Ambedkar's Legacy

Time to reinterpret his contribution

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Professor Bhalchandra Mungekar. Photo: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Interview with Professor Bhalchandra Munkegar, Rajya Sabha member.

AS various political parties and forums compete to celebrate B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, Bhalchandra Mungekar, a development economist and Rajya Sabha member, feels that all this does not do credit to the great man’s legacy. A former member of the Planning Commission and a former Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University, Mungekar feels that there are contradictions in the ideological ethos of the present National Democratic Alliance government’s overt and loud celebrations for Ambedkar. As the founder president of the Dr Ambedkar Institute of Social and Economic Change, Mungekar is among the leading commentators on Ambedkar’s social and political philosophy. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Of late, there has been a lot of rediscovering and reinterpreting of Ambedkar, with several political parties vying with one another to celebrate his 125th birth anniversary. What do you make of all this in terms of Ambedkar’s legacy?

This country will have to rediscover and reinterpret Babasaheb Ambedkar’s whole mission of life. Unfortunately, Indian society has not understood Dr Ambedkar’s immense contribution to the making of the modern Indian nation. Until it understands or tries to interpret his mission in the context of contemporary India’s various problems—economic, social, political cultural, and so on—it will be difficult to solve any basic problem. Dr Ambedkar’s approach to the making of the Indian nation has to be discussed and deliberated on three levels. First, the mission of his life which remained throughout his intellectual and political life; second, the strategies and the various programmes and projects that he adopted and tried to put into practice from time to time; and third, the relevance of his philosophy in the context and problems of contemporary India.

As far as his mission is concerned, it is recognised that abolition of the caste system and untouchability was the historical mission of his life. Time and again, he tried to convince Indian society that until caste is annihilated and untouchability is abolished in every form, this country will never be founded on the three principles of his life, that is, liberty, equality and fraternity. He said that he borrowed these principles not from the French Revolution but from his Master, the Buddha. From 1920 until 1956, he tried in every possible way and at every level to establish an egalitarian Indian social order free from caste-based inequalities, discrimination, destitution, deprivation and exploitation. Between 1920 and 1932, he took recourse to Satyagraha—the Chaudar tank satyagraha of Mahad in 1927 and the temple entry movement in 1931-32, which were basically directed towards the basic human rights of the untouchables.

He was not interested in worshipping at the temple nor was he eager to drink the water of the tank; he said that he was struggling to establish basic human rights for every citizen of his country. After 1932, when the famous Poona Pact was signed between him and Gandhiji and when Dr Ambedkar was forced to accept the joint electorate and reserved seats for untouchables in the Central and the provincial legislatures, he took recourse to the movement and political strategy to secure the political and economic rights of untouchables. In 1935, when the Government of India Act was passed and the first provincial elections were to be held in 1937, Dr Ambedkar established the Independent Labour Party [ILP]. While keeping the mission same, he changed the means and methods of securing his objectives from time to time depending on the political situation in the country. His strategy was consistent with the demands of the time.

The situation of Dalits remains far from satisfactory. Does this mean that his legacy has not been taken forward in the way it should have been?

He recognised that the problems of untouchables were political problems and that unless they, in contemporary terms called Dalits, were able to share political power it wouldn’t be possible for them to get justice. That is why he formed the ILP [and took part in] the elections in Maharashtra, Bombay State, where he contested seats on behalf of the ILP and it won 13 of the 15 seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes, six of which were the non-S.Cs. Dr Ambedkar’s politics was not restricted to the castes but he was trying to build a party of all the labouring classes, of all oppressed and exploited sections of Indian society. The freedom movement was in progress and transfer of power was imminent. In view of this, in 1946 Dr Ambedkar formed the All India Scheduled Caste Federation. He could not repeat the success of the 1937 election in the 1952 elections.

When the Constitution was being prepared, he gladly accepted the responsibility of joining the Constituent Assembly. When he lost his membership owing to the Partition in 1947, it was the Congress party that got him nominated to the Constituent Assembly. He was assigned the task of Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. The Constituent Assembly was dominated by the Congress party. Dr Ambedkar struggled hard to make provisions in the Constitution to secure economic, political and social justice for the deprived sections of societ, and in this task Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru greatly helped him. His efforts in drafting the Constitution were so fundamental that respectfully and legitimately he came to be recognised as the architect of the Indian Constitution.

Sixty-five years have passed since then; it would be absolutely cynical to say that the conditions of the ex-untouchables have not improved. Taking into account the centuries-old caste-based exploitation and humiliation—the result of the pervasive caste system—the progress made by Dalits against all odds must be appreciated. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that in several parts of the country, the practice of untouchability in one form or the other is rampant. Though the caste system is losing its hangover in the Indian social mind, it is far from being destroyed. Caste-based discrimination practically in all spheres continues unabated. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is not implemented by various State governments in letter and spirit. As a result of this, Dalits in rural areas are still becoming victims. The most infamous recent phenomena are the so-called honour killings. When Dr Ambedkar prepared his lecture “The Annihilation of Caste” in 1936, he said that inter-caste marriage was the only lasting solution to the abolition of the caste system. It is strange that instead of making efforts for annihilation of caste, we have shameful instances of honour killing. This situation is dangerous as caste has become one of the main instruments of identity politics and of mobilising people for acquiring political power by various political parties. Regretfully, not a single political party in this country can be exempted from this claim.

What do you make of the debate surrounding the words secular and socialist in the Constitution?

Dr Ambedkar wanted a genuine secular society. In 1976, the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution was enacted and it introduced two concepts into the Preamble, namely, socialist and secular. The Indian state always stood committed to the principle of secularism. Today, I think there is a threat to the very secular foundation of the Constitution. Indian society is inherently religious. The choice of an individual to practise and propagate a religious faith of his or her choice is under threat; in the last few months, particularly after the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] came to power, the entire Sangh Parivar considers the mandate the BJP government received in the May 2014 election as a mandate to establish a Hindu Rashtra. This is a travesty of truth. I must mention here that it would be absolutely erroneous, a blunder, to consider all Hindus communal. They are not. Even the 29 per cent of voters of the BJP should not be considered communal. This is for the simple reason that the BJP could not have come to power only with Hindu votes.

The peculiar phenomenon is that until now, because of Partition and its disastrous consequences, some sections have held Muslims alone responsible for all these. Communalists in both communities held their respective societies to ransom; now for the first time, Christians and their churches have come under attack. What is further agonising is that the communalists among Hindus are misusing Dr Ambedkar for their political ends. This is an injustice to his legacy. No social reformer, intellectual or political leader in the last hundred years so vehemently attacked the iniquitous caste-based Hindu social structure as he did.

In several places, he used the term “Hindu imperialism” and the best example of this is found in his polemical works such as Buddhist Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India; Untouchables: Who were they and how they became the Fourth Varna in Indo-Aryan society; Riddles in Hinduism, [which has as an appendix] “Riddles of Rama and Krishna”; and his magnum opus Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar demanded that before leaving India the British should provide measures to safeguard not only the rights of untouchables but also the rights of all minorities. In view of this, misusing Ambedkar to create animosity against Muslims and Christians, or any community for that matter, is doing him an injustice and, hence, unacceptable. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism precisely because it is a secular doctrine where there is no place whatsoever for caste-, religion- or gender-based discrimination. I also must mention the futile and unproductive efforts of the so-called Ambedkarites who claim to be taking his social and political legacy further. The Republican Party of India is so faction-ridden and disoriented that it does not hesitate to compromise Ambedkar’s political legacy for paltry and personal political gains.

Do you think Ambedkar’s economic, social and political philosophy is being undermined precisely by those who are celebrating his 125th anniversary?

In 1932, in his historic speech to the GIP [Great Indian Peninsula] Railway Workers at Manmad [Nashik district], he said that “capitalism and Brahmanism are the twin enemies of the labouring class”. He further added that he was opposed not to Brahmins as a caste but to their attitude of monopolising all sorts of power and considering all others inferior. He distinguished between Hinduism and Brahmanism, attacking the latter.

As far as his economic philosophy is concerned, that too is under threat. He believed in economic planning and nationalisation of land. The present government has abolished the Planning Commission, and land, the main source of livelihood in rural areas, is unequally distributed, causing an overwhelmingly large section of Dalits to become landless labourers. He believed in constitutional socialism. This could not materialise because of the dominant conservative sections in the Indian National Congress.

The more worrisome problem today facing the majority of Indians irrespective of caste, religion and region is the fact that health, education, sanitation, etc. are increasingly being privatised. If the present trend continues, all poor sections in the future will be deprived of access to health facilities and higher technical and professional education. I would say that his vision of a democratic, liberal, socialist and secular India is under threat. It is therefore imperative for all those who subscribe to his vision to join together and make the strongest possible efforts so that the Indian state becomes an instrument of establishing an egalitarian Indian social order.

One cannot prevent anybody from celebrating a great person’s birth anniversary. The question is, do those who celebrate accept the social, economic and political philosophy of that great man? The BJP is celebrating his birth anniversary. But does it really subscribe to the basic reforms in the Indian, particularly Hindu, social system? Will it carry on the mission for elimination of untouchability? Will it [conduct] a mass awareness [campaign] for abolition of the caste system, or will it accept the basic postulates of Buddhism, which Ambedkar embraced and which was dear to his mind and heart? If it does, that is welcome.

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