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Shashi Tharoor on BR Ambedkar’s modernism

In this exclusive excerpt from his new book on B.R. Ambedkar, Shashi Tharoor looks at what went into the drafting of the Constitution

Law minister B.R. Ambedkar and (right) C. Rajagopalachari, governor general of India, on 14 June 1948. (HT Archives)

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The draft Constitution underwent three readings by the Constituent Assembly and was extensively debated. Every article had to be discussed and debated in the Assembly, language amended and political compromises finessed. Some of Ambedkar’s more radical suggestions, such as his advocacy of nationalizing agriculture and vital industries, were rejected. As many as 7,600 amendments were moved by members, which required consideration and response. Each article and amendment gave rise to a series of questions and comments to which Dr Ambedkar, as chairman, provided replies and clarifications. His performance in moderating and steering the

discussion was so authoritative, reasoned, and impressive that the Constitution took shape in people’s imaginations through his words. There was little doubt that Ambedkar’s passionate commitment to social change had been infused into the ethos of the Constitution. Fulsome tributes poured forth in the Assembly from supporters and critics alike; many mentioned the evident toll his tireless work had had on his ‘indifferent health’, despite which he had carried on without rest. Several called him—in an irony not lost on this ‘untouchable’—a ‘modern Manu’ (Manu being the ancient lawgiver whose rules, among other things, codified untouchability).

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The Constitution of India, the longest in the world, was a remarkable document. In his speech on 4 November 1948 to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar declared:

It is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in wartime. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.

Ambedkar’s text guaranteed constitutional protection for a large number of enumerated fundamental rights and freedoms for individual citizens, such as freedom of speech and assembly,

and freedom of religion, including the freedom to propagate one’s religion. It reconfirmed the abolition of untouchability, and outlawed all forms of discrimination. It was Ambedkar who ensured that it provided for extensive economic and social rights for women. But the provision that bore his distinctive stamp was the introduction of what has gone down in history as the world’s oldest and farthest-reaching affirmative action programme, guaranteeing reservations of seats in educational institutions and legislature, and jobs in government institutions and the civil services, for members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

As the Dalit scholar K. Raju outlines it:

The Constituent Assembly included several important rights in the Indian Constitution to ensure that principles of equality and social justice were the basis of all future developments in India. The fundamental rights, including Article 14, conferred equality before the law; Article 15 prohibited discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth and provided access to public spaces to all without discrimination; Article 16(4) served as a bedrock for the state to make provisions for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens; and Article 17 prohibited untouchability. The directive principles, through Article 46, placed the responsibility on the state to make policies for the economic and educational progress of the scheduled castes, and to protect them from social injustices.

Ambedkar: A Life by Shashi Tharoor; published by Aleph Book Company,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599, 240 pages
Ambedkar: A Life by Shashi Tharoor; published by Aleph Book Company, 599, 240 pages

Ambedkar resisted some of the Mahatma’s ideas as advocated by the staunch Gandhians in the Assembly, in particular firmly rejecting their desire to make India’s villages the bedrock of the state’s overall constitutional architecture: ‘Another criticism against the Draft Constitution,’ he stated, ‘is that no part of it represents the ancient polity of India. It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State and that instead of incorporating Western theories the new Constitution should have been raised and built on village panchayats and district panchayats. There are others who have taken a more extreme view. They do not want any Central or Provincial Governments. They just want India to contain so many village Governments. The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic.... What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.’ Gandhians were furious at this slighting of their views, but Ambedkar’s clear-eyed modernism prevailed.

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Ambedkar did not get his way on every issue. He was unable to push through a uniform civil code, which instead was listed in the Constitution as a desirable objective. He was not in favour of Article 370, which granted a special constitutional status to Kashmir, but had to yield to the wishes of Nehru and Patel. He wanted the Constitution to grant ownership of agricultural land, education, health, and insurance to the state, based on his belief that fundamental rights emanated from economic structures in society, and that an unequal society dominated by rich upper castes would not guarantee fundamental rights to the Scheduled Castes. He preferred a presidential system for India, but deferred to the strong preference of the majority for a parliamentary one. Indian nationalists wanted to adopt what the colonial rulers had denied them—the Westminster system the British enjoyed for themselves. Still, once a consensus had been reached on each contentious issue, Ambedkar served as an articulate and eloquent advocate of its adoption.

On 25 November 1949, Ambedkar delivered a powerful speech for the unanimous adoption of the draft Constitution. Quoted to this day, his speech talked of the need to preserve India’s hard-fought and recently-won independence and democracy, to give up the ‘grammar of anarchy’, to avoid hero-worship, and to work towards a social—not just a political—democracy. He repeatedly made it clear that for him democracy was not just a form of government but a form of social organization.

Excerpted with permission from Ambedkar: A Life by Shashi Tharoor; published by Aleph Book Company, 599, 240 pages

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