Dr. Arvind Elangovan (Senior Fellow, History, Wright State University)

Minorities and the Indian Constitution: Towards a Dialogue between the Historical and the Normative

21 January 2019 – 20 June 2019

During the Fellowship period, I primarily worked on reading the collected works of Dr. B R Ambedkar. As stated in my proposal, I was interested in thinking about Indian constitutional history, primarily as a product of an intersection between the political and the constitutional. Often, in existing literature, the constitution is primarily seen as a legal and/or a normative document that is almost always treated in isolation from the existing political context, in which constitutional developments were unfolding. In late colonial India, my primary period of interest, the political developments of the period and the constitutional negotiations that were occurring between Britain and India were intricately interwoven and one could not easily separate the two. Yet, in the literature these two aspects of late colonial political and constitutional history are often separated. I put forward in my proposal that one way to break through this isolation is to examine the constitutional writings of Dr. B R Ambedkar who was simultaneously a political force and a constitutional expert in whom one could find the interwoven history of Indian politics and the constitution.

In my research, I found that for Ambedkar, articulating a constitutional argument was never simply about expressing an abstract principle in a legal form. Rather, a constitutional position could only be a result of a deeper understanding of the underlying socio-economic, religious, and political dynamics of the society in question. Hence, in the three moments that I chose for researching and writing – his argument for Pakistan, his critique of the Congress and the role played by Gandhi, published in a seminal text in 1946, and his arguments for special protections for the scheduled castes in draft memoranda submitted to the constituent assembly, Ambedkar’s impetus to invoke the social and the political to explain the constitutional was immediately apparent. For example, I found that one of his insightful and devastating critique of Gandhi, found in his 1946 text referred above was that Gandhi did not constitutionally recognize the Dalits. In other words, Ambedkar went beyond the well-known Critique of Gandhi that the latter did not view the problem of Dalits as the fundamental problem of Indian casteism but rather something that the upper castes could atone and correct themselves without legislative intervention. In pointing out that Gandhi’s views were fundamentally incompatible with ideals of constitutionalism and citizenship that would demand a primary recognition of the Dalits as bearers of constitutional recognition and therefore able to take recourse to legal avenues, Ambedkar I suggest, pointed out the inevitable tension of reconciling the idea of ‘we the people’ that lay at the heart of all modern constitutional imaginations and the ideology of caste that forever not only hierarchized but also posited ontological and social limits on creating the conditions for ‘we the people’ in the society. Ambedkar’s constitutional writings then provide us a unique insight into the nature of the relationship between the political and the constitutional as well as between the historical and the normative.

In my research paper, I hope to demonstrate this intersection with further examples from Ambedkar’s writings. Research done during the fellowship period was extremely useful to understand Ambedkar’s contributions to the making of the Indian constitution (other than to simply remark that he was the Chairman of the drafting committee and piloted the bulk of the constitution in the constituent assembly). I argue that Ambedkar’s contributions extend well beyond the legal language of constitutionalism and point us to examining the link between the social and the constitutional that is critical to understand Indian constitutional history.

 Bio:

Arvind Elangovan is Associate Professor of History at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He is interested in exploring the political and constitutional histories of South Asia. His first book, Norms and Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-50 was published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi in 2019. He is currently working on the emergence of the idea of minorities and its intersection with ideas of Indian constitutionalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.