ON 16 MAY 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru stood in parliament and moved for a bill to be referred to a select committee. The Constitution (First Amendment) Bill sought to change the new Constitution that had come into effect less than sixteen months before. The bill would pass sixteen days later and change the Constitution even before the first elections of independent India. The key part of the amendment consisted in changes to three constitutional rights: the rights to freedom of speech, non-discrimination and private property. The amendment added new grounds for restricting the freedom of speech into Article 19(2). Speech could now be restricted in the interests of “public order” and “friendly relations with foreign states,” but all restrictions would now have to be “reasonable” as well. The right to non-discrimination in Article 15 was specified, in the new Article 15(4), not to obstruct special provisions for backward classes. The newly inserted articles 31A and 31B exempted land reforms from constitutional scrutiny. What had happened that caused parliament, sitting in the same composition as the Constituent Assembly, to change the Constitution it had just drafted?
The historian Tripurdaman Singh’s book Sixteen Stormy Days, published in 2020, tells this story. Singh’s story begins with the ratification of the Constitution. In particular, he singles out Part III, which contains the fundamental rights, as breaking with the colonial past. He highlights constitutional freedoms, not democratic elections, as the departure from colonial oppression. Singh narrates how the Constitution was immediately put to work. Repressive laws could now be challenged. In case after case, the government’s actions were challenged and often overruled. The examples in the book proceed chronologically but they circle around three key battles.
The main battle surrounds the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Newspapers, journalists and citizens now had a means to fight back against censorship and retaliation by the government. Already in May 1950, only a few months after the Constitution became effective, the Supreme Court came out strongly in favour of press freedom. It decided two cases, one brought by the leftist magazine Cross Roads and another by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s weekly Organiser, in favour of the publications. Regardless of the political content of the speech, criticism of the government could not be censored on grounds that it could create political unrest.