Ambedkar’s constitutionalism speaks to contemporary times
The principles of liberty, equality and fraternity formed the core of Ambedkar’s constitutionalism. He considered fraternity to be “only another name for democracy”
Constitution Day offers us an opportunity to examine BR Ambedkar’s broader conception of constitutionalism, which can be traced from his writings, speeches, social movements, and public and political engagement over four decades.
Ambedkar’s writings, since 1919, focused on the recognition of equal rights for all citizens — and the interconnection between rights, citizenship, and constitutionalism. In his submission to the Southborough Committee on Franchise, he theorised “citizenship” as “a bundle of rights”. Among these, Ambedkar argued, the “right of representation and the right to hold office under the State” were the two “most important rights”. Participation in political life would bring consciousness among the lower castes. Thus, from this formulation, emerged Ambedkar’s demand for special political representation for the lower castes.
Linked with the ideas on citizenship and representation, Ambedkar envisaged an ideal form of constitutional government. According to him, a responsible government was one which was representative. He also saw the government as an institution of social reform — not afraid “to amend the social and economic code of life which the dictates of justice and expediency so urgently call for”.
The principles of liberty, equality and fraternity formed the core of Ambedkar’s constitutionalism. He considered fraternity to be “only another name for democracy”. According to him, democracy was not “merely a form of Government”, but “essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.”
Ambedkar’s emphasis on the assurance of special rights for the lower castes was a result of his reading and analysis of global history. Before the Constituent Assembly was set up in 1946, he explained the reasons for demanding constitutional safeguards as a “condition precedent to cooperation” with the nationalist leaders. Ambedkar referred to the situation of the Black community in America and the hollow promises made to them by American leaders, noting, “The Untouchables cannot forget the fate of the Negroes. It is to prevent such treachery that the Untouchables have taken the attitude they have with regard to this ‘Fight for Freedom’.”
Even before the Constitution-drafting process was initiated, Ambedkar laid down a clear blueprint for how the future Constitution ought to be more than political. As he said, “Political constitution must take note of social organisation”. Subsequently, Ambedkar wanted to incorporate a democratic socialist form of economic structure into the Constitution. He argued: “Old time constitutional lawyers… never realized that it was equally essential to prescribe the shape and form of the economic structure of society, if democracy is to live up to its principle of one man, one value”.
Ambedkar also pushed the boundaries of constitutional thought to broaden the rights of Scheduled Castes (SCs). For instance, he argued for a system of “qualified joint electorates”, whereby SC candidates could be elected only if they secured a minimum of 35% votes of the SC voters. He also proposed certain safeguards for representation in cabinet appointments, executive, and the judiciary. While his proposals were not accepted by the Constituent Assembly, they provide us with a theoretical framework to reflect on contemporary constitutional designs across the globe.
The Constitution is long. This is because Ambedkar believed that since Indians had yet to learn “constitutional morality”, it was necessary that the form of administration was prescribed in the Constitution; otherwise it was “perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution… by merely changing the form of the administration”. Ambedkar’s focus on laying down clear legal procedures was his method of regulating power.
Ambedkar was a firm believer in the protection of minority rights. He once noted: “In the name of democracy there must be no tyranny of the majority over the minority.” He further added: “The minority must always feel safe that, although the majority is carrying on the government, the minority is not being hurt”.
Ambedkar was also a strong proponent of constitutional traditions and practices. These were, in his view, “conditions precedent for the successful working of democracy”. He noted that the position of the Leader of the Opposition must be recognised by every government “incessantly and perpetually”.
Ambedkar once quoted Edmund Burke to remind the British government that “power and authority are sometimes bought by kindness”, not necessarily with brute force and violence. His ideas of constitutionalism hold up a mirror to contemporary society and politics.
Anurag Bhaskar is an assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, and a winner of Bluestone Rising Scholar Award 2021 by Brandeis University
The views expressed are personal