Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Messiah and the Testament - Nani Palkhiwala

-Nani Palkhivala

In the year of Dr B R Ambedkar’s centenary, the Supreme Court of India finds itself with the unenviable and monumental task of redefining the rights of the socially backward classes with reference to the Mandal commiission report. Nani Palkhivala pays a tribute to the country’s greatest visionary. Accompanying this are his submissions before the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the Mandal report.
Edwin Markham’s poignant words about the brutalised toiler serve to sum up the condition of the Indian untouchable:
by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Though this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world,
A protest that is also prophecy.”

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born on 14th April 1891 and died on 6th December, 1956. He was an architect of consummate skill and fidelity who, between 1947 and 1950, designed the structure which “has been reared for immortality, if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title.”
When Beverley Nichols visited India in 1945, he took the opportunity of meeting most of the great figures in Indian public life; and he described Dr Ambedkar as “one of the six brains in India.”
The country owes Dr Ambedkar an immeasurable debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. He strove single-mindedly to bring about the social integration of India, just as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel brought about its political integration.
The most impressionable years of Dr Ambedkar’s life were spent as an untouchable Mahar in conditions tantamount to slavery without society recognizing even its obligation to feed the slave. For the untouchables the harshness of life was so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.
Those were bitter memories; but Dr Ambedkar laid them down when India had a rebirth. It was India’s good fortune that Dr Ambedkar became the chairman of the Drafting Committee of Free India’s Republican Constitution. He presided over the group-- the galaxy of talent-- who conceived for the new republic a fundamental law dedicated to justice and liberty; to equality of status and opportunity; and to fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation. Chief Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan (whose centenary was celebrated two years ago) rightly called it “our sublime Constitution.”
Dr Ambedkar was too big a man to harbour any thought of vengeance or vendetta, ill-will or revenge towards those who had been exploiting casteism since time immemorial. He gave India a Constitution which guarantees equality to all as its basic feature, and ensures a truly egalitarian society where no class would be unprivileged, underprivileged or privileged on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, dissent, place of birth or residence.
While Mahatma Gandhi called the untouchables “Harijans”-- children of God-- Dr Ambedkar was convinced that such soothing nomenclature meant nothing. He asked the people not to forget that “whitewashing does not save a dilapidated house. You must pull it down and build anew.” He firmly believed in annihilation of the caste system, and wanted to rid our society of this canker. He drew a sharp distinction “between social reform in the sense of reforms of the Hindu family, and social reform in the sense of the reorganisation and reconstruction of the Hindu society. The former has relation to widow remarriage, child marriage, etc., while the latter related to the abolition of caste.”
Dr Ambedkar’s philosophy was that self-respect and human dignity were of paramount importance in a free republic. As he told his followers two years before his death, “Ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality.”
He had an unshakable faith in guaranteed Fundamental Rights. He said in the Constituent Assembly, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man.., has become part and parcel of our mental make-up... These principles have become the salient, immaculate premise of our outlook.”
Democracy and freedom are not synonymous. Adult franchise may merely amount to the right to choose your tyrants. In Lord Hailsham’s words, you may have “Elective Dictatorship.” Hence the conviction shared by several countries about the sovereign virtue of having a Bill of Rights in the Constitution which would guarantee basic human freedom. Even in England, where freedom is bred in the bones of the people, eminent judges like Lord Devlin, Lord Gardiner, Lord Hail- sham, Lord Salmon and Lord Scar- man have advocated the incorporation of a Bill of Rights in British law.
The very purpose of a Bill of Rights is to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty and equality, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.
To Dr. Ambedkar the unit of society was the individual, never the caste or the village. He wholly disbelieved in the glib claptrap about the glories of the Panchayat Raj and observed: “...these village republics have been the ruination of India. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as the unit.”
Dr Ambedkar’s great vision enjoined the abolition of casteism in every shape and form, since he was opposed to all divisive forces and aimed at strengthening the impulse of national integration. The ideals of fraternity and equality were the cement with which he wanted to bind together a totally cohesive nation.
The highest tribute we can pay Dr Ambedkar on his centennial is to redouble our efforts to preserve the Constitution which endures as a lasting monument to the man who was one of the noblest sons of India.
It is not a fortuitous accident, but a coincidence, of deep symbolic significance, that the Supreme Court has been called upon to decide, in the centenary year of Dr Ambedkar’s birth, the validity of the Mandal Commission report in the context of the sanctity of the Constitution.
Courtsey: The Illustrated Weekly of India February 23-24, 1991.

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