On BR Ambedkar’s 130th birth anniversary, it is time to pay homage to the Father of the Constitution and remember his legacy: as a social reformer with radical views on diverse subjects, as the man who used his political prowess to effect a bloodless revolution by providing for voting rights to all and the thinker whose ideas of sovereignty paved the way for the unification of princely states, write SATVIK CHAUDHARY & AVINASH KUMAR YADAV.
APRIL 14 (Ambedkar Jayanti), marks the 130th birth anniversary of the father of the Indian Constitution and messiah of the caste revolution in India.
Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb, was born in 1891 into a Mahar household. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth but was able to make a significant impact on the lives of many. The Mahars were untouchables, as per the Hindu caste system and Ambedkar faced numerous struggles in his early life.
Caste was at the heart of his ideational existence. Literature and media on Ambedkar have taken a cue from his writings to show his exposure to caste-based discrimination at an early age. This discrimination at the hands of classmates, teachers and neighbours left a lasting impact on him.
Later on, he came to be known as a “Dalit icon” for his fight to uplift untouchables, the oppressed, labourers and women. But he left an indelible mark in making the Indian Constitution and is widely regarded as the father of it. He was appointed the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution on August 29, 1947. He was also to first law minister of independent India.
Ambedkar believed that the Constitution should be used as a tool for social reformation and that it would help in equalising the gap between different classes. This, he felt, was essential for social solidarity and national integration.
He focused on religious, gender and caste equality in his presentation to the Southborough Committee that was preparing the Government of India Act, 1919.
His aversion to the caste system of Hinduism led to many ideological differences between the Indian National Congress and him. One was the ‘Poona Pact’ of 1932. The differences were over a proposal for separate electorates, which Ambedkar believed were the only way to ensure Dalit representation and socio-economic development of untouchables.
Ambedkar in his book “What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables” wrote: “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The Fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards [which had been awarded to them.]”
Importance of Article 32
This is also a relevant time to discuss the constitutional values Ambedkar stood for. His emphasis on Article 32 shows that he was a radical social thinker who incorporated changes in the Constitution and its application.
When asked about Article 32, Ambedkar responded: “If I was asked to name any particular Article in the Constitution as most important, an Article without which the Constitution would be a nullity, I could not refer to any other Article except this one. It is the very soul of the Constitution and the very heart of it.”
A recent controversy around Article 32 arose in journalist Siddique Kappan’s bail matter, where the Court “discouraged” a recourse to this Article.
Ambedkar’s ideas of sovereignty paved the way for the unification of princely states, which gave shape to the Indian Union. He had frank and outspoken views on the partition of India, which he called the greatest blunder of all. Ambedkar warned his compatriots of the consequences of partition.
The constitutionally-unified Scheduled Castes might have expected the demand for separate electorates to come to fruition after Partition. This was an objective towards which Ambedkar strived for a majority of his life. However, to no avail.
Ambedkar was labeled an “opportunist” and “imperial stooge” by communists for his attempts to inspire the Indian common fold to subscribe to the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
These ideals are a manifestation of the coming of European modernity to the post-colonial Indian State, the development of which is marked by Ambedkar’s vision. He believed that the caste system was the primary reason why the regressive practice of untouchability was followed for more than over 1,600 years by Indians, mostly but not exclusively by Hindus.
Ambedkar was the intellectual adversary of Gandhi, but he has not been read in India for the ideological values he displayed on social issues. Instead, much like Gandhi, he has been reduced to a salutary nominal role as the draftsman responsible for giving India its Constitution.
However, it was not only his reading of the law which received support from larger-than-life luminaries like Winston Churchill, but also his egalitarian vision for India. His greatest ambition, albeit a failure, to which he devoted the greater part of his life, was securing separate constituencies (electorates) for untouchables.
Perhaps there have been sections of the Indian populace who have subscribed to Ambedkar’s ideological values. Persons born in lower-caste households have embraced Ambedkar’s ideals to interpret and reform Hinduism in a new light.
This was coupled with the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity provided under the Constitution of India.
Remembering the Stalwart
The number of lives Ambedkar touched, not just during his life, but even after his death, is startling. But this only befitted a man of his stature. It can be seen in the coinage of the term “Dalit” by the Dalit Panthers (a social organisation) in 1972, which demanded a stop to the oppression of untouchables in Maharashtra. There is also Babytai Kamble’s (India’s face of Dalit feminism) tribute to Ambedkar in the latter sections of her autobiography The Prisons We Broke. There is also Booker Prize Winner Arundhati Roy’s introduction to the work of his life “Annihilation of Caste”, besides that of many others in the fields of literature, politics, cinema, etc.
This serves as proof of the fact that while Ambedkar was, by and large recognised as the father of the Constitution, his ideological contribution as a social reformer was also hailed. Those who had the opportunity to witness Ambedkar in flesh and blood remember him in the three-piece suit he so famously adorned, as symbol of inspiration to the have-nots to aspire for material happiness.
One of his greatest achievements to reform society was the inclusion of the concept of universal adult franchise in the Constitution. Modernism being one of the pillars of his understanding of society and social reformation, Ambedkar used his political prowess to effect a bloodless revolution by providing for voting rights to all, including women and the proletariat.
While Ambedkar may not have been an exemplary politician, comments Arundhati Roy, his early insistence on imbibing the Constitution with universal adult franchise was a gift to the people. The Nehru Commission Report (1928) legitimised Ambedkar’s values in this regard on a national scale when it incorporated it.
Revivalist literature since the 90s saw Ambedkar being reincarnated as a thinker who envisioned India as a land not only of equal opportunity but of equal access to opportunity. This makes a reading of Ambedkar all the more relevant in today’s day and age, not just as the father of the Constitution, but as a social reformer with radical views on diverse subjects–women’s rights, caste system, Hinduism, governance, modernity and capitalism.
(Satvik Chaudhary is a student at National Law University (NLU), Delhi. He is the Founding Editor of Critiqued, a socio-legal blog. Avinash Kumar Yadav is a student at NLU, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)