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COMMENTARY

Indias Constitutional Historian


Granville Austin (1927-2014)
Vikram Raghavan

A tribute to the American scholar


Granville Austin who wrote
two landmark books on the
making and then working of the
Constitution of India.

n the summer of 1987, Nancy Austin


answered a knock on her front door.
Her visitor politely introduced himself as R Sudarshan. He had come all the
way from Delhi where he worked for the
Ford Foundation. He had spent the past
three years tracking down Nancys husband, Granville. He seemed thrilled that
his search was finally over. Red, as Granville Austin liked to be called, was at
home in Washington DC.
In the couples living room, Sudarshan
explained why he had come. He asked
Austin if he would be willing to return to
his alma mater, St Anthonys College of
the University of Oxford. Austin had obtained a doctorate there in the 1960s. In
its neo-Gothic library, he had completed
his first book, The Indian Constitution:
Cornerstone of A Nation. He had spent the
early 1960s in India researching it. Two
decades later, Sudarshan wanted him to
do a sequel. Funding would be available
from the Ford Foundation. The Austins
were genuinely surprised by Sudarshans
offer. Yet, as the evening wore on, the
proposal intrigued and excited them. Before he took their leave, Sudarshan and
the Austins toasted their new project.1
Early Life

The author is grateful to Hilary Mac Austin,


Mike Gee, R Sudarshan, Arun Thiruvengadam,
and V Venkatesan for their assistance.
All errors are his, and this article is written in
his personal capacity.
Vikram Raghavan (vikram1974@gmail.com)
is a contributor to Law and Other Things, a
blog about Indian law.

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Red Austin hailed from Norwich, a small


town in Vermont in the United States. Its
citizens lived austere lives reflecting
their Puritanical roots. The local paper,
the Hanover Gazette, published no society pages and a PhD put no one on a
pedestal in the town (Austin 2008: 41).
Austins only boyhood indulgences were
milkshakes and skiing during Norwichs
long winters. He later attended nearby
Dartmouth College where he studied
American literature and did more skiing.
In the late 1950s, Austin left the US for
England. At Oxford, he chose to focus on
the making of Indias Constitution. It
was a subject in which few scholars
displayed much interest at the time.
SEPTEMBER 13, 2014

Who or what prompted Austins choice is


a bit unclear. Decades later, he offered
two modest reasons for it. First, the Constitution was a convenient vehicle to
understand India. Second, the subject
seemed academically manageable to
him (Austin 1987).
Research in Delhi
Austin arrived in Delhi in August 1960.
His first weeks were enormously frustrating. No one seemed particularly interested in helping him. What is more,
the zealous guardians of government
archives actively resisted his requests to
consult relevant files (Raghavan 2014).
Undaunted, Austin turned to other
American and British scholars. They
worked in disparate fields: political science, sociology and anthropology. Their
academic training and agendas varied.
But they shared a common purpose: understanding Indian democracy and
development. They gave Austin many
leads: whom to meet and where one
might find materials.
Austins Oxford connections also helped him. One by one, he bagged interviews with those involved with the Constituent Assembly. He unfailingly charmed his subjects with his pleasing manners and infective personality. Always
polite, Austin quickly assessed each interviewees worth. K M Munshi had been
the assemblys Mr Activity. Austin put
him down as a very good man to know.
Indeed, Munshi was extraordinarily
helpful in sharing his personal collection
of the assembly papers. On the other
hand, Austin found K Santhanam rather
pleasant but generally factless.
Through his meetings, Austin gained
considerable insights into the Constituent
Assemblys dilemmas and choices. Like
Munshi, some of Austins sources helped
him obtain valuable documents and correspondence. Conversely, they also filled
silences and gaps in the archival record.
The interviews were critical to Cornerstones dramatic recreation of what happened in and outside the assembly.
Making of the Constitution
In Cornerstone, Austin describes how
the Constituent Assembly debated and
adopted the Constitution. Erecting a
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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

republic was a top priority for newly


independent India. It was a lengthy and
emotional exercise, and it took place
under barely auspicious circumstances.
Partition riots had devastated many cities.
Refugees packed overcrowded camps.
There was insurrection and turmoil
across the land. Yet, the assembly pressed on with its labours.
Austin believed that a four-man oligarchy skilfully managed the assemblys
proceedings. It comprised Nehru, Patel,
Prasad and Azad, who were the freedom
movements heroes. Curiously, Austin
did not include Ambedkar among this
group. At the same time, Austin praised
the dalit leader for formulating and defending the draft constitution. In so doing, Austin was among the first historians to acknowledge Ambedkars constitutional contributions.
In ringing tones, Cornerstone declares
that the Constitution is a transformational charter. The text embodies the
founders dreams for a socio-economic
revolution. The road to this revolution
lay in the Directive Principles of State
Policy. Those principles exhort the government to adopt sweeping economic
policies. The state is called upon to ensure universal healthcare, primary education, minimum wages, and other basic
social and economic entitlements. Austin was deeply stirred by these transcendent social commitments in a fundamentally political document.
Austin marvelled at the Constituent
Assemblys landmark decision to grant
every Indian adult the vote. Ignoring
many sceptics, the oligarchs had taken a
bold gamble. They had few precedents
to guide them; after all, few countries
had fully enfranchised all their citizens
in the late 1940s. Yet, as Austin later put
it, Indias founders took a remarkable
leap in the dark. With hindsight, it was
a winning bet. Universal suffrage built
popular support and won lasting legitimacy for the Constitution.
Cornerstone strongly endorsed Indias
adoption of the British parliamentary
model. Its author believed that a
presidential system was profoundly illsuited to India. He conceded that some
Gandhians in the Constituent Assembly
had wanted a village-based republic.
Economic & Political Weekly

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SEPTEMBER 13, 2014

Yet, their proposals seemed so unviable


that they could not be taken seriously.
Moreover, the Westminster arrangement had worked reasonably well before
Independence. The founders, Austin
concluded, had chosen well and wisely
to retain that arrangement.
Response to Cornerstone
At a visceral level, Cornerstone is a feelgood book. It shuns academic and technical jargon. It is cast in short and simple
phrasing. Virtually every page is anchored
by hard-to-ignore footnotes. The books
appendices are crammed with considerable biographical and bibliographical
details that are tremendously useful.
Cornerstone was generally well received
by its early readers. Its most vigorous
critic was Upendra Baxi who carefully
dissected the book (1967). In a lengthy
review, Baxi hailed Austin for writing an
authoritative history on the Constitution. Yet, he did not share Austins sunny
optimism for Indias future based on his
assessment of ground realities.
The book was especially popular
among constitutional lawyers and judges. It saved them from wading through
stem-winders in the Constituent Assembly debates. The Supreme Court quickly
took notice of the new title. In its controversial Golak Nath decision, the Court
enjoined Parliament from amending any
fundamental rights protected by the
Constitution (I C Golak Nath vs State of
Punjab, AIR 1967 SC 1643). Cornerstone
was cited in one of the main judgments.
Austin was introduced as a learned
author. His volume had been in print
for barely a year.
Parliament tried to overrule Golak
Nath by amplifying its power to amend
the Constitution. This amendment was
subsequently challenged in the historic

Kesavananda Bharati Case (Kesavananda


Bharati vs State of Kerala, AIR 1973 SC
1461). Petitioners cited Cornerstone in their
written submissions, and the books
passages were almost certainly recited
during the hearings. In its verdict, the
Court narrowly ruled that Parliament
could amend the Constitution without
disturbing its basic structure. Twelve of
the 13 judges on the Kesavananda bench
cited Cornerstone. Both the majority
and the minority found Austins analysis
persuasive.
After Kesavananda, Cornerstone references sprouted like green gram in many
different cases.2 Austins work was particularly important in Minerva Mills
(Minerva Mills vs Union of India, AIR
1980 SC 1789). There, the Court was asked
to invalidate certain provisions of the
42nd Amendment. Among other things,
these provisions severely restricted the judiciarys ability to declare certain laws
unconstitutional. The Court struck them
down for violating the Constitutions basic
features. In its reasoning, the majority relied on Cornerstones theory that the
Constitution establishes an equilibrium
between citizens rights and the states
socio-economic objectives. The Court
found that the 42nd Amendment gravely
upset this equilibrium.
Cornerstones appeal was not confined
only to the legal profession. It has been
frequently cited in parliamentary debates and presidential speeches. Cornerstone has become a foundational text in
Indian history and political science
(Elongavan 2014). I first discovered the
text 20 years ago on a friends bookshelf.
It was a gift from his parents who were
neither lawyers nor social scientists. The
book is now frequently recommended to
those preparing for the civil services
exams (Elangovan 2014).

EPW Index
An author-title index for EPW has been prepared for the years from 1968 to 2012. The PDFs of the
Index have been uploaded, year-wise, on the EPW website. Visitors can download the Index for
all the years from the site. (The Index for a few years is yet to be prepared and will be uploaded
when ready.)
EPW would like to acknowledge the help of the staff of the library of the Indira Gandhi Institute
of Development Research, Mumbai, in preparing the index under a project supported by the
RD Tata Trust.
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COMMENTARY

Mystifyingly, for several years, Austin


neither acknowledged Cornerstones fame
nor responded to his critics. After he finished his Oxford DPhil, he decided to
work for the US government. He joined
the US State Department where he prepared intelligence assessments for policy
makers on west Asia.3 He later became a
senior staffer to a prominent US Senator.
During the late 1970s, Austin served as a
communications director for a Washington-based trade association.
Research on Second Book
When Sudarshan came calling, Austin
was loosely affiliated with an interreligious organisation devoted to west
Asian peace. He had just submitted a book
proposal on Americas relations with
Israel. But it did not take much to coax
him back to India. Austin returned to
Delhi in September 1987. He was surprised by how warmly he was welcomed.
At the Kerala High Court, he received
such embarrassing praise that it seemed
like he had personally drafted the Constitution. Cornerstones glow had finally
caught up with him.
As he had done in the 1960s, Austin
relied as much on personal interviews as
archival research. He made the early
rounds of Delhis think tanks and the
Ministry of Law. Politicians and political
commentators readily obliged when he
sought appointments. Judges and lawyers chatted with him like they were old
friends. Austin made the India International Centre his home base. He was a
regular at the bar and restaurant. He
rarely drank or ate alone. There was
always someone important or interesting at his table. At the Nehru Memorial
Library, he took frequent tea breaks to
befriend other scholars.
Austins network widened as his social
calendar grew. No invitation seemed too
casual to decline. L M Singhvi took him
to a farmhouse full of lawyers. He left
with many business cards. Attending a
lavish birthday for Subhash Kashyaps
grandson, Austin made more useful connections. At lunches, dinners and cocktail parties, he was introduced to senior
bureaucrats and leading journalists.
They constituted Delhis elite underground railroad, which Austin managed
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to successfully penetrate. He never


missed an opportunity to make new contacts in the most unlikely places. At a
barbershop, he met the attorney general
who was having a pedicure.
Austin learnt much from his many
conversations. He realised that he was
sometimes fed just gossip or idle speculation. Yet, no archive could reveal all
that he discovered about the inner workings of the governments three branches.
In addition, Austins contacts helped satisfy his insatiable appetite for private
papers and unpublished material.
Every night, in his ringed and ruled
notebooks, he faithfully transcribed all
he saw and heard that day. Whom he
met and what they told him. No scrap
seemed too trivial to chronicle. His miscellaneous entries are filled with interesting tidbits. They record every cuckoo,
mynah, lapwing, and wagtail Austin
saw in Lodhi Gardens. He drank rum
and nimbu pani after jogging in Lodhi
Gardens. He arrived at the opinionated
jurist H M Seervais office somewhat prepared for a monologue. What Austin did
not foresee was that Seervai would
speak for four full hours.
Three years into his project, Austin
grew overwhelmed by its scale. He had
accumulated many thick folders of
notes, clippings and photocopies. Assembling a manuscript from this mass
seemed a daunting task. His Ford Foundation grant soon ran out, and Austin
was forced to take a temporary break.
Yet, he refused to abandon the undertaking entirely. With his Nancys assistance, he came back to Delhi with fresh
funding. There were more people to
meet and more papers to find. Twelve
years after Sudarshan came calling,
Austin finally delivered a sprawling
manuscript to his editor.
Response to Working
In Working a Democratic Constitution,
Austin describes successive stages in
Indias modern evolution. The book begins
where Cornerstone ends: Republic Day
1950. It travels through Nehrus three
terms as prime minister. It covers his
succession before turning to Indira Gandhis tenure. It painstakingly discusses
the road to the Emergency and events
SEPTEMBER 13, 2014

thereafter. After reviewing the shortlived Janata regime, the book tracks
Indira Gandhis comeback and her tragic
assassination. Austins chronological narrative largely ends in 1985, although he
ventures beyond to cover events like the
Babri Masjids destruction. He carefully
reconstructs important political and constitutional developments in each phase.
According to Austin, Indias constitutional foundations remained firm and
secure. He conceded that the country
had witnessed many political and constitutional crises. But many of them arose
from political machinations in working
the Constitution, rather than its basic
structural design. To Austin, the Constituent Assemblys cornerstone was still
sturdy and enduring despite several decades of hourly use.
He fashioned a simple rhetorical
device to explain his findings. Indias
founders, he argued, had spun a seamless web comprising: social revolution,
national unity and democratic stability.
This web motivates, guides and constrains Indias leaders in interpreting
and applying the Constitution.
Democratic Constitution pays close attention to the Constitutions checks and
balances. The separation of powers is
not a major element in Austins seamless
web. But it is an underlying theme
throughout his narrative. When Austin
began his research, he searched in vain
for a good constitutional law casebook.
As if to fill that void, Democratic Constitution devotes many pages to Indias
great constitutional cases. It discusses
their salient facts and legal bases; their
dramatis personae: litigants, lawyers
and judges; what happened behind-thescenes at lawyers offices and judges
chambers; the Courts orders and judgments and how they were received.
The book is as much an institutional
biography on the judiciary as it is about
the Constitution.
Like Cornerstone, Democratic Constitution received critical acclaim. Many
reviewers praised Austin for completing
this supremely ambitious project. Some
faulted him for relying too much on
anecdotes (Jayal 2000). Others criticised
him for not covering federalism issues
adequately (Noorani 2000). Again,
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Upendra Baxi offered a stinging critique.


He argued that Cornerstone had been so
enormously influential that Austin had
become a saint to Indias legal profession.
Yet, he cautioned the faithful against
blindly accepting Democratic Constitution,
which he portrayed as Austins seductively written gospel (Baxi 2001).
After Democratic Constitution, Austin
became a much sought-after commentator. He responded graciously to every
serious solicitation. After many years of
living in and researching India, he had
developed a deep understanding of constitutional and political matters. Yet, he
strenuously insisted that he remained an
outsider. It was this firm belief that
tempered his cautious, yet candid, views
and opinions.
Plans for Third Book
After Democratic Constitution, Austin
planned a third book. It would focus on
the Emergency. It would explain what
really happened with internal government documents that none had previously accessed. Austin wrote to anyone
who might be able to help: L K Advani,

Natwar Singh and I K Gujral. The file


reached a middle-order babu who laconically insisted that the documents were
classified. After several attempts to appeal this ruling, Austin simply gave up.
He turned instead to writing his memoirs. In Retrieving Times, Austin recounts
his early Vermont years. It contains virtually no mention of India. It ends with
Austins arrival at Dartmouth. In fact,
Austin writes very little about himself.
He largely focuses on childhood friends
and neighbours in Norwich. His autobiographical style reflected his deep reluctance to engage in any self-promotion.
I last met Austin two summers ago.
We sat in his garden and drank lemonade.
He had slowed down considerably. Yet,
he seemed as ebullient and optimistic like
he was when we first met. I had come
with a list of questions about his time in
India. But he did not seem in a mood to
reminisce. Come back another day, he
said. We will talk about India, Oxford,
and everything else. As I took his leave,
it struck me that another meeting
seemed quite unlikely. Perhaps, the evermodest Austin just wanted it that way.

Notes
1 E-mail correspondence with R Sudarshan in
August 2014.
2 See Raghavan (2010) which lists several cases
that cite Cornerstone.
3 Austins interest in India had not completely
waned. In 1972, he reviewed two books on
India for the journal, Pacific Affairs.

References
Austin, Granville (1966): The Indian Constitution:
Cornerstone of a Nation, Clarendon Press.
(1987): Talking Points forKerala Bar Association, 28 October, Granville Austin India Note
Books 151-52 (Vol No 2).
(1999): Working a Democratic Constitution,
Oxford University Press.
(2008): Retrieving Times,White River Press.
Baxi, Upendra (1967): The Little Done, the Vast
Undone: Reflections on Reading Granville
Austins The Indian Constitution, Journal of
the Indian Law Institute, 323.
(2001): Saint Granvilles Gospel: Reflections,
Economic & Political Weekly, 17 March.
Elangovan, Arvind (2014): Interpreter of the Constitution, Frontline, 8 August.
Jayal, Niraja Gopal (2000): A Seamless Web, Biblio,
May-June.
Noorani, A G (2000): The Constitution and the
Course of Politics, Frontline, 1-14 April.
Raghavan, Vikram (2010): The Biographer of the
Indian Constitution, Seminar, November.
(2014): How Granville Austin beat Delhi Babudom to Write his Book on the Indian Constitution, Scroll.in, 12 July.

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