Constitutional morality trumps Revolution

Pratap Bhanu Mehta on Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech.

At the Takshashila Institution, Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review and at Pragmatic Euphony, we have continuously emphasised the importance of the Grammar of Anarchy speech delivered by Dr BR Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly (Constituent Assembly Debates Volume 11). That speech should be made mandatory reading for all constituents of the Indian Republic.

With the deposing of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak earlier this month, there has been chatter among Indian commentators over the chances of a “revolution” happening in India. This blogger happen to come across a slightly dated essay by India’s foremost commentator, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, which relates the two issues contextually and demolishes those fears. A relevant extract:

For Grote, the central elements of constitutional morality were freedom and self-restraint. Self-restraint was a precondition for maintaining freedom under properly constitutional government. The most political expression of a lack of self-restraint was revolution. Indeed constitutional morality was successful only in so far as it warded off revolution. Ambedkar also takes on the explicitly anti-revolutionary tones of constitutionalism. In a strikingly odd passage, he says that the maintenance of democracy requires that we must ‘hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It must mean that we abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha.

In one stroke, both violent revolution and passive resistance are equated as exemplifying a kind of excess and lack of self-restraint incompatible with constitutional morality. The tacit equivalence he posits between satyagraha and violence has roots in Ambedkar’s experience of satyagraha as a form of coercion. It is a feature of constitutional morality that while government is subject to the full force of criticism, this criticism must, in some sense, be ‘pacific’ criticism.

Ambedkar dismisses an entire repertoire of political action used during the nationalist movement as being incompatible with the demands of constitutional morality, as he understood it. These forms of political action continue to be seen by many as essential to democracy, though it is doubtful that Ambedkar would have admitted them within the ambit of constitutional morality. But there is perhaps a deeper element at play in his ruling out satyagraha as incompatible with the basics of constitutional morality. And this in part springs from his understanding of the distinctiveness of constitutional morality.

For the second element of constitutional morality is the recognition of plurality in its deepest form. What is surprising is that Ambedkar turns out to be as, if not more, committed to a form of non-violence as Gandhi. For him, respecting constitutional forms is the only way in which a genuinely non-violent mode of political action can come into being. For the central challenge in a political society is the management and adjudication of differences – though what Ambedkar had in mind were more differences of opinion than of identity.

The only way of non-violent resolution amidst this fact of difference is securing some degree of unanimity on a constitutional process, a form of adjudication that can mediate difference. Unilaterally declaring oneself to be in possession of the truth, setting oneself up as a judge in one’s own cause, or acting on the dictates of one’s conscience might be heroic acts of personal integrity. But they do not address the central problem that a constitutional form is trying to address, namely the existence of a plurality of agents, each with his/her own convictions, opinions and claims.

Constitutional morality requires submitting these to the adjudicative contrivances that are central to any constitution – parliament, courts and so on. In the face of difference, the only point of unanimity that one can seek is over an appropriately designed adjudicative process. This is one reason, for example, why Ambedkar does not think socialism should be part of the constitution, even though equality is of paramount concern to him. What the parties have to agree to, as Ambedkar recognizes over and over, is an allegiance to a constitutional form, not an allegiance to a particular substance.

Therefore, constitutional morality requires that allegiance to the constitution is non-transactional. The essence of constitutional morality is that allegiance to the constitution cannot be premised upon it leading to outcomes that are a mirror image of any agent’s beliefs. A constitutional morality requires putting up with the possibility that what eventually emerges from a process is very different from what citizens had envisaged.

Read the complete essay on Constitutional Morality by Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

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9 Responses to Constitutional morality trumps Revolution

  1. Constitutional morality trumps Revolution: Pratap Bhanu Mehta on Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech.
    At the Ta… http://bit.ly/eAxHCr

  2. jas batth (@jasbatth70) February 16, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    RT @pragmatic_d: At my blog, an extract from Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay on Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech: Constitutional Morality http://bit.ly/ffaphd

  3. Blogpost Replug: An extract from Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay on Constitutional Morality: http://bit.ly/ffaphd [fair warning: serious read]

  4. For those interested, do check out the extract from PBM essay on Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech: http://bit.ly/ffaphd

  5. Meuthia Ranthy (@Cmuthia_NZ) February 17, 2011 at 2:28 am #

    RT @pragmatic_d: For those interested, do check out the extract from PBM essay on Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech: http://bit.ly/ffaphd

  6. @calamur February 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    worth reading – an extract from Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay on Constitutional Morality: http://bit.ly/ffaphd in the National Interest Blog

  7. @ash_dubey February 17, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    RT @calamur: worth reading – an extract from Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay on Constitutional Morality: http://bit.ly/ffaphd in the National Interest Blog

  8. @jeffshawn February 17, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    RT @calamur: worth reading – an extract from Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay on Constitutional Morality: http://bit.ly/ffaphd in the National Interest Blog

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