Today, 26th November, is nationally celebrated as Constitution Day. It was on this day in 1949 that the Constituent Assembly formally adopted the Constitution of India, after deliberating and revising several drafts over a period of nearly three years. In the leadup to that day, members rose to give their comments on the revised text. While many levied criticism at the final text of the Constitution, one common thread in the speeches was praise for key members in the constitution-making process, like B.R. Ambedkar and B.N. Rau.
On the occasion of Constitution Day, we decided to take a brief look at Ambedkar and Rau’s contributions, and to give our readers a primer on key scholarship for a deeper insight into how their lives and politics shaped their vision for India’s Constitution.
Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, is often described as the Father of the Indian Constitution. His interventions in the debates were deeply influential, and he often secured the support of the Assembly even for provisions which were initially unpopular. His book States and Minorities, which was submitted to the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights, proposed a series of socio-economic rights and safeguards for Scheduled Castes, many of which were adopted into the Constitution.
As a prolific writer and academic, Ambedkar’s own writings are the most useful resource on his political views. The critique of Hinduism and the caste system in Annihilation of Caste (1936) are key to understanding Ambedkar’s advocacy to reform Hindu personal laws through the Hindu Code Bill and of the explicit provision to socially reform the Hindu religion in the Indian Constitution. In What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables (1945) he challenges the popular notion that these key political players worked to empower the masses and to enact social changes; instead he argues that their idea of “freedom” only applied to upper-castes. The Radical in Ambedkar (Suraj Yengde & Anand Teltumbde, 2018) unpacks Ambedkar’s political legacy to highlight the academic value of his revolutionary ideas for the empowerment of Dalits.
B.N. Rau was the Constitutional Advisor to the Assembly and never participated in the debates. He prepared the initial Draft Constitution in October 1947 which was scrutinized, deliberated, and revised by the Drafting Committee, before being presented to the Assembly.
Arvind Elangovan has written extensively about Rau’s ideas about constitutionalism. Elangovan’s 2012 PhD thesis at the University of Chicago contends that Rau’s draft Constitution focused on governance and development rather than embracing any political ideology, in a conscious reaction to the duelling ideologies of imperialism and hypernationalism which dominated colonial India's political discourse. In Norms and Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution (2019), he takes this forward to argue that Rau’s constitutionalism is useful to understand the political conflicts that plagued the constitution-making process.
Ambedkar viewed the Constitution as a source of social transformation. Rau saw it as way to discipline Indian politics to focus on governance, rather than as an endorsement of any political ideology. Despite their differing constitutional visions, both played significant roles in the making of the Indian Constitution.
Historical Constitutions: States and Minorities (1945)
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