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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015

Ambedkar and Constituent Assembly

Friday 17 April 2015


by Vivek Kumar Srivastava

We can look at Bhimrao Ambedkar in many ways. He is credited with the drafting of our Constitution. He is respected as the champion of the Dalit cause. He is remembered for incorporating Article 17 in the chapter of Fundamental Rights, which abolished untouch-ability. These are the attainments and contri-butions of Ambedkar but he is more than all that.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru presented the Objective Resolution on December 13, 1946 in the Constituent Assembly. Ambedkar discovered many lacunae in it. His major objection was that the “resolution, although it enunciates certain rights, does not speak of remedies. All of us are aware of the fact that rights are nothing unless remedies are provided whereby people can seek to obtain redress when rights are invaded.” (Constituent Assembly Debates, December 17, 1946)

He was a legal luminary with deep under-standing of the society and economy, and therefore was more concerned about those who had no collective power, deprived of even basic civil and social rights. For him, social justice had to be broader than Plato and Rawls’ idea of justice. He knew that rights will turn into mere words if not translated into reality; hence Article 17 was incorporated in the Constitution, and in 1955 the Untouchability (Offences) Act was passed; later it was amended in 1976.

He had a firm belief in the unity of India. His idea of united India rested on three planks. First, a society where castes had been annihilated. Second, minorities to be part of the united India. Third, a greater need for establishing a strong Centre. He was well aware of the fissiparous tendencies prevailing in India. His concept of united India for this reason led him to say in the Assembly that “I know today we are divided politically, socially and economically, we are a group of warring camps and I may go even to the extent of confessing that I am probably one of the leaders of such a camp. But, Sir, with all this, I am quite convinced that given time and circumstances nothing in the world will prevent this country from becoming one. With all our castes and creeds, I have not the slightest hesitation that we shall in some form be a united people.” (CAD, December 17, 1946)

Without minorities India could not remain united. He further stated: “I have no hesitation in saying that notwithstanding the agitation of the Muslim League for the partition of India, some day enough light would dawn upon the Muslims themselves and they too will begin to think that a United India is better even for them.” (CAD, December 17, 1946)

His analysis was that for united India, a strong Centre was a must. “I like a strong united Centre, much stronger than the Centre we had created under the Government of India Act of 1935.” (CAD, the December 17, 1946)

A strong Centre did not mean that the Union, whenever it wished, could enter within the sphere of the State. Ambedkar made it clear: ”I should like to tell the House two things. One is this that we are at the present moment bound by the terms of agreement arrived at between the two Negotiating Committees, one appointed by the Indian Constituent Assembly representing the British provinces and the other of representatives nominated by the Indian States for the purpose of arriving at a certain basis for drafting a common Constitution which would cover both parts. Now I do not wish to go into the details of the report made by the Negotiating Committee but if my honourable friend Pandit Kunzru would refresh his mind by going over the report of that committee, he will find that here is a distinct provision that nothing in the Negotiating Committee report will be understood to permit the Indian Union to encroach upon the territories of the Indian States.” (CAD, November 18, 1948)

Ambedkar’s concept of united India was based on composite culture and casteless society. For being united, active participation of the citizens is needed. Usually it is considered in the realm of politics but it has many dimensions. Conscription is one such issue. Ambedkar had a clear idea about it and wanted it be resolved with the help of experts. This issue was debated in the Constituent Assembly. Ambedkar took a valid course after analysing its different aspects. ”So far as I know, in Bombay, ‘begar’ is demanded by the State for certain public purposes, and if the State is prohibited from having ‘begar’ it is perfectly possible for anybody to argue that even compulsory military service is beggar.” (CAD, May 1, 1947) He further continued: “We have heard the arguments of Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar who has said that according to his reading of the rulings of the Supreme Court of the United States, even if the Explanation was not there, the State would be permitted to have compulsory military service. Fortunately, for me I also happened to look into the very same cases which I am sure Sir Alladi has in mind. I think he will agree with me, if he looks at the reasoning of the judgment given by the Supreme Court, he will find that they proceeded on the hypothesis that in a political organisation the free citizen has a duty to support the Government and as every citizen has a duty to support the Government therefore, compulsory military law was doing nothing more than calling upon the citizen to do the duty which he already owes to the State. I submit that that is a very precarious foundation for so important a subject as the necessity of compulsory military service for the defence of the State.

“I submit that we ought not to rest content with that kind of reasoning which the Supreme Court in India may adopt or may not adopt. Therefore, my suggestion is this, that, just as in the case of the other clause dealing with citizenship you were good enough to remit the matter to a small committee to have it further examined.” (CAD, May 1, 1947)

His contention was accepted and no compulsory military training was introduced. His idea of service of citizen to the state in the form of conscription has a wider dimension, it has helped India to follow the path of Gandhian non-violence. In many countries it has helped in the birth of a militaristic life-style, where good values of love and cordiality have diminished.

The Constituent Assembly was a sovereign body. He defined different dimensions of it. These later on helped to construct the Indian political system. He opined that “the Constituent Assembly is not bound by the Constitution. But a Legislature is bound by the Constitution. When the Constituent Assembly functions as a legislature it would be bound by the Government of India Act as adopted under the Independence Act. Anybody would be in a position to raise a point of order. Anybody would be in a position to say whether a particular motion is ultra vires or intra vires. But such a question can certainly not arise when the Constituent Assembly is functioning as a body framing the Constitution.” (CAD, August 29, 1947)

One important contribution of Ambedkar is in the evolution of the Directive Principles of State Policy. He emphasised that this chapter of the Constitution had great utility. “With regard to the word ‘directive’ I think it is necessary and important that the word should be retained because it is to be understood that in enacting this part of the Constitution the Constituent Assembly, as I said, is giving certain directions to the future legislature and the future executive to show in what manner they are to exercise the legislative and the executive power which they will have. If the word ‘directive’ is omitted I am afraid the intention of the Constituent Assembly in enacting this part will fail in its purpose.” (CAD, November 19, 1948)

His thoughts in the Constituent Assembly also echoed the ideas of secularism when he said that no religion is superior to another one. He also contended that security of the state is paramount; therefore fundamental rights should not be absolute. These need to be qualified in order to maintain the security of the state.

Ambedkar, in his position in the Constituent Assembly, worked hard to disseminate the ideas which became the bedrock of the Indian Constitution, and finally of the Indian polity. The contemporary Indian social and political system needs his ideas in a more emphatic manner for the establishment of a rational politico-social order because the value system in the country shows a decline.

Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at e-mail

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