After 61 years, Ambedkar's Fears for India Are Still Valid

I really like the eloquence of B. R. Ambedkar.

61 years ago, on November 26, 1949, he gave his concluding speech as the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee on the floor of the Constituent Assembly.

From all accounts of those days, I could feel that those were days of excitement, where there was a great deal of expectant enthusiasm about how the country was shaping out. But even as his team submitted the draft of the constitution, he tempered the enthusiasm with caution in his speech.

Pragati carries an excerpt of this speech this month, which as always, was a fascinating read. And if I dare say so, a must read for all Indians who are old enough to understand what he is talking about.

61 years since, I am afraid. I am not entirely enthusiastic about the direction the nation is headed. You might say that Ambedkar had foreseen these issues, but that would be an incorrect thing to say, because a lot of the issues of today, were prevalent even then. Religious, casteist, linguistic strife were all then as well. Sad that not much has changed in this time.

I remember the days when politically-minded Indians, resented the expression “the people of India”. They preferred the expression “the Indian nation.” I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion.

How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us. For then only we shall realise the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realising the goal. The realisation of this goal is going to be very difficult.

The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.

Of course, in my opinion, some things have changed in this while. Social (especially caste) inequality are still very much there in the rural side of India. On the urban side the tables have turned for a while in the last decade and half with the help of enforced reservations on one hand, and (at least in my opinion) the near absence of caste issues in the booming private sector.

We must observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given 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 power which enable him to subvert their institutions”.

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. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.

This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of 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.

(all emphasis mine)

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.

We all know the above, of course, but that still leaves a lot of unanswered questions that we face today. e.g.

  • What do you do, if the powers that be, is unaffected by the constitutional methods of protest that you go through? Has anyone ever gone beyond what Irom Sharmila has done? Today, the only institution that we think can cure our problems is the Judicial system, but they are not always flawless either. And in many cases, they have to make do with moronic laws drafted by our incompetent politicians in the first place.
  • What do you think will happen, when the demands of a section of our population goes against the wishes of the rest of the country? So this section can feel that all constitutional ways have failed and their only course is what Ambedkar has asked us to give up.

Of course, these are not questions specific to our country, but to any democracy in general. And they are definitely questions that experts have debated about. I think I need to read up more on these debates.

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