Recently on Twitter, the hashtag, #ArrestBibekDebroy, had gone viral. Debroy had written an article in Mint, making the case for a new Constitution of India in 2047. He argued that parts of the present Constitution had run their course and required revision. As an example, he pointed to the need of reorganising states and local bodies to ensure efficiency in administration.
His arguments were seen as an insult to Babasaheb Ambedkar, the chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India. That perceived insult quickly morphed into a demand to arrest Debroy, a product of the take-no-prisoners style of politics that has become the norm today.
The question as to whether India needs a new Constitution is not a straightforward one. My new book, The Colonial Constitution, tells the origin story of the Constitution to provide a surer foundation for this assessment. Irrespective of where one lands, discussing new constitutional ideas is not disrespecting Ambedkar. By virtue of being an intellectual giant and the chairperson of the Drafting Committee to draft the Constitution, Ambedkar successfully channelled the views of a generation into a coherent legal text. As a result, he has, over the decades, been considered to be the father of the Constitution of India. But this wasn’t as clear-cut during the time the Constitution was actually drafted.
When the Constituent Assembly was set up as per the provisions of the Cabinet Mission Plan, Ambedkar first tried to get elected from his home province of Bombay. He came up short. But luckily, elections to the Assembly were indirect, which meant that representatives from another province could also elect him. Thanks to the efforts of Jogendranath Mandal, a popular leader in Bengal who later went on to become the first law minister of Pakistan, Ambedkar was elected from Bengal. But no sooner had this happened than Partition was announced and his seat was allocated to Pakistan. The prospect of a Constituent Assembly without Ambedkar in it appeared real.
It was then that Rajendra Prasad, the president of the Assembly, asked B.G. Kher, the premier of Bombay, to work towards Ambedkar’s election from his home province. Not content with that, M.K. Gandhi made a decisive intervention to ensure Ambedkar became chairperson of the Drafting Committee. Gandhi’s differences with Ambedkar, particularly on matters of separate electorates for the scheduled castes, were well-known. This is why Gandhi’s move to not only accommodate Ambedkar within the tent of the Constituent Assembly but also give him pride of place in it appeared to many as an act of political patronage.
This seemed particularly true since by the time Ambedkar was appointed to the Drafting Committee in August 1947, the constitutional adviser, Benegal Narsing Rau, had already prepared a detailed draft of the Constitution. During this time, Ambedkar was a member of the Sub-Committee that had drafted the chapter on fundamental rights. His clarity of vision was demonstrated in a set of draft fundamental rights that he had presented to the Sub-Committee. Titled “Constitution of the United States of India”, this document contained a ringing declaration of equal citizenship as a fundamental right. It pushed further, with a set of elaborate safeguards for the scheduled castes. This included separate electorates, weightage in representation and reservation of seats in legislatures. The document captured Ambedkar’s foundational view that a Constitution would be meaningless for the scheduled castes unless substantive safeguards were incorporated in it.
But in the Sub-Committee, Ambedkar’s draft was hardly discussed. Instead, an alternative draft prepared by K.M. Munshi served as the base document. Three of Ambedkar’s suggestions — the abolition of untouchability, outlawing discrimination in the use of wells and tanks to draw water, and dispensing with any privileges arising out of birth and rank — were accepted. But the bulk of his suggestions, particularly those relating to separate electorates for scheduled caste persons, were summarily rejected. The fundamental rights chapter had largely been written before Ambedkar’s role became prominent in the Assembly.
He rose to prominence between October 1947 and February 1948 when the Drafting Committee undertook a full revision of Rau’s draft. He chaired 45 meetings of the Drafting Committee in this time, and once revised, made innumerable speeches on the floor of the Assembly explaining its provisions, sometimes amending them unilaterally, at other times deferring to the views of the House. Though he had not initially drafted the provisions, he became the last word on them in the Assembly.
His vision for India, earlier articulated at a session of the All-India Depressed Classes Congress in Nagpur in August 1930, was aligned with that of the majority of the Assembly. He believed in a powerful Union government — for him, governments closer to the people were likelier to carry sectarian and casteist prejudices that pervaded society. “The prosperity of the people of this country will depend upon how well and how easily the Central mill will grind,” he said. It is this vision that is reflected in the Constitution’s federal structure with a heavy tilt towards the Union. This continues to have great resonance today, including with most governments in power in Delhi.
Ambedkar also believed that “people, including Depressed Classes do not live on law and order, what they live on is bread and butter.” Rights without full stomachs would be meaningless. Following this lead, the tenets of an economic democracy were laid down in the chapter on Directive Principles. Provisions calling for distributing material resources for the common good, securing a living wage and old age assistance enjoyed wide consensus in the Assembly. Ambedkar shepherded those views into the Directive Principles that every government would have to respect.
This is precisely why for any government in independent India to discard the Constitution as wholly outdated, or for Ambedkarites to claim an assault on Babasaheb when constitutional provisions are questioned, is simplistic. The Constitution is the collection of thoughts of a generation, which Ambedkar adroitly shaped in a way that would serve independent India best. Several of its provisions remain relevant, others appear incongruent. None of this can be attributed to Ambedkar alone.
Equally, as a thought leader, an intellectual, and a predominant political influence of our times, Ambedkar’s writ runs well beyond the Constitution. Reducing his contributions to the Constitution and rendering it a holy book to be worshipped do disservice to the man and the spirit of enquiry that was his hallmark. It is always a good time for Indians to ask themselves which parts of the Constitution work and which don’t. That celebrates Ambedkar, it doesn’t belittle him.
Arghya Sengupta is the author of The Colonial Constitution