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Ambedkar's 'United States of India'

15/04/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A man inspects a locket with an image of Bhimrao Ambedkar for sale on Ambedkar's 124th birth anniversary near the historic Chaitya Bhoomi memorial in Mumbai on April 14, 2015. Ambedkar known as the messiah of the Dalits and one of the key authors of India's constitution, fought for equal rights for the low-caste during and after British colonial rule, which ended in 1947. Dalits, once known as 'untouchables,' is the term used for those on the lowest rung of India's rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. In recent years things have started to change with the government taking steps to improve the livelihood of the Dalits by improving education and creating job opportunities. AFP PHOTO/ Indranil MUKHERJEE (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

Hidden in the annals of India's Constituent Assembly is Ambedkar's real vision for India's Constitution. He labelled it 'United States of India'. His outline of the proposal was formally submitted to one of the Assembly's sub-committees. However, his draft was not selected for discussion. Ambedkar's ideas would have altered the character of the final Constitution, and changed India's destiny. This doesn't mean that all of them were great ideas, but some would have been definite improvements.

[Ambedkar] had publicly derided the parliamentary system as wholly unsuitable for Indian conditions.

Ambedkar submitted his proposal for the United States of India seven months before he began work as chairman of the Constitution's Drafting Committee. At the time he was only a member of the sub-committee on Fundamental Rights. In its first meeting on 27 February, 1947, the sub-committee asked members to submit their ideas in writing. Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar advised his colleagues to "take the United States as their model for the protection of the basic rights of the citizens." Ambedkar, Sir Alladi, K.M. Munshi, and Harnam Singh sent in their memos. But in the crucial meeting on 24 March, when a draft was to be selected to form the basis of subcommittee's work, Ambedkar was absent. Munshi's draft was picked and the others' ideas fell by the wayside.

The United States of India (USI) plan that Ambedkar proposed was in line with his longstanding opposition to the parliamentary form of government. He had publicly derided the parliamentary system as wholly unsuitable for Indian conditions. What he proposed for the USI was similar in many ways to America's presidential system. It was a genuine federation. Its executive had a fixed term. All its executive officials were elected, albeit indirectly by the whole legislature, but not picked by the majority party. Judicial power was vested in a totally independent Supreme Court. And the list of fundamental rights was similar to America's Bill of Rights. Even Ambedkar's language was reminiscent of America's Declaration of Independence: "the British type of Executive will be full of menace to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the minorities," he wrote.

"[T]he British type of Executive will be full of menace to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the minorities," he wrote.

Ambedkar's chief emphasis was on executive power. Its structure was crucial, he argued, not just for safeguarding minorities but also for providing stability in government. "It is clear," he noted, "that if the British system was copied it would result in permanently vesting executive power in a communal majority." As for stability, Ambedkar said, "the chances are very slender" that the British Cabinet system will produce a stable government in India. "In view of the clashes of castes and creeds there is bound to be a plethora of parties and groups... if this happens it is possible, nay certain, that under the system of parliamentary executive... India may suffer from instability." These were the reasons USI "takes the American form of executive as a model," Ambedkar noted.

This was not the first time Ambedkar had denounced the British parliamentary system. In 1945 in a speech on India's fundamental problems, he had declared that "majority rule is untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice." He had outlined the principles on which India's government should be based: an "Executive power assumes far greater importance than the Legislative power"; "the Executive should cease to be a Committee of the majority party"; and "the Executive should be non-Parliamentary in the sense that it shall not be removable."

He declared that [British rule] was better than having a majority-only government of the parliamentary type.

Ambedkar decided that the parliamentary system was entirely unsuitable for India, not unlike Jinnah, when in 1937 Nehru refused to include any other party in the first Indian-only provincial governments. While Jinnah after that incident went in the direction of Pakistan, Ambedkar went to the extraordinary extent of preferring British rule over independence. He declared that it was better than having a majority-only government of the parliamentary type. He even took his suggestion to the British. In a secret report of a meeting, the British Viceroy recorded Ambedkar's strong opposition that "the parliamentary system would not do in India." "I asked him whether he would say that in public," the Viceroy wrote, "to which he replied that he would be perfectly ready to do so, with the utmost emphasis."

This insistence that the majority must share executive powers with minorities was the biggest reason the proposal for USI went nowhere. But this was not the only reason. Ambedkar had described an entirely socialist state, with structured fragmentation of society. "The United States of India shall declare as a part of the law of its Constitution," he wrote, "that key industries... shall be owned and run by the State"; that "agriculture shall be a State industry"; and that "insurance shall be a monopoly of the State." This was not all. He also suggested that "representatives of the minority in the Cabinet shall be elected by members of each minority community." And that "scheduled castes shall have minimum representation."

This insistence that the majority must share executive powers with minorities was the biggest reason the proposal for USI went nowhere.

These notions of separate electorates and reservations had already been rejected by the Indian people. Having separate electorates for Muslims had done the nation enough harm. And on reservations, the mood was toward building a merit-based system. An earlier proposal from Ambedkar for reservation in the legislature was rejected on political grounds. In 1945 he suggested that no community should be granted more than 40% representation in the nation's legislature. Rajendra Prasad rejected it immediately. He pointed out that "unless the Hindus and the Muslims combine they cannot form a government without the help of the Scheduled Castes but if any one of them combines with the Scheduled Castes it can establish its rule."

So the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Ambedkar's United States of India was rejected outright, along with his other good ideas, such as a non-parliamentary executive. Sharing powers and providing stability were both worthy aims.

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