Mumbai: Whenever we hear the word Constitution, the name of Dr B R Ambedkar's name comes to mind. Who would imagine any connection between Mahatma Gandhi and the Constitution. But here is an almost forgotten fact: The first constitution written by an Indian and implemented in India, was written by Mahatma Gandhi !
The 'Swaraj Constitution', was drafted by Mahatma Gandhi for a princely state in Maharashtra and was implemented from 1939 to 1948. This experiment had attracted the attention of the world.
As is common knowledge, in the pre-Independence era, there were a large number of princely states. Aundh was one such, formed in the wake of the collapse of the Maratha kingdom in 1818. A combination of historical factors ensured that Aundh in 1938 was a small, patchwork quilt of a state, comprising 72 villages scattered across what are today the districts of Satara and Sangli in Maharashtra and Bijapur in Karnataka. The kingdom spanned all of 500 square miles and was ruled by Raja Bhawanrao Pant Pratinidhi.
Faced with a farmers' agitation over agricultural taxes in the summer of 1938, the King relinquished his throne on November 23, 1938, handing over the reins to the common man. But now, there was just one problem. How would Aundh actually manage its own affairs? The leaders of Aundh turned to the one man they knew could help: Mahatma Gandhi.
In December 1938, the Raja's son, Prince Apasaheb Pant Pratinidhi and his assistant Maurice Frydman, a Polish Jew, reached the Sewagram Ashram of Gandhi. The prince later became a career diplomat, joining the Indian Foreign Service and served as our ambassador in Indonesia, Norway, Egypt, the United Kingdom and Italy.
Gandhi told the prince he would be happy to help, on three conditions. First, the prince would have to live and work in Aundh for 10 years and not rush off to live in a big city. Second, the prince would have to wear cloth spun in Aundh, consume only what the commoners of Aundh consumed and spend no more than Rs 50 a month on himself.
And third, the prince was to live in a humble abode, like the poorest citizen of Aundh.
The prince was taken aback by these conditions but nonetheless, he agreed. Gandhi then began to outline his vision of a government. In his book, 'An Unusual Raja: Mahatma Gandhi And The Aundh Experiment', published in 1989, the erstwhile prince, Apa Pant quotes Gandhi: “In my dreams of a model state, power will not be concentrated in a few hands. Centralized power has always created great problems for society. A centralized government becomes expensive, unwieldy, inefficient, corrupt, often ruthless, and is always heartless. All centralized governments attract power-seekers who capture power, and then maintain it by force."
Instead, Gandhi wanted a system of government built from the village panchayat upward. Throughout December 1938, Gandhi dictated a draft of the 'Swaraj Constitution', to the Aundh delegation.
The Swaraj Constitution
The Aundh state implemented the Swaraj Constitution of Mahatma Gandhi from January 1939 and it was in place for the next 10 years, until 1948, when Aundh merged with independent India.
Two things stand out from both Pant’s book and the analysis of Gandhian author and historian Indira Rothermund. The first is Gandhi’s insistence that all aspects of government must arise from the grassroots. Thus, each village was to elect a panchayat (five people). The five would either unanimously agree on a president, or directly conduct elections to elect one. The presidents of all the village panchayats formed a taluka (today known as a panchayat samiti), which would choose its own president. The four taluks thus formed would each send three members to the legislative assembly of Aundh. One of them would then become prime minister. In Gandhi’s vision, the prime minister of Aundh was, by definition, a member of a village panchayat. Power trickled up, and not down.
Report card of Swaraj Constitution
"In some areas, such as education, state finances and social cohesion, there is no doubt that the Swaraj Constitution improved the lives of people. The number of schools, the number of teachers and state spending on education grew rapidly in the years following 1938. The state was even able to handle a devastating famine in 1942 without falling apart.
The Aundh state became debt-free after implementation of this constitution. It helped Kirloskar to set up its plant near Kundal. It abolished untouchability, accorded full rights to widows to inherit property," says retired Justice Narendra Chapalgaonkar in his book, 'Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Constitution'.