Remembering Ambedkar’s Last Speech in the Constituent Assembly

26th November is celebrated as the Constitution Day in India as on this day the Constituent Assembly adopted the newly drafted Constitution of India. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee in the Assembly, the Committee responsible for preparing a draft constitution for India. This draft was then debated in the Constituent Assembly amongst members and various amendments and modifications were made into it.

The Constituent Assembly (‘Assembly’) took almost three years to produce the final Constitution which was adopted on 26 November 1949. However, a day before, Dr. Ambedkar made a historic speech in the Assembly. In his final speech, he countered many allegations made against the Assembly and the Drafting Committee, defended the new Constitution and expressed his anxiety about the nation’s future and its solution. This speech has been extensively covered in press and several articles have been written on it. However, the focus of these writings has been on Ambedkar’s anxieties about the nation and its future. In my opinion, there are other parts of his speech which are very crucial and resonate with our polity even today. In this post, I will recall and summarise Dr. Ambedkar’s final speech.

On 25 November, Dr. Ambedkar introduced a motion that “the Constitution as settled by the Assembly be passed”. After introducing the motion, he delivered his historic speech which is discussed below.  

A. Rebutting the allegations made on the Assembly:

Ambedkar outrightly rebutted two allegations made against the Assembly i.e., allegation of inordinate delay in working and allegation of poor quality of work.

First, he rebutted the argument that the Assembly took too long to finish its work and hence, wasted public money. He gave the examples of time taken by the constituent assemblies of countries like America, Canada, Australia and South Africa, to argue that even though we took longer than some nations, our Constitution is lengthier and more voluminous than theirs. Further, the makers of those countries did not have to deal with the problems of amendments, as those Constitutions were passed as introduced without changes. On the other hand, in our Assembly members could introduce amendments to the draft Constitution and as many as 2,473 amendments were introduced and debated upon, which added to the time taken by the Assembly. The original draft of the Constitution presented to the Assembly consisted of 315 Articles and 8 Schedules as against 395 Articles and 8 Schedules in the final draft.

He said,

In making comparisons 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 American has just seven articles, the first four of which are divided into sections which total up to 21, the Canadian has 147, Australian 128 and South African 153 sections. The second thing to be remembered is that the makers of the Constitutions of America, Canada, Australia and South Africa did not have to face the problem of amendments. They were passed as moved. On the other hand, this Constituent Assembly had to deal with as many as 2,473 amendments.”

Second, he was perturbed by the allegation made by fellow member Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed, who accused the Assembly of poor quality of work. In a stern response to Ahmed, Ambedkar remarked, “Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed thinks he is a man of greater talents than 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.”

B. Defending the Constitution:

On the merits of the new Constitution, Ambedkar famously remarked, “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 a good lot.”

He remarked that the functioning of the Constitution depends on its functionaries i.e., the people who implement and deal with the Constitution, which includes the people and the political parties which represents them and carries out their wishes. In his words, it is futile to pass a judgment on the Constitution without referring to the role played by the people and the political parties.

Thereafter, he rebutted the allegation that the Constitution provides for excessive centralization. It was argued by some members that there is too much centralization in the Constitution and as a result the states have been left dependent on the Centre. Ambedkar argued that on legislative and executive authority, the centre and states are co-equal and have respective fields on which they can function. He further argued that even though in some cases, the centre has been given the power to override the states, such situations are confined to emergencies only. He justified these overriding powers on the ground that in a moment of crisis, needs of the country as a whole must be focused upon and only the centre can work towards those interests.

He remarked, “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 all Centre certain overriding powers to be used in an emergency.”

Overall, Ambedkar conceded that if certain principles of the Constitution are not agreeable to some, the future generation may depart from it. He cited Thomas Jefferson (one of the founding fathers of America) to argue that the present Constitution binds the present generation and not the future generations who may validly amend or change it.

Jefferson had argued, “We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of the majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another countryYet our lawyers and priests generally inculcate this doctrine, and suppose that preceding generations held the earth more freely than we do; had a right to impose laws on us, unalterable by ourselves, and that we, in the like manner, can make laws and 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

Ambedkar remarked that Jefferson’s words were absolutely true. The Assembly has not placed a seal of finality on the Constitution and has allowed for the possibility of amending the Constitution. He observed,

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 fulfilment of extraordinary terms and conditions as in America or Australia, but has provided a most facile procedure for amending the Constitution…If those who are dissatisfied with the Constitution have only to obtain a 2/3 majority and if they cannot obtain even a two-thirds majority in the parliament elected on adult franchise in their favour, their dissatisfaction with the Constitution cannot be deemed to be shared by the general public.”

Ambedkar’s remarks on amendability of the Constitution are interesting in light of discussions surrounding the basic structure doctrine. The Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharti’s case had remarked that the parliament cannot amend the basic features/principles of the Constitution. This is in stark contrast with Ambedkar’s views who seems to suggest that so long as the requirement of 2/3 majority is met, the Constitution can be amended. The basic structure doctrine binds a future generation with certain principles of the Constitution, something Ambedkar was staunchly against.

Recently, the Supreme Court in the case of Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India (case challenging the constitutionality of 103rd Constitutional Amendment) echoed similar sentiments on the unamendability of the Constitution. Justice Pardiwala in a concurring opinion observed, “No generation has a right to bind the future generations by its own beliefs and values. Each generation has to choose for itself the ways of life and social organisation. Constitution should be so adaptable that each generation may be able to make use of it to realise its aspirations and ideals.” (at par. 129) If the discussion on the doctrine were to pick steam views of Dr. Ambedkar will be crucial.

C. Anxiety about the nation’s future:

At the end of his speech, Dr. Ambedkar expressed his anxieties about the nation and the Constitution’s future.

First, he was anxious about the possibility of India losing its independence in the future. He cited examples from history wherein treachery by the insiders caused us to lose independence. Examples included King Jai Chand who invited Mohammed Ghori to invade India, Maratha noblemen who did not help Shivaji, Gulab Singh who did not help the Sikh Rulers fight the British etc. He argued that treachery by insiders is our old standing enemy, whereas our new enemy is caste and creed. If the people do not put nation above their creed and caste, our independence would be lost again. He remarked, “The sooner we realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, 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.”

Second, he was anxious about the nation’s ability to preserve its democratic Constitution. For India, democracy was new and hence, there was a possibility of democracy giving way to dictatorship. He was anxious that it was possible for democracy to exist on paper and dictatorship in fact. He remarked, “It is quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.” Ambedkar’s fear came true during the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi when democracy existed on paper and dictatorship in fact.

Dr. Ambedkar also offered solutions to his anxiety. He believed that the danger could be averted if (a) we adopt constitutional methods of achieving our aims; (b) give up hero-worship; and (c) strive towards social and not just political democracy.

First, he argued that once we adopt this Constitution, we must only utilise constitutional methods for achieving our social and economic objectives. This means giving up methods of revolution, civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. He remarked, “When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods.”

Second, he argued that must give up hero-worship of leaders. He cited John Stuart Mill who had called for never trusting anyone with the powers to subvert the institutions if one wanted to maintain democracy. Ambedkar remarked, “For 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. 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.”

Third, he argued that we must not be content with political democracy. He argued that by adopting the Constitution, we will enter a life of contradictions. For instance, in politics we will recognise the principle of one man one vote but in our social life we will deny the principle of one man one value. He wanted the nation to strive towards a social democracy wherein there exists equality in our political, social and economic life. He strongly remarked, “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 is Assembly has to laboriously built up.”

Dr. Ambedkar concluded his speech by thanking the President of the Assembly, the members, Sir B.N. Rau (Constitutional Adviser to the Assembly) and in particular Shri S.N. Mukherjee along with his staff. He remarked, “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 proposals in the simplest and clearest legal form can rarely be equalled, nor his capacity for hard work. He has been an acquisition to the Assembly. Without his help, this Assembly would have taken many more years to finalise the Constitution.”

Unfortunately, there is not enough material discussing the contributions of Rau and Mukherjee to our Constitution’s making. I hope in future their efforts are recognised and more scholarship is devoted to them.

Concluding Remarks:

The words spoken by Dr. Ambedkar 73 years ago, are still relevant today. We are still struggling with the anxieties he expressed as we continue to engage in hero worship and have not attained the social democracy he had hoped for. Dr. Ambedkar’s remarks on the uniqueness of the Constitution and its amenability are relevant, in light of the debate over the basic structure doctrine gaining steam and our Constitution being attacked for being an un-Indian or ill-suited document.

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