Framers of India’s Constitution were divided on representative government for Delhi

17 July 2018
Over 70 years ago, questions about Delhi’s administrative and political set-up triggered conflict in the Constituent Assembly as well.
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On 4 July 2018, the Supreme Court of India delivered its judgment in Government of NCT of Delhi vs Union of India, which, among other things, considered Delhi’s position as a union territory with special status. The court ruled that the chief minister, not the lieutenant governor, was the executive head of Delhi. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his government have taken this judgment as a victory for representative government. But while the autonomy of Delhi’s institutions and representative government has been the site of dramatic political jostling in recent years, it is hardly a new phenomenon. Over 70 years ago, questions about Delhi’s administrative and political set-up triggered conflict in the Constituent Assembly as well.

During the framing of India’s Constitution, the Constituent Assembly had to deal with three distinct administrative and political forms in India: the British provinces, the princely states and the chief commissioners’ provinces (renamed “union territories” in 1956). The chief commissioners’ provinces had a unique status—they were, for historical, political and practical reasons, directly under the control of the governor-general of British India. In most cases, they did not have representative-government institutions, such as provincial legislatures. The Constituent Assembly had to decide whether, in independent India, the chief commissioners’ provinces should continue to be centrally administered with little or no representative government.

On 30 July 1947, the lawyer Rati Ram Deshbandhu Gupta, representing Delhi in the Assembly, proposed that a new committee be set up, which would “suggest suitable constitutional changes to be brought about in the administrative systems of the Chief Commissioners’ provinces so as to accord with the changed conditions in the country and to give them their due place in the democratic Constitution of Free India.”

The Assembly agreed. Its president promptly appointed an ad-hoc committee that included representatives from the chief commissioners’ provinces. The committee, chaired by the veteran Congress leader Pattabhi Sitaramayya, recommended that Coorg, Ajmer-Merwara and Delhi be designated as “Lieutenant Governor’s Provinces.” They would have an elected legislature but the central legislature would have a concurrent power of legislation, even over the State List, and all laws passed in these legislatures would require the assent of the president. The Sitaramayya committee evidently thought that at the time that representative government should be introduced in the chief commissioners’ provinces, albeit with some restrictions.

Although it did acknowledge demands by some members of the Assembly—who did not want Delhi to have representative government—to treat Delhi differently from other chief commissioners’ provinces, the committee refused to give Delhi any special treatment. “We are, however, of the opinion,” it said, “that the people of the province which contains the metropolis of India should not be deprived of the right to self-government enjoyed by the rest of their countrymen living in the smallest of the villages.”

Vineeth Krishna is the lead associate editor for Constitutional and Civic Citizenship at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru. He works in the fields of constitutional and political history.

Keywords: Delhi Arvind Kejriwal Constitution BR Ambedkar Constituent Assembly Debates Constituent Assembly of India Drafting Committee