“…there can be no gainsaying that political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of a few and the many are only beasts of burden, but also beasts of prey. This monopoly has not merely deprived them of their chance of betterment, it has sapped them of what may be called the significance of life”- Dr. B.R Ambedkar.
On 26th November, 1948 Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, warned independent India of the possible dangers to the sovereign constitutional democracy that she had recently achieved. A day after we turn older as a Republic, I reflect on these lessons that are still relevant today.
At the crux of his stirring speech, is his anxiety that India might lose her independence and her democratic structure. These anxious warnings can easily be overlooked after seven decades of being an independent constitutional democracy. However, Dr. Ambedkar’s anxieties are not without substance. After centuries of our existence, betrayal of the State can neither be dismissed as an impossible event nor can it be a trait of only one community. Ambedkar substantiates this by arguing that India has lost her independence multiple times not solely because of foreign invaders, “but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people.”
For Babasaheb Ambedkar, “This anxiety is deepened by the realization of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country?”
The social problem of caste and creed must be an immediate focus, yet in our attempt to tackle this issue, we face the impediment of political parties from across the political spectrum that wish to hold on and perpetuate these divisive problems through their ‘opposing political creeds.’ According to Ambedkar, the solution lies in a vigilant citizenry and a determined attitude to “defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.”
Defending against foreign invasions might be the very definition of independence. Yet, while it is fundamental to the existence of our Nation, it is only one facet of our independence. To defend our independence against ourselves by ensuring that every person, class, community or society is independent in thought and action is the other facet. And, in my opinion it is easier to guard against a tangible foreign enemy, rather than defend ourselves against the enemy from within.
It is in this context that Dr. Ambedkar reveals another anxious thought- “What would happen to her democratic Constitution? Will she be able to maintain it or will she lose it again.”
While, he is popularly quoted for calling democracy in India as a ‘top-dressing’ on an essentially undemocratic soil, he seems to clarify in this speech that- “It is not that India did not know what is Democracy.” He argues that our rich past reflects that we had vibrant democratic institutions yet in some other timelines we have lost those institutions. But it is not to the past that we need to shift focus as we live in times, where intellectuals from all sides of the political spectrum have hinted at a global erosion of democratic decision making. In these times, we, as a vigilant citizenry must pay keen attention to Ambedkar’s three- tiered solution to maintain our democracy.
Firstly, we must hold on to our constitutional means to preserve our democracy and achieve our social and economic objectives. In the words of Dr. Ambedkar, “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.”
Over the last few days, we have witnessed historic protests as well as violent clashes between the State and citizenry. Therefore, it becomes crucial that we contextualise Ambedkar’s words. In my opinion, Ambedkar’s disapproval of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha is not a call to supress constitutional expressions of disapproval. We must not use his words, to discourage those who take to the streets. Rather we must critic the system that offers the street as a solution. We must introspect and reflect on a judicial system that remains inaccessible to the common man and a political class that ignores key stakeholders in its decision-making process. We cannot fight the ‘grammar of anarchy’ with state violence intended to curb constitutionally valid protests. For lasting change, we must rebuild our institutions so that they are not only representative but also accessible. For this, we must bring focus to the growing pendency of cases in our courts, the costs of litigation, the vacancy of judges and teachers in our legal system. Apart from this, we must strive for a consultative decision-making process which not just allows but encourages participation from the citizenry. We must also ensure a robust bi-partisan system to review laws and policy. Yet most important is that we focus on bringing down the cost of politics. Politics in India (and around the world) is dependent on financial resources that are beyond the wildest imaginations of the common man. To enter a system and have a fighting chance at bringing about electoral change is impossible without financial resources, unless you are an Arvind Kejriwal riding on the back of the largest anti-corruption movement in India. That is not an everyday story.
While it is easy to criticise the frequent protests, we must understand that it is only a symptom of the eroding constitutional mechanisms. However, there can be no justification for unconstitutional methods when constitutional methods are open. And, we must use this opportunity to introspect and to ask ourselves if these constitutional methods require immediate reform.
Ambedkar’s second solution to the people is to not “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions”. He goes on to say that “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 issue plagues all our institutions. An unquestioning reverence and sycophantic behaviour directed towards our political and judicial class at every level, holds us back from acknowledging that the real centre of power is ‘We, the people’. To raise questions and respectfully examine the actions of those in high-office is a great service to the nation. On the other hand, to habitually and blindly raise questions through disrespectful engagement is also the outcome of laying liberty at the feet of the opposing political class. According to Ambedkar, irrespective of one’s political leanings, “Bhakti or hero-worship [in politics] is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” Therefore, we must bring ourselves to oppose a VIP culture that is perpetuated by not just politicians and judges but also by civil servants and senior lawyers.
Lastly, “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well.” This can be done only by ensuring liberty, equality and fraternity, not just as political rights guaranteed by the State against itself but also as freedoms enjoyed by every member of society against themselves. According to Ambedkar, the impediments to achieving this is the absence of equality and fraternity in the Indian society. He argues, that we must strive to achieve equality not just in our social life but also in our economic life. When India’s wealthiest 1% hold four times more than the bottom 70%, it would be distasteful to call India an equal society. Our institutions of power and our social hierarchies have changed considerably over the last seven decades, yet they are not truly representative in nature. For instance, when there are only 2 female Supreme Court judges and only 80 female High Court judges, we must acknowledge that there is more work to be done in our push towards equality.
Far more crucial than just ensuring equality, is to recognise that “Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.” That common brotherhood that ties us together as Indian is not only a psychological perception but also a reflection of our actions towards one and another. The constant ‘othering’ and labelling of certain individuals and communities as ‘anti-national’ is a blow to this idea of an inclusive common brotherhood. In fact, according to Ambedkar the systems that perpetuate these divisions such as the castes are the real ‘anti-nationals’. Perpetuation of these ‘anti-nationals’, will only ensure that neither equality nor liberty will become a natural course of life. Together we must do more to achieve the holy trinity- equality, liberty and fraternity.
Therefore, as we celebrate another Republic Day, in honour of our Constitution, it is important that not just citizens but also politicians and judges look back to Ambedkar’s lessons to ensure that the Constitution works for us- the people of India.
Views are personal.