AN item in a national daily saying that the Government of Karnataka has decided to perpetuate the memory of Benegal Narsing Rau by setting up a chair in his name at Mangalore University, brought back memories of another day and clime, of the years preceding the finalisation of the Indian Constitution, when its draft was being debated in the Constituent Assembly by some of the most brilliant legal minds in the country. The credit for drawing up the draft is generally attributed to Dr BR Ambedkar and it has seldom been questioned. What is not generally known, even among the literati is that most of the work was done by Rau who had been appointed by the Viceroy to be the Advisor to the Constituent Assembly, in 1947.
By then Rau, who belonged to the exhaulted Indian Civil Service, had retired and was not looking for any assignment. He was to tell the Viceroy that he would assume the new responsibilities thrust upon him in a strictly honorary capacity. What a contrast that is to the situation now prevailing with bureaucrats under siege, charged with corruption of a high degree! Benegal Narsing Rau came from an extraordinary family. His elder brother, Benegal Sanjiva Rau was a distinguished educationist who belonged to the Indian Education Service (IES). A brother, younger to him, Benegal Rama Rau, also belonging to the Indian Civil Service, held high positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy and retired as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. The youngest brother, Benegal Shiva Rau, unlike his older siblings, decided to get into the labour movement, became a Member of Parliament and later distinguished himself as a journalist. But it is Narsing Rau who is remembered as a Titan of his times.
In his heyday, Narsing Rau never sought public attention, but from both his colleagues and foreign scholars, he was to receive high respect. At a time, when India was being torn by controversies, a colleague, Badruddin Tyabji was to say that Rau “stood above the heat and malice” of those times, even when he was “in the centre of them” like “a saint tied to the stake whose spirit soar above the flames that scorch one to death”. Said Tyabji: “if anyone asks me who was the perfect Indian of our times, one of the first names to come to my mind would be that of BN Rau”. And this at a time when the Indian skies were glittering with famous names. Even more than in India, Narsing Rau’s genius was recognised by international judges, lawyers and legal luminaries.
Two years after Rau’s death – he died of cancer in a Zurich Nursing Home – the famous US judge, Justice Frankfurter, while delivering the inaugural address at the bicentennial of US Chief Justice Marshall at Harvard, remarked in the context of ‘due process of clause’ in any Constitution that “it is particularly noteworthy that such was the course of events in framing the Constitution of India, that Sir Benegal Narsing Rau, one of the most penetrating legal minds of our times, had a major share in drafting.” Not that he had been totally forgotten in India. When the Government of India somewhat belatedly recognised BN Rau’s contribution to the making of the Constitution and issued a stamp in February 1987 (which happened to be his birth centenary), the then President of India, R Venkataraman, who presided over the release ceremony was to say: “BN Rau was a mental phenomenon. If ever nature produced a perfect man, it was Benegal Narsing Rau… BN Rau’s contribution to the Kashmir debate and the Hyderabad debate (he represented India at the United Nations) in the Security Council are remembered even today… It is as the architect of the Indian Constitution that BN will ever be remembered by the country. Gifted with an incisive mind, sharpened by experience as a Judge of the High Court and enriched with a deep knowledge of national and international practices and procedure, he was able to provide a framework of the Constitution for legal luminaries of the Constitution like Dr Ambedkar, Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer and KM Munshi… With the skill of a master craftsman, he chiselled the Articles of the Constitution in clear, precise terms. We are all proud that the Indian Constitution has stood the test of time, a fitting tribute to the architect in his centenary year”.
Praise came to BN Rau from many quarters. The UN General Assembly elected him as a member of the International Law Commission. His knowledge of Sanskrit was impeccable. Few are even now aware that he was a Cambridge Wrangler and a mathematician of high repute! Sir BL Mitter, himself a distinguished legal luminary was to say that “Mathematics make good lawyers!” Rau studied law as a jurist, and not for advocacy, but the sheer range of his legal studies was very wide and astounding, inviting admiration from professional lawyers. Again, it was he who was engaged in preparing the draft of the Hindu Code Bill and could speak with authority on the subject of Hindu Law with the most conservative Hindu elements.
Sachin Chaudhuri, Finance Minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet, and himself a great legal personality once said: “BN was the brightest star fixed in a luminous constellation”. He was respected not only for his command over law and legal niceties but for being entirely at home in mathematics. He was once invited to address the Mathematics Conference in India. Present at the meeting was another distinguished mathematician Dr S Bhagavantham, trained as a physicist who became Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. Bhagavantham was to say: “I have listened to Sir BN Rau’s brilliant address. How can a jurist who left Cambridge thirty years ago be so-up-to-date! It is sheer brilliance and prodigious application”. On his forthcoming 125th birth anniversary it seems only apt to remember him. The Bible says: “Let us now praise famous men!”
Rau was not just famous. He was humble. He had the unique gift of making even the lowest on his staff feel that he was an equal partner in the great enterprise of shaping the constitutional future of his country. He never sought to bask in the limelight. Corruption of any kind would have shocked him. On his soon-to-be 125th anniversary of birth it is apt to remember him. One hopes that he is taken as an icon by today’s bureaucrats who have brought disrepute to the Indian Administrative Service and refuse to resign even when grave charges of corruption are brought against them. Sir Benegal Narsing Rau lived in another world where ethics was the order of the day and corruption was just a word in the English dictionary.