On the 25th of November, 1949, Babasaheb Ambedkar gave his last speech in the Constituent Assembly of India, being the Chairman of the Drafting Committee. The speech was delivered on the eve of one the greatest moments in modern democratic politics, when India, the largest democracy in the world gave to itself, the longest and one of the most nuanced democratic constitutions. Such a task was no small endeavour, and a collective of 389 people took about three years to meticulously weigh all possibilities to create it. The people of the country, and the world were eagerly anticipating the document. 

A lot of questions about the nature of the work and the intention of the makers were also laid. The risk of infighting and mutual unsatisfaction was also on the horizon. Being the Chairman, Ambedkar had the weight of the entire country upon his shoulders, to defend, explain and make a case for the document that was going to hold this gigantic but infant nation together.

In the short but effectively elaborative speech that he’d given, he dealt with criticisms from within and without the assembly with great dignity, laid forth the fundamental philosophy behind the Constitution, and gave an ever-effective word of advice for the future custodians of this Constitution and the Democratic Republic, for which millions of people sacrificed their lives. 

As this nation celebrates its 75th Republic Day, it seems more pertinent than ever to revisit this speech of Babasaheb and reflect on the strength of our Democracy. 

“I came into the Constituent Assembly with no greater aspiration than to safeguard the interests of the Scheduled Castes. I had not the remotest idea that I would be called upon to undertake more responsible functions. I was therefore greatly surprised when the Assembly elected me to the Drafting Committee. I was more than surprised when the Drafting Committee elected me to be its Chairman. There were in the Drafting Committee men bigger, better and more competent than myself such as my friend Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar. I am grateful to the Constituent Assembly and the Drafting Committee for reposing in me so much trust and confidence and to have chosen me as their instrument and given me this opportunity of serving the country.”

“… However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of the State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics.”

“What I do say is that the principles embodied in the Constitution are the views of the present generation or if you think this to be an over-statement, I say they are the views of the members of the Constituent Assembly. Why blame the Drafting Committee for embodying them in the Constitution? I say why blame even the Members of the Constituent Assembly?”

“The basic principle of Federalism is that the Legislative and Executive authority is partitioned between the Centre and the States not by any law to be made by the Centre but by the Constitution itself. This is what the Constitution does. The States under our Constitution are in no way dependent upon the Centre for their legislative or executive authority. The Centre and the States are co-equal in this matter.”

“If the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.”

“To observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “To lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.”

“… That we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.”

“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has to laboriously built up.”

“Independence is no doubt a matter of joy. But let us not forget that this independence has thrown on us great responsibilities. By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong.”

Herein, Ambedkar starts out with his own location and intention of being a member of the assembly. He fought all his life to dismantle the oppressive structure of caste that pervaded the Indian society, as they continue to this day, albeit with less power. He joined the assembly to speak for the rights of the oppressed castes, but soon found himself being accorded several other crucial talks, most renowned of which was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, for which he was awarded honorary doctorates from two universities. Ambedkar’s project of anti-caste struggle was thus, tied to the larger idea of creating a modern, post-colonial Democratic Republic with rights secured for all its citizens. 

This monumental speech clearly articulates the basic principles which were the guiding light for Ambedkar himself and the Assembly as a whole. The three keywords, “Liberty”, “Equality” and “Fraternity” date back to the French Revolution, a people’s movement that gave the world the first modern Democratic Republic. The three principles can never be taken simply in isolation as individual ideas, but as a holistic totality. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity give each other meaning and orientation, suggests Ambedkar, and no republic can be fully democratic if it forgoes any one of the principles in a manic pursuit of another. Speaking of which, no republic can truly be democratic if it simply keeps these principles to the realms of political democracy alone.

Ambedkar explains that political democracy wouldn’t amount to much by itself, and a true republic will also inculcate the ideas of an economic democracy and a social democracy. As the first Law Minister of India, Ambedkar brought in many remarkable reforms to foster economic and social democracy, the labour reforms, maternity rights and the Hindu Code being some of them. The constitutional values ever remained the north star for him, as he expected would remain for the future generations of leaders. This brings us to his final important message in the speech. 

The Constitution of India remains one of the most brilliantly crafted documents pertaining to the human values and governance of the nation, which has the strength to hold together and run this vast and diverse country. However, it is but a rulebook, and a rulebook doesn’t have much if the elected leaders fail at being good custodians of it.

India was able to secure for itself a democratic republic, but the preservation of democracy is not a job for one generation alone. Every generation is required to fight, so that democracy may flourish. It is the duty of every generation to protect the institutions from undemocratic forces, understand the ever-changing needs of the society and change the policies accordingly.

Ambedkar urges with much hope that the constitution will protect, as long as its values are protected.

By Vishwas Tanwar, 5th Year B.A. LL.B (Hons.), Faculty of Law, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara