Sir Benegal Narsing Rau was one of the foremost Indian jurists of his time who played a key role in drafting the Constitution of India. He was a distinguished Indian civil servant, jurist, diplomat and statesman. Rau helped draft the constitutions of Burma in 1947 and India in 1950. He was also India’s representative to the United Nations Security Council from 1950 to 1952. From February 1952 until his death, he was a judge of the Permanent Court of International Justice, The Hague. Before his election as a judge, he was regarded as a candidate for the post of UN secretary-general.
Rau was born on 26 February 1887 in Mangalore in a well-educated progressive family. His father Benegal Raghavendra Rau was a renowned doctor. One of his brothers B. Shiva Rao was a journalist and politician, while his second brother Benegal Rama Rau, later became the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.
Rau passed Matriculation in 1901 from the Canara High School, Mangalore, and was a topper in Madras Presidency. Later, he joined the Presidency College in Madras and in 1905, he graduated with a triple first degree in English, Physics, and Sanskrit, and gained an additional first in Mathematics in 1906. He later went to England on a scholarship to the Trinity College, Cambridge, and took his Tripos in 1909.
Bureaucratic and Judicial Career
In 1909 in England, B. N. Rau passed the Indian Civil Service Examination and returned to India. He was posted to Bengal. Later he moved to the judiciary and served as a judge in several districts in East Bengal. In 1925, he was offered a dual position by the Assam government, as Secretary to the provincial council as well as Legal Remembrancer to the government. He served in this post for eight years.
In addition to these duties, he also took up additional functions for the Assam government. Some of these were, drafting memoranda for financial support for the Simon Commission’s tour of India in 1928-29; and presenting their case before the Joint Select Committee of Parliament in London after the third Round Table Conference in 1933.
In 1934, he was awarded a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE). On his return to India in 1935, Rau worked with the Reforms Office of the Government of India, on drafting the Government of India Act, 1935. He served thereafter as a judge on the Calcutta High Court. He also presided over a court of inquiry concerning wages and working conditions on railways in India; and thereafter with a commission working on reforms concerning Hindu law. He also chaired the Indus Waters Commission on riparian water rights and sharing of river water, to settle a dispute between Punjab and Sind.
In 1938, he was honored with a Knighthood. That year Rau retired from service and was appointed as the Prime Minister of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. He resigned in 1945, following differences with the then-Maharaja of Kashmir.
He then served in the Reforms Office of the Government of India, and was later appointed as a Secretary in the Governor-General’s office, working on constitutional reforms. In 1946, he became the Constitutional Advisor to the Constituent Assembly.
In February 1948, he prepared initial draft of the general structure of the Constitution which was debated, revised and finally adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India on 26 November 1949.
Rau also assisted in drafting the early Constitution of Myanmar (Burma), on the invitation of U Aung San, Burma’s Prime Minister, in 1946; which was adopted on September 24, 1947.
He received honorary doctorate in 1948 from the University of Delh.
From 1949 to 1952, he served as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. In 1950, he also served as the President of the United Nations Security Council.
In 1952, he was appointed as a Judge of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In 1953, when he had served for a year, he succumbed to ill health while he was under treatment in Zurich. He died peacefully in his sleep, while both his brothers were at his bedside. He was cremated in Zurich, and the ashes brought to India.
Rau had written a number of books on subjects related to Constitution. In 1988, the Govt. of India issued a postage stamp in his honour to mark his birth centenary.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah
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