Is anyone listening to Ambedkar?

Parliamentarians should read Babasaheb’s speech made 67 years ago, on the importance of humility and the value of dissent.

Written by Maneesh Chhibber | Published:December 21, 2016 12:02 am
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On November 25, at a function organised in Parliament to commemorate Constitution Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked of the need for school and college students to read aloud the Preamble to the Constitution of India and be explained the import of the words written therein. This, he hoped, would help them understand the importance of the Constitution in their lives. Now, as the winter session has ended without any substantial legislative business being conducted or a matter of public importance being debated, maybe the time has come for the PM to talk of the need to make it mandatory for our Parliamentarians to read at least once a year the speech delivered by the man he referred to repeatedly in his own November 25 address — Bhimrao Ambedkar or Babasaheb, as the PM called him — on November 25, 1949.

The wonderful speech — also available on the Parliament website — should be mandatory reading for our Parliamentarians, especially those sitting on the government side, to understand that even when they don’t agree or have a vicious disagreement with the other side, it is important to engage with them. Remember these famous words? “… 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. The Constitution can provide only the organs of state such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the state depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics.” These sentences are part of this speech by Ambedkar.

In that scholarly speech made in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar not only talks of the work of the Constitution Drafting Committee but, more importantly, addresses the criticism from some quarters for — among other things — the slow pace of its work. Charitable in his praise (he names many) of those whom he considered to be the people responsible for the remarkable documents, the Dalit icon also gives an insight into how leaders of men should work with others. He says, for example, “I was therefore greatly surprised when the Assembly elected me to the Drafting Committee. I was more than surprised when the Drafting Committee elected me to be its Chairman. There were in the Drafting Committee men bigger, better and more competent than myself.”

On dissent, perhaps a cue that he was against party whips, Ambedkar salutes dissenters, saying, “The proceedings of this Constituent Assembly would have been very dull if all members had yielded to the rule of party discipline. Party discipline, in all its rigidity, would have converted this Assembly into a gathering of yes men. Fortunately, there were rebels.”

On the many objections that were overruled by the majority, Ambedkar says, “The points they raised were mostly ideological. That I was not prepared to accept their suggestions does not diminish the value of their suggestions, nor lessen the service they have rendered to the Assembly in enlivening its proceedings. I am grateful to them. But for them, I would not have had the opportunity which I got for expounding the principles underlying the Constitution which was more important than the mere mechanical work of passing
the Constitution.”

Responding to Naziruddin Ahmed for coining a new name for the Drafting Committee — he christened it “Drifting Committee” — Ambedkar said, “…Mr Naziruddin must no doubt be pleased with his hit. But he evidently does not know that there is a difference between drift without mastery and drift with mastery. If the Drafting Committee was drifting, it was never without mastery over the situation.”

He also clearly indicates that he expects the Constitution to be amended by future generations, saying, “ 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 overstatement, the views of the members of the Constituent Assembly… The Assembly has not only refrained from putting a seal of finality and infallibility upon this Constitution as in Canada or by making the amendment of the Constitution subject to the fulfilment of extraordinary terms and conditions as in America or Australia, but has provided a most facile procedure for amending the Constitution. I challenge any critics of the Constitution to prove that any Constituent Assembly anywhere in the world has, in the circumstances in which this country finds itself, provided such a facile procedure for the amendment of the Constitution.”

Ambedkar wasn’t just ready to admit there could be flaws with the Constitution, he was charitable enough to red-flag some areas of concern, hoping future Parliamentarians would take corrective steps. He also voiced the fear that India could turn into a dictatorship, saying, “There is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.”

He also warns against hero worshipping leaders. “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness… This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than any other country.

For 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. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship,” he cautions.

maneesh.chhibber@expressindia.com

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