The Narendra Modi government has issued an order calling for Constitution Day (November 26) to be observed this year with events on the theme “Bharat: Loktantra Ki Janani (India: Mother of Democracy)”. A concept note prepared by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) with this title has been circulated along with the government order (GO), the text of which entirely erases the actual spirit and principles of the Indian constitution. Instead, it audaciously pushes an openly Hindu supremacist narrative.
In fact, the concept note pushes ideas and concepts that Dr B.R. Ambedkar, chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Indian constitution, specifically addressed and rejected in his speech to the Constituent Assembly while presenting the draft constitution on November 26, 1949.
The concept note argues that India’s village communities down the centuries remained self-governing and autonomous, based on institutions like panchayats and khaps, thus enabling them “to remain unaffected by the changing kingdoms/empires particularly those of the invaders hostile to Hindu culture”. Throughout, the note equates India with “Hindu”, as opposed to what it calls “alien” and invasive identities.
The panchayat and khap institutions, it states, “explains the survival of Hindu culture and civilisation in the face of 2000 years of invasions by alien ethnicities and cultures” (emphasis supplied).
The note refers to the “Hindu state” which is said to have governed “the geo-cultural entity, rashtra, Bharata”, based on a “Hindu political theory” where “sovereignty rests in Dharma”.
The worst aspect of the note is the disservice and damage it does to any understanding and appreciation of the democratic traditions in our history, as well as the remarkable story of how the modern constitution was driven by the impetus of the anti-colonial struggle.
The ICHR concept note gives short shrift to the actual history of the post-Vedic republics, and entirely bypasses the freedom struggle and India’s constitution. Instead, it presents a patchwork mixture of distorted and misrepresented history overlaid by the political agenda of claiming that a Hindu nation has existed for all of time.
Constitution Day 1949: Ambedkar’s unexpected remarks
It is instructive to contrast this note with the speech made by Ambedkar on November 26, 1949 as he presented the draft constitution on the floor of the Constituent Assembly. Reading the speech today, we are struck by the accuracy of the forebodings and warnings expressed by Ambedkar. Read beside that speech, it is clear that the ICHR concept note – and by extension, the Modi government – is at war with Ambedkar’s constitution.
Ambedkar’s brief was clearly to explain the drafting process and respond to some of the prominent criticisms of the draft constitution. Pointing that he could have stopped there, Ambedkar does something highly unusual and significant. The drafting of India’s constitution was a huge achievement – and Ambedkar would have been entirely justified in sounding a note of national and even personal self-congratulation for a difficult job well done.
Instead, he steps out of his formal role as a representative of the drafting committee, and we hear his own personal voice, expressing his deeply felt doubts about the survival of the democratic spirit and principles of the constitution: a sapling planted in a soil that he knew to be essentially undemocratic.
Would India’s future leaders and citizens use the constitution and its framework of political democracy to correct India’s glaring want of social and economic democracy? Or would constitutional democracy be supplanted by a dictatorship? These concerns are the burden of his remarks.
Have we as a country ever properly appreciated the remarkable legacy Ambedkar handed down to us, in his decision to temper a triumphant occasion with an acute and prescient analysis of India’s failings? His speech appeals to the Indian people of his time to enrich India’s hostile soil with democratic nutrients.
But even more importantly, it reaches across the decades to speak to us, India’s future citizens, and provide us with the forewarning that may help us recognise the signs of a democracy in danger, and act before it is too late to prevent its insidious and fatal slide into dictatorship. In this, his words are so prescient that they could be read as a sharp polemical rebuttal of the 2022 ICHR note and its vision of India.
Ambedkar’s prescient caution
Ambedkar says, “There was a time when India was studded with republics, and even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited, never absolute.” He adds that the “Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas…were nothing but Parliaments”, and their procedures must have been borrowed by the Buddha “from the rules of the Political Assemblies functioning in the country in his time”. But Ambedkar is not drawing a straight line from this ancient legacy to the modern constitution. Instead, he asks, “This democratic system India lost. Will she lose it a second time?”
Since “democracy from its long disuse” is for all purposes “something quite new” in India, “there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship”. Ambedkar’s next sentence speaks very directly to India’s current predicament. He says that it is a very real possibility in India, for a dictatorship to retain the outer form of parliamentary democracy, especially in case one party gets a “landslide” electoral victory.
An emaciated opposition and a lopsidedly powerful ruling party, Ambedkar fears, would be a dictatorship in fact even if were a democracy in form. Global democracy watchers have called India under Modi an “electoral autocracy” – the exact situation visualised by Ambedkar right at the very moment of the birth of the constitution.
And Ambedkar, with uncanny foresight, identifies the most likely catalyst for India’s slide into autocracy: the fact that “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world”.
To preserve democracy, then, Ambedkar quotes John Stuart Mill to warn Indian citizens never “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions,” adding that this “caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country.”
What would happen if people turned a leader into an object of worship, and surrendered their liberties at his feet, giving him landslide victories and unchecked power which he could then use to subvert institutions? This is a pretty accurate description of the subversion of every democratic institution we now witness, thanks to the “bhakti” exploited by Narendra Modi. The result of such a situation was clear to Ambedkar:
“Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
The ICHR note: Golwalkar versus Ambedkar
Only days after Ambedkar presented the draft constitution in the Constituent Assembly, the RSS organ, Organiser, had said that there was “nothing Bharatiya about the new Constitution of Bharat….there is no mention of (Manu’s) laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti…” The RSS’s contempt for the constitution was no flash in the pan.
In 1960, the RSS founder Golwalkar, in his Bunch of Thoughts, expressed the same sentiment at greater length. There, Golwalkar said that democracy as a political form was a mere reaction to repressive monarchs and that democracy’s “unrestrained ‘equality of opportunity’ and of ‘freedom of the individual’ [had] tragic results.”
Where Ambedkar had stressed the principles of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as the basis of India’s constitution and democracy, Golwalkar said that the true “Bharatiya” principle was “Not equality but harmony.”
“Harmony” is RSS-speak for the caste system, and Golwalkar does not seek to disguise this. “Brahmin is the head, King the hands, Vaishya the thighs and Shudra the feet. People who have this fourfold arrangement, i.e, the Hindu People, are the manifestation of the Almighty,” he writes. Panchayats, Golwalkar says, “reflected” these four groups, and the fifth one comprising “forest-dwellers”.
Ambedkar’s speech feared that political democracy would be undermined by the social and economic lack of democracy that prevailed in the caste-ridden Indian society. Constitutional morality – as opposed to majoritarian morality – “is not a natural sentiment” and “our people have yet to learn it”, Ambedkar said. And “castes are anti-national”, the biggest hurdle in the path of India’s journey to learning constitutional morality and becoming a true nation. Golwalkar asserts the polar opposite sentiment – “Castes are a great bond of social order and cohesion.”
In the foreword to Bunch of Thoughts, M.A. Venkata Rao made it even clearer that the RSS saw caste hierarchy as the basis for a “harmonious society”. Each caste is a “vocational group” which has a duty – swadharma – attached to it, he says. He adds:
“If their duties are laid down and social expectations are crystalised in society so that everyone will know what is expected of him – his rights as well as duties – a harmonious social order will result spontaneously.”
Panchayats resolve disputes based on the “dharma” of the group to which each of the parties of the dispute belong: based on a study of the conflict “impartially from the standpoint of the service involved, the function performed in society by the conflicting parties.”
Rao extols the system of “Adhikara Bheda”, a term referring to the idea that everyone in society accepts their place in the social hierarchy and performs the duty assigned to them by their birth in a particular caste. Or as Rao puts it, “Divergent status due to divergent qualification is the formula that reconciles identity of goal and diversity of pathway.”
Ambedkar’s rejection of the Hindu model of the state
In his speech, Ambedkar’s words on this subject indicated that the allegation that the constitution was un-Indian is linked to the expectation that it should have been based on the Manusmriti and the traditional system of village panchayats, which implicitly enforced caste rules. The ICHR note’s extolling of the village panchayats and khaps is a hat-tip to the Hindu-supremacist demand for a Hindu nation with a constitution based on the Manusmriti enforced by village caste councils.
“Another criticism against the Draft Constitution is that no part of it represents the ancient polity of India. It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State and that instead of incorporating Western theories the new Constitution should have been built upon village Panchayats and District Panchayats.”
His response did not mince words. He acknowledged that these institutions had insulated villages from any winds of change that swept the rest of the world. But why, Ambedkar asked, was such insularity, that made the village a “sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism”, something of which to be proud? “Village republics have been the ruination of India,” Ambedkar said, adding that he was “glad that the Draft Constitution has adopted the individual rather than the village as its unit.”
By ordering educational institutions and government departments all over India to use the ICHR note on Constitution Day, the Modi government is exacting the RSS’s revenge on Ambedkar, giving pride of place to the concepts of the Manusmriti, the “Hindu model of a state” and the caste-based “village republic”, while retaining the outer form of the constitution which had considered and rejected that model.
Kavita Krishnan is an activist.