How Granville Austin beat Delhi babudom to write his book on the Indian Constitution

A friend of the historian, who died a week ago, recalls the time the American scholar spent in India doing research for this seminal work.

Granville Austin, our Republic’s Boswell, died last Sunday at eighty-seven. He wrote two splendid books: Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation and Working a Democratic Constitution. These volumes reshaped our understanding of India’s constitutional foundations, democratic politics and public institutions.

Elsewhere, I have described Austin’s historical and political legacies. Here, I focus on Austin’s time in Delhi, when he researched Cornerstone. Fifty years later, his notes and letters remain peerless and entertaining. They reveal a curious mind, a talented writer and a restless traveller.

I first met Austin in 2000 at a conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was talking animatedly with Ram Jethmalani. I interrupted and demanded an autograph. Austin readily obliged with a simple inscription. “In friendship,” he wrote. The following year, I moved to Washington, DC, where Austin lived. I reintroduced myself as his new “friend” from Cambridge. Without the slightest hesitation, he invited me to lunch.

We met near the White House. He had just finished a run around the Washington Monument. He could no longer ski-jump like he did in college. But he was determined to remain active. He told me that he once belonged to the National Rifle Association. He later resigned, disgusted by its gun policies. Nothing thrilled him more than to discuss Indian history and politics. To him, Delhi’s Connaught Place seemed no more distant than Washington’s Capitol Hill.

At our second lunch, Austin firmly insisted that I call him “Red.” He had no time for faux honorifics like “Dr Austin” or “Sir.” He hailed from unpretentious Norwich, Vermont. Neither social standing nor academic pedigree mattered there. “But why the name Red?” I asked. He chuckled. “I was a redhead in my youth,” he told me. As he aged, he lost most of his hair. What remained grew white.

Austin’s appearance fascinated most people. It perplexed some too. Indians seemed especially beguiled by the handsome New Englander. Yet it was not just his exotic looks that intrigued them. He spoke with a clear American accent. He cleverly tempered it with some impressive British-sounding inflections. And he had a matchless ability to deliver a pleasing compliment or self-deprecatory riposte. Most of all, it was Austin’s earthy but seductive charm that helped him immeasurably as a constitutional historian.

Austin arrived in India in early August 1960. He admitted to only a “reader’s knowledge” of the country. Yet he set an ambitious task for himself: to study the making of India’s constitution. Today, a scholar with that objective would go straight to Teen Murthi. However, when Austin began Cornerstone, the Nehru Memorial Library and its manuscript collections did not exist. So he had to plead with the National Archives and Law Ministry for files about the Republic's founding.

Predictably, he was stonewalled by the best of babudom. “I’m sorry, I don’t know where those papers are.” “No, those are confidential.” “We don’t have those papers here.” Even so, with a bloodhound’s persistence, Austin pressed on.

With amazing resourcefulness, he unearthed hundreds of documents all over Delhi. Like a persistent mendicant, he persuaded their guardians to have copies made for him. From the All India Congress Committee alone he secured 3.8 feet of material. One quiet Thursday afternoon, President Rajendra Prasad let him microfilm an entire taxi-load of correspondence.

The next day, Austin secured Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar’s valuable private papers. His trip to the Hindu Mahasabha’s office wasn’t particularly rewarding . The government had seized most of its files. Undeterred, he would try to find them elsewhere. Austin had the most fun in Mumbai chasing down Ambedkar’s files even as the city boisterously celebrated Diwali.

For Cornerstone, Austin spent long hours in dusty file rooms. But he was certainly no archival recluse. He revelled in rambling conversations over tea, lunch or dinner. Scotch may have also been served at some meetings, although prohibition was in force in Delhi. Austin’s rolodex was impressive: Rajendra Prasad, Minoo Masani K Santhanam, HN Kunzru, KM Munshi and B Shiva Rao. The list goes on.

Austin called on a large number of the Constituent Assembly’s surviving members and staff. No one seems to have declined a meeting with him. He later wondered whether an Indian, in his position, would have enjoyed such extraordinary access.

From Delhi, Austin wrote regular updates to his research sponsors in New York. His letters include fascinating insights on life in late-Nehruvian Delhi. Every morning, Austin awoke to “brown and musty” bed tea. He had an English breakfast and read The Statesman before venturing out reluctantly into the oppressive heat.

On Delhi’s streets, Sikh-driven scooter-rickshaws and taxis competed with horse-drawn tongas. Queen’s Way had become Janpath. But Curzon Road, where many Assembly members once lived, still retained its name. Like the Constitution, some things had changed in Delhi. Others remained the same.

Government offices and shops opened rather late. But senior politicians and officials began work at home. It was at their grand Lutyens’ residences that Austin coaxed them to reminisce about the Assembly. But it was not just the past that interested him. He asked his subjects to gaze into the future. What lay ahead for India and its democratic institutions? What constitutional problems did they foresee?

Some interviews were rich and deeply revealing. Others were duds. In all cases, Austin prepared detailed transcripts. His notes are filled with minute details and his trademark wit. It’s unclear whether Nehru granted Austin an audience. But he did manage to see Krishna Menon. Austin, who had braced himself for a confrontation, came away pleasantly surprised. The defence minister was far less surly than he expected.

Austin took language lessons with Mrs Dar, an “ample, Kashmiri lady.” She could not satisfactorily explain why Hindustani numerals from 1 to 100 are so illogically worded. It’s unclear how much of Hindi or Urdu Austin finally learnt.

In any case, he had little need for either language. Most documents he consulted for Cornerstone were in English. But Mrs. Dar's lessons underscored the Assembly’s bruising debates over language policy. In Cornerstone, Austin roundly condemns the Hindiwallahs’ machinations to impose their linguistic hegemony.

Just before the 1962 War with China, Austin visited the Lok Sabha. He saw Nehru smack down Hiren Mukherjee, a Communist MP, over his party's anti-government propaganda in border districts. He marvelled at how Nehru eschewed nationalist rhetoric while rebuking Mukherjee. Could an American president ever be so dispassionate?

Watching Nehru “in his natural habitat” convinced Austin that Indian democracy was no fad. It had strong constitutional foundations in law, politics and in the public imagination. It’s a point he made emphatically in Cornerstone. This set Austin apart from most Western commentators, who seriously doubted modern India’s viability.

In 1963, Austin returned to Delhi for a final round of research. This time, Nancy, his wife and children accompanied him. Nehru died shortly after they arrived. Austin joined thousands who marched past the bier. His children watched the funeral procession go by from their parents’ shoulders.

Austin remained in the capital during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. Slit trenches were dug and blackouts enforced. He was also present for the "second succession," when Lal Bahadur Shastri returned from Tashkent in a coffin. Privately, Austin struggled to understand the true meaning of these events. Nehru’s passing, in particular, shook him to the core. Yet, after each event, he reaffirmed his belief in India’s constitutional faith. This fervour rings rhapsodically through Cornerstone’s pages.

Austin was fascinated by the extent to which Indians relied on astrology. Anxious to divine his own fortunes, he consulted the astrologers encamped outside the Imperial Hotel. Unimpressed by their speculation, he visited a suburban soothsayer who had come highly recommended. This man confidently asserted that his client would find God at fifty-six and die twenty years later.

I never managed to ask Austin how he so easily defied these predictions. Just as the Republic outlasted all expiry dates set prematurely for it.

(Vikram Raghavan was trained as a lawyer in India and contributes to the blog, Law and Other Things).


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