BR Ambedkar’s lessons for contemporary constitutionalism comprise the most tangible aspects of his legacy. At its core are his persistent efforts to get special rights and safeguards entrenched in the Constitution for oppressed social groups. Ambedkar believed that in an unequal society such as India, protecting the rights of oppressed social groups couldn’t be left to those in power. For him, special safeguards in the Constitution to recognise and protect these rights was a prerequisite for the peaceful working of a democratic nation. He believed that in the absence of such guarantees, those in control of social and political power would undermine these rights on a daily basis. As he noted in the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic. In these circumstances, it is wiser not to trust the legislature to prescribe forms of administration.”
To this effect, Ambedkar ensured that special rights in the Constitution are explicit and clear, so that they’re not left to the interpretation of judges or the executive. For example, the initial draft of the reservation provision asked the State to make “provision for reservations in favour of classes not adequately represented in the public services”. Ambedkar wanted the clause rephrased to provide reservations “in public services in favour of classes as may be prescribed by the State”. He argued that if the words “not adequately represented” were retained, any reservation for a group would be open to challenge on the grounds that the particular group was already adequately represented — indicating that he wanted to firewall reservations from judicial scrutiny and legislative vagaries.
Ambedkar argued that special rights prevented a political democracy from being subverted by the governing class. To him, reservations were another name for what the Americans called “checks and balances”. Such rights provided “a firm flooring” to oppressed communities “against the possibility of their being pressed down by the governing classes by reason of their superior power,” he believed. The principle of separation of power in Ambedkar’s conception thus applies not only to separation between different organs of the State, but also to sharing power equally between different social groups. Ambedkar’s goal was to prevent society and State institutions from erasing those rights.
Eventually, Ambedkar was only partially successful. Due to his non-negotiable stand, the Constitution provided for reservation in the legislature, jobs and education for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But the political framework suggested by him for the rights of religious minorities was not considered by the Constituent Assembly. Ambedkar felt that oppressor castes gave reservations “a bad name in order to be able to hang those who are insisting upon them” — and not as a general principle of political participation. A particularly interesting case was the debate around reservation for women in the Constituent Assembly, where the women members — only one of whom was Dalit — unanimously rejected political reservations or any special safeguard. As the Gandhian Renuka Ray from Bengal said on July 18, 1947, “Women have been fundamentally opposed to special privileges and reservations… of seats for women… it is an impediment to our growth and an insult to our very intelligence and capacity”.
The consequences of having few women and religious minorities in positions of political power have been consistently felt since Independence and there have been only indifferent efforts to increase the political participation of these communities — think of the women’s reservation bill that has languished in Parliament for decades, in the absence of any coherent political consensus. In the decades since, many oppressed communities — such as women, denotified and nomadic communities, religious minorities, including pasmanda (lower-caste) Muslims and Dalit Christians, and transgender people — have asked for the framework of reservation to demand their due share in power structures. Ambedkar’s experience shows that without providing explicit safeguards to these communities, it cannot be assumed that the situation would change automatically for them.
This need for full and meaningful participation of marginalised communities in the nation-building process has been expanded in a new book titled The Dalit Truth: The Battles in Realizing Ambedkar’s Vision edited by K Raju. Scholars Sukhadeo Thorat and Raja Sekhar Vundru rely upon Ambedkar’s ideas to suggest the addition of rights and safeguards in the constitutional framework to enhance equal participation of socially oppressed groups.
They argue that his concerns about the dangers of excluding some communities and belief that true feelings of democracy cannot be birthed without the creation of a fraternity of people unaffected by caste cleavages remain alive today. For a country to endure and thrive, not only do all of its citizens need access to social and economic justice but also full participation in the political process — a leap for a country that was traditionally riven by caste divisions and colonialism.
To guarantee such a transformation, Ambedkar placed his faith in the Constitution, which he believed could “put a limit on the power of the governing classes to have control over the instrumentalities of government”. To continue his vision demands the expansion and evolution of current constitutional discourses to provide an equal share in power to all oppressed communities by redesigning the political system.
Anurag Bhaskar, an alumnus of Harvard Law School, is assistant professor, OP Jindal Global University, and a recipient of the Bluestone Rising Scholar Award
The views expressed are personal
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