Dr B.R. Ambedkars stature as an iconic figure in the Dalits struggle for equality has beclouded his formidable reputation as a constitutionalist of deep insights and a political thinker of keen realism. No one was a more consistent champion of linguistic provinces, the establishment of the State of Maharashtra out of the sprawling Bombay Presidency, which had Marathi-, Gujarati-, and Kannada-speaking areas, and of Mumbai as a capital of that State. Few foresaw the excesses that would be committed once States were carved up on a linguistic basis.
After Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Deputy, Vallabhbhai Patel, fought a determined rearguard action to stall the inevitable.
Since all their energies were devoted to this losing battle, they did not keep an alternative plan ready to fling in the face of the advocates of linguistic provinces once their demand was conceded. For instance, acceptance of existing boundaries as defined by the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, or acceptance as final the award of the boundary tribunal set up by the Act. The government set up no such tribunal. Political ineptness and judicial lethargy can make a mess of the best of institutions; witness the rakish careers of river disputes tribunals.
In 1927, 20 years before Independence, the Congress declared its commitment to the redistribution of provinces on a linguistic basis. It had set up its Provincial Congress Committees on this basis since 1920. The resolve was reaffirmed in October 1937, July 1938, and in the election manifesto of 1945-46.
The demand was voiced by Pattabhi Sitaramayya in August 1948. Granville Austin has traced carefully how the movement picked up speed thereafter. (The Indian Constitution; Oxford University Press, 1966; pages 2410-2420). The President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, set up the Linguistic Provinces Commission on June 17, 1948, with an undistinguished composition S.K. Dar, a retired Judge of the Allahabad High Court; J.N. Lal, a lawyer; and Panna Lall, a retired Indian Civil Service officer. Predictably, its report dated December 10, 1948, recommended that linguistic reorganisation of provinces is not in the larger interests of the Indian nation.
A week later, the Congress annual session at Jaipur set up the JVP committee on this matter comprising Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Congress president Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Its report, dated April 1, 1949, was drafted by the Congress tireless and enthusiastic draftsman, Nehru (S. Gopal; Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography; Volume 2, page 257).
The JVP report contained a perceptive analysis of the situation. Two of its sentences reflect the committees own difficulties as well as the dilemma racking India. We feel that the present is not an opportune moment for the formation of new provinces. Yet, the members also believed that if public sentiment is insistent and overwhelming, we, as democrats, have to submit to it, but subject to certain limitations in regard to the good of India as a whole. The supporters of linguistic provinces knew a half-open door when they saw one. They publicly welcomed the JVP report and continued to press their claims.
Even to the naked eye, the river of linguistic frenzy was in spate. The top leadership imagined it could deal with the floods. It took no precaution against the ravages of the floods if their attempts should fail, a failure that was all but inevitable.
K.M. Munshi submitted a Note as an Associate member of the Dar Commission (Linguistic Provinces and the Future of Bombay; The National Information & Publications Ltd. Bombay, 1948). His warnings received scant attention because his ire was in the main directed at the movement for Maharashtra, which demanded Bombay (as it then was) as its capital. Munshi, a Gujarati, was an outstandingly able lawyer. He argued that Bombay, a cosmopolitan city, should not be allowed to be a capital of a State formed on the linguistic basis. He and others like him did not realise that their stand would be regarded as an aspersion on Maharashtrians, who were prepared then to offer appropriate safeguards if their demand for Bombay was accepted. The offer was ignored. It was never renewed.
Understandably, Munshis warnings against linguism fell on deaf ears. His stand on Bombay was altogether wrong, but his warnings have become relevant. By the very logic of its formative principle, it has all the characteristics of an intolerant nationalism. All other linguistic groups within the particular language area are to be treated as aliens. Such nationalism, in the words of Professor Frederick Schuman, implies friendship with the members of the in-group and hostility towards members of all out-groups. The in-group is the focus of all social life.... Stranger is usually enemy and foreign cultures are strange and hostile.
The political ambition of a linguistic group can only be satisfied by the exclusion and discrimination of other linguistic groups within the area. No safeguards and no fundamental rights can save them from the subtle psychological exclusion which linguism implies. In such a case, in Macartneys words, the rule of the majority, exercised, most often, under the title of democracy, is a true tyranny.
In the recent propaganda for United Maharashtra, for instance, from exciting speeches, articles full of intoxicating slogans, clever allurements, sinister intimidations to gigantic posters and symbols, all means generally associated with militant nationalism have been utilised for rousing emotions and hypnotising the masses. It is incorrect to say that linguism will not become a rival to nationalism. The idea of linguistic redistribution, writes Professor Beni Prasad, awakens separatist tendencies in very small groups on the basis of dialects. It can be followed up only at the risk of atomising the country. It weakens the will to reciprocal adjustments among groups who do not differ radically from one another and who can easily learn to live in amity. In this case, it is the people who have learnt to live in amity, for over a century and more, that are sought to be divided (pages 8-10).
If Munshis credentials were suspect, Ambedkars were beyond suspicion. He also submitted a Memorandum to the Dar Commission, dated October 14, 1948, which made a formidable case for linguistic provinces, specifically for Maharashtra with Bombay as its capital. This makes his warnings and the safeguards he recommended all the more relevant. While accepting the principle of Linguistic Provinces it must provide against the break-up of Indias unity. My solution of the problem therefore is that, while accepting the demand for the re-constitution of Provinces on linguistic basis, the Constitution should provide that the official language of every Province shall be the same as the official language of the Central government. It is only on that footing that I am prepared to accept the demand for Linguistic Provinces.
I am aware of the fact that my suggestion runs counter to the conception of Linguistic Provinces which is in vogue. It is that the language of the Province shall be its official language. I have no objection to Linguistic Provinces. But I have the strongest objection to the language of the Province being made its official language where it happens to be different from the official language of the Centre.
The out-and-out advocates of Linguistic Provinces would no doubt protest that they have no intention of converting the Provinces into separate nations. Their bona fides need not be doubted. At the same time, it often happens that things do take a shape which their authors never intended. It is therefore absolutely necessary to take from the very beginning every step to prevent things taking an evil shape in course of time. There is therefore nothing wrong if the loosening of the ties in one direction is accompanied by their being tightened up in another direction. We must not allow the Provincial language to become its official language even if it was natural that the Provincial language should be the official language of the Province (emphasis added, throughout).
Mark his amplification of this theme. There is no danger in creating Linguistic Provinces. Danger lies in creating Linguistic Provinces with the language of each Province as its official language. The latter would lead to the creation of Provincial nationalities. For the use of the Provincial language as official language would lead Provincial cultures to be isolated, crystallised, hardened and solidified. It would be fatal to allow this to happen. To allow this is to allow the Provinces to become independent nations, separate in everything, and thus open the road to the ruination of United India. In Linguistic Provinces without the language of the Province being made its official language the Provincial culture would remain fluid with a channel open for give and take. Under no circumstances, we must allow the Linguistic Provinces to make their Provincial language their official languages.
The imposition of an All-India official language on a Linguistic Province which may happen to be different from the language of the Province cannot come in the way of maintaining Provincial culture. Official language will be used only in the field occupied by government. The non-official field or what may be the purely cultural field will still remain open to the Provincial language to play its part.
Five years later, Ambedkar wrote an article in The Time of India of April 23, 1953. It was aptly entitled Need for Checks and Balances. He wrote: My main point is that a linguistic State must be viable. This is the first consideration in the creation of a linguistic State. The second consideration is to note what is likely to happen within a linguistic State. Unfortunately no student has devoted himself to a demographic survey of the population of India. We only know from our census reports how many are Hindus, how many are Muslims, how many Jews, how many Christians and how many untouchables. Except for the knowledge we get as to how many religions there are, this information is of no value. What we want to know is the distribution of castes in different linguistic areas. On this we have very little information. I dont think it would be contradicted if it is said that the caste set-up within the linguistic area is generally such that it contains one or two major castes large in number and a few minor castes living in subordinate dependence on the major castes.
His warning of dire things to happen has come true: The third problem which calls for consideration is whether the creation of linguistic States should take the form of consolidation of the people speaking one language into one State. Should all Maharashtrians be collected together into one Maharashtra State? Should all Andhra areas be put into one Andhra State? This question of consolidation does not merely relate to new units. It relates also to the existing linguistic provinces such as U.P., Bihar and West Bengal. Why should all Hindi-speaking people be consolidated into one State as has happened in U.P.? Those who ask for consolidation must be asked whether they want to go to war against other States. If consideration creates a separate consciousness we will have in course of time an India very much like what it was after the break-up of Maurya Empire. Is destiny moving us towards it? This does not mean that there is no case for linguistic provinces. What it means is that there must be definite checks and balances to see that a communal majority does not abuse its power under the garb of a linguistic State.
The report of the States Reorganisation Commission provoked Ambedkar to write a detailed essay despite his illness. Entitled Thoughts on Linguistic States, it ran over 60 pages with statistical tables and maps. His Preface dated November 23, 1955, freely acknowledged a certain shift from his previous position. He explained: To a critic who is a hostile and malicious person and who wants to make capital out of my inconsistencies my reply is straight. Emerson has said that consistency is the virtue of an ass and I dont wish to make an ass of myself. No thinking human being can be tied down to a view once expressed in the name of consistency. More important than consistency is responsibility. A responsible person must learn to unlearn what he has learned. A responsible person must have the courage to rethink and change his thoughts. Of course there must be good and sufficient reason for unlearning what he has learned and for recasting his thoughts. There can be no finality in thinking.
As uninhibited was the expression of his revulsion at the violent methods of agitation deployed by advocates of linguistic provinces. The formation of Linguistic States, although essential, cannot be decided by any sort of hooliganism. Nor must it be solved in a manner that will serve party interest. It must be solved by cold-blooded reasoning. This is what I have done and this is what I appeal to my readers to do. Ambedkar reiterated his views on one official language in India. He made two interesting revelations which deserve to be recalled. One read thus: It may now not be a breach of a secret if I revealed to the public what happened in the Congress Party meeting when the Draft Constitution of India was being considered, on the issue of adopting Hindi as the National language. There was no article which proved more controversial than Article 115 which deals with the question. No article produced more opposition. No article, more heat. After a prolonged discussion when the question was put, the vote was 78 against 78. The tie could not be resolved. After a long time when the question was put to the Party meeting the result was 77 against 78 for Hindi. Hindi won the place as a national language by one vote. I am stating these facts from my personal knowledge. As Chairman of the Drafting Committee I had naturally entry to the Congress Party enclosure.
Ambedkar was, however, prone to make sweeping generalisations at times. There is a vast difference between the North and the South. The North is conservative. The South is progressive. The North is superstitious, the South is rational. The South is educationally forward, the North is educationally backward. The culture of the South is modern. The culture of the North is ancient. Did not Prime Minister Nehru on the 15th of August 1947 sit at the Yajna performed by the Brahmins of Benares to celebrate the event of a Brahmin becoming the first Prime Minister of free and independent India and wear the Raja Danda given to him by these Brahmins and drink the water of the Ganges brought by them?
The other disclosure is far more startling. C. Rajagopalachari, better known as Rajaji, had, in a press statement issued on November 26, 1955, said, If it is impossible to put the States Reorganisation Schemes in cold storage for the next 15 years, the only alternative is for the Centre to govern India as a unitary State and deal with district officers and district boards directly, with regional Commissioners supervision. It would be utterly wrong to fritter away national energy in dispute over boundaries and divisions conceived in the drawing room and not on the background of conditions that have resulted historically.
Apart from the general convictions of mine, I feel that a large southern State is absolutely essential for preserving the political significance of that part of the country. To cut the South up into Tamil, Malayalam, and other small States will result only in complete insignificance of everybody and, in the net result, India as a whole will be the power.
Commenting on this, Ambedkar wrote Mr. Rajagopalachari has not expressed himself fully. He did so fully and openly to me when he was the Head of the State and I was the Law Minister in charge of drafting the Constitution. I went to Mr. Rajagopalachari for my usual interview which was the practice of the day. At one such interview Mr. Rajagopalachari, referring to the sort of constitution which the Constituent Assembly was making, said to me, You are committing a great mistake. One federation for the whole of India with equal representation for all areas will not work. In such a federation the Prime Minister and President of India will always be from the Hindi speaking area. You should have two Federations, one Federation of the North and one Federation of the South and a Confederation of the North and the South with three subjects for the Confederation to legislate upon and equal representation for both the federations.
These are the real thoughts of Mr. Rajagopalachari. They came to me as a revelation coming as they did from the innermost heart of a Congressman. I now regard Mr. Rajagopalachari as a prophet predicting the break-up of India into the North and the South. We must do everything to falsify Mr. Rajagopalacharis prophecy. That has been accomplished by Indian nationalism.
Ambedkar proceeded to advocate Division of the Northern States, one by one Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the last into four States A Maharashtra City State (Bombay), Western, Central and Eastern Maharashtra. The Maharashtrians need have no fear of losing Bombay. Nobody can dispossess Maharashtra of Bombay. Much less can there be any ouster of them by anybody. The real objection to the creation of Bombay as a separate State arises from the fact that the name Bombay does not carry within it the sense that it is part of Maharashtra. It is to remove this objection that I propose that the new State of Bombay should be renamed by another name which will carry on its face the word Maharashtra.
Supposing in terms of the suggestion instead of saying that Bombay be made a separate State it is said that Maharashtra be divided into four States (1) Maharashtra City State (which is Bombay City) (2) Western Maharashtra, (3) Central Maharashtra (4) Eastern Maharashtra; What objection can there be to the creation of a separate State of Bombay?
Ambedkar did not lose sight of the problem of minorities while discussing linguistic States. As the area of the State increases the proportion of the minority to the majority decreases and the position of the minority becomes precarious and the opportunities for the majority to practise tyranny over the minority become greater. The States must, therefore, be small. The minorities must be given protection to prevent the tyranny of the majority. To do this the Constitution must be amended and the provisions must be made for a system of plural member constituencies (two or three) with cumulative voting.
A lot has changed in the 55 years since Ambedkar expressed his thoughts on linguistic provinces. The situation has changed significantly. He was prone to sweeping generalisations. Yet, it is impossible to read his writings on this subject without being struck by his deep insight into the state of our complex and multicultural polity. In ways more than one, the Shiv Sena has vindicated Dr B.R. Ambedkar.