Revisiting Ambedkar’s Radical Democratic Legacy on the 74th Anniversary of the Adoption of Constitution of India
The executive in a parliamentary system, Ambedkar emphasised, is subject to both daily and periodic accountability – daily accountability to Parliament and other institutions through parliamentary procedures and other norms of democratic functioning and periodic accountability to the people through elections.
by Dipankar Bhattacharya, (General Secretary, CPI(ML) Liberation) :
Democracy in India is facing a growing assault. “It is being killed by a 1000 cuts”, as Professor Tarunabh Khaitan who teaches Public Law in the London School of Economics said in a recent interview to journalist Karan Thapar. The Constitution of India, which the Drafting Committee Chairman Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had famously described as a top dressing of democracy on an undemocratic soil, is bearing the brunt of this attack. The RSS which had rejected the Constitution right at the time of its adoption as an un-Indian document has mounted a renewed offensive attacking the Constitution from all corners. Thought bubbles calling for a new Constitution for India after seventy-five years of Independence are already afloat. The principal economic advisor of the PM, Bibek Deb Roy floated one such balloon through a newspaper article even as India was observing the seventy-fifth anniversary of independence.
Yet the Modi government has been busy invoking and manipulating the Constitution to claim constitutional legitimacy for all its conduct. It was this government which in 2015 started observing 26 November as the Constitution Day in memory of the adoption of the Constitution on 26 November 1949. It keeps reminding us that the epithets ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were inserted in the Preamble through a subsequent amendment and continues to propagate and pit the original version against the current version. After shifting Parliament to the new building, it promptly named the earlier building as the Constitution Bhawan. And in his latest RSS foundation day address, Mohan Bhagwat asked his audience to read Ambedkar’s addresses at the Constituent Assembly. Indeed, now that the Constitution of India is facing this combination of a renewed attack reminiscent of the rightwing conservative reaction during its formative phase and early years and simultaneous attempts to appropriate and misrepresent it, it is instructive to revisit Ambedkar’s enunciation and explanation of the fundamental constitutional principles and perspective.
Apart from Ambedkar’s historic address of 4 November 1948 while presenting the draft constitution before the Constituent Assembly and the one delivered a year later on 25 November 1949 at the time of adoption of the final text of the Constitution we should also revisit “States and Minorities”, the memorandum that Ambedkar had prepared for submission to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation. The latter gives us a blueprint of the kind of constitution that Ambedkar actually wanted and which informed his vision while discharging his role as chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly. Ambedkar was pleasantly surprised to have been elected the chairman of the drafting committee and he shouldered that heavy responsibility by presenting the draft at the seventh session of the Constituent Assembly (4 November, 1948 – 8 January, 1949) and finalising it by the eleventh and concluding session (14-26 November, 1949).
In his 4 November, 1948 address presenting the draft constitution, Ambedkar discussed the special features of the Indian constitution and answered the criticisms then being levelled against it. He began with a discussion on the form of government preferred and prescribed in the draft – parliamentary democracy as opposed to a presidential system. Ambedkar argued that a democratic executive must satisfy two conditions – stability and responsibility, adding that “unfortunately it has not been possible to devise a system which can ensure both in equal degree.” He then told us that the draft considered responsibility (accountability) more important than stability in the Indian context and hence the conscious preference for a parliamentary system. The executive in a parliamentary system, Ambedkar emphasised, is subject to both daily and periodic accountability – daily accountability to Parliament and other institutions through parliamentary procedures and other norms of democratic functioning and periodic accountability to the people through elections. If an executive loses majority support between two elections, it has to quit office and face the people.
This defining feature of the Indian Constitution, this fundamental premise of Indian democracy as explained by Ambedkar in his address, is now being daily overturned through the relentless centralisation of power in the hands of the PMO and now through the move towards ‘one nation, one election’ which will effectively convert India’s parliamentary democracy to a US-style presidential system. Ambedkar also discusses the specific features of Indian federalism. He calls India a dual polity with a flexible federal system where the idea is to combine federalism with certain unitary features like a single all-India citizenship, a single judiciary and an all-India civilian bureaucracy. The growing centralisation of power and the systematic undermining of the federal system, of the separation of powers and the system and spirit of daily accountability of the executive to Parliament and to the public mark the 1,000 cuts Professor Khaitan mentioned in his interview which are killing the Constitution.
Ambedkar then goes on to rebut the criticism about the alleged lack of ‘originality’ and ‘Indianness’ of the Constitution. Every written modern democratic constitution, he asserted, should reflect common or universal features and the efficacy of the Indian constitution should be assessed in terms of adapting those basic democratic features to the diversity and particularities of the Indian context. There were strong opinions that the Constitution should uphold the democratic heritage of the ancient Indian polity and base itself on India’s so-called self-sufficient village republics. Ambedkar refuses to romanticise the so-called ‘village republics’ and boldly declares that he is “glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.” He also responds to the allegation that the Constitution had borrowed heavily from the 1935 Government of India Act in matters of administrative details. While acknowledging the scope for future amendments and administrative evolution, he emphasised the role of developing an administration compatible with the Constitution and ensuring that the legislature could not pervert the administration and make it inconsistent with and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. It is in this context that Ambedkar highlights the need to cultivate constitutional morality as the guiding spirit and reminds us so prophetically that democracy in India is a top-dressing on an essentially undemocratic Indian soil.
The inference that inevitably follows from Ambedkar’s warning is the need to democratise the Indian soil, deepen and firmly uphold the spirit of constitutional morality in every sphere and not allow the legislature to ride roughshod over the system of administrative checks and balances. But today we are faced precisely with the danger of executive tyranny subjugating the institutional system of monitoring and accountability. Laws are being made and even judgements are being delivered in the name of satisfying an imaginary ‘collective conscience’ and ‘majority opinion’ in brazen violation of what Ambedkar considered the litmus test of ‘constitutional morality’. In the same address Ambedkar underlined the importance of the rights and safeguards for minorities and reminded the majority of the need to ‘realize its duty not to discriminate against minorities’. Whether and how long the minorities need special rights and safeguards depends on when ‘the majority loses the habit of discriminating against the minority’. For Ambedkar, stopping discrimination against the minority was the point of departure, but today the discourse has been turned on its head – it is now all about satisfying the majority that the minorities are not being 'appeased'! Instead of the reality of discrimination against the minorities, the focus has been shifted to the fiction of 'minority appeasement'. This is nothing but unmitigated majoritarianism going berserk, which is bent upon crushing the minorities in the society, targeting the opposition in the political arena and silencing every dissenting voice in the academic, media and the wider cultural world.
The eleven sessions of the Constituent Assembly consumed 165 days in all out of which the last 114 days were spent in considering and finalising the draft constitution. Considering the volume of the Constitution – it was eventually adopted with 395 Articles and eight schedules after considering no less than 2,473 amendments – the finalisation of the Constitution happened fairly quickly. Yet Ambedkar had to respond to the criticism of the drafting committee having taken too long in discharging its functions. He made it clear that he had joined the Constituent Assembly with ‘no greater aspiration than to safeguard the interests of the Scheduled Castes’ and was pleasantly surprised to be eventually entrusted with the key responsibility of chairing the Drafting Committee to write the Constitution itself. Like his November 4, 1948 address explaining the main features of the Draft Constitution at the time of its placement, Ambedkar took the opportunity to use his concluding address on the eve of the adoption of the Constitution to respond to major criticisms and explain some core principles guiding the constitution.
In his November 4, 1948 address Ambedkar had referred to the rightwing conservative and reactionary criticism. Without naming the Hindutva brigade’s constant invocation of the Manusmriti he had addressed their charge of neglecting the framework of ancient India and defended the idea of taking the free individual as the basic unit of the constitutional republic. Early on in his public life Ambedkar had consigned the Manusmriti to flames in the course of the Mahad Satyagrah on December 25, 1927. There was no way he could use this code of caste oppression and patriarchal violence as the guiding spirit of the Constitution of modern India. In his concluding address of November 25, 1949 Ambedkar dealt with criticisms coming from other quarters including Communists and Socialists. Ambedkar said the communist criticism revolved around the class nature of parliamentary democracy while the Socialists advocated nationalisation or socialisation of private wealth without any compensation. It is instructive to note that Ambedkar did not reject the communist and socialist ideas per se, he only referred to the balance of forces within the Constituent Assembly to defend the Constitution as the opinion of the drafting committee and the constituent assembly.
It is instructive to read Ambedkar’s exact response in full: ‘I do not say that the principle of parliamentary democracy is the only ideal form of political democracy. I do not say that the principle of no acquisition of private property without compensation is so sacrosanct that there can be no departure from it. I do not say that Fundamental Rights can never be absolute and the limitations set upon them can never be lifted. What I do say is that the principles embodied in the Constitution are the views of the present generation or if you think this to be an over-statement, I say they are the views of the members of the Constituent Assembly. Why blame the Drafting Committee for embodying them in the Constitution? I say why blame even the Members of the Constituent Assembly? Jefferson, the great American statesman who played so great a part in the making of the American constitution, has expressed some very weighty views which makers of Constitution, can never afford to ignore. In one place he has said: “We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of the majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.”’
This clearly means Ambedkar did not ideologically reject these debates but left these possibilities open for the political wisdom and choice of a future generation. Indeed, if we read the memorandum “States and Minorities” which Ambedkar had prepared on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation, we get a clearer picture of Ambedkar’s own political preferences. In this memorandum Ambedkar describes India as United States of India, and promises for all its citizens a set of fundamental rights with comprehensive judicial protection against executive tyranny, unequal treatment, discrimination and economic exploitation. It promised the minorities effective remedies against social and official tyranny and social boycott and provided scheduled castes with due safeguards to ensure proper representation in all spheres. The memorandum wants the state to organise the main spheres of economic life including agriculture on socialist lines through comprehensive nationalisation and collectivisation, but it wants this to happen within the framework of parliamentary democracy. To lend stability to state socialism it wanted the Constitution to guarantee it in a way that every government would have to abide by it. This explicit combination of state socialism and parliamentary democracy could not be enshrined in the eventual text of the Constitution, but a closer look at the fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy clearly indicates such a direction.
We should also recall that the All India Scheduled Caste Federation was preceded by Ambedkar’s experience with the Independent Labour Party. Formed in 1936, the ILP fought simultaneously against caste and capital. In 1937, ILP won 14 of the 17 seats it contested in the Bombay Legislative Assembly. This was when Ambedkar wrote his famous monograph on Annihilation of Caste, organised a 20,000 strong march of tenants from the Konkan region to Bombay with the support of the Congress Socialist Party and joined hands with the communists to organise Bombay textile workers against the Industrial Disputes Bill. From 1942 to 1946 Ambedkar also served as de facto Labour Minister in the Viceroy’s Executive Council and pioneered the beginning of labour legislations in terms of an eight-hour working day and collective bargaining rights. Today when the government is pushing for indiscriminate privatisation and unbridled corporate power while rendering labour increasingly insecure and devoid of rights, it is important to revisit Ambedkar’s radical legacy of socialist economics and fighting worker-peasant unity.
In this address Ambedkar beckons us not to be content with just ‘political democracy’ but to strive for ‘social democracy’. Social democracy or democracy in society means recognition of liberty, equality and fraternity as core principles of life. Ambedkar tells us to look at liberty, equality and fraternity not as three separate items in a trinity, but as a union where one cannot be divorced from another. Divorcing one from the other defeats the very purpose of democracy, affirms Ambedkar. Without equality, Ambedkar warns us, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many, whereas equality without liberty, he argues, would kill individual initiative. And fraternity would ensure that liberty and equality will become a natural course of things and will not have to be enforced by a constable. But Ambedkar reminds us that the Indian social reality is far removed from this ideal state of affairs. With the adoption of the Constitution India entered a life of contradictions – while the Constitution will ensure the political or electoral equality of one person one vote, India remains mired in massive economic and social inequality. If this contradiction is not resolved at the earliest, it will blow up the structure of political democracy, warned Ambedkar.
Ambedkar then goes on to tell us how there can be no fraternity in a caste-divided society. Caste is a system of graded inequality and as such it is an impediment to India becoming a nation. He tells us why the drafting committee chose the expression ‘the people of India’ over ‘the Indian nation’ – declaring caste-ridden India a nation would be ‘cherishing a great delusion’. Ambedkar compares the Indian situation with the racial divide in America and tells us that caste marks an even greater obstacle to the development of real fraternity without which India could not possibly emerge as a cohesive nation. The anti-colonial struggle surely created the environment and laid the foundation, but the freedom movement remained predominantly about winning political independence and not gaining social equality. With the BJP trying to redefine Indian nationalism on an aggressive Hindu supremacist basis, the fault-lines have only widened in recent years. Here again we are reminded of another prophetic warning Ambedkar had issued in the early 1940s while discussing the Pakistan question: Hindu Raj will be the greatest calamity to befall on India and must be avoided at all costs. The Partition could not be avoided, but the Constitution ensured that India managed to avert that calamity despite the trauma of Partition by proclaiming a social compact based on comprehensive justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens without any discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, language and culture.
This emphasis on complementing political democracy with social democracy by establishing liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of social life and on achieving national unity through annihilation of caste has become all the more pertinent in the face of the Hindutva bulldozer of the Sangh-BJP establishment. The fraternity or solidarity that Ambedkar emphasised presumed liberty and equality as its inseparable companions and is therefore diametrically opposite to the ‘samrasta’ or ‘harmony’ that the RSS now advocates under the overarching umbrella of a regimented Hindu identity. For Ambedkar, national unity could not be achieved as a conglomeration of castes, he wanted liberty, equality and fraternity to prevail in society by annihilating the caste-based order of social slavery and injustice.
Ambedkar was keenly aware of the threats to India’s fledgling constitutional democracy. He wanted the Constitution to be the supreme arbiter in governing independent India’s political and social life, he wanted the people to stick to constitutional modes of protest and reject what he called the grammar of anarchy. The underlying assumption here was of course that the Constitution would be implemented by people who could be trusted with it. At the outset of his concluding address he had said, “however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. … It is, therefore, futile to pass any judgment upon the Constitution without reference to the part which the people and their parties are likely to play.” He therefore placed utmost reliance on the vigilance of the people, reminding them of John Stuart Mill’s advice not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”. He knew that “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world” and he had no doubt that “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.
For Ambedkar, the adoption of the Constitution marked the advent of responsible and accountable governance. The concluding remarks of his final address before the Constituent Assembly summed it up in the following words: “By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. There is great danger of things going wrong. Times are fast changing. People including our own are being moved by new ideologies. They are getting tired of Government by the people. They are prepared to have Governments for the people and are indifferent whether it is Government of the people and by the people. If we wish to preserve the Constitution in which we have sought to enshrine the principle of Government of the people, for the people and by the people, let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path and which induce people to prefer Government for the people to Government by the people, nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. That is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.” The ideology that threatens the Constitution in today’s India is the good old fascist ideology which had been waiting in the wings for so long and is now desperate to dump and kill the very Constitution which allowed it to come to power.
Ambedkar lived for only seven years after the adoption of the Constitution. It did not take long for Ambedkar to get into a debate with the people who were entrusted with the responsibility of administering the Constitution. The Hindu Code Bill brought him in conflict with the conservative political majority, and unhappy with Nehru’s pragmatic incremental approach deferring and diluting Ambedkar’s radical reform agenda, he resigned from the cabinet and functioned as an independent Rajya Sabha MP from 1952 till his death on 6 December 1956. By September 2, 1953 we could see Ambedkar tell the Rajya Sabha, “Sir, my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody. But whatever that may be, if our people want to carry on, they must not forget that there are majorities and there are minorities, and they simply cannot ignore the minorities by saying, ‘Oh, no. To recognise you is to harm democracy.’ I should say that the greatest harm will come by injuring the minorities." The anger of Ambedkar then was directed at the well-entrenched conservative and reactionary social elite of India. A few weeks before his demise, Ambedkar used his constitutional right to choose his religion to embrace Buddhism with hundreds of thousands of his followers.
Today Ambedkar the radical democrat and champion of social equality would have found himself languishing in prison under UAPA in a fabricated Bhima-Koregaon type case. And yet the fascists also have the audacity to try and appropriate Ambedkar. Defenders of democracy and social justice will have to uphold the radical legacy of Ambedkar and turn it into a powerful weapon to defeat this fascist conspiracy. To use Ambedkar’s own words, we must not be tardy in recognising the evils that lie across our path or weak in our initiative to remove them.