On the occasion of the birth anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, we would like to turn the spotlight on an intriguing aspect of his involvement in the drafting of the Indian Constitution: his contribution to shaping its socio-economic provisions.
In 1947, Dr Ambedkar submitted States and Minorities to the Constituent Assembly’s Sub-Committee of Fundamental Rights, in which he called for the Constitution to prescribe state socialism and economic democracy through a range of strong socialist provisions.
However, his speeches in the Constituent Assembly from 4 November 1948 onwards appear to depart from his earlier position. Dr Ambedkar now advocated for socio-economic rights that some have argued were formulated in significantly weaker terms, abandoning the aggressively socialist provisions that he had advocated earlier. This is illustrated in his response to a member of the Assembly who wanted to include the term socialist in the preamble:
“…If you state in the Constitution that the social organization of the State shall take a particular form, you are, in my judgment, taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organization in which they wish to live. It is perfectly possible today, for the majority people to hold that the socialist organization of society is better than the capitalist organization of society. But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form of social organization which might be better than the socialist organization of today or tomorrow. I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves to decide it for themselves.”
The shift in Dr Ambedkar’s disposition towards socio-economic provisions in the Constitution seems clear. Furthermore, in States and Minorities, Dr Ambedkar’s provisions appear to have been written in a manner that suggests they are judicially enforceable. But in the Assembly later, he offered a spirited defence of the non-justiciability of socio-economic provisions:
“If it is said that the Directive Principles have no legal force behind them, I am prepared to admit it. But I am not prepared to admit that they have no sort of binding force at all. Nor am I prepared to concede that they are useless because they have no binding force in law.”
Scholars have offered different explanations for these shifts. Some suggest that his position changed due to tensions between his various roles and concerns as a philosopher, lawyer, pragmatic politician, socialist, parliamentary democrat, and Dalit emancipation activist. Others suggest that Ambedkar was always committed to a flexible approach, and his views evolved with his experiences in the Constituent Assembly and the drafting process. In a more recent intervention, it has been argued that there was no shift in Ambedkar’s support for socio-economic rights.
All of these explanations have some degrees of plausibility. However, the presence of multiple interpretations could also be a symptom of the lack of sufficient archival material around the Assembly’s proceedings. We are only now beginning to learn of discussions and correspondence that happened outside the Assembly but could nonetheless have had a significant impact on the plenary debates, the drafting process, and the final text of the Constitution. This hints at the insufficiency of context that is crucial to understanding the s evolution of Dr Ambedkar’s views on socio-economic provisions, and evaluating if there was a significant shift in the first place.
PACT aims to fill such gaps in our understanding of India’s constitution-making process. We seek to map and model documents on the making of the Indian Constitution and annotate these with commentaries and scholarship. We hope that this wealth of information will offer new insights into Dr Ambedkar’s immense contribution to the Constituent Assembly and in Indian constitutional and political thought more broadly.
Author: Aishwarya Birla, Research Associate at National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru (with editorial inputs from Vineeth Krishna, Senior Associate, Centre for Law and Policy Research and Prof. Rochana Bajpai, SOAS University).