Speech at the Constituent Assembly of India

Speech at the Constituent Assembly of India

(New Delhi, November-1949)

The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly was held on December 9, 1946, with more than 300 members. B.R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution, made this beautiful speech the day before the assembly formally finished its work. His tone was jubilant yet somber and reflective. The warning he gave-place of popular protest in a democracy, the blind following of charismatic leaders and the limitations of only a political democracy-retain their relevance, perhaps more today than in 1949.

Sir, looking back on the work of the Constituent Assembly it will now be two years, eleven months and seventeen days since it first met on the 9th of December 1946. During this period the Constituent Assembly has altogether held eleven sessions. Out of these eleven sessions the first six were spent in passing the objectives Revolution and the consideration of the Reports of Committees on Fundamental Rights, on Union powers, on Provincial Constitution, in Minorities and on the scheduled Areas and Scheduled tribes. The seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh sessions were devoted to the consideration of the draft constitution. These Eleven sessions of the constituent Assembly have consumed 165 days. Out of these, the Assembly spent 114 days for the consideration for the draft constitution.

Coming to the drafting committee, it was elected by the Constituent Assembly on August 29, 1947. It held its first meeting on 30th August. Since, August 30th it set for 141 days during which it was engaged in the preparation of the draft Constitutional Advisor as a text for the Drafting Committee to work upon, consisted of 243 articles and 13 schedules. The first Draft Constitution, as presented by the Drafting Committee to the Constituent Assembly contains 315 articles and 8 scheduled. At the end of the consideration stage, the number of article in the draft constitution increased to 386. In its final form, the draft constitution contains 395 articles and 8 scheduled. The total number of Amendments to the Draft Constitution tabled was approximately 7635. Of them, the total number of Amendments actually moved in the house were 2473.

I mention these facts because at one stage it was being said that the assembly had taken too long a time to finish its work, that it was going on leisurely and wasting public money. It was said to be a case of Nero fiddling while Rome was burning. Is there any justification for this complaint? Let us note the time consumed by Constituent Assemblies in other countries appointed for framing there Constitutions. To take a few illustrations, the American Convention met on May 25, 1787, and completed its work on Sep 17, 1787, that is, within four months. The Constitutional Convention of Canada met on the Oct 10, 1864 and the Constitution was passed into Law in Mar 1867 evolving a period of 2 year and 5 months. The Australian Constitution Convention assembled in March 1891 and the Constitution become Law on the July 9, 1900, consuming a period of nine years. The South African Convention let in October 1908 and the Constitution become Law on September 20, 1909, involving year’s labour’s. It true that we have taken more time then what the American or South African Convention did. But we have not taken more time then the Canadian Convention and much less than the Australian Convention. In making comparison on the basis of time consumed, two things must be remembered. One is that the Constitutions of America, Canada, South Africa and Australia are much smaller than ours. Our Constitution, as I said, contains 395 articles while the Americans had seven articles, the first four of which are divided into sections which total up to 21, the Canadians has 137, Australian 128, and South Africa 153 Sections. The second thing to be remember is that the makers of the Constitution of America, Canada, Australia and South Africa did not have the face the problem of Amendments. They were passed as moved. On the other hand, this Constituent Assembly had to deal with as many as 2473 Amendments. Having regards to these facts the charge of dilatoriness seems to me quite unfounded and this Assembly may well congratulate itself for having accomplished so formidable a task in so short a time.

Turning to the quality of the work done by the Drafting Committee, Mr. Naziruddin Ahmad felt it his duty to condemn it outright. In his opinion the work done by the Drafting Committee is not only not worthy of commendation, but its positively below par. Everybody has a right to have its opinion about the work done by the Drafting Committee and Mr. Naziruddin is welcome to have his own. Mr. Naziruddin Ahmad thinks he is a man of grater talents then any member of the Drafting Committee. The Drafting Committee does not wish to challenge his claim. On the other hand, the Drafting Committee would have welcomed him in their midst if the assembly had thought him worthy of being appointed to it. If he had no place in the making of the Constitution it is certainly not the fault of the Drafting Committee.

Mr Naziruddin Ahmad has coined a new name for the Drafting Committee evidently to show his contempt to it. He calls it a Drafting Committee. Mr Naziruddin must no doubt be pleased with his hit. But he evidently does not know that there is a difference between drift without mastery and drift with mastery. If the Drafting Committee was drifting, it was never without mastery over the situation. It was not merely angling with the off chance of catching a fish. It was searching in known waters to find the fish it was after. To be in search of something better is not the same as Drifting. Although Mr Naziruddin Ahmad did not mean it as a compliment to the Drafting Committee. The Drafting Committee would have been guilty of gross dereliction of duty and of a false sense of dignity if it had not shown the honesty and the courage to withdraw the amendments which it thought faulty and substitute what it thought was better. If it is a mistake, I am glad the Drafting Committee did not fight shy of admitting such mistakes and coming forward to correct them.

I am glad to find that with the exception of a solitary member, there is a general consensus of appreciation from the members of the Constitute Assembly of the work done by the Drafting Committee. I am sure the Drafting Committee feels happy to find this spontaneous recognition of its labours expressed in such generous terms. As to the compliments that have been showered upon me both by the members of the assembly as well as by my colleagues of the Drafting Committee I feel so overwhelmed that I cannot find adequate words to express fully my gratitude to them. I came into the Constitute Assembly with no greater aspiration than to safeguards the interests of the Scheduled Castes. I had not the remotest idea than I would be called up to undertake more responsible functions. I was therefore greatly surprised when the Drafting Committee elected me to be its chairman. There were in the Drafting Committee men bigger, better and more competent than myself such as my friend Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar. I am grateful to the Constitute Assembly and the Drafting Committee for reposing in me so much trust and confidence and to have chosen me as their instrument and given me this opportunity of serving the country. (Cheers)

The credit that is given to me does not really belong to me. It belongs partly to sir B.N. Rau, the Constitutional Adviser to the Constituent Assembly who prepared a rough draft of the Constitution for the consideration of the Drafting Committee. A part of the credit must go to the member of the Drafting Committee who, as I have said, have sat for 141 days and without whose ingenuity to devise new formulae and capacity to tolerate and to accommodate different points of view, the task of framing the Constitution could not have come to so successful a conclusion. Much greater share of the credit must go to Mr S.N. Mukherjee, the chief Draftsman of the Constitution. His ability to put the most intricate proposal in the simplest and clearest legal form can rarely be equaled, nor his capacity for hard work. He has been an acquisition to the assembly without his help, the assembly would have taken many more years to finalize the Constitution. I must not omit to mention the members of the staff working under Mr Mukherjee, for, I know how hard they have worked and how long they have toiled, sometimes even beyond midnight. I want to thank them all for their effort and their cooperation. (Cheers)

The task of the Drafting Committee would have been a very difficult one if this Constituent Assembly has been merely a motley crowd, a tessellated pavement without cement, a black stone here and a white stone there in which each member or each group was a law unto itself. There would have been nothing but chaos. This possibility of chaos was reduced to nil by the existence of the Congress party inside the assembly which brought into its proceedings a sense of order and discipline. It is because of the discipline of the Congress party that the Drafting Committee was able to pilot the Constitution in the assembly with the sure knowledge as to the fate of each article and each amendment. The Congress party is, therefore entitled to all the credit for the smooth sailing of the Draft Constitution in the assembly.

The Proceedings of this Constituent Assembly would have been very dull if all members had yielded to the rule of party discipline. Party discipline, in all its rigidity, would have converted this assembly into a gathering of ‘yes’ men. Fortunately, there were Mr kamath, Dr P.S. Deshmukh, Mr Sidhva, Professor Saxena, and Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava. Along with them I must mention Prof. K.T. Shah and Pandit Hirday Nath Kunzru. The point they raised were more ideological. That I was not prepared to accept their suggestions does not diminish the value of their suggestions nor lessen the service they have rendered to the assembly in enlivening its proceedings. I am grateful to them. But for them, I would not have had the opportunity which I got for expounding the principles underlying the Constitution which was more important than the mere mechanical work of passing Constitution.

Finally, I must thank you Mr President for the way in which you have conducted the proceeding of this assembly. The courtesy and the consideration which you have shown to the members of the assembly can never be forgotten by those who have taken part in the proceedings of this assembly. There were occasions when the amendments of the Drafting Committee were sought to be barred on ground purely technical in their nature. Those were very anxious moments for me. I am, therefore, specially grateful to you for permitting legalism to defeat the work of Constitution-making.

As much defence as could be offered to the Constitution has been offered by my friends Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and Mr T.T. Krishnamachari, I shall not therefore enter into the merits of the Constitution. Because I feel, however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of state such as legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The Factor on which the working of those organs of the state depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave? Will they uphold Constitutional methods of achieving their purposes or will they prefer revolutionary methods of achieving them? If they adopt the revolutionary methods; however good the Constitution may be, it requires no prophet to say that it will fail. It is, therefore, futile to pass any judgment upon the Constitution without reference to the part which the people and their parties are likely to play.

The condemnation of the Constitution largely comes from two quarters, the communist party and this socialist party. Why do they condemn the Constitution? Is it because it is really a bad constitution? I venture to say ‘No’. The communist party wants a constitution based upon the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They condemn the Constitution because it is based upon parliamentary Democracy. The socialist want two things. The first thing they want is that if they come in power, the constitution must give them freedom to nationalize or socialize all private property without payment or compensation. The second thong that the socialist want is that the fundamental rights mention in the Constitution must be absolute any without any limitation so that if there party fails to come into power, they would have the unfettered freedom not merely to critics, but also to over throw the state.

These are the main grounds on which the constitution being condemned. I do not say that the principle of parliamentary democracy is the only ideal form of political democracy. I do not say that the principle of no acquition of private property without compensation is so sacroscent that there can be no departure from it. I do not say that fundamental rights can never be absolute and the limitations set upon them can never be lifted. What I do say is that the principles embodied in the constitution are the views of the present generation or if you think this to be an over statement, I say they are the views of the members of the Constituent assembly. Why blame the Drafting Committee for embodying them in the constitution? I say why blame even the members of the constituent assembly? Jefferson, the great American states man who played so great apart in the making of American constitution, has expressed some very weighty views which makers of constitution, can never afford to ignore. In one place, he has said:
‘ We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right by the will of majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitant of another country.’
In another place, he has said:

‘ The idea that institutions established for the use of the nation cannot be touched or modified, even to make them answer their end, because of rights gratuitously supposed in those employed to manage them in the trust for the public, may perhaps be a salutary provision against the abuses of a monarch, but is most absurd against the nation itself. Yet our lawyers and priests generally inculcate this doctrine, and suppose that proceeding generations held the earth more freely than we do; had a right to impose burdens on future generations, which they will have no right to alter; in fine, that the earth belongs to the dead and not the living.’

I admit that what Jefferson has said is not merely true, but is absolutely true. There can be no question about it. Had the Constituent Assembly departed from this principle laid down be Jefferson it would certainly be liable to blame, even to condemnation. But I ask, has it? Quite the contrary. One has only to examine the provision relating to the amendment of the Constitution. The assembly has not only refrained from putting a seal of finality and infallibility upon this Constitution by denying to the people the right to amend the Constitution as in Canada or by making the amendment of the Constitution subject to the fulfillment of extraordinary terms and conditions as in America or Australia, but has provided a almost facile procedure for amending the Constitution. I challenge any of the critics of the Constitution to prove that any Constituent Assembly anywhere in the world has, in the circumstances in which this country finds itself, provided such a facile procedure for the amendment of the Constitution have only to obtain a two-third majority and if they cannot obtain even a two-third majority in the Parliament elected on adult franchise in their favour, their dissatisfaction with the Constitution cannot be deemed to be share by the general public.

There is only one point of Constitutional import to which I proposed to make a reference. A serious complaint is made on the ground that there is too much of centralization and that the sates have been reduced to municipalities. It is clear that this view is not only an exaggeration, but is also founded on a misunderstanding of what exactly the Constitution contrives to do. As to the relation between the centers and the states, it is necessary to bear in mind the fundamental principle on which it rests. The basic principle of federalism is that the legislative and executive authority is partitioned between the centre and the states not by any law to be made by the Centers but by the Constitution itself. This is what Constitution does. The states under our Constitution are in no way dependent upon the centre for their Legislative or Executive authority. The Centers and the states are Co-equal in this matter. It is difficult to see how such a Constitution can be called centralized. It may be that the Constitution assigns to the centers too large a field for the operation of its Legislative and Executive authority than is to be found in any other federal Constitution. It may be that the residuary powers are given to the centre and not to the states. But these features do not form the essence of federalism. The chief mark of federalism as I said, lies in the partition of the legislative and executive authority between the centre and the units by the Constitution. This is the principle embodied in our Constitution. There can be no mistake about it. It is, therefore, wrong to say that the states have been placed under the centre. Centre cannot by its own alter the boundary of that partition. Nor can the Judiciary. For as has been said:
‘Courts may modify, they cannot replace. They van revise earlier interpretations as new arguments, new points of view are presented, they can shift the dividing line in marginal cases, but there are barriers they cannot pass, definite assignments of power they cannot reallocate. They cannot assign to one authority powers explicitly granted to another.’

The first charge of centralization defeating federalism must therefore fall.

The second charge is that the centre has been given the power to override the states. This charge must be admitted. But before condemning the Constitution for containing such overriding powers, certain considerations must be borne in mind. The first is that these overriding powers do not form the normal features of the Constitution. Their use and operation are expressly confined to emergencies only. The second consideration is: Could we avoid giving overriding powers to the centre when an emergency has arisen? Those who do not admit the justification for such overriding powers to the centers even in an emergency do not seem to have a clear idea of the problem which lies at the root of the matter. The problem is so clearly set out by the writer in that well known magazine The Round table in its issue of December 1935 that I offer no apology for quoting the following extract from it. Says the writer:
‘Political systems are a complex of rights and duties resting ultimately on the question, to whom, or to what authority, does the citizen owe allegiance. In normal affairs the question is not present, for the law works smoothly, and a man goes about his business obeying one authority in this set of matters and another authority in that. But in a moment of crisis, a conflict of claims may arise, and it is then apparent that ultimate allegiance cannot be divided. The issue of allegiance cannot be determined in the last resort by a juristic interpretation of statutes. The law must conform to the facts or so much the woe for the law. When all formalism is stripped away, the bare question is, what authority commands the residual loyalty of the citizen? Is it the centre or the constituent state?’

The solution of this problem depends upon one’s answer to this question which is the crux of the problem. There can be no doubt that in the opinion of the vast majority of the people, the residual loyalty of the citizen in an emergency must be to the centre and not to the Constituent states. For it is only the Centre which can work for a common end and for the general interests of the country as a whole. Herein lies the justification for giving to the centre certain overriding powers to be used in an emergency. And after all what is the obligation imposed upon the constituent states by these emergency powers? No more than this-that in an emergency, they should take into consideration alongside their own local interests, the opinion and interests of the nation as a whole. Only those who have understood the problem, can complain against it.

Here I could have ended. But my mind is so full of the future of our country that I feel I ought to take this occasion to give expression to some of my reflections thereon. On 26th January 1950, India will be an independent country. (Cheers) What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain her independence or will she lose it again? This is the first thought that comes to my mind. It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lost it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future. What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people. In the invasion of sind by Mohammad-Bin-kasim, the military commanders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mohammed-Bin-Kasim and refused to fight on the side of their King. It was Jaichand who invited Mohammed Ghori to invade India and fight against Prithvi raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki Kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Moghul emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh rulers, Gulab singh, their principle commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the event as silent spectators.

Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is depended by the realization of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the partied place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood. (Cheers)

On the 26th of January 1950, India would be a democratic country in the sense that India from that day would have a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The same thought comes to my mind. What would happen to her democratic Constitution? Will she be able to maintain it or will she lose it again? This is the second thought that comes to my mind and makes me as anxious as the first.

It is not that India did not know what is democracy. There was a time when India was studded with republics, and even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited. They were never absolute. It is not that India did not know Parliaments or Parliamentary Procedure. A study for the Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas discloses that not only there were Parliaments –for the Sanghas were nothing but parliaments-for the Sanghas knew to modern times. They had rules of parliamentary procedure known to modern times. They had rules regarding seating arrangements, rules regarding motions, resolutions, quorum, whip, counting of votes, voting by ballot, censure motion, regularization, Res Judicata, etc. Although these rules of Parliamentary procedure were applied by the Buddha to the meeting of the Sanghas , he must have borrowed them from the rules of the political assemblies functioning in the country in his time.
This democratic system India lost. Will she lose it a second time? I do not know, but it is quite possible in a country like India-where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new-there is danger of democracy giving place to retain its form but give place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship IN FACT. If there is a landside, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The firsy thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody method of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there were no way left for constitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the grammar of anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘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. ‘There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by Irish patriot Daniel O’Connel,’no man can be grateful at the cost of his honor, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.’ This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country, for in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero worship, plays a apart it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti and 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 third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a asocial democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality; equality cannot be divorced by liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced by fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. 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 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.

The second thing we are wanting in is recognition of the principle of fraternity. What does fraternity means? Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians-of Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life. It is a difficult thing to achieve. But How difficult it is, can be realized from the story related by James Bryce in his volume in American commonwealth about the United States of America.

The story is-I propose to recount it in the words of Bryce himself-that:
‘Some year ago the American Protestant Episcopal Church was occupied at its triennial convention in revising its liturgy. It was thought desirable to introduce among the short sentence prayers a prayer for the whole people, and an eminent New England divine proposed the words “O Lord, bless our nation”. Accepted one afternoon on the spur of the moment, the sentence was brought up next day for reconsideration, when so many objections were raised by the laity to word “nation” as importing too definite a reorganization of national unity, that it was dropped, and instead there were adopted the words “O Lord, bless these United States”.’

There was so little solidarity in the USA at the time when this incident occurred that the people of America did not think that they were a nation. If the people of the United States could not feel that they were a nation, how difficult it is for Indians to think that they are a nation, how difficult it is for Indians to think that they are a nation. I remembered the days when politically-minded Indians resented the expression ‘the people of India’. They preferred the expression ‘the Indian nation.’ I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing, a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realize that we are not yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For then only we shall realize the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realizing the goal. The realization of this goal is going to be very difficult-far more difficult than it has been in the United States. The United States has no caste problem. In Indian there are castes. The castes are anti national. In the first place, because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we most overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.

These are my reflections about the tasks that lie ahead of us. They may not be very pleasant to some, but there can be no gainsaying that political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of few and the many are not only beasts of burden, but also beasts of prey. This monopoly has not merely deprived them of their chance of betterment; it has sapped them of what may be called the significance of life. These down-trodden classes are tired of being governed; they are impatient to govern themselves. This urge for self-realization in the downtrodden classes must not be allowed to develop into a class struggle or class war. It would lead to a division of the House. That would indeed be a day of disaster. For, as has been well said by Abraham Lincoln, a house divided against itself cannot stand very long. Therefore the sooner room is made for the realization of their aspiration, the better for the few, the better for the country, the better for the continuance of its democratic structure. This can only be done by the establishment of equality and fraternity in all spheres of life. That is why I have laid so much stress on them.

I do not wish to weary the House any further. Independence is no doubt a matter of joy. But let us not forget that this Independence has thrown on us great responsibilities. By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. There is great danger of things going wrong. Times are fast changing. People including our own are being moved by new ideologies. They are getting tired of government by the people. They are prepared to have government for the People and by the people. If we wish to preserve the Constitution in which we have sought to enshrine the principle of government of the people, for the people and by the people, let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path and which induce people, nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. Thai is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.