Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, affectionately known as Babasaheb Ambedkar, was the main architect of our Constitution. The task of framing free India’s Constitution was formidable. The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly for this purpose was held on December 6, 1946. Ambedkar was elected on August 29, 1947 as the chairman of the drafting committee. He was insistent that the guarantees of fundamental rights be expressly incorporated in the Constitution and that remedies for their enforcement be easily accessible and expeditious. With that in view, draft Article 25, corresponding to the current Article 32 was incorporated. According to Ambedkar, “If I was asked to name any particular article in this Constitution as the most important — an article without which this 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”.
Ambedkar’s prescription for the successful working of the Constitution was that there must be no glaring inequalities and that there must be neither an oppressed class nor a suppressed class. He believed that unless the moral values of a Constitution are upheld, grandiloquent words will not protect the freedom and democratic values of people. He attached great importance to constitutional morality in the working of the Constitution which meant “a paramount reverence for the forms of the Constitution, enforcing obedience to authority acting under and within these forms, yet combined with the habit of open speech, of action subject only to definite legal control, and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to all their public acts”. According to Ambedkar, constitutional morality is “not a natural sentiment. It had to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it”.
On the concluding day of the Constituent Assembly, November 26, 1949, Ambedkar expressed his misgivings about the successful functioning of democracy in our country in these memorable words: “A thought comes to my mind: What would happen to her democratic constitution? Will she be able to maintain it or will she lose it again? 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”. The grammar of anarchy is still prevalent and Ambedkar’s hope that it would be abandoned has not fructified.
Hero worship is endemic in our country and personality cult flourishes. There is nothing wrong in admiring our leaders as heroes, but the risk is that in the process, the tendency is to entrust such persons with vast powers and uncritically accept the exercise of these powers, without insisting on accountability, which is a sine qua non of any genuine democracy.
Ambedkar was aware of these lurking dangers. He underlined the importance of observing caution which John Stuart Mill had uttered to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long service to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness.
Ambedkar emphasised that this caution is far more necessary in the case of India. For in India, bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in politics, unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country. 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.
On the last day of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar pointed out the perils of a “life of contradictions” in these memorable words: “On January 26, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. 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 the principle of one-man one-value. How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up”.
The anguished questions posed by Ambedkar continue to haunt us. Equality and banishment of discrimination, the abolition of untouchability and the inhuman practices associated with it were uppermost in Ambedkar’s mind. How could it be otherwise? He knew and had suffered the hurt and humiliation of being an untouchable and was painfully conscious of the sufferings of those who were outcastes on account of their “untouchability”. Social justice, which is the signature tune of our Constitution, still eludes us. Political leaders, so-called intellectuals, eminent journalists do not observe constitutional morality. But, the struggle for social justice must continue with determination. Its achievement will be the best tribute we can pay to one of the greatest sons of India, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 15, 2019 under the title ‘Babasaheb’s warning’. The writer is former Attorney General for India.