BR Ambedkar: The unknown details of how he piloted Indian constitution

On 30 August 1947, the seven-member Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly met and unanimously elected Ambedkar as chairman. Barring him and Muhammad Saadulla, a lawyer from Assam, all the members were Savarnas. With Ambedkar (seated from the left) are three other members of the Committee, N. Madhavrao, Muhammad Saadulla and Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar, and constitutional adviser B.N. Rau. Standing: S.N. Mukherjee, Jugal Kishore Khanna and Kewal Krishan (administrative officers).
Image caption,Ambedkar seated in the middle with members of the drafting committee of the Constitution in August 1947

At the end of the final reading of India’s constitution on 25 November 1949, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of India’s greatest statesmen and the undisputed leader of the country’s Dalits (formerly called ‘Untouchables’), delivered a typically prescient speech.

“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality, and in social and economic life, we will have inequality,” Ambedkar said.

With the constitution coming into force, India declared itself as a sovereign, democratic and republic state that day. In his speech, Ambedkar was possibly alluding to the contradictions between a young republic and an old civilisation. Democracy, he had said separately, was only a “top-dressing on Indian soil” which was “essentially undemocratic”, and the village was a “sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism”.

Abolition of untouchability, affirmative action, giving the ballot to all adults and decreeing equal rights to all was a remarkable feat for a poor and unequal country like India – a land that had remained “stationary and fixed” in the words of celebrated German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

A 299-member constituent assembly had worked for three years between 1946 and 1949 through a tumultuous time. The period saw religious rioting and partition, which sparked the largest migration in human history between India and the new state of Pakistan. It also witnessed the painful and difficult incorporation of hundreds of princely states into India.

Ambedkar, a legal scholar himself, helmed a key seven-member panel which drafted the document with its 395 provisions.

Members of the Asprushya Mahila Samaj, Mumbai, celebrated Ambedkar’s birthday at his residence, Rajgraha, on 14 April 1942.
Image caption,Ambedkar with a group of women activists at his Mumbai (then Bombay) house on his birthday, 14 April 1942

Now a magisterial new biography called A Part Apart by Ashok Gopal tells the story of how Ambedkar battled poor health and set aside differences with the leading lights of India’s freedom movement to pilot what was one of the world’s longest founding documents.

The book reveals how Ambedkar’s stature helped him secure widespread local – and international – support for the role. Five of the seven members of the drafting committee were upper castes, but they all asked Ambedkar to lead the committee.

Eamon De Valera, the Irish statesman who supported the Indian freedom movement and wrote a Constitution of Ireland, also recommended Ambedkar for the position either to Lord Mountbatten, last viceroy of British India, or India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr Gopal writes. (This was revealed in a letter that Edwina Mountbatten, the last vicereine, wrote to Ambedkar.)

Edwina Mountbatten also told Ambedkar that she was “personally glad” he was “supervising” the constitution making, as he was the “only genius who can give equal justice to every class and creed”. Soon after taking over as the viceroy in March 1947, Lord Mountbatten had “extremely interesting and valuable talks” with Ambedkar, Mr Gopal writes. The viceroy also told a senior British official that he “felt great satisfaction” when he saw Ambedkar’s name on the list of 15 ministers in Nehru’s interim federal cabinet.

Ambedkar’s panel examined the entire draft of the constitution, which had been submitted to the assembly in May 1947. It was sent to relevant ministers and then to the Congress party. Some sections were redrafted as many as seven times.

On 15 April 1948, in a low-key, registered wedding in New Delhi, Ambedkar married Sharda Kabir, a thirty-six-year-old Saraswat Brahmin doctor from Mumbai. After the marriage, she came to be known as Savita Ambedkar.
Image caption,Ambedkar married Sharda Kabir, a 36-year-old doctor, in April 1948

The revised draft submitted by Ambedkar to Rajendra Prasad, president of the constituent assembly, made around 20 major changes, including a tweak in the solemn preamble, which promises justice, equality, fraternity and embodies the basic features of the founding document.

The insertion of the word “fraternity” in original preamble, and also probably the rest of it – a “truly wondrous and historic set of 81 words” – was entirely Ambedkar’s handiwork, Mr Gopal cites Aakash Singh Rathore, a philosopher, from his book Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India.

Ambedkar did most of the heavy lifting. Although he was suffering from diabetes and blood pressure, he stood in the assembly for around 100 days “patiently explaining each clause and giving reasons or rejecting each suggested amendment”.

Not all members were present in the meetings. TT Krishnamachari, one of the committee members, told the assembly in November 1948 that the “burden of drafting this [revised] constitution” fell on Ambedkar as most members could not make “substantial contributions” because of “death, illness and other preoccupation”.

The draft suggested more than 7,500 amendments – and nearly 2,500 of them were accepted. Ambedkar gave a “greater share of credit” for the drafting to SN Mukherjee, a senior civil servant who had the “ability to put the most intricate proposals in the simplest legal form”.

For his part, Ambedkar accommodated all interests, despite his rebel image as the champion of India’s “depressed classes”. His demand for separate electorates was voted out by the constitutional assembly panel on minorities. His early demand for nationalising core industries fell though – socialism was not mentioned in the objectives of the constitution.

When the constituent assembly met for the first time in December 1946, Ambedkar admitted: “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 confession that I am probably one of the leaders of such a camp.”

: A man holds a book of the Indian constitution on the occasion of the 128th birth anniversary of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar at Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal, sector 95 on April 14, 2019 in Noida, India.
Image caption,A man holds a book of the Indian Constitution on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary

Mr Gopal writes the “manner in which Ambedkar dealt with his own earlier demands points to his statesmanlike role – he chose to consider all interests rather than only particular interests, like the interests of the scheduled castes”. (“Scheduled castes” and tribes comprise 230 million of India’s 1.4 billion people.)

All this and more, argues Mr Gopal, confirm that Ambedkar was the principal architect of the constitution, and someone “who held a panoramic view” and guided the finalisation of “each and every piece” of the document.

Years later Rajendra Prasad acknowledged that Ambedkar had performed the task of a “skilful pilot of the constitution”. Hours after the Dalit icon passed away on 6 December 1956, aged 63, prime minister Nehru said: “No one took greater care and trouble over constitution making than Dr Ambedkar”.

More than seven decades later, India’s giant and diverse democracy has held together in face of serious challenges. Rising polarisation and social inequities make many worry about its future. They point to another prescient speech that Ambedkar made while introducing the revised draft of the constitution.

“The minorities in India have loyally accepted the rule of majority…It is for this majority to realise its duty not to discriminate against minorities,” he said.

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