Who slowed the Constitution Assembly?
Ram Puniyani on how forces inimical to social transformation are using identity politics
THE ALLEGED insult of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar in the cartoon in Class XI textbooks led to the human resource minister withdrawing the book and appointing a committee to review all books. The intent and meaning of the said cartoon has been misrepresented. Interestingly, the book is part of a series brought out by NCERT which is of very high standard, being very lively and incorporating the core issues related to the politics of the country.
On the same issue, some youth vandalised the office of Prof Suhas Palshikar, who has been an advisor to NCERT. What a paradox: The person who drafted the Constitution gave us freedom of thought and expression, and in his name the same freedom of expression is being throttled. The cartoon was made in the late 40s, when Ambedkar and Nehru both were very much around. Both must have realised their helplessness in pushing the speed of Constitution-making rather than penalising the legendary cartoonist Shankar.
The whole episode raises multiple questions, none of which relate to the plight of Dalits and the Indian constitution. One recalls that just a decade ago, the BJP-led NDA government had undertaken the exercise to ‘review’ the Constitution on the grounds that it needs to change. At that time, Dalits stood in unison and thwarted the designs of BJP, the political arm of RSS, to change the secular democratic structure of the Constitution and to replace it with one based on Hindu holy books as desired by the RSS in its pursuance of its agenda of Hindu Rashtra. A decade later, we need to be more concerned about the threat to the values of Indian Constitution rather than focus on an emotive issue related to the same.
Why was the Constitution-making process slow? Is it because Ambedkar wanted it to be slow? Not in the least. It was slow despite the best efforts of Ambedkar and despite full support from Nehru, because opposition to this process was prevalent all around. RSS chief MS Golwalkar articulated the opposition to the process it by saying that we don’t need a new Constitution as we already have the ‘glorious’ Constitution in the form of Manusmriti. One recalls here that the chief architect of the Indian Constitution Dr Ambedkar had burnt Manusmiriti on the grounds that it has provisions of slavery of Shudras and women. The process of Constitution-making was slow because communal orthodox forces were not for the social change which the Constitution envisaged.
Those following the values of Ambedkar need to focus on the fact that the forces which were making the process slow have become stronger today and are posing an obstacle to the issues of social justice even today. Social justice was the major plank for Ambedkar, and even while introducing the draft of Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, he pointed out that with this Constitution we are entering the era of ‘one man one vote’, i.e. political democracy, but the social democracy seems to be still a goal not very easy to achieve.
Times are a-changing. In 1940-70, the focus was on social, economic and political issues. In the 1980s, issues related to identity came to the fore and freedom of expression became a victim of one or the other social group. The paintings which MF Husain drew during earlier times were not destroyed at that time but were subjected to attack during these times. The Shankar cartoon, which must have given food for thought at that time, is under attack now. This transition from the focus on social issues to identity issues is a matter of deeper worry. Identity-related issues harp on status quo, while social issues ensure social transformation.
SOMEWHERE, MANY Dalit leaders, those who should be for social change, have taken the short cut to power riding on the shoulders of the identity issue — like Ram Temple for the BJP. In the cartoon controversy also, they need to ask why the process was crawling at a snail’s pace. What were the forces which were opposed or apathetic this major process of Constitution-making for the nation? But it seems those who are raising the cartoon controversy are rubbing shoulders with status quoist forces. Ramdas Athwale is now part of the coalition which aims for a Hindu nation. Mayawati had time and again allied with BJP, and campaigned for Modi in the Gujarat election. K Sudarshan of RSS said (year 2000) that the Constitution is based on western values so it should be replaced by one based on Indian holy books. It is time we need to look at deeper content of issues rather them turning them into emotive ones.
Ram Puniyani is a communal harmony activist based in Mumbai.