Republic at 70: How Ambedkar, Constituent Assembly dealt with the caste conundrum
India’s Constitution, which came into being seven decades ago, was striking for a number of reasons. Among the most notable of them was its emphasis on individual freedom. India was a country that had been defined by groups, a land which the imperial mind had viewed through the lens of categories rather than people. And it was a nation whose constituents were untrained in modern politics. Caste exemplified the primitive mindset of Indian society: people were marked by birth, neither their present nor their future was a consequence of any individual agency.
“Democracy in India,” BR Ambedkar famously stated, “is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”. The institution of caste was, for Ambedkar, central to the undemocratic character of Indian life. In order to move beyond caste, he highlighted its core features. One such feature was the unnatural character of the caste system. It was not based on any natural or existing facts. It was also, contrary to widespread perceptions, unrelated to any real racial distinction. There was little in common, for example, between a Brahmin from Punjab and one from Madras, and caste was often simply a division among persons of the same race.
By showing the caste was unnatural, Ambedkar was able to make the case that it could be eradicated. But why was such eradication desirable? To capture the problem of caste, Ambedkar drew a link between three ideas: democracy, fraternity, and inequality. By condemning individuals to particular lives, it not only differentiated between different individuals, but it also classified certain people as less worthy than others. For Ambedkar, this inequality not only meant that Indian society lacked civic reciprocity. It also meant that it was fundamentally undemocratic, because it was impossible to see everyone as an equal participant in a common project. The kind of deliberation that modern politics demanded could not take place in a society where one’s horizons were so limited.
It was one thing to argue for the eradication of caste, quite another to propose how it might be done. Here, as I argue in a new book India’s Founding Moment, we can locate two themes in Ambedkar’s thought. First, there was a sense that the protection to be granted to lower-caste groups would at least partly turn on the nature of the franchise that they had been granted. This is the reason why Ambedkar’s views on how to address caste would often vary quite significantly in the pre-Independence years, when restrictions on the right to vote raised puzzles about how to represent lower-caste groups.
The second theme was the belief that no constitutional schema could be silent on the question of caste. It would have to confront the reality of caste in some form or another. The precise way in which caste should be addressed came to be answered in the Constituent Assembly. Crucial to addressing the problem of caste, the Constituent Assembly noted, was recognising that it posed a problem that was distinct to that presented by religion. In the case of religion, the aim was to ensure that citizenship was unlinked to faith, that religious freedom was guaranteed. Here, the goal was to accommodate different faiths under a single representative framework. In the case of caste, however, the goal was not accommodation but, as Ambedkar powerfully observed, annihilation.
The Constituent Assembly was thus faced with a real puzzle. By ignoring caste, it would be unable to rescue the individual from the power that caste groups enjoyed in society. But by recognising it, there was the risk that caste as an identity would be entrenched. The solution lay in a turn to abstraction. That is to say, it lay in establishing a principle for identifying groups – the category of “backwardness” – which could, in theory, be filled by any group, but at India’s founding applied to lower caste groups. The Constitution did not aim to protect any particular group. It tried to liberate individuals who were under conditions of domination, and the special treatment toward caste was a consequence of applying this general principle.
The principle of backwardness offered a logic for the treatment of some groups in contrast to others. It meant, for Ambedkar, that the use of quotas would be justifiable to those who were both included and excluded. Because backwardness was a relative idea – a group could only be backward in comparison with another group – Ambedkar argued that reservations must be “confined to a minority of seats”. All along, one needed to see any proposal for the treatment of groups through the lens of individual freedom: the question was whether the individual could be liberated and be treated as a distinct agent.
Seventy years on, this principle has been turned upside down. The constitutional aspiration was to create a society that could transcend caste. But the trajectory that reservations have taken, in particular the expansion of beneficiaries, the clubbing together of groups that have very different histories and experiences of discrimination, the inattention to the distinct rationales for special treatment in different sectors, and so forth, have carried the Constitution away from its original vision. As Sudipta Kaviraj once argued, we have moved from a framework that recognized equality beyond caste to one where equality-based claims are made through caste. This has been a tragedy, not only in the context of caste, but more fundamentally in the meaning of equality across a range of actors and scenarios in India’s constitutional imagination.
(Madhav Khosla teaches at Columbia and Ashoka University and is the author of India’s Founding Moment - The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy.)