PREAMBLE, AMBEDKAR AND PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS
The second part can be found here.
Speaker Profile: Aakash Singh Rathore
Aakash Singh Rathore is a philosopher of international repute, author of eight books (including Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India (Vintage/Penguin, 2020). Prof. Rathore has taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Universities of Delhi, Rutgers, Pennsylvania, Toronto, Humboldt Berlin, LUISS-Rome, and O.P. Jindal Global University. Regular contributor to The Indian Express and Outlook magazine with bylines in The Times of India, Firstpost, Huffington Post. He is also the series editor of Rethinking India Series, being published by Penguin in association with Samruddha Bharat Foundation.
Prakhar Raghuvanshi: How relevant is the Preamble in our lives today? The judiciary has used the Preamble often, with the Supreme Court referring to it time and again. However, how relevant is the Preamble to the Constitution to an ordinary citizen? This question becomes especially important as we saw people across the nation reading out the Preamble during the Citizenship Amendment Act. So what is the significance and importance of the Preamble today for an ordinary citizen?
Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:
You know my answer would be that it is very significant (laughs) since I have spent so much time writing a book about the Preamble. From the point of a legal scholar such as me, and as you pointed out in the question, for the legal establishment the Preamble is a crucial document, but what about the ordinary citizen. So, looking from their point of view, the protest presents an interesting example. We saw from the reading of the Preamble, and that too in multiple languages, citizens reclaiming symbols or totems of the national movement.
I have two daughters in school and I find it curious, that their textbooks (NCERT textbooks) have the Preamble at the beginning and there are rarely looked at. This is despite these being at the beginning of every subject, every textbook.
That is why I have referred to it as a totem, or it being elevated to the status of a sacred symbol, that it has to be put into every textbook. Yet, kids do not pay a lot of attention to it, as it for them rarely relates to the subject in the book and does not prove effective. From the citizen’s point of view, it has been elevated by the government to some kind of a sacred symbol. The question then arises to whom does that sacred symbol belong. Normally sacred symbols are the prerogative of a priest or a person in authority. And in this case, it was the government that decided that each child in India needs to have the preamble nailed into their heads in every textbook and salon.
So what we find about basically is that there have been attempts by the government to, to dictate the terms of what this document means and its significance. What we saw in the protests were that the citizens were reappropriating autonomously the meaning and the significance of this document. So, the citizens were not satisfied with the sanctimonious way that the government has represented this text. More importantly, if we go a layer deeper into these protests due to the polarized rhetoric that we find ourselves in, in India and across the world today people are divided into nationalists and anti-nationalists and there doesn’t seem to be a space for ideologies, gradations or a spectrum. The people who protest given that government is always representing people who are against it as enemies of the state, not enemies of that particular administration, we’re branded as anti-national.
So what the preamble represented for citizens at the moment of protest was a re-appropriation of national symbols to show that the branding of them by the government as anti-national is an incoherent argument. They were flipping the terms of the engagement so that they, as protesters are showing that they’re living up to the spirit and values of our constitution and the foundation of the Republic, which by implication suggests that there is something deeply wrong with the government and administration. If it is the citizens who are representing the ideals and the principles of the Republic, then what is it that the government is doing?
So, the preamble has these several layers of significance in your average citizen’s life. On the one hand, it is crammed down or rammed down our throats, but in an obviously ineffective way. On the other hand, it is something that we might pick up and might appropriate as a demonstration of our civic duties.
Like civil disobedience, if it’s held for, and to show that when we disobey a current government or a current administration, it doesn’t mean we’re anti-national, it might mean that we are speaking the ideals of the nation. So, it’s a very significant document because it, in a way, liberates the citizen, the citizen average citizen has something to hold on to, to say, you cannot exclude me. You cannot condemn me. You cannot in blanket refer to me as an anti-national or urban Naxal or some category that dismisses me. I represent the very values that this nation was founded upon. And here is my character certificate. It is the preamble that shows that what I am doing now is what must or should be done. So in that respect, I think even way beyond legal scholars and so on the preamble does have a significant role to play in an ordinary citizens day to day existence.
Prakhar Raghuvanshi: So, do you mean that the preamble has evolved from a mere symbolism and has now come to life?
Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:
Yes, there have been many false attempts to bring the Preamble to life from the part of government administration. These are very paternalistic attempts. As you know, I’ve written a book on the preamble. I spent years studying it. And what, even when someone like me opens the SST book of my sixth standard child and sees the preamble, I get a little, a lot annoyed. I think, what on earth is this? Why is this here? This, this is not the way that this should be done. So, there’s this attempt to superficially paternalistically, bring it to us. Like, it’s our gift. It’s not a gift, but the current administration or the previous administration to us, it is the very foundation of the Republic. It represents us. It doesn’t have to be handed to us paternalistic. The recent protests have brought material and substance to this realization. This is our document. This is not something that you have to ram down my throat. This is mine and let me tell you what it means. So, it’s become very powerful in the hands of the people, even more, powerful than it has been in the hands of the judiciary or the government.
Prakhar Raghuvanshi: Moving to the very first chapter of your book, which talks about the idea of justice. You have portrayed a Gandhian versus Ambedkarite notion of justice debate. What are the key differences between both the notions of justice and why the Ambedkarite notion do you feel is better suited to this country?
Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:
This is a very complicated question. To do the question justice would require charitably re-examining these ideas. So, when someone has to answer a question quickly, they tend to not to be charitable, but just to move to the conclusion as quickly as possible. So just keep in mind that there will be a, somewhat of a caricature of Gandhi’s ideas. When having to answer a question like this (it is better to) within that warning. The main issue at hand is that I just spoke about paternalism, Gandhi’s way of communicating to the masses was often very paternalistic. You can see this sense of paternalism in the very term that was argued and debated between Gandhi and Gandhians and Ambedkar and Ambedkarites calling the Scheduled Caste people.
Calling the scheduled caste or the untouchables Harijans versus Dalits or some other nomenclature. Now that the, when the, what we’ll refer to in that time as the depressed classes, when the depressed class pushed back somewhat against Gandhi’s epithet, Harijan, Gandhians, including within the Bombay Legislative Assembly said, no, this is the term that Gandhi has decided to use, and this is what you are for better or for worse it’s not our problem. Ambedkar had raised within the Bombay Legislative Assembly that this word Harijan should not be enacted into law. It was not proper. It was a term that was paternalistically applied to people. Ambedkar said, “if we untouchables are the children of God, then who is everyone else, the children of”?
I use that term just as an example of the sort of paternalistic procedure that one often finds in Gandhi’s methods. Ambedkar had a very different approach. It was clearly bottom-up grassroots, as we say today, and you’ll find this in his many speeches and articulations that the untouchables are never going to be given justice. The untouchables must fight for justice. They must rise and demand it. Justice is not something that is just granted as some boon or some gift, even by the state. Justice must always be rested from the state. Justice must always be rested from an unjust society. This puts the agency into the hands of the Dalits or of the people themselves who are concerned with this issue of justice, whether it should be gender justice.
It puts the agency into the hands of women and non-normative gender people, whether be a caste justice as I was just speaking of, or religious justice and so on. Agency needs to be put in the hand of the persons or group of people who are in pursuit of justice, not into the hands of those who are going to bestow it as a charity. This can be seen once again, in the Harijan Sevak Sangh that Gandhi had formed.
There was a fairly well-known activist in the time and the era named PN Rajbhoj and Rajbhoj was, he was untouchable but not a Mahar caste untouchable. So he wasn’t in the community that was generally supporting Dr Ambedker, but in a smaller community that had some rivalry with it. So Rajbhoj was often in league with the Congress, and in fact, he signed the Poona Pact along with Ambedkar in the column that represented Gandhi’s group rather than the column that represented on Ambedkar’s group. So, Rajbhoj decided that he true to his social work for his community was going to become very active in the Harijan Seva Sangh and Gandhi wrote him a letter and in the letter, which I have in fact, it states, don’t you understand that Harijan Seva Sangh is not for Harijans.
It is for the upper caste to wash away the sins of their practice of untouchability, practising the untouchability. So, we, the upper caste are going to do Seva to you, the Harijan. So, you have no role in this organization and Rajbosh took that letter. He went over to Ambedkar’s house and he showed it to him and he apologized to him. He said you have been right all along. We’ve been used, as stooges and tools. The idea has never been to empower us from below as agents to shape our own destiny. The idea has always been that the majority community will give us charity if we beg for it. In many respects once again, I’m caricaturing Gandhi through these examples. But in many respects, this represents the mainstream of the difference on these is agent-based ground up.
Ambedkar’s is agent-based ground up and it shows that the idea of justice is not a gift, and it’s not a charity. It’s a principle that must be pursued vigorously, pursued by the agents who need it. Whereas in Gandhi’s terms, there was a more harmonious cosmological sense that if everyone just does their job, does their duty, justice will descend upon all of us and Ambedkar was radically opposed to the utopian sense of this and didn’t believe as Gandhi kept arguing, from as early as the 1920s, that untouchability will disappear on its own if the Harijans just stopped agitating. For Dr Ambedker, of course, one must never stop, agitating because justice doesn’t just arrive once and for all, it has to keep being pursued.
Prakhar Raghuvanshi: In the fourth chapter of the book Ambedkar’s Preamble you talk about fraternity clause of the Preamble and you had mentioned the drafting committee unanimously rejected placing nation before the dignity of the individual. So can you explain what is the conceptual understanding behind this and how this can be important in today’s time, where we have started this discussion by going back to the difference of nationals and anti-national, which is being used by the government? So can that idea be useful in the current times?
Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:
Yes, I think it’s a necessity. It’s something that we have to be constantly vigilant about. So, I don’t want to be pedantic, but just to point out that this clause, this refusal to interchange nation, make nation come prior to the individual, it wasn’t really unanimously rejected by the drafting committee. It was those three most important people and considering that most of the other members of the drafting committee didn’t show up very often. There were the three who really meant it, but that’s just a pedantic footnote. It’s important what was unanimous and what wasn’t unanimous considering my whole argument in the book, which is that we like to represent the preamble as being the work of a kind of consensus of the committee.
But my argument is, if you really look at the minutes, there was no committee. There was Dr Ambedkar, who was there every time. And then there were people who would show up now and again, and say, so what’s new, you know? So that’s a small point now. Why did three people as differently ideologically aligned as Munshi, Ambedkar and BN Rao quickly came together on this?
They said, we will have none of that and remember, there were more than 20 recommendations for this, coming from the constituent assembly. Their argument, as I outline in the book was, in a pity way was captured by this expression, “there will not be unity in the nation, unless, and until there is the dignity of the individual” and therefore conceptually logically dignity of the individual must come from before the unity of the nation because we will not have unity in the nation, unless, and until we have the dignity of the individual.
Now that, which was written by BN Rao to be read in the open assembly and that is something that I don’t think we understand fully even today. So your question is interesting because I think we need to repeat that to ourselves. We often say why don’t we can transgress certain normal procedures of policing or you know, practices in an encounter and so on for ensuring the security, integrity of the nation. But Ambedkar, Munshi and Rao’s argument was the opposite that. Unless, and until we maintain these procedures that were set up in full recognition of the fundamental and inviolable dignity of every Indian citizen, unless, and until we maintain constant vigil about this, we will never have unity in our nation. So, the standard of balancing security versus the individual dignity this balance which we play with today. In the 21st century, September 11 attacks in New York, and then subsequently the attack on the Parliament in Delhi and then the slow creation over the years in the first decade of the 21st century of major legislation, allowing for violations of individual of privacy and suspension of Habeas Corpus and other principles that we never would have dreamed of violating other than during an emergency, all of these things began to flood in.
The justification for these things is national security. So, this idea of the integrity of the nation, having to take a priority and therefore fundamental basic rights of an Indian citizen, having to take a back seat, this is the very thing that Munshi, Ambedkar and BL Rao were worried about. If you will put forward national integrity at the expense of individual dignity, then what we have is creeping fascism and authoritarianism and not a modern, liberal, constitutional democracy. So, the Ambedkar, Mushi and Rao, all of the different ideologies fought to maintain the fundamental priority of dignity of the individual, and then the second priority of unity of the nation, because of the logical connection. We will not have national unity unless we have universal human dignity that they, they foresaw.
Just imagine if our preamble had a priority of nation over individual dignity, every inequity we see today, every crushing of a protest of dissent, every declaration that an academician had made, had questioned the sovereignty of India, and therefore he’s an immediate threat, and has to go to jail. I mean, we’ve jailed so many intellectuals in recent times Anand Teltumbe, a great hero of mine. I disagree with him on many of his writings, but that makes no difference whatsoever. The very fact that an intellectual as brilliant and accomplished as he merely says some words, or is present at a meeting where words are said, and now he’s in jail. This shows us what it means to claim that unity or integrity of the nation is more important than the rights and dignities of the individual. So, it’s the most important idea that the priority given in the preamble teaches us.
Prakhar Raghuvanshi: Since the discussion is about dignity clause, the chapter on it reveals that the clause with respect to dignity in the preamble was absent from all the major documents, the objective resolution or B. N. Rao’s note, and you have credited Dr Ambedkar for the inclusion of this clause. And you also argued that the idea stems from Dr Ambedkar’s personal experiences. What is this idea of dignity and are these personal experiences specific to caste discrimination or there are other instances as well.
Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:
Yes, you’ve correctly represented what I argue in the book on this issue. What we should understand is that the term dignity spent most of its history, meaning something very different from what we mean by it in the 20th century and now in the 21st century. Going back to Latin dignity is about hierarchy and rank. This changed as a consequence of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant and Kantian philosophy. Now, I’m a philosopher myself, and we often like to say that philosophers change the world. So just bear with me if you find that humorous.
Kant begun to use this term dignity, the German word is Menschlicher Wert, and so human worth or human value, he’d begun to use this word in the sense that it is infinite.
Everything that we know of in the world has a price. You can buy this cup of coffee that I’m drinking but you cannot buy a human person. Consequently, this became one of the foundations of Kant’s moral philosophy and became one of the foundations against a liberal tradition that was quite comfortable with slavery. But when Kant’s moral philosophy came onto the scene there was an absolute prohibition against slavery because it’s based on treating a human person as though they have a price and the human person is priceless. That worth mentioned above or the pricelessness of human value became translated into English as dignity and in this translation in as dignity the long, previous history of meaning as a kind of hierarchy of dignity as a kind of hierarchy got substituted by this new Kantian meaning of dignity now. The idea of dignity first re-emerged in the new constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany after the Second World War.
This is all unfolding in the 1940s at the same time in Germany and in India, and of course, many other places. What happens is that the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide against Jewish, Romani, homosexual people was the highest possible expression of the failure to recognize the absolute worth of the human person. When the Germans were framing their new constitution, they wanted to make the strongest possible statement that nothing like this would ever be possible again in the German territories. So, they made it Article 1 of their Constitution, and I’m just working from memory here. But I believe Article 1 of the German Constitution runs like “human dignity is inviolable”. So, a blanket statement like that is very powerful and then the next clause is it is the duty of the state to respect and protect the dignity of the individual.
This is interesting because it’s one thing to declare that that dignity is inviolable and it’s another thing altogether to demand that the state protects and preserves that dignity. The amount of pressure is precise because of what Germany had done. This changed the nature of how we understand dignity. This is 1940s Europe, and Dr Ambedkar was very well aware of all of these developments. So when we see dignity as being written into the Preamble, by Dr Ambedkar on the basis of his experiences, it is because of the analogous experience that Dr Ambedkar had with the German, with the European Jews. In other words, that just like the Jews, the untouchables had experienced a kind of a longstanding and flagrant failure to recognize their dignity their individual worth as a human person.
Clearly, there are analogies, there are other kinds of ways that people experienced this lack of dignity that would make them be champions of dignity. I went through the explanation of the genealogy of the term to show you that this is not a term Dr Ambedkar invented. It’s a term that he appropriated as being perfectly fitting for the situation within which he found the trajectory of his own life and of the people that he wanted to ensure finally received recognition of their dignity through the new constitution. Maybe I’ll leave it at that in answer to that question. Some aspects might arise later.
Prakhar Raghuvanshi: Essentially, what you are saying is that the Kantian idea of the categorical imperatives treating persons as ends themselves is the idea which Ambedkar had and that is the idea the Preamble talks about?
Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:
Yes, and it’s not merely that if you look at what Dr Ambedkar had written in States and Minorities, you see, that was his first draft constitution. You see that one of the fundamental principles is to treat a human as an end in itself and never as a means. As you rightly stated, this is one of the formulations of the categorical imperative or Kant’s moral philosophy, which is referred to as deontological which is to say that there are no conditions. You don’t treat a person with dignity unless he broke the law, right? You treat a person with dignity even if he broke the law, you treat a person with dignity. That’s what natural justice is, right? You maintain these procedures, irrespective of however flagrant the criminal act might have been.
Ambedkar had many times in his previous writings touched upon overlapping ideas of the formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative and so when he speaks of dignity, it definitely echoes, Kant’s idea of the Menslichter Wert, which we see in the first Article of the German Constitution. When he writes it into the Preamble, there is definitely that echo that the Indian state has the duty and obligation to recognize and protect the dignity of the individual. Of course, the way that Dr Ambedkar originally wrote it on February 6th, 1948, the dignity of the individual, irrespective of caste.
The transcript for second part of episode 2 can be found here.