Friday, June 2

Dr. Shashi Tharoor writes: On Ambedkar, The Constitutionalist


The book “Ambedkar: A Life” by Shashi Tharoor offers readers a fresh and profound understanding of one of the greatest Indians who ever lived.

Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, MA, MSc, PhD, DSc, DLitt, Bar-at-Law, is today among the most revered of Indians, his statues across the country second only in number to those of Mahatma Gandhi. He even overtook Gandhi in a recent poll to determine the ‘greatest Indian’ of modern times, in which over 20 million votes were cast.

All the major political parties vie with one another to claim him as their own.

In this new biography, Tharoor tells Ambedkar’s story with great lucidity, insight, and admiration. He traces the arc of the great man’s life from his birth into a family of Mahars in the Bombay Presidency on 14 April 1891 to his death in Delhi on 6 December 1956. He describes the many humiliations and hurdles Ambedkar had to overcome in a society that stigmatized the community he was born into, and the single-minded determination with which he overcame every obstacle he encountered. We are given insights into the various battles Ambedkar fought to make untouchability illegal, his disputes with the other political and intellectual giants of his era, including Gandhi and Nehru, and his determination to invest India with a visionary Constitution that enshrined within it the inalienable rights of the individual and modern conceptions of social justice.

Read an excerpt from the book below.

Ambedkar was principally known in his lifetime as a fighter for Dalit empowerment, but his first and foremost legacy to the nation was as a constitutionalist, the principal author of the founding document of the republic and the pre-eminent articulator of the meaning and import of its provisions.

In the course of his astonishing oeuvre, Ambedkar, more than any other Indian thinker or political activist, studied, thought through, and analysed in detail ideas relating to what kind of society India was and what a transformed modern India ought to become—and why. As a lawyer by profession and a moralist by instinct, he also developed his own ideas on the values and principles, spiritual as well as political, on which Indian society should be based. Interrogating himself on the essentials of a free social order, Ambedkar finds a twofold answer:

The first is that the individual is an end in himself and that the aim and object of society is the growth of the individual and the development of his personality. Society is not above the individual and if the individual has to subordinate himself to society, it is because such subordination is for his betterment and only to the extent necessary. The second essential is that the terms of associated life between members of society must be regarded by consideration founded on liberty, equality, fraternity.

Ambedkar argued that unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, an individual human being does not lose his individuality as part of society. Man was not born merely to develop society, but above all to develop himself. The constitutional system must protect and facilitate such individual development.

The ‘first essential’ was a core conviction: Ambedkar felt he was living in a society that had failed to recognize and honour his worth as an individual, that subjected him to disabilities for the accident of his birth into a particular caste, and that failed to grant him enforceable rights against these disabilities. This infused his basic approach to Constitution-making: he sought to ensure the Indian state was founded on a recognition of individual rights and that those rights would transcend any of the timeless disabilities visited upon Indians by a discriminatory and hierarchical society. While the ‘second essential’ was a matter of the spirit and constituted a philosophy that would underpin his constitutional project, the first required the firmness and majesty of the law.

The idea of India as a modern nation based on a certain conception of human rights and citizenship, vigorously backed by due process of law, and equality before law, is a relatively recent and strikingly modern idea. Earlier conceptions of India drew their inspiration from mythology and theology. The modern idea of India, despite the mystical influence of Tagore, and the spiritual and moral influences of Gandhi, is a robustly secular and legal construct based upon the vision and intellect of the republic’s founding fathers, notably (in alphabetical order!) Ambedkar, Nehru, and Patel. The Preamble of the Constitution itself is the most eloquent enumeration of this vision. In its description of the defining traits of the Indian republic, and its conception of justice, of liberty, of equality, and fraternity, it firmly proclaims that the law will be the bedrock of the national project.

Ambedkar’s concluding remarks to the Constituent Assembly in the ‘The Grammar of Anarchy’ speech he gave on 25 November 1949 remains the great statement of his credo as a constitutionalist and the clearest depiction of the paradoxes inherent in the ‘life of contradictions’ that a democratic India had embarked upon.

Ambedkar’s eloquent assault on discrimination and untouchability had, over the years, cogently expanded the reach of the Indian idea to incorporate the nation’s vast, neglected underclass. ‘What a degradation,’ he once observed, ‘for these unfortunate souls who have been turned by this Hindu Civilization into social lepers.’

As Ambedkar stressed in the Constituent Assembly, the working instrument of our democracy is the Constitution of India. It is the basic framework of our democracy. Under the scheme of our Constitution, the three main organs of the state are the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. The Constitution defines their powers, delimits their jurisdictions, demarcates their responsibilities, and regulates their relationships with one another, and with the people. But the most important contribution of the Constitution to Indian civic nationalism was that of representation centred on individuals. As the scholar Madhav Khosla explains in his impressive book of legal history, India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy, the political apparatus of establishing a constitutional democracy in postcolonial India—a land that was ‘poor and literate; divided by caste, religion, and languages; and burdened by centuries of tradition’, involved an attempt to free Indians from prevailing types of knowledge and understanding, to place citizens in a realm of individual agency and deliberation that was appropriate to self-rule and to alter the relationship that they shared with one another.

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