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As is widely known, a number of lawyers gave up their lucrative practices to play key roles in India’s Freedom Struggle. Some of these lawyers were instrumental in framing the laws that would govern our country for the next seven decades and counting.
One of the most important bodies responsible for creating the Constitution of India was the Drafting Committee, all of the eight original members (Chairman included) of which had a legal background.
As we herald the sixty-ninth Republic Day of India, we take a look at the profiles of the members of the Drafting Committee and their contributions to the legal field and other spheres.
A man who needs no introduction, Chairman of the Drafting Committee Dr. BR Ambedkar was arguably the greatest champion of socio-economic reform the country has ever seen. Ambedkar was a scholar, having received degrees from reputed universities in India and abroad.
After his return to India having being called to Gray’s Inn as a Barrister, Ambedkar did not have enough money to register with the Bombay High Court. With a little help from his friends, he was able to pay the Rs 500 and begin practicing in Bombay in 1923.
As a result of his strong opinions on caste and class, Ambedkar’s law practice suffered. Despite this, he would go on to prove his worth in a number of cases involving issues regarded controversial at the time. Writer Raghunath Karve was charged with spreading vulgarity through his magazine Samajaswasthya, which frequently discussed taboo topics like birth control. Ambedkar would succesfully defend his right to spread awareness on sex-related issues.
During his practice as a lawyer, Iyer was held in high regard by judges and fellow advocates alike. As his grandson reveals in this tribute:
“…my grandfather arguing before Justice Leach was expounding on some aspects of Hindu Law. At one stage, Justice Leach [then Chief Justice of Madras High Court], in a tone that betrayed slight annoyance, questioned my grandfather whether it was really necessary to give him a lesson on the subject. Alladi reportedly shot back, ‘That is not my job today your Lordship. But as a piece of information I might tell you that I have taught Hindu Law to six of your Lordship’s predecessors’.”
Before embarking upon an illustrious political career, Munshi was celebrated among his peers at Bombay for his expertise as a lawyer. These peers included Chimanlal Setalvad, MC Chagla and Bhulabhai Desai, no less. In fact, when Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court Justice Beaumont came to know that he was leaving the practice to join the Freedom Struggle, he is said to have remarked,
“Look, what Munshi has gone and done! I was just thinking of recommending him for a High Court Judgeship.”
After spending a relatively short career at the Bar, Pant eventually became wholly involved in politics. As a lawyer, he was successful in challenging a British law known as ‘Coolie Begar’, that required locals to provide free transportation for the luggage of travelling British officials. As Chief Minister of the United Provinces and then Uttar Pradesh, he passed the Hindu Code Bill, which made monogamy compulsory for Hindu men and gave Hindu women the right to divorce and inherit ancestral property.
In 1911, Debi Prasad Khaitan along with his brothers set up what is today one of the biggest Indian law firms. Having started off in Kolkata, the brother Khaitan led by Debi Prasad would soon gain the reputation of one of the few firms that represented Indian industrialists. As his nephew Pradip Kumar Khaitan reveals in this interview with Bar & Bench,
“…my uncle, Debi Prasad Khaitan, who started the firm, was advising Mr. G.D Birla who was in the Independence movement and Dr. Rajendar Prasad who was the first President of India later on. So all this led to the firm working for the Indian community…we were really representing the Indian businesses…All the British firms used to go to British lawyers, so we ended up working for the Indian community….”
The only member from North East India on the Drafting Committee, Saadullah became involved in politics even as he established himself as one of the most able pleaders in Guwahati and then in Calcutta.
Though he did not practice in courts after obtaining a law degree from Madras Law College, Ayyangar was an integral part of the Drafting Committee. Having served as Prime Minister of the state, Ayyangar was India’s representative at the United Nations for talks regarding the Kashmir dispute. He was also instrumental in drafting Article 370 of the Constitution, which confers special status upon Jammu & Kashmir.
Having worked with the Dewan of Baroda, Mitter is said to have made a significant contribution to the integration of the Princely States with India. He was later replaced on the Drafting Committee by Madhav Rao, a Legal Advisor of the Maharaja of Vadodara.
Here are some interesting snippets on our Constitution: