Vigilante justice and its celebration: Time to recall Ambedkar's ‘Grammar of Anarchy’ speech

This is surely not the first or the last of the fake encounters (extra-judicial killing) in our country. Are people, including the police, losing faith in constitutional methods so earnestly championed by Dr. Ambedkar? What would he have said, had he been alive today?

Ajit Ranade Apr 20, 2023
Atiq Ahmed and brother(Photo: Youtube)

Last week we celebrated the birth anniversary of Dr. B R Ambedkar, an occasion to discover and rediscover a giant of modern India. His incredible life itself was his message. With the passage of time, his words ring true. One of his most prophetic speeches was the last one he delivered to the Constituent Assembly, when the final draft of the Constitution was adopted. He delivered that speech on 25 November 1949 exactly two months before India became a republic.  This is a speech that must be read by every school child. It is also commonly known as the “Grammar of Anarchy” speech.  If India got freedom on 15 August 1947, then it can be said that we got “responsibility” on January 26, 1950. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin of nationhood.

As Dr. Ambedkar says in the concluding part of the speech, “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. If hereafter’ things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame. Except ourselves.”  In the same speech he envisaged three potent dangers to India’s nascent democracy. The first is the tendency to hero worship or build personality cults in politics. He said, “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

The second danger he warned about, was the incompatibility of political equality with rising social and economic inequality. He advocated a social democracy, which “means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the (basic) principles”.  The danger he warned was that if something wasn’t done to address rising inequality, then those very people who were deprived and oppressed would blow up the magnificent edifice (of democracy) that the founders had so painstakingly built. His warning came almost twenty years before the first instance of ultra-left Naxal violence. It has taken another two decades for the State to recognise it as not merely a law-and-order problem, but one of lack of equitable socio-economic development as well.  

The third danger that Dr. Ambedkar spoke of was the need to protect the sanctity of constitutional methods. We must abandon the methods of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. This is nothing but the rejection of law and order. He might as well have added extra-constitutional methods like mob lynching and vigilante justice. These methods are nothing but the “Grammar of Anarchy”.  If people adopt these methods, then it would be a failure of not just the Constitution, but the State as well. The working of Constitution needs the working of the organs of the State, i.e. the judiciary, the legislature and the executive.  But how those organs will work will in turn depend on the people and political parties.

Impunity of UP killings

Four years ago, on December 6, 2019, the death anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar, there was the extra-judicial killing of four men accused in a horrific gang rape and murder of a 26-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad.  The encounter killings earned the cheers of many people across the nation, including union ministers, leaders of the opposition, celebrities, and even sports stars. The police were showered with petals of gratitude for having done “justice” to the victim. They became instant heroes in the eyes of a grateful nation. Apparently, the police fired in self-defense. The public jubilation and thirst for instant justice point to a complete loss of faith in the process of law and judiciary. Three years later, a Commission appointed by the Supreme Court headed by Justice V.S. Sirpurkar found that the police 'encounter' (exchange of fire) was a fake one. The Commission held that the police claim of firing in self-defense was “bizarre” and “unbelievable”. The Commission also found that two of those killed were juveniles at the time of their arrest and death, a fact that had been concealed by the police. 

This is surely not the first or the last of the fake encounters (extra-judicial killing) in our country. Are people, including the police, losing faith in constitutional methods so earnestly championed by Dr. Ambedkar? What would he have said, had he been alive today?

This past week too, around Ambedkar Jayanti (anniversary), there were two killings in Uttar Pradesh, and here too the police said they fired in self-defense. Two days later the gangster-turned-politician Atiq Ahmad and his brother Ashraf while in custody, and stepping handcuffed, out of a police vehicle, were killed by three assailants, thirsty for instant justice.  The killers were among the reporters and people gathering around the vehicle. Since the killing was on live television in the presence of reporters it is a new benchmark in impunity and disdain for due process. Asking for constitutional methods would be chided as naïve, if not anti-national.  After all a gangster was killed, what if handcuffed anyway. “Murder of law and order” said the editorial of a national daily. “Art of elimination…?” questioned another, Atiq Ahmad had recently petitioned the Supreme Court fearing for his life in police custody. 

There were more than a hundred criminal cases pending against Ahmad, ranging from kidnapping, extortion, attempt to murder and murder. He was also elected to Parliament once and the State Assembly five times. Having been an elected people’s representative did not save him from vigilante justice.

In such times, one must turn to films for insight. In the movie A Few Good Men, a decorated army colonel has ordered a violent extra-judicial punishment on a young cadet which leads to his death.  When facing trial for his vigilante action, he justifies his actions saying they were in the interest of national security, and expects to be treated as a national hero. He spits out these words to the lawyer questioning him - “you may find me grotesque” but my methods are necessary for society to function. Finally,  he is charged with murder, and the message is the supremacy of constitutional methods.  Surely Dr. Ambedkar would have approved of the ending of the movie. That is the kind of justice system we need to save us from sinking into anarchy, one that heeds the prophetic warning of Dr. Ambedkar.

(The writer is a noted economist and commentator. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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