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Papers of Granville Austin, noted scholar of Indian constitution, now available

This post was written by Phoebe Nobles, the archivist who processed the Granville Austin Papers.

We are pleased to announce the addition of the Granville Austin Papers (MC287) to the Public Policy Papers at Mudd Manuscript Library. Austin (1927-2014) was an independent scholar and political historian who wrote two of the seminal works on the constitution of India, and garnered esteem enough in the Republic of India to receive its fourth-highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri Award, in 2011.

Free of nearly a century of British rule, India created a Constituent Assembly to draft the constitution between late 1946 and 1949. The Constituent Assembly adopted the constitution on November 26, 1949, and the document became effective on January 26, 1950, declaring India a sovereign democratic republic, and resolving to secure justice, liberty, and equality to its citizens and to promote fraternity among them. Austin was to make a case for India’s constitution as “first and foremost a social document.”

How did Vermonter Granville Austin, known as “Red” to his friends and colleagues, come to be read so widely by students of Indian political history and to be cited in decisions of the Indian Supreme Court? His life’s work did not fit neatly the mold of the academic historian. With a degree from Dartmouth College in 1950, he began his career as a photographer and journalist for a local Vermont-New Hampshire newspaper. He joined the U.S. Information Service as a photographer in Vietnam in the mid-1950s, and later as political analyst and press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Austin left Beirut to study at Oxford, and his graduate thesis would become his first book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, published in 1966.

Granville Austin at the U.S. Information Agency office, Saigon, 1960s. Granville Austin Papers (MC287), Box 12.

According to Austin, the Constituent Assembly followed no coherent scheme for keeping records of its historic meetings, nor did existing records appear in public archives—so it was through persistent legwork that Austin gained access to primary sources. Austin wrote to and met with Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave him access to private papers of Constituent Assembly members and records of Assembly debates. Living in India for part of the early 1960s, Austin interviewed the members of the Constituent Assembly and members of India’s parliament, lending his scholarship the irreplaceable value of those firsthand accounts.  Austin’s papers at Princeton contain some of his early correspondence requesting meetings with Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad.

Correspondence, 1960. Granville Austin Papers (MC287), Box 1.

While The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation quickly became a classic in India, thirty years would pass until the publication of Austin’s second major work. Though the Granville Austin Papers trace the diverse routes of Austin’s career, the bulk of the collection consists of research material for this second book, Working a Democratic Constitution: A History of the Indian Experience (1999, 2003). Working a Democratic Constitution examined the political and judicial struggles of the forty years following the constitution’s enactment. Once again Austin spent time living in India, and used his network to gain access to private papers and to conduct hundreds of personal interviews with politicians and judges in particular, as well as undertaking archival research at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, among others.

The resulting book, like Austin’s first, became an indispensable resource for those studying India’s constitutional history. The Granville Austin Papers include Austin’s notebooks and handwritten interview notes from the early 1990s when Austin was working in India, as well as correspondence with sources—former Indian Supreme Court justices, for instance—and original and photocopied source material for the book.

Page from one of Austin’s notebooks, 1987. Granville Austin Papers (MC287), Box 1.

In between the two books on India, Austin had returned to government service. His lifelong interest in the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian issues was sparked during his days in Lebanon, and he focused on the region with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (during the late 1960s), and later as a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff (mid-1970s). The collection includes material from this period as well, such as State Department correspondence and memos on the region, and material for articles Austin wrote on the Middle East independently during the 1980s.

Austin’s papers provide a complement to the papers of Louis Fischer (MC024), a journalist who wrote about the struggle for Indian independence and wrote a biography of Mahatma Gandhi; the papers of Robert B. Oakley (MC280), a Foreign Service Officer who also served in Lebanon; and the papers of others who served in the State Department, such as George Kennan (MC076), Joseph Coy Green (MC065), and Daniel C. Kurtzer (MC271).


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