‘Constitution And Beyond’

Ambedkar and the State

Ayan Guha

In the deeply fractured Indian political scenario today, Ambedkar is remembered as the person who made affirmative action a reality. In this process, one often becomes forgetful of the fact that this great man not only made the groundwork for practical implementation of affirmative action but also gifted Indians one of the greatest modern political document in the form of Indian Constitution. What is often not acknowledged is the fact that Ambedkar's goal of upliftment of the marginalized sections of the society was never a single-point agenda detached and isolated from larger programme of contemplation of a comprehensive political architecture for the autonomous nation of the future. The future he anticipated for the lower orders of independent India forms a part of his egalitarian vision of institutionalized structure of Indian polity. The tendency to project Ambedkar solely as a dalit icon has mostly prevented critical engagement with his vision of post-colonial Indian state which needs to be connected with socio-economic empowerment of the depressed social segments at a discursive level.

Ambedkar visualized the Indian state to be an instrument of social change and social justice. Ambedkar particularly harped upon the undemocratic nature of the Indian society. Therefore, Indian society was deemed fit to undergo substantial reform and re-organization. Whereas Gandhi glorified the Indian ancient village system, for Ambedkar the village is the domain of social tyranny. The Indian village is a social unit consisting of human beings most unjustly divided into two arbitrary categories—touchables and untouch-ables. While the former were allowed to dwell inside the village the latter were forced to move beyond the village boundaries and find shelter in separate and shabby quarters outside the village. In the village, says Ambedkar, the dominance of the upper castes consists in designing the code for appropriate yet differentiated social behaviour which is to be followed by all the castes and outcastes. Any attempt of deliberate divergence from such code through commission or omission by the lower castes is treated as an offense. More-over, in the village society one's position is hereditary (once a Brahmin, always a Brahmin; once a scavenger, always a scavenger) and justified by religious dogmas. An untouchable, is always below a touchable in rank, no matter how inferior he may be mentally or morally. As a result, inside Indian village life there is no room for liberty, equality or fraternity. Based on such a portrayal of Indian villages Ambedkar called for a social reform and in absence of progressive forces functioning within the realm of Indian society felt the need for an empowered, enlightened and morally sensitive interventionist state. To bring about social reform such a state has to logically remain autonomous from the crisis ridden society. In a way, like the Hegelian state it must be held as a superior domain free from the particularistic tendencies which rob the society of its neutrality. Therefore, the one special feature that distinguishes the progressive state from not so progressive society is neutrality. It is the state's ability to remain agnostic about the vested social interests that gives it the moral authority to resolve social crises and bring about social reform.

The implementation of social reform requires the state to be interventionist. But in Ambedkar's vision the post-colonial state was not envisaged as a quasi-passive or cautiously active political order merely facilitating the process of social reform and desisting from intervention. Rather, it was advocated that the modern Indian state must intervene in social order that it seeks to reform. It is here that there is ample scope for divergence from the principle of neutrality, which was sufficiently understood by the great modernists like Ambedkar. If the state has to intervene, it has to do so in favour of some groups and logically also against some other groups. Therefore, in the process of effecting social reform and intervening in unjust social domains the neutral character of the state gets lost.  Ambedkar's political vision seems to be insufficiently equipped to resolve this dilemma. The Constitutional state, erected by his massive erudition, by its workings seems to have sacrificed neutrality for the sake of social justice. It has time and again intervened in favour of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes. In the process, the state has transformed itself into an extension of the society where the social struggle for allocation of distributable social goods is played out. The state in its attempt to free the society from struggles along the lines of primordial fault lines has itself succumbed to such struggles.

This is most evident in the politics over reservation. The recent effort of Hardik Patel to form a political party on the single issue of affirmative action for a particular community is nothing but a culmination of the long process through which state has been legitimately used as an instrument, not a facilitator of social justice. Since state power is the instrument of social justice, all routes to affirmative action lead to state power, not to any legitimate well reasoned social basis emerging through a state sponsored enlightened societal dialogue. The state has made interventions in the mode of value imposition, but has not seriously explored the option of encouraging rational critical mode of deliberation as suggested by Habermas, which could have helped in facilitating the process of consensus oriented social reform. As a result, the concept of a socially interventionist state armed with the goal of social modernization has not only failed to maintain a neutral character but also got embroiled into a difficult terrain of political contestation configured by the same social dynamics which it seeks to dismantle.  ooo

Suhas Palshikar (2008): 'The Indian State; Constitution and Beyond' in Rajiv Bhargava (ed.), 143-163. Politics and Ethic of the Indian Constitution (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Ambedkar, B R (2014): Annihilation of Caste : The Annotated Critical Edition (New Delhi: Navayana)

Vol. 48, No. 20, Nov 22 - 28, 2015