A little known trendsetter
A recent book highlights that the princely State of Tripura had a written constitution with democratic provisos including the right to vote to the women nine years before the Indian Constitution was formulated
This is certainly an important slice of north-eastern history, long neglected by mainstream Indian history writers. Few today know that the erstwhile princely state of Tripura, which ruled for 550 years until it joined the Indian Union in 1949, not only had a written constitution with the same basic democratic provisos of the Indian Constitution nine years before it, but also gave women the right to vote and get elected to its legislative assembly.
The little known fact is highlighted in a recently published book, “Commentaries on Constitution of Princely State of Tripura”. The book’s author, Sankari Das, underlines that even at a time when many countries did not ensure voting rights for women, Tripura’s royal constitution put together in 1941 “made it clear that no woman shall be disqualified as a voter or a candidate for election to the assembly on the basis of her gender.”
Das points out in the book that the royal constitution covered all important provisions and sections of the Indian Constitution, including ‘The Preamble’, gender neutrality, emergency provisions and judicial institutions. “It appears that many things, including terms in the Indian Constitution, were borrowed from the Tripura king's constitution, particularly because king Bir Bikram sent Bar-at-Law Girija Shankar Guha to represent his princely State to the Constituent Assembly,” says the 43-year-old director of Tripura Law Training Institute and Research Centre.
After a prolonged study of government documents, evidences of princely rulers and numerous other sources, Das came up with the book with commentaries, featuring the similarities between the Constitution of India and that of the Tripura royal dynasty including the bit on women suffrage.
Releasing the book in Agartala recently, the State Law and Education Minister Tapan Chakraborty declared that this disclosure would be a matter of research for the future generation. “Tripura’s last king Bir Bikram notified the royal dynasty’s constitution with 68 sections, seven parts and three schedules in July, 1941. It came into being roughly nine years before the Indian Constitution was enforced,” Chakraborty said while praising Das’s arduous research work.
The book says the royal constitution was maintained according to Tripura Era, which was prevalent in all official matters of the princely state. The Tripura era or the ‘Tripurabda’ is set on 15 April AD 590, three years ahead of ‘Bangabda’ or Bengali Era.
Das states that the idea to formulate a constitution based on democratic values must have come to Bir Bikram from his travels to the West. He was the first from his dynasty to travel to Europe and America. From his experiences in Europe and the USA where he met both totalitarian heads of States and kings to democratically elected rulers -- Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Nazi supremo Adolf Hitler to the British monarch and President Franklin Roosevelt, Bir Bikram could see the writing on the wall in pre-independent India of the 1930s that the future lies in involving people in administering it. His ideas unfortunately never got recorded properly but his actions amply indicated that he predicted the end of absolutist monarchical rule in India's inevitable march towards independence and democracy.
In 1939, after returning to Tripura from his second foreign tour, Bir Bikram formed a constitution drafting committee comprising officials and law experts to enact a constitution for his princely dynasty to establish participatory governance in which his appropriate person could play an effective role in authority. The royal constitution came into force in 1941 with a preamble that briefly explained the king's earnestness to provide a space for people’s participation in governance.
In Section 22 of the constitution, Bir Bikram provided for a 49-member legislative assembly in which 29 were to be elected by people to represent villages and mandalas, notified urban areas, tea planting interests, trade and business communities and even backward communities and tribals. A provision for minority representation was also incorporated in the princely constitution along with ‘historically important’ communities and groups as a matter of social justice. The constitution gave voting rights to women in Section 25 (II).
It also introduced a complete separation of power among the legislative, executive and judicial authority in the interest of fair and impartial governance. it also provided for a council of ministers designated as ‘Vyabasthapak Sabha’ headed by a chief minister and collective responsibility with specified powers, like presentation of budget or annual financial statement, audit of accounts and measures, later incorporated by the Constituent Assembly in the Indian Constitution. An emergency provision had also been included in Section 6 (II) whereby a breakdown of the constitutional rule would lead the king to extend legislative power to the executive for coping with the situation better. A system of oath-taking by elected and nominated representatives was also introduced in the constitution.
Das, recently appointed the additional district and session judge of West Tripura district, highlights that in spite of surrendering the right of representation to the designated people, the king retained sovereign power in his hand even under the constitutional dispensation. She, however, points out, “The king’s thought and spirit could be read in his decision on April 28, 1947, 19 days before his death, to appoint Girija Shankar Guha as a representative of his State in independent India’s Constituent Assembly. It was a decisive step towards abolition of monarchy and merger of the State into the Indian Union.” His royal constitution remained in force till his death on May 17, 1947.
She also highlights, "The constitution had clearly described the provision of disqualification of membership in legislative assemblies for criminal offences. This provision was incorporated in the Representation of People Act, 1951, but it is not followed properly still.” The constitution also had ‘interpretation’ provision like that in Indian Constitution (Article 367) besides having resemblance with the judiciary and executive, council of ministers, chief minister, khash adalat (high court), etc.
It was during the middle of the 18th Century, the plains of Tripura were taken out of the direct control of the king and granted zamindary rights. Chakla Rosanabad comprising 22 paraganas (notified areas) which consisted of one-fourth of Mymensingh, half of Sylhet, one-third of Noakhali and some portion of Dacca district of what is now Bangladesh came under the zamindary system. Modernisation of the administrative system in “Independent mountainous Tripura” began following several administrative reforms introduced by Raja Birchandra Manikya in the line of British administration during his regime from 1862 to 1896.
“Until the year 1873-74, the courts of Tripura dispensed justice according to primitive system of equity and good conscience and there was no judicial procedure.” The Tripura King adopted the Acts of the Government of Bengal and Acts of British India. Nine enactments were passed in 1873-74 including Criminal Procedure Code, Police Code, Cattle Trespass Act and Civil Procedure Code.
According to historian and writer Pannalal Roy, Bir Bikram’s visionary zeal and western exposure helped him to construct a unique constitution which had a democratic spirit under monarchy.
(The writer is an Agartala based-senior journalist. He is the 2015 recipient of the Press Council of India’s National Award for Excellence in Rural Journalism and Developmental Reporting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )