Thursday, January 19, 2023

Why Ambedkar decided to  burn the Constitution?

Dr B R Ambedkar, the chief architect of our Constitution, wanted absolute powers be given to Parliament to add, variate, or repeal any provision of the Constitution. He also went that far to give constituent power to Parliament without necessitating a Constituent Assembly again, to amend entire Constitution.

At one point of time, Dr Ambedkar, said he would to burn the Constitution out. Why was he so angry about the dynamic document he prepared? Though it shrunk the scope of Fundamental Rights, the First Amendment did not move Ambedkar to get so angry. But the fourth amendment did it. On 19th March 1954, a fierce debate was going on Constitution (4th Amendment) Bill.  He opined that he would burn Constitution with this 4th Amendment because before the God could be installed in the temple of the Constitution, the devil has taken the possession.

On two occasions Ambedkar was angry and talked about burning the Constitution. First time he spoke about burning when he made a strong statement in Rajya Sabha on 2nd September 1953 against linguistic states and asking for protection of minorities. He was debating on Andhra State Bill which was tabled in the Rajya Sabha for formation of Andhra Pradesh state on the principle of linguistic provinces. He was unhappy with the attempt to create a linguistic state after the sacrifice of Potti Sri Ramulu. Ambedkar was also questioning for not making provisions for protection to minorities including Dalits as well as linguistic minorities against tyranny, against oppression and against communalism. He wanted Governor to be given more powers to protect minorities. This is against the principle that Governor should act as per aid and advice of the Council of Ministers.

Ambedkar gave examples from the Canadian Constitution, and British constitutional practices, where there was special protection provided to linguistic minorities. He submitted before the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha that ‘no harm can be done to democracy and to democratic Constitution, if our Constitution was amended and powers similar to those given to the Governor General (under Canadian Constitution) were given to the Governor [in India]’ (Ambedkar, 2019f, p. 861).

He said: 

It is by placating the sentiments of smaller communities and smaller people who are afraid that the majority may do wrong, that the British Parliament works. Sir, my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody. But whatever that may be, if our people want to carry on, they must not forget that there are majorities and there are minorities, and they simply cannot ignore the minorities by saying, “Oh, no. To recognise you is to harm democracy.” I should say that the greatest harm will come by injuring the minorities.

On that day he was debating how a Governor in the country should be invested with more powers, Dr Ambedkar argued strongly in favour of amending the constitution. He said: “… my submission is this that no harm can be done to democracy and to democratic Constitution if our Constitution was amended …”.

After two years, Ambedkar repeated ‘burning’ comment in anger. On 19 March 1954, Dr Anup Singh, a Rajya Sabha member from Punjab, brought up Ambedkar’s remark, when the Fourth Amendment Bill was being discussed.

Before that Ambedkar was talking about relevance of fundamental rights, and summed up his views on the Constitution:

If I may say so, and I say it with a certain amount of pride the Constitution which has been given to this country is a wonderful document. It has been said so not by myself, but by many people, many other students of the Constitution. It is simplest and the easiest. Many, many publishers have written to me asking me to write a commentary on the Constitution, promising a good sum. But I have always told them that to write a commentary on this Constitution is to admit that the Constitution is bad one and an un-understandable one. It is not so. Anyone who can follow English can understand the Constitution. No commentary is necessary.”

After this comment, Dr Anup Singh reminded of his ‘burning’ comment, “Last time when you spoke, you said that you would burn the Constitution.”

Dr Ambedkar was furious:

Do you want a reply to that? I would give it to you right here. My friend says that the last time when I spoke, I said that I wanted to burn the Constitution. Well, in a hurry I did not explain the reason. Now that my friend has given me the opportunity, I think I shall give the reason. The reason is this: We built a temple for god to come in and reside, but before the god could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple? We did not intend that it should be occupied by the Asuras. We intended it to be occupied by the Devas. That’s the reason why I said I would rather like to burn it. Then B. K. P. Sinha passed a remark, “Destroy the devil rather than the temple”. To this Dr Ambedkar replied: You cannot do it. We have not got the strength. If you will read the Brahmana, the Sathapatha Brahmana, you will see that the Gods have always been defeated by the Asuras and that the Asuras had the Amrit with them which the gods had to take away in order to survive in the battle.

Ambedkar earlier burned Manusmriti. But there cannot be any comparison between Manusmriti burning and his comment on this. Manusmriti denied rights to Dalits, where as the Constitution provided equality as the basis of governance.

Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1971, Ch. XXIV, pp. 449-450.)

Gail Omvedt in his book “Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India”, wrote: “On 26 January, 1950,” warned Ambedkar before the constituent assembly, referring to the day celebrated as “Republic Day,” “we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we shall have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. … 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 we have so laboriously built up.”

If atrocities against untouchables did not stop, thundered Ambedkar on subsequent occasions to his impoverished and oppressed followers, “I myself will burn the constitution.”

It is not proper to quote any celebrity like Ambedkar out of context and jump to draw adverse conclusions.  It was Ambedkar’s anger at certain developments that happened during his active life time in Rajya Sabha, and in a fit of emotion he said he would burn the Constitution away. He did not mean it literally, but he wanted to send a strong message that fourth amendment was against the Constitution, majority has to protect minorities and untouchability should end. He was also talking about flexibility of the Constitution, which means easy to amend it and wanted the Governor should have powers to correct the Governments action and direct them to be within the frame of the Constitution.

His emphasis was on unlimited power to amend. But he was seriously opposing the fourth amendment not because he opposed to power to amend but  because he thought  it was not in tune with the scheme of the Constitution.

(December 6, Ambedkar’s death anniversary)

Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Author is Dean, Professor of law at Mahindra University at Hyderabad and former Central Information Commissioner. He published a number books in English and Telugu.

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