Constitutionalism’s survival in a mass disobedience movement

Ambedkar criticized the non-cooperation movement as it meant refusal to obey rules and the persons in authority which is against constitutionalism. I partially agree with his anti-revolutionary tone of criticizing the non-cooperation movement.

When we talk about civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and Satyagraha as illegitimate movements, we must acknowledge that these movements occurred when there existed no contract between the Indians and Britishers to stick to a particular constitution. Indians had never accepted the British as their rightful government and were fighting to end their rule. The people were not tied by any contract of legitimacy and were governed by different world views. Post-independence, a democratic government was established. Indians had given their implied agreement to the government and the constitution. The constitution accommodated the interest of all the communities and provided procedures to end any disagreements. It gave people the right to protest but no right to civil disobedience or non-cooperation.

Disagreement is indispensable and is the cause of a revolutionary movement. In the pre-independence scenario, the disagreement is about the ‘governance,’ which led the people to disobey the whole order. In the post-independence situation, few people may dislike the government, but they cannot question their very presence in the system as the government has been elected after following procedures laid down by the law. Although, there can be disagreement about specific laws and policies decided by the government. It is impossible to eliminate all the disagreements. If every citizen breaks a law to showcase disagreement, it can shackle the foundations of the constitution. This is the outlook of persons in authority. They perceive ‘disobedience’ as invoking other persons to break the law in the slightest of disagreement and demonstrating that every person stands above the legal system.

Ambedkar had this similar view, and he criticized Gandhian methods of protest due to two reasons: Firstly, when the response to a protest is not based upon thoughtful agreements or disagreements, but on anxiety about the health of the public at large, the movement ends up being about saving a representative’s lives and not about the proper way of representing the oppressed people.[1] Secondly, constitutionalism provides that a real adjudication of an issue should not be shaped by identities, or anxieties but should be resolved on merits by following a proper procedure laid down by the law. Instead of disobeying laws, disagreement must be solved using these procedures.[2]  

The other side of the story would be of the citizens. When they become conscious of the fact that the democratic process has developed a fault, the citizens(the recipients of orders) transform themselves into self-legislators. These citizens choose the path of insubordination to support themselves and others who were treated as insignificant and were denied a say in the arrangements that influenced them. Disobedience is nowhere near undermining the system instead, it helps in strengthening it. However, this ideology would be correct only during British rule. The advantage of this kind of protest is that it not only shows a disagreement with the law but also with the government and its governance. People were tired of tyrannic British rule and needed freedom. British were the self-proclaimed rulers and had not come into power through a lawful procedure. When a major part of society disagrees with the governance style and does not recognize the government as THEIR own government, disobeying the law becomes an effective way of showing disapproval. In such a case, it is hard to believe that people were disregarding constitutionalism as the Indians as a whole never agreed to abide by the constitution. When there existed no constitutionalism, a civil disobedience movement can cause no harm to constitutionalism. In fact, such a movement can only establish the constitution or improve its structure. Hence, I disagree with Ambedkar that Gandhian methods of protest should have been never employed.

Our agreement or disagreement with Ambedkar is embedded in our perception about constitutionalism. According to us, society plays a vital role in shaping constitutionalism. If the society agrees to specific laws and a particular government, only then constitutionalism can take a proper form. Currently, most people in India have accepted the constitution as their rule book. They might not be satisfied by the outcomes but would agree on the procedure as they have consented to the supremacy of the constitution. They might dislike a government but, since a proper voting procedure has been followed during elections, they may have to live with their disagreements. In such a case, the minority community which disagrees with the government cannot start to disobey laws. This is because they have chosen to abide by the constitutional procedures.

If anybody who does not agree with the ‘outcome’ starts to disobey the laws, then there would not be a single person who would obey the law. Disobedience due to a disagreement pertaining to a specific law or policy can disturb constitutionalism. People cannot take the law in their hands whenever they feel right, as this would mean that they never committed themselves to the legal system, and there existed no constitutionalism. While constitutionalism can withstand mass protests, it cannot bear mass disobedience of laws. We may demonstrate our disagreement through constitutional methods of protest and appeal to the government or the courts. As long as there exists a legitimately formed constitution, ‘mass disobedience’ will remain illegitimate.

I agree with Ambedkar that in recent times, mass disobedience would not be a constitutional way of protesting as movements would not end by real adjudication of the matter. But, during the pre-independence period, mass disobedience was the only way to adjudge the situation. Hence, the ‘personification of power’ in one person that is Gandhi, was also required as the British constitution lacked the power and ability to manage such a large movement. Ambedkar used ‘personification’ as a negative connotation to criticise Gandhi. While I find ‘personification’ as the driving factor in absence of a stable constitution. If the outcomes do not unite people, then at least the constitutional procedures unite them. A sense of unity forms the basis of constitutionalism. This sense of unity never came from the British India Constitution. The feeling of oneness came because the masses agreed with Gandhi. Hence, ‘personification’ acted as a substitute for the artificial constitution at the place during British rule and helped to establish legitimate governance.


[1] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, What is constitutional morality? (WE THE PEOPLE, 2010).

[2] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, What is constitutional morality? (WE THE PEOPLE, 2010).

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

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