Relevance of Ambedkar

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Dr B.R. Ambedkar. No other national figure in Indian politics in the 20th century matched his scholarly orientation. Photo: The Hindu Archives

From Editor’s Column in the April 27, 1991, issue, assessing Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s role in Indian politics, in his birth centenary year. By N. Ram

In the centenary year of his birth, Babasaheb Ambedkar stands taller than he ever did beforehis role in the struggle for a modern, new India gaining steadily in weight, stature and centrality at the expense of various other outstanding national figures who were contemporaries and opponents in the great battles of the freedom movement era. This is essentially because the deep-seated and central problems spotlighted by his life, struggles, studies and experimentation in ideas remain alive and kicking while the big socio-political questions he raised about the state, well-being and future of India remain basically unanswered.

He was born Bhimrao on April 14, 1891, at Mhow in Central India in an austere and religious Mahar family with a military service background and considerable respect for education. In school (Satara and Bombay), college (Bombay), service under the Maharaja of Baroda (briefly in 1913 and again between July and November 1917) and study abroad (Columbia University, the London School of Economics, Gray’s Inn, the University of Bonn), he displayed a scholarly orientation, a commitment to the life of the mind and trained intellectual gifts that no other national figure in Indian politics could match over this century.

He benefited from opportunities which had just opened up, which none in his family (or, for that matter, in the recorded history of his people) had access to over the centuries; yet every one of his academic, intellectual and professional achievements was hard earned, in social battle, against entrenched oppression, discrimination and anti-human prejudice. By the time he was finished with his formal studies in the early 1920s, Dr Ambedkar had acquired qualifications that surpassed the M.A., Ph.D., M.Sc. (Econ), D.Sc. (Econ), Barrister-at-law he had added, by right, to his name and title; the young man had been through a real life educational experience which most people (including the most renowned scholars) do not manage to acquire in a lifetime.

There may be various opinions on the formidable range of issues and controversies in which Dr Ambedkar figured as a protagonist over 40 years of his public life—which can be said to have begun with the sharp and insightful paper on “The Castes in India, Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” which he did for Dr Goldenweiser’s anthropology seminar in New York in May 1916. He was a searchingly honest, challenging, analytical eclectic liberal thinker who was attracted to utilitarianism (and eventually to Buddhism) in philosophy and to the ideals of the French Revolution as much as to the socially forward-looking and humanistic elements and values in Indian culture and civilisation over the millennia.

He delved into the Marxist classics… but was not persuaded either by the revolutionary theory or the practice. He was emphatically opposed to Gandhism and to the Congress ideology, although on some social issues he shared common points with Jawaharlal Nehru—who badly let down his Minister of Law on the Hindu Code Bill in the early 1950s. Right from his early days, Ambedkar made a mark as a restless and courageous experimenter who, obviously, did not always get it right in the matter of trade-offs (and did not claim to). He fell in love with ideas as a socially oppressed and humiliated schoolboy who refused to be taken for a ride by anyone, including Baroda’s royalty. Throughout his life (which ended on December 6, 1956, a couple of months after he publicly embraced Buddhism along with his followers), he was interested in the big picture. But the boy who was socially barred from playing cricket with his schoolmates in Satara (by the curse of untouchability) never took his eye off the ball. He concentrated in his public life on attainable, practical goals and never became too big to go into specifics, details, doubts, books, the problems of ordinary people, especially the lowliest of the low in Indian society.

What is absolutely clear in this centenary year is that Dr Ambedkar represented, in the truly national sense, the profound side of the socio-political struggle which formed an irrepressible part of the nationalist movement, although it was not often understood (by conservatism and orthodoxy in politics) to be such. Politically moderate, he tended towards radicalism and uncompromising struggle in the social arena in which he generalled many battles. His lifelong concern with religion, morality and justice in the idealistic sense was marked by a restlessly serious attempt to get the intellectual, social and political measure of these things. He did not believe in class analysis, but intuitively and intellectually grasped the link between caste and class in India.

Ideologically, Dr Ambedkar occupied the “centre”, frequently the space right of centre, but at times he moved sharply the other way, to the radical side. This happened especially when his ideas, campaigns and political organisational work were backed by powerful mass movements (in the “radical” second half of the 1930s, for example, during the 1938 workers’ struggle in Bombay against the anti-strike Bill). He was the builder of the Independent Labour Party, which did not take off in an all-India sense, but yielded some valuable political, ideological and organisational lessons to the Opposition round the nation. Despite his chairmanship of the Constitution Draft Committee in the Constituent Assembly and his stint in the Union Ministry under Nehru, Dr Ambedkar can be considered as a founder of non-Congressism and anti-Congressism in Indian politics.

Even while championing social egalitarianism and popular liberties and criticising the sway of big business and landlordism, campaigning for social and economic democracy, he remained a conscious ideological and political adversary of Marxism and Communism—for the basic reason that he found them challenging in the same way he found Buddhism inspiring. He had a number of interesting things to say about tricky national problems—Kashmir, language, nationhood, citizenship, ethnicity and so on—and his analysis lit up the field for a proper democratic understanding of federalism and Centre-State relations in India. On international questions and foreign policy, his approach was that of a centrist-conservative dissenting from non-alignment and from the Nehruvian (not to mention radical) world view. The social and class basis of the following he commanded; the non-philanthropic, non-petitioning nature of his social questioning; his passion for social justice (going well beyond Gandhiji’s compromising vision so far as the ancien regime and the oppressed sections were concerned) and democratic liberties; his openness to modern, scientific and rational ideas, his unyielding secularism and progressive views on a number of questions, especially on the condition and future of women and on what it took to make a civil society; his great intellectual gifts and wide-ranging interests; his ability to concentrate on attainable, practical goals and his constructive sense of realism—these marked him out as a unique kind of leader.

The recent period of socio-political development in India has seen a blossoming of Hindutva and a majority chauvinist ideological and political offensive which can only be classified as extremist in relation to national unity. At this juncture, Dr Ambedkar’s fearless analysis of the caste system, of chaturvarnya, of notions of pollution, of unalterable or rigid social hierarchy and so forth, and of the implications of the hegemony of the shastras must be read, re-read and made part of a national debate. His major theoretical exposition of such questions is contained in a 1936 presidential address which stirred up a hornet’s nest, the radical “Annihilation of Caste”. This ideological offering to the building of a new India must be ranked on a par with his signal and justly celebrated contribution to the making of a Republican Constitution.

In this work, Dr Ambedkar emphasised the anti-social, anti-progress character of an unjust social order as well as its vital connection, through networks of force and ideology, with political power. The caste system, in his analysis, militated against fraternity, “sanghatan and cooperation for a good cause”, public charity and broad-based virtue and morality. “Chaturvarnya must fail for the very reason for which Plato’s Republic must fail,” warned the seriously read intellectual as social rebel. He pointed out that “the lower classes of Hindus” were “completely disabled for direct action on account of a wretched system”. He asserted: “There cannot be a more degrading system of social organisation. It is the system which deadens, paralyses and cripples the people from helpful activity.” He attempted to follow through the implications of this system in the political sphere. To him the real remedy was “to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the shastras” and their caste-borne tyranny.

One battle in which social orthodoxy and opportunist politics allied to defeat progress was the instructive fight over the Hindu Code Bill in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The leading author of the Constitution led the effort to institute a reasonably forward-looking and egalitarian Hindu Code law (especially from the standpoint of women), but it was sabotaged by orthodox elements. The Congress party, despite Nehru’s claim to rationality and progressivism, refused to support the Bill.

His solid contribution to institution-building apart, he had a great deal to say about democracy as a real way of life and about citizens’ rights, about authoritarianism and also about a healthy democratic political system. He detested hereditary, dynastic rule and a one-party system. “To have popular government run by a single party is to let democracy become a mere form for despotism to play its parts from behind it,” is a typical Ambedkar formulation. He warned: “Despotism does not cease to be despotism because it is elective. The real guarantee against despotism is to confront it with the possibility of its dethronement, of its being laid low, of its being superseded by a rival party.” Dr Ambedkar clearly had little use for political stability premised on a single party’s rule, or on a social philosophy of “letting sleeping dogs lie”.

Two other political principles which he focussed on have been honoured in their systematic and cynical violation over the years. Do not lay liberties at the feet of a great man; in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation. Make political democracy a social democracy; resolve the contradictions, else they will undermine, or blow up, democracy itself. Over a historic century, the many-sided achievement of Dr Ambedkar inspires awe.

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