On 29 August 1947, a Draft Committee was formed to prepare a draft constitution under the chairmanship of BR Ambedkar. After almost three years of deliberation, on this day sixty-six years ago, India's Constitution was put into effect. In this excerpt from Arundhati Roy's essay in our March 2014 issue, 'The Doctor and the Saint,' Roy comments on the conflict Ambedkar faced, both within himself and with the newly formed Constituent Assembly, as he tried to draft a document "more enlightened than the society it was drafted for."
History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First it contained him, and then it glorified him. It has made him India’s Leader of the Untouchables, the king of the ghetto. It has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence.
All the same, Ambedkar’s followers have kept his legacy alive in creative ways. One of those ways is to turn him into a million mass-produced statues. The Ambedkar statue is a radical and animate object. It has been sent forth into the world to claim the space—both physical and virtual, public and private—that is the Dalit’s due. Dalits have used Ambedkar’s statue to assert their civil rights—to claim land that is owed them, water that is theirs, commons they are denied access to. The Ambedkar statue that is planted on the commons and rallied around always holds a book in its hand. Significantly, that book is not Annihilation of Caste with its liberating, revolutionary rage. It is a copy of the Indian Constitution that Ambedkar played a vital role in conceptualising—the document that now, for better or for worse, governs the life of every single Indian citizen.
Using the Constitution as a subversive object is one thing. Being limited by it is quite another. Ambedkar’s circumstances forced him to be a revolutionary and to simultaneously put his foot in the door of the establishment whenever he got a chance to. His genius lay in his ability to use both these aspects of himself nimbly, and to great effect. Viewed through the prism of the present, however, it has meant that he left behind a dual and sometimes confusing legacy: Ambedkar the radical, and Ambedkar the father of the Indian Constitution. Constitutionalism can come in the way of revolution. And the Dalit revolution has not happened yet. We still await it. Before that there cannot be any other, not in India.
This is not to suggest that writing a constitution cannot be a radical act. It can be, it could have been, and Ambedkar tried his best to make it one. However, by his own admission, he did not entirely succeed.