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Home > Contents > Article: Achyut Chetan
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Ambedkar and the Constitution: Authoring a Sacred book
Achyut Chetan
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The birth of the Constitution: the Constituent Assembly as the neglected mid-wife?

Arun  KolatkarOne of the disturbing paradoxes about the Indian Constitution is that despite its size and heavy presence in the polity of post-Independence India the history of its framing has not received sufficient scholarly attention. ‘Not a great deal has been written on the founding of India’s Constitution,’ laments the author of a recent authoritative introduction to the subject.1 The paradox attains an ironical status when we remember that the Constitution was framed in times of profound historical and political turmoil. There is hardly any Constitution which was founded in the context of such spectacular and momentous events as the formal decolonization and partition of the subcontinent. Indeed, scholars have argued that the study of the founding moment has been neglected due to a narrow and specialized focus on these historical events. According to Sumit Sarkar Partition has marked a division of academic labour that fails to address the importance of the framing of the Constitution:

'One reason might be the defacto division of labour that has developed between Indian political scientists and historians. The former investigate post-Independence development; the latter with a remarkable timidity which they claim to be justified by difficulties of access to official archives, very seldom go beyond 1947.'2

Of late however, political scientists have taken the turn towards history and begun to address this neglect. It has been argued that ‘the Indian Constitution must be read in conjunction with the Constituent Assembly Debates,’ and it is only by doing so that ‘an informed and meaningful debate on the character and value of the Indian Constitution can be possible.3

This return to the Constituent Assembly, then, is still a turn toward the Constitution; it is not for a historical understanding of the founding moment but in the interest of the hermeneutics of the Constitution that such a demand is made. Thus interestingly, the issue of ‘authorship’ of the Constitution has received some attention, albeit in the context of negating it. ‘It is futile to attempt to uncover’, argues Nivedita Menon, ‘the ‘real’ meaning intended by the author’; for her the meaning of the texts lies embedded in a network of other porous texts and not their authors.4 She eschews a turn to the author because the authorial intention has little consequences for the present. Aditya Nigam goes to the extreme, claiming that the Constitution is a ‘text without an author’ produced not by historically circumstanced individuals but by the logic of the event.5 The entire thrust of contemporary hermeneutics of the Constitution, one can argue, is towards a dispossession of the authors of the Constitution. It is not difficult to trace the source of such critical trends: the turn towards post-structuralism’s disavowal of the role of the author. The author whose not-so-shadowy-presence can be felt behind these critical positions is Roland Barthes.

Arun  KolatkarRoland Barthes’ provocative essay ‘The Death of the Author’ seems to have been accepted by the academic community as the most authentic word on the relationship between the author, the reader and the text. What Jane Gallop calls the ‘slogan-effect’ of Barthes’ essay6 has perceptibly shaped contemporary Indian scholarship on the Constitution. There are hardly any mentions of the major players of the Constituent Assembly - Nehru, Prasad, Patel and Azad. It is my submission that the fall-out of such a position is that it has contributed to the neglect of the crucial historical process of the framing of the Constitution.

Fortunately, the authoritative account of the framing of India’s Constitution, Granville Austin’s The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, published two years before Barthes’s work, is untouched by the poststructuralist ethos of de-recognizing individual agency. Consequently it does not fight shy of identifying a band of individual influential members of the Constituent Assembly. Austin thought it necessary to provide brief biographical sketches of the ‘twenty-one most important figures’ in the Constituent Assembly and went on to recommend for later historians, ‘an entire work on the personal backgrounds’ of the framers.7 His advice however, went unheeded. Let alone the retrieval of authorial voices of the important members of the Constituent Assembly-for example the distinguished women framers—there is yet no satisfactory biographical textual reading of the contributions of B. R. Ambedkar, easily the most widely remembered and revered member of the group.

Ambedkar has been exalted as the figure of the ‘chief-architect’ and the ‘founder’ of the Constitution in the last few decades; statues depicting him as the father of the Constitution have been sanctioned as representing a version of constitutional history, yet the phenomenon has not been studied with any seriousness. The process of attribution of the authorship of the Constitution to him began as soon as the Constitution was adopted but scholarship has rarely engaged with it except under the need to defend him against denigrating and controversial claims such as those made by Arun Shourie in his book Worshipping False Gods.8

In this essay I shall attempt to provide a counter to this trendy post-structuralist position about the author-less Constitution by focusing on the theoretical sophistication evinced by BR Ambedkar on the relation between authorship, authority and sacred books in India. In so doing I hope to challenge two hackneyed, common-place but nevertheless vigorously circulated ideas about Ambedkar’s authoring of the Constitution and the ‘death of the author.’ I would look closely at the classic essays on the concept of the author, which seem to have caused confusion instead of clearing the conceptual field around Ambedkar’s role in the framing of the constitution.

Death and rebirth of the author: Barthes, Foucault, Austin and Hart

When Roland Barthes wrote the ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968), one of the most cited essays in literary theory, he was a professor of ‘the sociology of signs, symbols and representation.’ Despite the provocative title of the piece its predominant focus is on the sociological roots of the text-a ‘tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.’9 This has become an oft-quoted phrase. Barthes is suggesting that the text is not a historical product that emerged in and due to specific configurations of time. His is an inclusively synchronic view meant to contest the tyranny of history of which the author is an embodiment. Thus ‘there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.’10 Neither the writer nor the reader has a history: ‘the reader [and the author] is without history, biography.’11 The essay concludes by announcing that the ‘birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.’(12 It is important to note that when he speaks about the birth of the reader Barthes is not championing the individual, the citizen of liberal democracies who is free to produce meanings. The reader for Barthes implies ‘that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the text is constituted.’13 Thus there can be no liberal humanist championing of ‘readers’ rights’ in Barthes’ scheme, because that is nothing but a ‘hypocrisy’, an implant of an incompatible set of ideas in his synchronic structuralist work.

It hardly seems obvious that Barthes is actually claiming the ‘death of the author.’ In proposing to work towards the ‘birth of the reader’ he is also in effect making a move towards a redefinition of the author and citing multiple but closed rules for identifying the author. These rules, one can argue, have close affinity to the rules of recognition that H L A Hart claimed in his classic work of legal positivism The Concept of Law. 14Hart produced a theory of the impersonality of law, citing as its source no authoritative person, no sovereign but what his Oxford contemporary, the linguistic philosopher J L Austin called performatives-‘words that are used to do things’.15 Although it must be acknowledged that Barthes does not argue in Austinian terms and does not mention legal texts at all, he too uses Austin’s concept of ‘performatives’ to locate both the author and reader in one unified field, i.e. the text, the site where all the systems of signification converge. Thus for Barthes the ‘performative [is] a rare verbal form… in which the enunciation has no other content… than the act by which it is uttered.’16 Barthes condenses the entire network of relationships between author, reader and meaning into this ‘act’ which is nothing but another name for the text. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to draw extensive parallels between Barthes’s idea of the text and Hart’s legal positivism, some pertinent affinities between the ‘death of the author’ thesis and the elements of legal positivism need to be charted out for the purpose of this essay. Hart describes the phenomenon as the ‘open texture of law’;17 both consider the author and the reader not as external agents but embedded components of a textual system-law is an example of such a system. The dichotomy between the reader and the author is collapsed since they are both mere inscriptions of the same set of rules. The author and the reader are not related to each other as active-passive, written-read, text-commentary binaries but in a symmetrical mode of existence as embodiments of common sociological connection. Finally both confront the question of history by eschewing it altogether. History, in so far as it is required for an interpretation, is dissolved in the textuality of rules.

One year after Barthes’s declaration of the death of the author, in February 1969, Michel Foucault delivered a much longer and systematic lecture on the concept of the author titled ‘What is an Author’.18 Interestingly Foucault did not mention Barthes essay even once. The author according to Foucault was not a trace of history’s tyranny but a historical function in the semantic business of contemporary life. He devoted a major part of his lecture to examining the emergence of the concept of the author, its necessary evolution during the post-medieval rise of modern individualism, the historical contingencies that shaped its destiny and, above all, its epistemological functions. The author in Foucault’s definitions ‘is a certain functional principle by which in our culture limits, excludes and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and re-composition of fiction.19 Notice the stress Foucault puts on the ‘restricting’ functions of the author-it is to check the free circulation, manipulation and composition of the meanings of a text that an author is invented. Foucault does not make any extravagant declaration of the author’s death; instead he suggests that an author is necessary to understand the modes in which power and knowledge are related in a discourse. ‘The apparent unit suggested by the figure of the author’, Foucault points out ‘is the result of an operation’.20 This operation, described elaborately by Foucault, is not the same in the case of different authors. In Foucault’ scheme of things, there is a very definite possibility to talk about different authors in different contexts.

Thus we can see between Barthes and Foucault we have moved from an ahistorical figuration of the author to a historical production of the author. If some authors die, i.e. fail to circulate, it is due to the failure of these interpretative, institutional and, in the case of legal texts, the judicial operations. If others survive and flourish they are the final effect of such operations. Evidently the life of some authors is sustained at the cost of others. We shall now turn to the case of B R Ambedkar.


Ambedkar as author and the question of sacred authority

Upendra Baxi has identified seven figures which may be represented by the proper noun BR Ambedkar: ‘an authentic Dalit’, ‘an exemplar of scholarship’, ‘an activist journalist’, ‘a pre-Gandhian activist’, ‘the post-Poona Pact activist’, ‘the Constitutionalist’ and the ‘renunciator of Hinduism’.21

The first, and so far the primary, figure of Ambedkar is that of an authentic Dalit. There is the scholar extraordinaire, the great book-lover, the journalist and also Constitutionalist-Baxi resists calling him the Constitution–maker. However, Ambedkar makes no appearance in this catalogue as an author. One can, of course, say that Ambedkar’s output as a writer is nevertheless present in Baxi’s numerous nomenclatures since the function of the ‘author’ is implied in all these figures. Beginning with ‘Castes in India, their Origin, Mechanism and Development’-his 1916 presentation at the A.A Goldweisser’s anthropology seminar at the Columbia University and ending with his posthumous The Buddha and his Dhamma (1956), considered to be ‘one of the greatest works in twentieth century Buddhist writings’22, Ambedkar produced many articles, monographs, as well as books in fulfillment of the seven roles identified by Baxi. While attributing the authorship of the Constitution to Ambedkar may be a reductive interpretative position, the corrective to this stance must try not to reduce Ambedkar as the author only of the Constitution. Ambedkar’s writings have earned him-not quite accurately-the status of the ‘authentic Dalit’ and have imprisoned his nuanced historical and hermeneutic positions in a kind of canonized circularity. His works on the origins of untouchability have become official resource-book for the identity of the Dalits. His critiques of the so-called mainstream of Indian nationalism represented by Congress and Gandhi are seldom considered as offering an alternative history if Indian nationalism. G Aloysius describes this phenomenon as ‘part and parcel of the overall elite strategy to maintain the dominance of its ideology over knowledge-production and knowledge-circulation in this country.’ 23 While the history of the neglect of the range of his other writings certainly needs to be written, this essay will focus primarily on the conceptual category of the ‘author’ as it played out in his life, and more crucially in his ‘after-life.

I would like to begin by citing two important events to deconstruct the relevant trope of the author in the Ambedkar narrative. On 27 December 1927 in an act described by his biographer as ‘one of the greatest sacrilegious blows ever since the days of Luther,’ in Mahad, the ‘Wittenberg of India,’ Ambedkar denounced the Manusmriti and the Laws it contained by setting on fire the physical copies of the book.24 The second event was on the 25 November 1949, when Ambedkar was hailed in the Constituent Assembly as the ‘modern Manu’ and the Constitution was called the Law of the Mahar. The trajectory of Ambedkar’s association with Manu can thus be traced through an ironic curve.

More than ten years before that, at the Columbia Seminar, the twenty-five year old Ambedkar had grappled with the figure of Manu, the author of the famous Institutes in Barthesian-Foucauldian terms. In his presentation on the origins of the caste system in India, he had conceded that Manu the person was dead, ‘he could not have outlived his law’ and agreed that ‘my force is not strong enough to kill his ghost. He lives like a disembodied spirit and is appealed to and I am afraid will yet live long’. 25 Caste Ambedkar argued was not authored by him, ‘but existed long before Manu.’26

In Manu Ambedkar had identified the figure of the author the principle who is ‘appealed to,’-who outlives his biological life, circulates in the discourses and has acquired the status of the source ‘releasing a single theological meaning (the message of the author-God)’.27 Ambedkar does not agree that the caste-system-the semantic content of the text of the Dharma Shastras (Institutes) originated with Manu. He explicitly denounces the ‘great man theory’ of the origin of any discourse.28 Yet Ambedkar chooses the book to bury the author, in his own words, ‘to kill the ghost’. Ambedkar’s attack on the written book was meant to be an attack on Brahminical patriarchy-on the caste system in particular. However it would be a misinterpretation to consider his public gesture as merely symbolic. This metonymic association of the book with the figure of the author, in Ambedkar’s resistance movement acquires an entirely new meaning if we consider his acute awareness and sensitivity to the reader-author grid of power and knowledge of which Barthes and Foucault gave theoretical explanation. This was precisely because he was profoundly affected by his exclusion from the network. The clearest theoretical prescriptive expression of this brahminical politics of exclusion was in Manusmriti. To quote some representative injunctions:

‘A shudra is not fit for education…. and hence need not be taught.’ (Manu IV : 788-81).’The Vedas must never be read in presence of the shudras’ (IV:99); ‘If a shudra presumes to teach a Brahmin, the king shall have burning oil poured into his mouth and ears’ ( VIII:272).

To be sure, Ambedkar had thought Manu to be an ‘outrageously courageous man’ for having codified the exclusion of the shudras from this world of the text and its readers. The very sacredness of these texts was determined by the stringent, compulsory production of a mass of non-readers. Almost in a dramatic anticipation of the ‘birth of the reader at the cost of the death of the author’, in 1928, in his Memorandum to the Simon Commission, Ambedkar pleaded for the rights of the illiterate masses to vote. His argument was that it is a mistake to suppose that ‘literacy necessarily imparts a higher level of intelligence on knowledge that what the illiterate possesses.’29 Though the connections are obvious it would be too naïve and simplistic to super-impose a relation of symmetry between the untouchables and the illiterate. It is important to reiterate that on 26 January 1950, the mass of Indian illiterate comprised non-untouchables too. It is precisely this fact which needs to be stressed in rescuing Ambedkar from his identity as a Dalit leader to the exclusion of all others. Ambedkar’s conviction in the possibility of a community of resisting readers was grounded in this exclusion which had kept them out of the obligatory and limited role of the sanctioned readers.

Ambedkar was an activist well aware of the implication of books and their burning. Ambedkar’s fetish for books was legendary. He had bought more than two thousand books in New York City. In 1948, while at work in the Constituent Assembly, he had claimed that his books ‘are dearer to me than wife and children’.30 He would take personal interest in the design, layout and the production of his books. It has been shown that Ambedkar’s interest in the material of his books extended to issues of size, format, illustration and other aspects of book production.31 It is evident from his numerous remarks that he knew that the book always precedes its author-in a way all authors are hacks, hired to perform the drudgery of scripting the already extant text, to become the servant/agent of the other. ‘To write is to die’ is an oft repeated slogan on the ‘anti-authorialism of poststructuralism. To leave one’s trace even as one is dying is the writer’s challenge. The best expression for this is perhaps ‘lost in the midst of the text (not behind it, like a deus ex machina) there is always the other, the author.’32

Texts, for Ambedkar, were all vulgar, in the sense that they were all produced by people. Readers, of the sacred texts had gained a certain authority by attaching to their interpretations ‘a sense of a filial duty’33 towards their authors. Ambedkar firmly locates the production and interpretation of texts in a patriarchal grid and turns with optimism towards the readers who have been henceforth excluded from this grid.

Thus Ambedkar’s celebrated mention of the idea of ‘constitutional morality’ in his speeches in the Constitutent Assembly only foregrounds his skepticism regarding the ability to do any radical politics within this framework of literary and liberal rights. Constitutional morality, according to Ambedkar, was ‘a matter of habits of mind’34 and can only be fought by a resisting reader, a literal vulgarization of the already assumed sacred. It was no wonder that he thought that if need be he would burn the Constitutional text; he would probably not worry even if all his statues with the book were destroyed, as long as the author in the text can speak directly to the masses outside of the fold.

Phalanx SpacerPhalanx Spacer Notes/references:
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Madhav, Khosla, The Indian Constitution, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013) p176.

Sumit Sarkar, ‘Indian democracy: the historical inheritance’ in Atul Kohli, ed. The Success of India’s Democracy (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp 23-46, p 23.

Rajeev Bhargava, Introduction to Rajeev Bhargava ed. The Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp 1-40, p 5-6.

Nivedita Menon, ‘Citizenship and the Passive Revolution: Interpreting the First Amendment’ in Rajeev Bhargava ed. The Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp 189-210, p189-190.

Aditya Nigam, ‘A Text Without Author: Locating the Constituent Assembly as Event’ in Rajeev Bhargava ed. The Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp 119-139.

Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p 47

Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1966) p337

Arun Shourie, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts about Him (New Delhi: Harper India, 2012) and Christophe Jaffrelot, Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2011)

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Vincent Leitch ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: Norton, 2002), pp 1466-1470, p 1467.

Ibid. p 1468

Ibid. p 1470

Ibid. p 1471

Ibid. p 1469

See H L A Hart, The Concept of Law (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002; original 1961) especially the section of the elements of law, pp 91-99.

Editor’s note to J L Austin, ‘How to do things with Words’ in Vincent Leitch ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: Norton, 2002), p1567

Barthes, op.cit. p 1468. Emphasissupplied.

Hart, The Concept of Law, p 123-124.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ in James Faubion ed. Michel Foucault: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology (London: Penguin Books, 1994), pp 205-222.

Ibid., p 221.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, tr. A M Sheridan Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p 27.

Upendra Baxi, ‘Emancipation as Justice: Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar’s Legacy and Vision’ in Upendra Baxi and Bhikhu Parekh ed., Crisis and Change in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995), pp 122-149.

Editor’s Preface to B R Ambedkar, The Buddha and His Dhamma: A Critical Edition eds., A S Rathore and Ajay Verma, (New Delhi: Oxford UniversityPress, 2011). P vii.

Introduction to G. Aloysius ed. Ambedkar on Nation and Nationalism (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2009) p 3.

Dhananjay Keer, quoted by Baxi, op.cit., p 127

B R Ambedkar, ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ in Valerian Roderigues, ed. Selected Writings of BR Ambedkar (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp 241-262, p 254.

Ibid. p 255.

Roland Barthes, The Deathofthe Author, op.cit., p 1468.

Ambedkar, ‘Castes in India’, p 255.

Madhav, Khosla, The Indian Constitution, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013) p176.

B R Ambedkar, ‘Statement to the Indian Statutory Commission (Simon Commission)’ , 1928. In Valerian Roderigues ed. The EssentialWritings of B R Ambedkar (NewDelhi: Oxford University Press,2003) pp 65-74, p 70.

Gail Omvedt, Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (New Delhi: Penguin Viking, 2004) p 119

Editor’s Preface to B R Ambedkar, The Buddha and His Dhamma: A Critical Edition eds., A S Rathore and Ajay Verma, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011). P vii.

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, ( New York: Hill and Wang), p 41.

B R Ambedkar, The Annihilation of Caste in Rodrigues, pp 263-305,

B R Ambedkar, ‘Caste, Classand Democracy,’ p 241.

Achyut Chetan is an Assistant Professor of English at S P College Dumka, Jharkhand. He is about to complete his doctoral dissertation on the gender-politics of the framing of the Indian Constitution at the Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. He was on a Fulbright Fellowship at Columbia University, New York to work on his research.


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