Senior Visiting Fellow, Rajshree Chandra and Fellow, Namita Wahi, were awarded the prestigious New India Fellowship this year. The Fellowship acknowledges scholars and writers working on different aspects of the history of independent India. In this interview, Chandra and Wahi shed light on the projects they will be working on as part of the Fellowship and what the final outcome is going to be.
What is your fellowship project on?
Rajshree: The project is to work on my grandfather, Jagat Narai Lal’s political biography. Jagat Narain Lal was a writer, a political leader, a freedom fighter, member of the Constituent Assembly, member of the Dhar Commission (the first linguistic reorganisation commission, 1948), Professor of economics at Bihar Vidyapith (inaugurated by Gandhi on 4 Feb, 1921), a practicing lawyer, editor of journal Mahavir (till 1928) and also a person who was very religious and spiritual, his religiosity often spilling into his politics.
I have recently acquired a bunch of his diaries and writings that have been digitised and donated to the Nehru Memorial library. His writings and speeches cover a variety of subjects that range from socio-political themes – like property, citizenship, identity, secularism, minority status, linguistic reorganisation of states, etc., to a deep meditation on Advaita philosophy, Upanishads and the Gita. In his philosophical explorations, in his ideological dilemmas and philosophical predicaments, in the duality of his political loyalties lies the story of our collective inheritance that is marked by the contradictions and the contrarian ambiguities of our inheritance. His is perhaps an oeuvre that needs a more defined place in Indian history. Through his political biography I hope to do that.
Namita: My fellowship project is an attempt to write a book on ‘The History of the Constitutional Right to Property in India from 1947 to 1978’. The Fundamental Right to Property enjoys the unique distinction of not only being the second most contentious provision in the drafting of the Indian Constitution, but also the most amended provision, and the only fundamental right to be abolished (in 1978). Neither a mere doctrinal excursion through a litany of judicial precedents about property, nor simply an intellectual history of the idea of property in India, my book is an attempt to write a history of legal doctrine about property in India, in the context of both the intellectual history of the right and its social and political background during the period 1947-1978.
In my book project, I seek to correct a deeply rooted, conventional political and scholarly narrative about the trajectory of the fundamental right to property, which goes as follows. The Fundamental Right to Property was enforced by a ‘reactionary’ and ‘pro property’ rights Supreme Court in order to protect the rights of rich property owners, particularly zamindars, and to impede Parliament’s ‘progressive’ land reform agenda. Consequently, these provisions were amended several times by Parliament during the three decades following independence and were abolished by the Forty-Fourth constitutional amendment in 1978. The same amendment inserted a tempered right to property in Article 300A of the Constitution. This narrative echoes similar accounts about the implications of entrenched property clauses in other Constitutions, like the Lochner era US Supreme Court and more recently, the South African Constitutional Court.
My revisionist history will show that as the post-colonial Indian state, ruled by a ‘dominant political party’, namely, the Indian National Congress, embarked on a project of economic and social transformation, the right to property as drafted by India’s Constituent Assembly, and enforced by the Supreme Court, served as the site for mediating tensions between the state and citizens, that arose as a result of these processes of transformation. Constitutional courts are often critiqued for being counter majoritarian institutions. At other times, they are criticised as elitist or ineffective. Rarely are they seen as important consensus builders and mediators in a democracy. In my book project, I will show that due to two peculiar institutional features, the Supreme Court’s role in mediating tensions between state and citizens, as the state transformed socially and economically, was not counter majoritarian, or elitist, but rather democracy enhancing.
Moreover, my history of the fundamental right to property will hopefully include voices of marginalised groups like women, Dalits, and Tribals that have not been included in previous accounts of constitutional right to property.
How is the Fellowship going to support this?
Rajshree: The New India Foundation Fellowship is like a writing fellowship. It is in the form of a grant that would enable me to take time off teaching and devote time to working full-time on the project.
Namita: The Fellowship will provide me the necessary financial support that will allow me to focus entirely on this book project in the coming year. In addition, the esteemed board of trustees for the Fellowship, which includes eminent scholars and historians like Ramachandra Guha and Srinath Raghavan, will hopefully give feedback on the book as it develops and help bring it to a form that will make it into a good publication.
What is the final project outcome?
Rajshree: The outcome will be in the form of a book tracing his political journey, plus a companion volume of his collected works.
Namita: The outcome of the fellowship will be an academic book on the subject as described above, which will also be of interest to a general audience.