DURING A MEETING of the Indian Constituent Assembly on 17 September 1949, Dr BR Ambedkar sought to address an anxiety regarding the Assembly’s legitimacy. The members of the Constituent Assembly had been selected by the provincial legislatures set up under British rule. In turn, these provincial legislatures had been elected under a limited franchise based on tax, educational and property qualifications. The historian Granville Austin estimates that in these elections only 28.5 percent of the adult Indian population could vote. There were separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs, and representatives to the Assembly were added for princely states, as well as the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and other minorities. But, still, upper castes, professionals and men disproportionately dominated. How could the Constituent Assembly then claim that the Constitution they were drafting was representative of the people? Or even that it was well-suited for India?
On that September day, Dr Ambedkar, the chairman of the Constitution’s Drafting Committee, conceded that the Constituent Assembly might not be truly representative. Yet, he claimed, if the Assembly had been elected on the basis of universal suffrage it would not necessarily have “possess[ed] greater wisdom…”. Indeed, “It might easily have been worse…I am quite frank enough to say that this House, such as it is, has probably a greater modicum and quantum of knowledge and information than the future Parliament is likely to have.” Despite being an ardent backer of universal franchise and (limited) reservations, Ambedkar expressed unease throughout the life of the Constituent Assembly about what would happen to the quality of the country’s democratic institutions once all Indians were allowed to participate.
Ambedkar recognised the deep tension in the task the Assembly was undertaking. The Constitution was designed not simply to affirm independence, but also to transform Indian society. It would take on the country’s ingrained inequalities and open up new spaces of freedom, particularly in, according to Ambedkar, that “den of ignorance”—the Indian village. It would attempt to unify a country of such varied communities, castes, and religions that just a few years earlier Ambedkar himself had written: “[T]here is no nation of Indians in the real sense of the word. The nation does not exist, it is to be created.”