and later before the Subjects Committee.”
MRIDULA MUKHERJEE is former professor of history at JNU and former director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library