The political appropriation of an icon is scarcely a new happening; nor is the collective amnesia of a founding figure. But when appropriation occurs by a thousand unkind cuts, the assassins of memory triumph, merely realign a past figure to the needs of a contemporary times, and choose to bypass urgent messages from a recent past.
Many messages of BR Ambedkar, fondly called Babasaheb, are now unforgivably forgotten. While extolling worship (bhakti) in religion as a “road to the salvation of the soul”, Babasaheb decried hero-worship in politics as “a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. A sincere constitutional tribute will avoid degradation to national life by acts of routine political sycophancy and instead put in practice what Babasaheb said and struggled for. He was a doer, not a sloganeer.
Although India has at last produced a Dalit bourgeoisie, it has yet to produce a postcolonial intellectual like Ambedkar who felt haunted (to borrow the words of Jacques Lacan) by the “schizoid-paranoid… murmur” of a million “anonymous persecutors”. But he developed the ability and the courage to ask questions about the ubiquitous injustices of social, political and economic orderings. A restless and dynamic politician, reformer, crusader and thinker, Ambedkar wished to “annihilate the caste” system, “restore the title deeds of humanity” to untouchables, and to liberate India from “Dalit-hunting” — rape, arson, stripping and parading, plunder, killing, and massacre of untouchables.
The constitutional order that he sculpted, he thought, would deliver us from that evil. We have now a system of reservations, a civil rights act, an atrocities act, and an abolition of manual scavenging act as late as 2013, and a plethora of statutory agencies and administrative devices. Surely, India reckons high for its GLP (gross legislative product), regardless of its GDP. Exuberant in normative law but feeble in real-life enforcement, a 66-year-old republic has not matched Babasaheb’s poignant urgency for swift action against the social apartheid of the caste system and politics of production of social indifference. The constitutional duties under Article 51A now require all citizens to be at least indignation-entrepreneurs.
To take but just one example: As late as end of March 2014, the Supreme Court witheringly bemoaned the unconstitutional plight of increasing numbers of manual scavengers and required the states to take appropriate statutory measures. On September 23, 2015, the Delhi High Court had to order the “first step” to survey the plight of untouchables in the municipal corporations and Delhi cantonments!
The nationwide 125-day Bhim Yatra (Dibrugarh se Dilli tak) culminated in Delhi on April 13, 2016, with a stark message: “Stop killing us”. The Safai Karamchari Andolan has documented 1,268 reported instances of death in sewer cleaning between March 2014 and March 2016. The untouchable right to be and to remain human has to be protected at all costs: Live and let others live is the constitutional summons, not live so as to condemn others to die or suffer a living death.
Ambedkar shared the perspective of Jawaharlal Nehru; somehow to combine the best (creative) elements that will compose an “organic whole” — some forms of “nationalism and political freedom” and “social freedom” and the dream of a “classless society”. He also agreed for expeditious removal of “all invidious social and customary barriers” impeding “the full development of the individual as well as of any group”. But, for Ambedkar, the leitmotif of Indian constitutionalism was a war on contradictions, which we are fated to endure but also must combat.
His oft-quoted observation is: “On the 26th January, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions… In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny [this principle]… How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?” He summates life under the Constitution as a series of lived and embodied contradictions. What is liberal (and now postliberal) democracy if not a series of structural contradictions that are lived and embodied by each and every citizen, party and leader?
However, Babasaheb did not enunciate any theory of contradictions. Were these aspirational/ institutional, normative/ institutional, material/ symbolic, (in Mao’s binary) antagonistic/ non-antagonistic, cultural/ civilisational contradictions? What mattered for Ambedkar was not living in denial and pauseless struggle for freedom from a new normal of lawlessness and the social pathology of rightlessnes. Neither normlessness (anomie) nor passive nihilism, which, as Nietzsche said, represents a situation of “devaluation of all values” provided an answer.
Babasaheb always urged that should we “wish to preserve the Constitution… let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path”. Even when “new ideologies” everywhere move people away from the “government of the people and by the people” and towards “governments for the people”, evils of untouchability persist, which should be effectively destroyed not by homeopathic doses but through a radical chemotherapy of the body politic.
Babasaheb was not merely the architect of the Indian Constitution but also remains a towering voice of its living Constitution. His vision has guided generations of appellate justices in interpreting both the legal and social meaning of the Constitution. He has been quoted in interpretation of fundamental rights and directive principles, and even in election and taxation situations. His most cited Constituent Assembly debate words are the “degradation of the political environment of the country”. The Supreme Court in the Bommai decision revived his famous observation that Article 356 (president’s rule in states) is and must remain a “dead letter”. He is all pervasive in social action litigation (still miscalled in India as “public interest litigation”), justifying the assertion that activist justices are the lineal descendants of Babasaheb.
The adoption of the Constitution may have, as Eleanor Zelliot reminds us, been greeted by “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai” and he outlived the ultimate insult of being described as a “modern Manu” but Ambedkar’s legacies of justice as emancipation shall endure as aspects of collective memory and the histories he shaped.