Dr Tripurdaman Singh, who holds a British Academy Fellowship at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, has just published his new book Sixteen Stormy Days, exploring one of the pivotal events in Indian political history. As India marks the 70th anniversary of the passing of its constitution, we caught up with him to learn more.
What story does Sixteen Stormy Days tell?
The book tells the story of the first amendment to the constitution of India, and the very first year of the Republic of India. The constitution of India was passed in 1950 – but it was radically amended after just 16 days of debate the following year. The resolution of this has had lasting consequences. In a sense, the story of the first amendment is the story of the contradictions that lie at the heart of Indian democracy.
What were some of the changes made in the first amendment?
The amendment profoundly changed the relationship between the state and the citizen, as well as the executive and the judiciary. It allowed the state to curb freedom of speech in the interests of state security, and created a special schedule of unconstitutional laws, immune to judicial review. It introduced restrictions on the right to property and the right to freedom from discrimination to enable the government’s social justice policies. And it inaugurated a tradition of amending the constitution to nullify adverse judicial decisions.
Are we still seeing the effects of the first amendment in India today?
Absolutely. Apart from the many parallels with contemporary events, it continues to shape India’s broader political and constitutional context. For example, people continue to be charged under the law of sedition, a law that wouldn’t be on the statute books but for the first amendment. With the constitution – and questions about affirmative action, the right to dissent and freedom of speech – returning to the centre of political discourse in India, the story of the amendment and the politics around it has acquired tremendous importance.
How did you come to write this book? How long has it been in the making?
I came to the first amendment through my broader interest in the messy and counterintuitive birth of Indian democracy. Most accounts of it privilege this ‘transformative’ or ‘founding’ moment and the moral imagination it embodied. None look at what happened after – the subversion of the chapter on fundamental rights within months of it being promulgated. What happened? Why did it happen? And what does it tell us about Indian democracy and its founding figures?
I’d been thinking about these ideas for a while, and the deeper I went into the story of the amendment, the more I realised how important it was, both to build a fuller picture of the early years of the republic, and to better understand the relationship between the state and citizen in the contemporary context.
Was it your intention to write Sixteen Stormy Days for a wider audience? How did writing it intersect with your other research?
This is an utterly neglected but extremely consequential part of Indian history, touching upon profound questions about Indian democracy – a cautionary tale with interesting lessons for the present. Because it turns the traditionally euphoric accounts of constitutional history on their heads and seriously questions conventional wisdom. I believed the book should speak to a wider audience while remaining a work of scholarly importance. I hope I have achieved that balance.
Why is this an important story to be telling now?
It’s a story with eerie parallels to current debates on the Constitution and civil liberties in India today – not least because the questions and issues that lie at its heart continue to remain relevant. The roots of many of these questions go back to this one pivotal moment, and it is vital that we understand them in their totality and complexity.
You joined the ICWS in November as a British Academy Fellow – what brought you to the institute, and what is your current research?
I’m working on a project about decolonisation and the princely states in India. Just over half of India was once ruled by the princes – as opposed to British India – where decolonisation unfolded in a radically different way. This is the area that I focus on. I came to the ICWS because it provides an ideal home to a project like this, and has a wealth of academics and researchers with similar interests with whom I can engage and collaborate.
Why is it important to study the Commonwealth in 2020?
The Commonwealth – for all its issues – still retains a powerful hold on the British imagination, and a shared history to ground that imagination. That shared (and contested) history is real, just as those ties are. As Britain seeks to recalibrate its ties with the world and looks anew at its relationship with its former colonies, a greater and better understanding of the history in which these relationships are embedded is still a worthy undertaking.
The Institute of Commonwealth Studies’s new seminar series ‘Legacies of Colonialism in the Modern World’ is free and open to all. Join us on 19 March for the next event, ‘The postcolonial legacies of the Criminal Tribes Act in India’.
Image: Constitution of India at the Geospatial World Forum 2017 in Hyerabad, India (CC BY 2.0)