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On the Trajectory Shown by Ambedkar

Today marks the 129th birthday of one of the four greatest modern Indians, Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Others being, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore.
On the trajectory

File Photo.

Mahatma Gandhi is best known across the globe for his message of non-violence, adoption of non-violent means in India’s freedom struggle, a just world order where there is no untouchability, apartheid or exploitation, the path  which inspired leaders from Martin Luther King to Mandela right upto Obama. Gandhiji’s fierce critic, radical social reformer, Dr.Ambedkar, is the main architect of India’s Constitution and is known as such.

While India’s first Prime Minister Nehru has founded and nurtured modern democratic Institutions, instilled Scientific spirit in the population, established modern scientific and technological institutions, the broad vision for running it under a Constitutional framework, its form and content is envisaged under the stewardship of Dr.Ambedkar.

While Tagore, an internationalist welcomed ideas of emancipation from across the globe, including England, stood as a beacon of enlightenment for politicians, Ambedkar piloted the task of bringing India into that path of a modern democracy in theory and practice wherein citizens enjoy liberty of thought and expression and State guarantees certain inviolable basic human rights. While doing this, he has borrowed ideals from working democracies across the globe.

The Constituent Assembly which started its first session on 9 December, 1946 took 2 years 11 months and 17 days to come up with the Constitution.  Dr.Ambedkar had to face 2473 amendments during this period.  Dr.Ambedkar’s imprint is visible in several provisions  of the Constitution, especially in Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy)  which pave the way for a new social order, based on the principles of political, economic and social justice.

“Out of seven members of the drafting committee, one resigned and was replaced. One member died and that vacancy was never filled up. One member was away in America while the another one was busy in many other state affairs. Two other members resided far away from Delhi and could not attend the meetings of the drafting committee due to ill health. “Ultimately… the burden of drafting this constitution fell on Dr Ambedkar and I have no doubt that we are grateful to him for having achieved this task in a manner which is undoubtedly commendable,” commented T. T. Krishnamachari

While Ambedkar is best known and credited for the marvellous Constitution, some of his contributions, deserve special attention for what it achieved and remains to be achieved.

Through this write up, author would like to draw reader’s attention to one or two of such significant reforms, of which Dr.Ambedkar was particularly passionate about.  While some of these are partly accomplished, a lot more remains to be fulfilled.

1.Equality of status and of opportunity:

Mahatma Gandhi was fiercely criticised by Dr. Ambedkar for the former’s support for the system of four varnas, which made great changes in Gandhiji’s attitude.  It is believed that Gandhiji played the pivotal role in selecting Dr. Ambedkar as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution.  Dr. Ambedkar who had no greater hope than protecting the interest of the most vulnerable sections of the society, was bestowed with the duty to discharge a far greater responsibility towards the entire nation.  Dr. Ambedkar, who once entered into the Poona pact with Mahatma Gandhi, incorporated provision for the  protection of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and other weaker sections of the society into the Constitution.  This is perhaps the most important aspects of our Constitution, in as much as it achieved, through bloodless revolution, equality of status and of opportunity, at least in law.

What remains to be achieved:

There is a gulf of difference between law and reality when it comes to the condition of vulnerable sections of the society.   The mere fact that a Dalit is presently adorning the highest Constitutional office is no reflection of the general condition of Dalits of India.   While Governments are passing social welfare legislations, the society which is largely caste ridden has not risen upto the expectation of Dr.Ambedkar.

2. Gender Equality:

(a) What was accomplished:

The foremost idea for which Ambedkar fought and finally gave up his Ministerial birth is gender equality.

In his own words: 
“No law passed by the Indian Legislature in the past or likely to be passed in the future can be compared to it in point of its significance. To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex which is the soul of Hindu society, untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap. This is the significance I attached to the Hindu Code.”

Hindu Code Bill was introduced by Dr. Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly as early as on 11th April 1947. The Bill was moved for referring to the Select Committee on 9th April 1948 and the debate which ensued continued for more than 4 years and remained inconclusive.

Hindu orthodoxy questioned the authority of the Constituent Assembly to pass this radical legislation, some objected to the reform of divorce and women’s right to inherit property and some discarded the Bill in its entirety as interference in the religious matters of the Hindu Society. However, progressive elements in the Assembly supported the move and praised Dr. Ambedkar for his courageous measure.

Being dissatisfied with the Government and Congress party’s lack of enthusiasm in passing the bill, Dr. Ambedkar tendered his resignation on 27th September 1951 but continued to participate in the Parliamentary debates till 10th October 1951 on the request of the Prime Minister Nehru. In his letter he expressed that he attached greatest importance to the Hindu Code Bill and would be prepared to undergo any strain on his health to get the Bill through. He wanted the Bill to be taken up on top priority basis on 16th August and be finished by the 1st of September 1951. However, the opponents of the Hindu Code continued obstructive tactics and delayed the passing of the Bill. Dr. Ambedkar ultimately submitted his statement of resignation on 10th October, 1951 and left the House in anguish.

It is a well known fact that subsequently, Prime Minister Nehru, ensured that Hindu law is codified in the form of four legislations, which dealt with marriage and divorce, adoption and maintenance, succession and minority and guardianship.   The reforms made in the Hindu laws ensured the rights of women to marry someone of their choice, right to divorce a callous husband, the right to disregard caste restrictions in the conduct of marriage, the right to inherit property, right to child custody etc, all these against the defiance of Hindu orthodoxy.

Thus it could be stated that Ambedkar’s dream of gender equality could be achieved in law at least among the Hindus, though much more is desired to be done in practice.

(b)    What remains to be accomplished:

Dr.Ambedkar wanted the set of reforms to happen for the entire citizens living in India, not just for Hindus.  While participating in the Debate on Uniform Civil Code, Dr.Ambedkar had these words on 23.November, 1948:

“My friend, Mr. Hussain Imam, in rising to support the amendments, asked whether it was possible and desirable to have a uniform Code of laws for a country so vast as this is. Now I must confess that I was very much surprised at that statement, for the simple reason that we have in this country a uniform code of laws covering almost every aspect of human relationship. We have a uniform and complete Criminal Code operating throughout the country, which is contained in the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code. We have the Law of Transfer of Property, which deals with property relations and which is operative throughout the country. Then there are the Negotiable Instruments Acts: and I can cite innumerable enactments which would prove that this country has practically a Civil Code, uniform in its content and applicable to the whole of the country.

The only province the Civil Law has not been able to invade so far is Marriage and Succession. It is this little corner which we have not been able to invade so far and it is the intention of those who desire to have article 35 (present Article 44) as part of the Constitution to bring about that change. Therefore, the argument whether we should attempt such a thing seems to me somewhat misplaced for the simple reason that we have, as a matter of fact, covered the whole lot of the field which is covered by a uniform Civil Code in this country. It is therefore too late now to ask the question whether we could do it. As I say, we have already done it.”

It is a sad reminder that even after the 70 years of the working of the Constitution, the gender equality among all sections of citizens in India, which Dr.Ambedkar wanted, is a distant dream.

3.  Protection of Minorities

Dr.Ambedkar had these words on the issue special protection  ofminorities :

“To diehards who have developed a kind of fanaticism against minority protection I would like to say two things. One is that minorities are an explosive force which, if it erupts, can blow up the whole fabric of the State. The history of Europe bears ample and appalling testimony to this fact. The other is that the minorities in India have agreed to place their existence in the hands of the majority. … They have loyally accepted the rule of the majority which is basically a communal majority and not a political majority. It is for the majority to realize its duty not to discriminate against minorities.”

What remains to be achieved:

while it is true that all successive Governments pay lip service to the accomplishments of Dr.Ambedkar,  while there is a Ministry for the welfare of minorities, and now a National Commission for Minorities established under a statute, lot more remains to be achieved.    Dr.Ambedkar’s dream of protection and eventual emancipation of various minorities within the country is not accomplished, when we have increasing number of hate crimes across the length and breadth of this country, on the basis of what one eats, perceived injustice among certain sections, unequal treatment at housing societies and the benefits guaranteed under the Constitution are not percolated down to the needy and  deserving.

4. Universal adult franchise.

One other major accomplishment of Dr.Ambedkar which left attention of many a people is his bringing democracy to the core of the Constitution by providing universal adult franchise, to a population which was largely illiterate and uninformed.  He reposed faith in the political consciousness of the people.

It was Dr.Ambedkar who had the longest list of academic qualifications in the Constituent Assembly.  He had post graduate and doctoral qualifications on a wide variety of subjects ranging from politics, sociology, economics, literature and law from various reputed Universities from around the globe, including India.    Dr.Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly was also highly qualified, academically.  It is to the credit of these great men that they never insisted for putting a criterion of minimum educational qualification upon the electorate for participating in the newly established democracy, i.e., India.

To a suggestion that some minimum educational qualification must be prescribed for holding the post of Minister, Dr.Ambedkar had these words:

Dr.Ambedkar: "With regard to the educational qualification, notwithstanding what my friend Mr. Mahavir Tyagi has said on the question of literary qualification, when I asked him whether in view of the fact that he expressed himself so vehemently against literary qualification whether he has any conscientious objection to literary education, he was very glad to assure me that he has none. All the same, I wonder whether there would be any Prime Minister or President who would think it desirable to appoint a person who does not know English, assuming that English remains the official language of the business of the Executive or of Parliament. I cannot conceive of such a thing. Supposing the official language was Hindi, Hindustani or Urdu—whatever it is— in that event, I again find it impossible to think that a Prime Minister would be so stupid as to appoint a Minister who did not understand the official language of the country or of the Administration and while therefore it is no doubt a very desirable thing to bear in mind that persons who would hold a portfolio in the Government should have proper educational qualification, I think it is, rather unnecessary to incorporate this principle in the Constitution itself. "

What remains to be achieved:

literacy rate of British India in 1947 was 12% whereas it is little over 74% according  to 2011 census.  This is six times growth. However, it must be kept in mind that this is basic literacy and not what was envisaged by Dr.Ambedkar.  while it is a continuing process, all the Governments are doing its part is helping India achieve higher rate of basic literacy.  Lot more need to be invested in the education front.    It is also to be noted that a just society could be achieved, not by disempowering illiterates from voting or by artificially putting up barriers like a minimum educational qualification for contesting Panchayat Elections as is done in Haryana, but by genuinely increasing general literacy levels and educational standards of all the people.

5.Law and Religion:

In his speech dated 2nd December, 1948, Ambedkar observed:
“The religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life, from birth to death. There is nothing which is not religion and if personal law is to be saved, I am sure about it that in social matters we will come to a standstill. I do not think it is possible to accept a position of that sort.

There is nothing extraordinary in saying that we ought to strive hereafter to limit the definition of religion in such a manner that we shall not extend beyond beliefs and such rituals as may be connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious.

It is not necessary that the sort of laws, for instance, laws relating to tenancy or laws relating to succession, should be governed by religion.”

What remains to be achieved:

while Governments work within the parameters of the Constitution, it is the Courts which interpret the meaning of the words used in it, expand or diminish the intention of the framers of the Constitution. While the Courts in India have consistently upheld principles of Secularism as a basic feature of the Constitution, the role of Courts in matters concerning religious issues were not so radical, till recently.   However recently the Supreme Court has upheld the gender equality of both Muslim and Hindu women through two of its radical and reformist judgements.

However, when it comes to our Courts interpreting the words used by Dr.Ambedkar, there was a practice to find out what is essential part of a religion.  This was done in cases where certain rights were claimed as part of someone’s religion.  Presently a nine Judge Bench of the Supreme Court is constituted to take up wide range of issues concerning the relationship between law and religion.   If a radical new approach is adopted by the Courts, as Dr.Ambedkar wanted, a lot of issues pending before the Courts could be easily tested and disposed of on the touchstone of the Constitution, without getting into what a particular religion might or might not have advocated.  This is particularly important if the practice is abhorrent, nevertheless religion sanctions the same.  Since the issue is sub judice, it is not advisable to enter into further debate on this issue.

6. Constitutional form of governance:

Finally, the author would like to invite reader’s attention to one portion of the last and famous speech of Dr.Ambedkar.   (The other part remaining Bhakti is often remembered)

In the Constituent Assembly Debates dated 25th November, 1949 Dr.Ambedkar commented:

“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

What remains to be achieved:

an honest examination of the working of our system would reveal that the grammar of anarchy which Dr.Ambedkar condemned is adopted not just by citizens, but sometimes by elected Chief Ministers as well.   We have the precedents of Chief Minister/former Chief Ministers going on for satyagraha, against an order of the judicial body to release water to neighbouring State, Chief Minister protesting against the Central Government by having a Dharna etc.  while it is hard to depart from the path we frequently adopted against an imperial force, all of us, citizens and the elected leaders must strictly adhere to the path suggested by Dr.Ambedkar as otherwise, we will not be entitled to be called a Constitutional Democracy.

The list of contributions by Dr.Ambedkar is endless and this was a small attempt to look at a very few of them with an intention to improve the working of our democracy.

Prashant Padmanabhan, is an Advocate-on-Record in the Supreme Court. 

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