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70 Years of Ambedkar’s transformative constitution

  • Published at 10:52 pm January 30th, 2020

Babasaheb was a remarkable warrior for social justice 

Albert Einstein referred to Mahatma Gandhi when saying, “generations to come will scarce believe that such a man ever in flesh and blood walked on this Earth” but the sentiment applies equally to Bhimrao Ramji “Babasaheb” Ambedkar. 

If ever there was a right person in the right time and place, it was this remarkable scholar and warrior for social justice, whose personal imprint is evident throughout the Indian constitution which celebrated its 70th anniversary earlier this week. 

That historic milestone was commemorated by countless young citizens in public rallies across the country, standing together to voice anew its stirring, timeless aspirations: Justice, liberty, equality, fraternity. 

Ambedkar had no illusions about what he helped to put together with hundreds of members of the Constituent Assembly. He said: “The constitution is not a mere lawyer’s document, it is a vehicle of life, and its spirit is always the spirit of the age” while cautioning, “if I find [it] being misused, I shall be the first to burn it.” 

Thus, 70 years on, it’s immensely moving to witness India’s youngest adults defending constitutional values against sustained assault from the country’s own leadership, especially via the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

As the activist-author Harsh Mander puts it: “This long night of darkness has suddenly been interrupted by bursts of light in every corner of the land … The popular movement led by India’s young for solidarity, for Hindu-Muslim unity, for a just and kind country, is picking up the unfinished business of the freedom struggle.”

In fact, the marvellously inclusive resistance spilling so much energy and excitement into India’s public spaces is substantially Ambedkarite, which is why his portrait and his constitution are its natural rallying points. 

It was very revealing that when Ram Guha -- the great Gandhi biographer -- was aggressively dragged away mid-television-interview by the Bangalore police last December, he was holding up an Ambedkar poster.

There would seem to be an inherent paradox when a document of supreme law -- for that’s what a national constitutions is -- simultaneously seeks to nurture and abet revolution. Yet, it’s what Ambedkar sought to deliver, saying at the time: “How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us … Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.”

No one understood those nuances better than this lifelong campaigner against discrimination, whose birth into the Mahar caste (treated as untouchables in Hinduism) provided perspective and motivation for his life’s work. 

He made himself an unstoppable force: The first South Asian to earn a foreign doctorate in economics -- at Columbia University in New York -- which he capped with another one from the London School of Economics, while also being called to the Bar at Grey’s Inn, then serving as independent India’s first minister for law and justice. With the hard-won lessons of that astonishing life journey embedded throughout its logical and legal framework, Ambedkar’s document is a foremost example of what the UK-based legal scholar Upendra Baxi describes as “a transformative constitution” in “pursuit of the politics of human hope” that “may, in some contexts of history, carry a transformative burden, character, or potential.”

Several years ago, Baxi wrote that this aspect of transformative constitutions (he also classifies those of South Africa and Brazil in this category) become especially potent when adopted by “the voices of human and social suffering” and “communities of resistance.” 

This is precisely what’s underway at this juncture across the vast diversity of India, accompanied by the mass rallying of the most politically marginalized and disenfranchised segments of the electorate. 

Where will all the tumult lead? No one knows, and it’s impossibly difficult to say. One fact that isn’t going to change is that the BJP leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah continues to possess an unassailable majority in parliament, and the egregious, unnecessary implosion of the Congress Party has left it no serious nationwide opposition. Shah keeps declaring: “We will not budge an inch on CAA” and there’s no reason to disbelieve him.

In the meanwhile, his ruling disposition has become haughtily imperial in its peremptory actions, in an astonishing breakdown of due process, amidst widespread trampling of individual and collective rights. 

One bizarre but illustrative example played out at warp speed this week, after the politically-minded comedian Kunal Kamra mildly harried the regime’s favourite media attack dog, Arnab Goswami, on a flight, and posted the video on social media. He was quickly banned by several airlines, and possibly the national rail network as well. 

The veteran editor Tony Joseph tweeted: “The story is no longer about inconveniencing someone on an aircraft. It is about unwarranted, illegal, dictatorial misuse of state power against an individual.”

Ambedkar predicted just this when he delivered his constitution, warning “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.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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