For the Constituent Assembly of India, 11 December 1946 was an important day. Two days after its first sitting, it was going to choose one of its members to the most critical and powerful office of the Assembly – that of the permanent chairman. The permanent chairman would be responsible to lead the framing of India’s Constitution and would enjoy a range of powers that included: determining the Assembly’s daily agenda, conducting and overseeing voting and other procedures, regulating the duration of members’ speeches, deciding upon which amendments to consider and which to discard.
Sachchidananda Sinha, the temporary chairman, read out two nomination papers he had received for the office of permanent chairman. The first was from J.B. Kriplani – seconded by Sardar Patel, the second, from Harekrushna Mahtab and seconded by Nand Kishore Das. There were two other nomination papers too, that they were invalid due to technical shortcomings.
All the nomination papers proposed one name: Rajendra Prasad, a widely popular and leader of the Indian National Congress and the freedom movement. There were no other contenders.
On Sinha’s cue, Acharya Kriplani and Maulana Kalam Azad, on behalf of the Assembly, approached Prasad, brought him up to the platform, and sat him next to the temporary chairman – amidst cries of ‘Hip Hip Hurrah’, ‘Inqilab Zindabad’ and ‘Jai Hind’.
Once Prasad and the Assembly settled down, members that included S. Radhakrishnan, Gopalaswami Ayyangar, Frank Anthony, Abdul Gaffur Khan and Sarojini Naidu, made speeches; they congratulated Prasad, highlighted his contributions to Indian public life, and spoke about his why he was the right man for the job.
It was now Prasad’s turn to make a speech. He was overwhelmed by the honour that the Assembly had bestowed on him by nominating him. He quickly turned the attention of the Assembly to the challenges that lay ahead and requested the cooperation of members in helping him overcome them.
The presence of obstructions, Prasad reminded the Assembly, was not new – all other constituent assemblies in history have had to deal with them and ‘…in spite of all these obstacles, those assemble carried on their work to the end…’
He then indirectly referred to the Cabinet Mission Plan, which created the Constituent Assembly and put certain limitations on its working. Prasad argued that that the Assembly was a sovereign and independent body without no place for external interference, he felt that it was ‘competent’ for the Assembly to transcend the Plan.
Prasad identified three forces that brought the Constituent Assembly into being:
‘First, the sacrifice of our patriots. Many men and women gave their lives, bore hardships and persecution and after hard and continuous struggles ushered in the present stage. Second, the history of the British nation; their selfishness and their generosity. Third, the present world conditions and serious situation and the forces that are raging in the world.’
He ended his speech by urging the Assembly to ‘hope and pray that as a result of the labours of this Constituent Assembly we shall have achieved that freedom and we shall, be proud of it.’
Prasad then took his first action as Chairman – he appointed a list of Assembly members to Committee for Rules of Procedure.
Finally, he adjourned the house and went around to personally meet and greet all the members of the Assembly.