Dispatch #49: Why we need Ambedkar now, more than ever before?

In this dispatch we will delve into the idea of 'fraternity' as conceptualized by Ambedkar & the history of fraternity clause of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution

In 2012, the Outlook Magazine ran a pan-India survey trying to find out who was the greatest Indian in the post-independent India. 

Dr B R Ambedkar emerged as the Greatest Indian of all time in independent India. The only problem I found with that survey was that they were looking for the greatest Indian ‘after Gandhi’, Ambedkar’s arch-critic and ideological rival. 

In the opening essay, legendary editor, Vinod Mehta reminded the readers what Shakespeare wrote in ‘Twelfth Night’ about greatness, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them”. He further added:

Great individuals, who acquire the rare virtue by one of the three routes suggested by Shakespeare, must be rigorously evaluated, subjecting them to an appraisal which is at once exhausting and sparing. Someone classified as a great human being, naturally, needs to be inspirational, a role model, someone who through his or her genius communicates pleasure, pride and enjoyment to millions. The phrase ‘national treasure’ should sit easily on the person.

-Vinod Mehta

If the magazine chooses to run the same survey in 2021, I am more than confident that Ambedkar would still emerge as a clear winner, especially in a post-Rohith Vemula India, in a post-Mohammed Akhlaq India where the sense of ‘fraternity’ is receding rapidly. 

The political churning in the past one decade has made Indian society extremely polarized. Most of the social divide is around our age old fault lines- caste, religion and gender. It is the same decade when the minorities and the dalits have been killed, beaten, humiliated, brutalised and even tortured while being coerced to sing the national anthem and what we are witnessing right now is a clear departure form adhering to the Constitutional morality.

If Ambedkar would have been with us today, his heart would have ripped apart to see a Muslim man assaulted and forced to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’ on the eve of India’s 75th Independence Day. He would have reminded all of us about the Constitutional morality, about which he spoke on 4th November 1948:

While everybody recognizes the necessity of the diffusion of Constitutional morality for the peaceful working of a democratic Constitution, there are two things interconnected with it which are not, unfortunately, generally recognized. One is that the form of administration has a close connection with the form of the Constitution. The other is that it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing the form of the administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. It follows that it is only where people are saturated with Constitutional morality such as the one described by Grote the historian that one can take the risk of omitting from the Constitution details of administration and leaving it for the Legislature to prescribe them. The question is, can we presume such a diffusion of Constitutional morality? Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.

-B R Ambedkar

Constitutional morality was a call to adopt the values and principles of the Indian Constitution- justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.

He cautioned us that it may be difficult to adopt these values since they don’t come naturally to the Indian society marred by faultlines. For him, adopting Constitutional values was akin to living the ‘life of contradictions’ where we might have political equality but not social and economic equality.

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. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. 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 Assembly has so laboriously built up.

-B R Ambedkar

He was apprehensive about relying too heavily on political reforms while totally ignoring the social reforms. In his book ‘India’s Founding Moment, author Madhav Khosla argued that precisely for the same reason Ambedkar wanted a strong central state rather than village republics as idealized by Gandhi. Only a strong state, using the Constitutional authority, can transform the society and act as an antidote to regressive social forces. According to him the sequencing of social and political reforms is important. Social reforms should precede  political reforms.

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Social reforms was so central to the radicalism of Ambedkar that this is what he wrote in the Annihilation of Caste (AOC):

There is no doubt, in my opinion, that unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress. You cannot mobilize the community either for defence or for offence. You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole.

-B R Ambedkar

It is precisely the same idea of social and political mobilization that Amit Ahuja has addressed in his book ‘Mobilizing the Marginalised’. Ahuja argues that political parties representing dalits in states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have not been great electoral successes because these states have had a history of strong social mobilizations. Hence the SCs in these states already have some sort of organizational structure outside the political realm. On the other hand dalit politial parties in UP or Bihar have played a dominant role in national politics and have also formed the government at the state level. This was possible because of the absence of any form of social mobilization in these two states. The dalits have to organize themselves politically to demand welfare and other rights from the state. The dalits in TN and Maharashtra are better-off than their counterparts in UP or Bihar only because in the former set of states social mobilization happened before political mobilization as compared to the latter set of states. This social mobilization helped create a sense of solidarity among lower castes that made them assertively demand for their rights from the state.

It was this idea of solidarity that Ambedkar introduced in the Preamble to the Constitution.

In his book ‘Ambedkar’s Preamble- A secret history of the Constitution of India’, Aakash Singh Rathore argued that it was Ambedkar who added the fraternity clause to the Preamble which was absent from Nehru’s Objectives Resolution

He was lauded by his arch-rivals in the Constituent Assembly for adding the fraternity clause. One member of the Assembly, Thakur Das Bhargava said this:

I think, Sir, that the soul of this Constitution is contained in the Preamble and I am glad to express my sense of gratitude to Dr Ambedkar for adding the word ‘fraternity’ to the Preamble. Now, Sir, I want to apply the touch-stone of this Preamble to the entire Constitution. If justice, liberty, equality and fraternity are to be found in this Constitution, if we can get this ideal through this Constitution, I maintain that the Constitution is good. In so far as these four things which are contained in the Preamble are wanting, then I am bound to say that the Constitution is wanting, and from this angle I want to judge the Constitution.

-Thakur Das Bhargava

This was not the first time when Ambedkar dabbled with the idea of fraternity. His concept evolved from 1936 when he wrote the Annihilation of Caste (AOC) speech for the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal to the 1950s when he adopted Buddhism. He has used other terms like ‘sangathan’ and ‘Maitri’ or ‘Metta’ for fraternity at different junctures of his intellectual engagement with the idea of fraternity.

In the AOC, this is what he wrote about the idea of fraternity:

What is your ideal society if you do not want caste is a question that is bound to be asked of you. If you ask me, my ideal would be a society based on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. And why not ? What objection can there be to Fraternity ? I cannot imagine any. An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.

-B R Ambedkar

The fraternity clause which Ambedkar entered into the draft Preamble on 6 February 1948 went something like this:

“Fraternity, assuring the dignity of every individual without distinction of caste or creed”

This was completely Ambedkar’s articulation of fraternity which he juxtaposed with the dignity of individuals. He was drawing heavily from his own writings from the 1930s, especially the AOC, where he systematically demolished the legitimacy of Varna system and caste in India.

Why have the mass of people tolerated the social evils to which they have been subjected ? There have been social revolutions in other countries of the world. Why have there not been social revolutions in India, is a question which has incessantly troubled me. There is only one answer, which I can give and it is that the lower classes of Hindus have been completely disabled for direct action on account of this wretched system of Chaturvarnya. They could not bear arms and without arms they could not rebel. They were all ploughmen or rather condemned to be ploughmen and they never were allowed to convert their ploughshare into swords. They had no bayonets and therefore everyone who chose could and did sit upon them. On account of the Chaturvarnya, they could receive no education. They could not think out or know the way to their salvation. They were condemned to be lowly and not knowing the way of escape and not having the means of escape, they became reconciled to eternal servitude, which they accepted as their inescapable fate. It is true that even in Europe the strong have not shrunk from the exploitation, nay the spoliation of the weak. But in Europe, the strong have never contrived to make the weak helpless against exploitation so shamelessly as was the case in India among the Hindus. Social war has been raging between the strong and the weak far more violently in Europe than it has ever been in India. Yet, the weak in Europe has had in his freedom of military service his physical weapon, in suffering his political weapon and in education his moral weapon. These three weapons for emancipation were never withheld by the strong from the weak in Europe. All these weapons were, however, denied to the masses in India by Chaturvarnya. There cannot be a more degrading system of social organization than the Chaturvarnya. It is the system which deadens, paralyses and cripples the people from helpful activity.

-B R Ambedkar

Later, the members of the Drafting Committee added the terms ‘class’ and ‘nation’ to the fraternity clause which read something like this:

“Fraternity, without distinction of caste, class or creed, so as to assure the dignity of every individual and the unity of the Nation”

In several sittings of the Drafting Committee between 11 to 21 February, 1948, the clause was amended again and it was this version that finally went to the Preamble:

“Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the Nation”

When Ambedkar sent the draft Constitution to the president of the Constituent Assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad, he enclosed a note with the draft that had this written on it:

The committee has added a clause about fraternity in the Preamble although it does not occur in the Objectives Resolution. The committee felt that the need for fraternal concord and goodwill in India was never greater than now and that this particular aim of the new Constitution should be emphasized by special mention in the Preamble.

When he was writing this note, Ambedkar would have been thinking about how caste in India has destroyed the ‘public spiritedness’; ‘demoralized’ and ‘disorganised’  Indian society. 

There is an utter lack among the Hindus of what the sociologists call “consciousness of kind”. There is no Hindu consciousness of kind. In every Hindu the consciousness that exists is the consciousness of his caste.

-B R Ambedkar

He further added:

An anti-social spirit is found wherever one group has ‘interests of its own’ which shut it out from full interaction with other groups, so that its prevailing purpose is protection of what it has got. This anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting its own interests is as much a marked feature of the different castes in their isolation from one another as it is of nations in their isolation. The Brahmin’s primary concern is to protect “his interest” against those of the non-Brahmins and the non-Brahmin’s primary concern is to protect their interests against those of the Brahmins. The Hindus, therefore, are not merely an assortment of castes but they are so many warring groups each living for itself and for its selfish ideal.

-B R Ambedkar

On the effect of caste on the ethics of the Indian society, he wrote:

Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden and morality has become caste-bound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity for the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy but not for men of other caste.

-B R Ambedkar

But what does fraternity achieve?

Fraternity or ‘bandhuta’, as Harsh Mander describes it in this searing piece, leads to empathy. It leads to solidarity. It develops our ability to feel the suffering and humiliation of others.It leads us to ‘collective caring’. It stops us from looking away when one fellow countryman is beaten to death on the suspicion of eating bovine meat.

Fraternity is both a way of feeling, and a political principle. The idea of fraternity is closely linked to that of social solidarity, which is impossible to accomplish without public empathy; the daily, lived realization that human beings who look different, wear different clothes, worship different gods, speak different languages, have different political persuasions, actually have exactly the same intrinsic human dignity, and experience the same emotions—dreams, hopes, despair, pain, happiness, anger, love, triumphs and defeats—that we all do.

-Harsh Mander

He further argued:

I feel convinced therefore that fraternity – bandhuta – is the most radical and important idea of our times, the necessary foundation to fight all the world’s injustices, hate and inequalities.  A fine example of what bandhuta can accomplish in times of hate was offered in the last months of Mahatma Gandhi’s life, which were surely his finest hour. In these months, he cemented powerfully the foundations of India as a humane, inclusive, secular country. He showed us the possibilities of fraternity to imagine - and live – a different India.

Think of it. One million people had died in Hindu- Muslim riots, fourteen million people had been uprooted from their homelands, and a new country had been created amidst rivers of blood on the basis of religion. And yet he was willing to stand even alone, to affirm that India would be a country which belonged equally to all its people, regardless of their religious faith.

-Harsh Mander


Good Reads:

1) BR Ambedkar- Slayer of All Gods: “With many great leaders, we assess how they measure up to standards and ideals of a civilization. In Ambedkar’s case, the reverse is true. He is the yardstick to which a whole civilization must measure up. We don’t judge him by our ideals; he should be the ideal by which we judge ourselves. In engaging with Ambedkar, the question is not of assessing him; it is of assessing ourselves, and trying to understand why we continue to avoid confronting his bracing call to justice, his advocacy of reason, the depth of his institutional imagination. He is the mirror in which we dare not look at ourselves; his presence is a constant reminder of our bad conscience and bad faith.

2) What is constitutional morality?:For Ambedkar, without fraternity, ‘equality and liberty would be no deeper than coats of paint.’ Nowhere does Ambedkar make the argument that the Constitution is about distribution of power among different castes. Caste embodies a principle of social separation, and is, to use his phrase, ‘anti-national’. Its very existence precludes an ability to abstract from one’s identity. It ensures that the relationship between groups is perpetually competitive. A constitutional morality, by contrast, requires both these features – abstraction and agreement or cooperation. It requires the presumption that we are equal. However, that equality is possible only when for constitutional purposes our caste identities do not matter. A constitutional morality requires the sense that despite all differences we are part of a common deliberative enterprise.