[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week we will skip a chapter, and go directly to Chapter 8, "Home and the World," which explains how India evolved its "non-aligned" status.]
I’ve actually written a longish post on the idea of “secularism” in the Indian constitution in the past, but of course there’s more to say. The entire proceedings (more than 1000 pages of text!) of the Constituent Assembly have been posted online by the Indian Parliament here. Guha’s account comes out of reading through those proceedings, and is also deeply influenced by Granville Austin’s classic book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, which is still as I understand it the definitive book on the subject.
As many readers may be aware, the Indian Constitution was worked out over the course of three years (1946-1949), by a Constituent Assembly that contained 300 members, including representation by religious minorities, members of marginal groups (i.e., Adivasis), as well as a small but vocal group of women.
Three of the profound disagreements that the members of the Assembly had to resolve included: 1) the proper role of Gandhian philosophy in defining the new nation, 2) the question of “reservations” for Dalits and Tribals (Scheduled Castes and Tribes), and 3) the status of Indian languages, and the idea of an “official” language.1. Panchayats.
Let’s start with the question of the Gandhian idea of village panchayats, which was essentially rejected by the Constituent Assembly in favor of a strong, modern, centralized government. The lead voice in rejecting the Panchayat system was of course the Dalit lawyer and political figure B.R. Ambedkar. Here is Guha:
Some people advocated a ‘Gandian constitution,’ based on a revived panchayat raj system, with the village as the basic unit of politics and governance. This was sharply attacked by B.R. Ambedkar, who held that ‘these village republics have been the ruination of India.’ Ambedkar was ‘surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?’
These remarks provoked outrage in some quarters. The socialist H.V. Kamath dismissed Ambedkar’s attitude as ‘typical of the urban highbrow.’ The peasant leader N.G. Ranga said that Ambedkar’s comments showed his ignorance of Indian history. ‘All the democratic traditions of our country [have] been lost on him. If he had only known the achievements of the village panchayats in Southern India over a period of a millenium, he would not have said those things.’ However, the feisty female member of the United Provinces, Begum Aizaz Rasul, ‘entirely agreed’ with Amdedkar. As she saw it, the ‘modern tendency is towards the rights of the citizen as against any corporate body and village panchayats can be very autocratic.’ (119)
(Incidentally, the entire text of Ambedkar’s speech is at the Parliament of India website, here. Go check it out — it’s a fascinating document.)
I know that there are still neo-Gandhian thinkers out there who value highly decentralized government as a way of preventing tyranny. And it has to be admitted since independence, the Indian “Centre” has often overstepped its bounds, culminating perhaps in Indira Gandhi’s 1975 “Emergency” (many other instances could be mentioned).
But the fact that the most prominent Dalit representative and one of the most prominent women in the Assembly saw the “village” as a site of backwardness and repression, not liberation, cannot simply be ignored. They saw the move to centralization — and a focus on individual, rather than group or “corporate” rights — as a necessary step towards nudging Indian society towards caste and gender equality.
In my view, it’s a remarkable thing that the Indian Constitution essentially rejected Gandhian thinking, especially given how powerful Gandhi’s ideas and political methods had been in achieving the state of independence that led to the writing of this Constitution to begin with. But it may be that Gandhi had too much faith that people were going to be good to one another, and even in 1948 itself some members of the Assembly were aware that something stronger than mere idealism would be required to guarantee the rights of the disenfranchised.
Reservations is a huge topic, one that I can’t possibly deal with in a very substantive way right now (see this Wikipedia page for a brief tutorial). Suffice it to say that when the Constitution was ratified in 1950, it contained reservations for Scheduled Caste (SC) and Tribe (ST) groups in Parliament and State Assemblies, but not for what were known as “Other Backward Castes” (OBCs), though reservations for those groups would be recommended later. (And this latter question became a hot issue yet again in 2006, though as far as I know the recommendation for national OBC reservations in Indian higher education has not yet been implemented.)
Guha’s brief account of the debate over this question focuses on an Adivasi (tribal) political figure I hadn’t heard of, Jaipal Singh from Chotanagpur in the southern part of Bihar. Jaipal Singh had been sent by missionaries to study at Oxford, where he became a star at field hockey, and indeed, won a gold medal in the sport in 1928. In the Constituent Assembly, he made the following remarkable speech:
As a jungli, as an Adibasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6000 years. The history of the Indus Velley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers–most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned–it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness. . . . The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter in of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.
You can see the anger and the pain — but also the impressive willingnes to turn a new page, and cooperate fully in an “independent India where there is equality of opportunity.”
3. “Hindi imperialism.”
Finally, one of the most divisive questions of all was the status of English vis a vis Indian languages. At the moment of independence, it’s not surprising that a large number of participants in the Constituent Assembly found it galling that the proceedings were occurring largely in English, and some were insistent that the Indian constitution be “primarily” written in Hindi. There was also a strong movement to make Hindi India’s national language, which was of course rejected.
The simple truth is that there is no one, universal Indian language, and the people who were insisting that Hindi should be become that language had to give way, or risk provoking separatist sentiments from South Indians. Guha quotes one particular figure, T.T. Krishnamachari of Madras, along those line:
We disliked the English language in the past. I disliked it because I was forced to learn Shakespeare and Milton, for which I had no taste at all. . . . [I]f we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi . . . I would perhaps not be able to do it because of my age, and perhaps I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me. . . . This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary will mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the Centre. I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of people of the South for the reason that there are already elements in South India who want separation. . . , and my honorable friends in U.P. do not help us in any way by flogging their idea [of] ‘Hindi Imperialism’ to the maximum extent possible. Sir, it is up to my friends in U.P. to have a whole India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs. (131)
What’s interesting about this for me is the way it already shows the contradictions in the desire to have a strongly centralized government — it can’t be done easily in a country with such strong regional language traditions.
For more on how “official language” questions in India have evolved since the writing of the Constitution, see this Wikipedia entry.
People have lots of complaints about the Indian Constitution — it’s ridiculously long, for one thing, and punted on several highly controversial questions (one of them being language, the other being the “Uniform Civil Code”). People who dislike caste reservations also often cite the Constituent Assembly as in effect the starting point for a system they feel has spiraled out of control.
But what I think is impressive about this process is the strong attempt made to include as many of India’s diverse voices as possible, without sacrificing a vision of effective centralized government. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution may be clearer and simpler, but it was written exclusively by property-holding white men who all spoke a single language (early America was actually much more linguistically diverse than people think). Native Americans were not invited, though in fact this was their land before the colonists came. Women were not invited, nor were African Americans. Despite its flaws, India’s Constitution did a much better job at defining the new nation inclusively than America’s did.