On Ambedkar’s birth anniversary remembering his prophetic words about protecting constitutional methods

Ajit Ranade

Posted On Saturday, April 14, 2012 ,Pune Mirror

When Dr Bhimrao Ambedkarwarned against the real dangers to democracy, he was both prescient and propheticBhimrao Ambedkar, the fourteenth and youngest child of Dalit parents, whose father served as a sepoy in the British military cantonment at Mhow (near Indore), was born on April 14, 1891. He was twenty-two years younger than Mohandas Gandhi, and died in 1956, just a few years after Gandhi. But together these two had a lion’s share in the making of modern India.

Their origins, upbringing, experiences, language, world view and strategy were very dissimilar. Gandhi romanticised about the self-sustaining village life and economy. For Ambedkar, life in a village under the scourge of caste and untouchability, was nasty and brutal.

Gandhi strived to rid untouchability through moral purification, and change of heart of upper-caste people. Ambedkar would rather depend on instruments of the state and rule of law. Gandhi did not support a separate electorate for the Dalits, but agreed for Muslims, Sikhs and others. Ambedkar wanted a separate electorate, but couldn’t prevail.

Gandhi threw away western clothes, and preferred a simple loincloth, whereas Ambedkar’s suit and tie was symbolic, and inspirational to his millions of followers. They also differed deeply on their view of Hinduism, with Gandhi seeking spiritual guidance, whereas Ambedkar considering it deeply flawed (especially because of social stratification). There are other differences too numerous to list here, but the remarkable thing is the unity of the ultimate goal that both sought.

They both looked to a future society based on justice, equality and compassion. On the issue of caste, it can be said that such was their influence, that they together changed in sixty years, what was entrenched for more than two thousand years. They also had many commonalities, such as their law degrees, and stints abroad.

Gandhi also had an indirect role in ensuring that Ambedkar became the father of the constitution. This great document, on the basis of which the Indian republic was born, was a thoughtful and scholarly synthesis of all the great democratic traditions of the world.

During the historic concluding meeting of the Constituent Assembly (charged with creating the republic), on November 25, 1949, Pattabhi Sitaramayya said, “What after all is a constitution? It is a grammar of politics, if you like, it is a compass to the political mariner.”

In that same session, Ambedkar, using similar metaphor (of grammar), warned against the dangers to democracy: He famously said: “If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing, in my judgment 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… 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.” These words are prophetic, for they warn us of dangers that are alive even today. Whether it is ‘taking to the streets’, or ‘spontaneous outburst of emotions’, or dharnas and riots, the dangers of breakdown of constitutionality are still real. It was one thing to fast against the British rule, but quite another to fast against a constitutionally-elected government.

In that same speech, he had prophetically warned against hero-worship and blind idolatry (read sycophancy). He said, “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.”

Finally, he also warned against social and economic inequality. He said, “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.

We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this (Constituent) Assembly has so laboriously built up.” Spoken decades before the scourge of the Maoists, Ambedkar was prescient and prophetic.