Interview with Arghya Sengupta Author of “The Colonial Constitution”Explore the insights of Arghya Sengupta, author of 'The Colonial Constitution,' in an exclusive interview with Frontlist. Uncover the history and perspectives.
on Jan 22, 2024
Arghya is the Founder and Research Director at Vidhi. His areas of specialisation are constitutional law and regulation of the digital economy. He has served on a number of government committees including the B.N. Srikrishna-led committee of experts on a data protection framework for India. Arghya has a number of academic publications on the Supreme Court and the Constitution in leading law journals such as Law Quarterly Review and Public Law. He is also a columnist at The Telegraph and The Times of India. He has authored the book “Independence and Accountability of the Indian Higher Judiciary", the book, "The Colonial Constitution" and co-authored the book "Hamīñ Ast? A Biography of Article 370". Prior to founding Vidhi, he was at Oxford as a Lecturer in Administrative Law at Pembroke College.
Frontlist: Your background includes a deep involvement in constitutional and administrative law. How did your journey lead you to delve into the origins of India's Constitution with a focus on the colonial legacy?
Arghya: As law students, we were taught constitutional law through major judgments of the Supreme Court. While that is important, it left me dissatisfied. We were not asking the fundamental questions - why was the Constitution so long? Why was it written in legal jargon? Why could I not read it in Bengali? Some of these questions led me to do more profound research around the origins of the Indian Constitution - why do we have the Constitution that we do? That was the genesis of my book "The Colonial Constitution."
Frontlist: What inspired you to explore the intricacies of the constitutional drafting process post-1946, particularly the paradoxical relationship between the freedom movement and the drafted Constitution? In what ways does "The Colonial Constitution" contribute to understanding the disconnect between the ideals of freedom fighters and the actual provisions of the Constitution?
Arghya: It always intrigued me that the power of "satyagraha" won our freedom, but neither the word "satyagraha" nor the concept finds any mention or resonance in the Constitution. Why is this so?
My hypothesis is that 1947-48 - the key years of the drafting of the Constitution - were also the years when a new nation was being formed and was taking its first steps. Leaders of the freedom struggle - Nehru, Patel, Azad, and Gandhiji - were immersed in running the nation and ensuring peace after Partition. The contemporary task of drafting the Constitution was left primarily to the technocrats - lawyers like BR Ambedkar and AK Ayyar - and civil servants with deep knowledge of law - like Benegal Narsing Rau. As a result, the Constitution is a largely conservative document that follows the status quo - the Government of India Act, 1935.
Frontlist: Writing about complex historical and constitutional themes requires a delicate balance. How do you navigate the challenges of articulating patriotism in your writing? Are there specific aspects of patriotism that you find challenging to capture or convey through the written word?
Arghya: Patriotism is a complex term capable of many interpretations. What is patriotic to someone, maybe jingoistic to someone else. So, we must proceed with caution when it comes to matters of patriotism and not rush to judgment.
It is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing critiques of the Constitution as unpatriotic. At the same time, it is equally easy to celebrate every aspect of our Constitution and our nation and use patriotism as a convenient justification. I have tried to steer clear of this simplistic binary in my book. My love for the nation takes the form of an honest assessment of its Constitution and the process by which it was drafted. I believe such an assessment, even if harsh and provocative at times, only strengthens the values on which this nation is founded.
Frontlist: How does the colonial legacy, as discussed in your book, continue to shape perceptions of patriotism in present-day India? In what ways can an awareness of historical complexities contribute to a more inclusive and diverse understanding of patriotism?
Arghya: It is important for us to form our own views on where we would like India to go. To understand our future, we need to look into our past and view it dispassionately. When I did that for this book, it became obvious to me that our entire understanding of the constitutional framework and of law itself is based on a borrowed construct. We have been led to believe that it was the British who, for the first time, codified our civil and criminal laws and presented them in a coherent form. But the truth is much more complex.
Frontlist: Through your writing, how do you aim to engage readers in reflecting on their own sense of patriotism? Are there specific messages or themes in "The Colonial Constitution" that you hope will resonate with readers on a patriotic level?
Arghya: There is much to feel proud of in the Indian Constitution. For a start, it is one of the few post-colonial constitutions that has stood the test of time - it is 73 and going strong. It has a liberality of spirit, a natural flexibility, and an ability to move with the times. But patriotism cannot take the form of unquestioned praise or love, especially if one is a thinking citizen of the nation.
My book is meant for the discerning patriot, someone who thinks that constructive criticism or deep engagement will not belittle the nation or the Constitution but rather strengthen it. If it does that, it will have served its purpose.