In recent weeks, there has been a demand for the new Parliament building being constructed on the revamped Central Vista in New Delhi to be named after the architect of the Constitution and anti-caste leader BR Ambedkar.
On September 14, the Telangana Assembly passed a resolution urging the Centre to name the new Parliament building after Ambedkar. The Bharatiya Janata Party was absent during the debate about the resolution.
The next day, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi-led government declared that the new secretariat in the centre of Hyderabad would be named after Ambedkar. Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao added that he would write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to name the new Parliament building in Delhi “Ambedkar Parliament”.
The demand is finding resonance among civil society groups too and has led to social media discussions as well as public mobilisation. But two questions arise:
Should a Parliament that makes laws for a nation over a long period of time be named after one leader, whatever be their stature and acceptability? Does Ambedkar deserve such a pedestal over all other founders and leaders of India’s parliamentary democracy?
Usually, a parliament building should not be confined to the name of one individual, however great that individual was. Since Parliament represents the whole nation, it should be the “Indian Parliament”.
However, it is a cultural practice in India to name all manner of things after noteworthy individuals. Logically, why not name the new parliament building after any great individual who contributed significantly enough to build parliamentary democracy in India?
The second question requires a comparative evaluation of three personalities who played a key role in institutionalising constitutional parliamentary democracy in India: Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. MK Gandhi had little to do with the making of the Constitution. Gandhi’s role ended with India achieving freedom as he chose to remain outside the constituent assembly, which drafted the country’s Constitution.
Of the three founders mentioned, the current ruling dispensation holds a hostile view of Nehru, his ideological, theoretical and administrative roles as freedom fighter and as the first prime minister of India. With Nehru as the father figure of the Gandhi-Nehru family that ruled for several years, Modi has positioned himself in direct confrontation with him.
The others that the Modi government may be positively inclined to view then are Ambedkar and Patel. This is evident from the past eight years of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule.
Ambedkar and Patel have competing status, no doubt. Evaluating their struggle, theory, practice and the impact of their role on democratic principles and ideals makes them both serious contenders to name the new parliament building after. However, for philosophical and ideological reasons, rather than Patel, it is Ambedkar’s name that should take precedence.
Patel, who hailed from a Shudra agrarian landed family, rose to become a towering freedom fighter, activist, leader and administrator. He went on to unify the country with determination and strong will, persuading the rulers of the many princely states to merg with the Indian Union. Patel was a lawyer and had a successful practice in courts – but he was not a legal philosopher, historian or economist.
Ambedkar, on the other hand, was from the most oppressed category of “untouchables”. He was also a fighter, activist, leader and administrator in his own way. Additionally, Ambedkar was a profound legal and moral philosopher. He trained himself in several disciplines such as history, sociology and politics and economics.
He was a powerful speaker with a command over English, Hindi Marathi and also Sanskrit. He was also well-versed in multiple schools of thought – Buddhist, Vaidic, Jain, Islamic, Christian and more. At the same time he had a command over Euro-American history, philosophy and legal systems.
While steering the drafting of the Constitution and getting articles passed in the Constituent Assembly, his initiations and interventions surpassed those of the rest. Ambedkar’s intellectual power convinced friend and foe in the Constituent Assembly that his conviction to establish a democratic system in India was unmatched.
Yet, as long as the Congress was in full control of the power structures in Delhi, Ambedkar was ignored. India began rdiscovering Ambedkar in the post-Mandal era – after the Mandal Commission report recommending affirmative reservation for backward classes in education and jobs was published in 1980.
From courts to universities and mass movements, Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in the Constituent Assembly and outside became weapons to defend Indian democracy as it entered crisis after crisis. Indian democracy and Ambedkar almost became synonymous.
The Mandal era resurrected Ambedkar’s commitment to India as a nation. Though Ambedkar knew that Western constitutional ideals evolved in many countries particularly, England and the United States, he drew more relevant principles from Indian history. Thus, Ambedkar made Indian nationalism more grounded than anybody else’s. Buddha’s parables, Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s administrative principles and symbols were made relevant in modern times because of Ambedkar.
He often repeated the three cardinal principles of democracy – liberty, equality and fraternity – from ancient Indian history, not French thought. Ambedkar’s nationalism was not rooted in mythology but in the productive life of the Indian masses. He helped bring from the margins the concerns of the historically oppressed into the constitutional framework.
The Dalits, Adivasis and shudras today owe to him their slowly but surely transforming lives. If the new parliament building is named after Ambedkar, it would be clear that a serious civilisational transformation is underway in India. The complete and true de-colonisation of India will set a new benchmark.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist, author. His books include God As Political Philosopher-Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism, Buffalo Nationalism and The Shudras-Vision for a New Path, The Weapon of the Other and others.