India today suffers from deep, painful fractures along class, caste, religious, gender and ethnic lines. Under the BJP government led by Narendra Modi, these apparently intractable schisms have intensified. Yet, there is a person who, though long gone, seems to embody hopes for a broadly amicable existence. No, it is not Mohandas K Gandhi, the undisputed father of the nation. Rather, it is Bhimrao R Ambedkar who was born in colonial India in 1891 and died in 1956.
His statutes and portraits, huge and small, stand in the parliament and across the land. An airport, colleges, streets and museums bear his name. More memorial sites are under construction. Coins and stamps with his likeness circulate. He is linked to songs, flags, greetings and activist groups. His life story and writings feature in the media. Scholars analyze them extensively. April 14, his day of birth, is a national holiday marked with fanfare in New Delhi and beyond. The President, Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, state officials, senior politicians from all parties, leaders of religious communities, famed media and movie stars pay homage to this eminent icon. On that day, Ambedkar photos, statuettes, ornaments and pamphlets are fast selling items. His memory unites Dalits and Brahmins; Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims; feminists and male chauvinists; rightists and socialists; slum dwellers and tycoons; workers and managers; farmers and landlords. Clasping both hands, all bow in a worshipful style at his garlanded, saintly image. MK Gandhi is Mahatma (Great Soul), BR Ambedkar is Babasaheb (Respected Father).
Who was this man, who now garners accolades from left stalwarts like Arundhati Roy, Muslim women and students protesting BJP’s draconian laws as well as from the far right Hindutva nationalists?
An academic, economist, journal editor and lawyer, BR Ambedkar earned doctoral degrees in economics from Columbia University and London School of Economics, and was a member of the Bar in the UK. An erudite scholar and author of books and papers on subjects ranging from economics, law, social affairs, politics to religion, he also mastered nine languages. It was a rare, impressive feat, particularly under the onerous constraints of the British raj.
But what makes it stunning is that he was from a low caste, poor Dalit (Harijan,untouchable, outcaste) family and had experienced abominable bigotry and abuse in childhood and work life. In primary school, he and other Dalit pupils sat outside the classroom on their own sack cloths. And when teaching in a college, despite his superior academic qualifications, fellow professors would not drink water from the jug he used. He was thus propelled to fight for caste justice and join the fight for freedom in India from his early days. Combining erudition, eloquence and charisma with sound reflection, he soon became an active captain and senior theoretician in the anti-colonial struggle. Seen by the Dalits as their main leader, he mobilized thousands in actions to bring their concerns to the fore. His secular, social-democratic outlook allied him to Jawaharlal Nehru, later the first prime minister of India. He was the chief drafter of the Constitution of the Republic of India and served for four years in Nehru’s first cabinet as the Minister of Law and Justice.
What distinguished Ambedkar from most Indian leaders was his firmly expressed stand that the struggle for freedom from external domination had to be waged concurrently with efforts to combat internal oppression. Accordingly, he stridently promoted the rights of the underprivileged strata in society, the Dalits and women. While there is general agreement about this aspect of political philosophy, much controversy on the essence of his outlook prevails: Was he a socialist or a liberal democrat? Did he espouse a secular philosophy or one with a spiritual essence?
Naturally, his views evolved over time. It is my view that upon developing a deep critique of capitalism and the caste system, he ultimately stood for an egalitarian, socialist system. In his framework, the main means of production and finance would be under state ownership; the exploitative Zamindar system would be abolished and land redistributed. Central planning and collective farming would direct the economy. Private enterprise would function but within the confines set by the state sector and policy. And the hitherto discriminated sections of society would get special dispensation in education and employment.
At the same time, he favoured a parliamentary political system based on liberal democratic ideals. There would be no official religion but religious freedom would be protected. Privileges acquired via birth, rank, religion or race must be abolished. But he clearly distanced himself from Marxism. His stand, akin to the British socialists of the Fabian mould, was largely in line with Nehru’s vision for India. Many progressive leaders of anti-colonial parties in Africa and Asia held similar views.
AMBDEKAR ON CASTE
Mohandas K Gandhi, the main leader of the freedom struggle in India, was also a champion of the Dalits. Besides speaking, petitioning and marching, he went on four fasts to protect their rights. But BR Ambedkar did not see eye to eye with Gandhi on the issue. Positing that the social and economic status of the Dalits in India was akin to that of the African Americans in the US, he demanded fundamental measures to tackle discrimination based on caste. While supporting Gandhian proposals such as unhindered access to temples and drinking water for the Dalits, he felt that they remained within the ambit of a rigid, religiously enshrined order. In 1933, he inquired of Gandhi:
Why do you restrict the movement to the removal of Untouchability only? Why not do away with the caste system altogether? If there is a difference between caste and Untouchability, is it not one only of degree?
Calling for the complete annihilation of the caste system, Ambedkar said that what Gandhi was doing would have limited impact. One of the actions he led was to burn thousands of copies of a classic Hindu religious text that codifies the caste system.
Gandhi’s first fast on the Dalit question occurred in conjunction with the proposal by the British to institute a separate voting process and reserved seats in provincial councils for the Dalits. It was supported by Ambedkar and Dalit leaders. But Gandhi felt that it would undermine national unity and impede the drive for independence. The fast worked. Offered some compromises, Ambedkar reluctantly relented and the British authorities removed the relevant clause from the law.
Commentators from left to right shades of political opinion cite this fast as a case of Gandhi’s lukewarm support for the Dalit people. In my opinion, that was not the case. The British, who had no special regard for the Dalits, were simply pursuing their time honoured, invidious policy of divide and rule. Earlier, by granting special vote and seats to Muslims, they institutionalized the Hindu Muslim divide in India. Now they were taking a step further and drawing Dalits within their divisive net.
In the UK, common democratic rights prevail. But for its colonies, democracy had a different meaning. In Tanzania, the British established a racialized allocation of seats in the legislative assembly. But it was rightly opposed by the main nationalist party under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. By taking the stand he did, Gandhi not only upheld democratic principles but also was prescient. The move would only institutionalize the subordinate status of the Dalits and continue to relegate them to the bottom rungs of the society.
While Gandhi took a sounder stand on the voting issue, Ambedkar’s criticism of his overall approach to the Dalit question, as the post-Independence history demonstrates, was undoubtedly valid and to the point.
Frustrated by the pace at which Nehru’s government tackled the Dalit (and women) question, he resigned from the cabinet to search for other options. On one point, he was clear: So long as Hinduism, the dominant religion, endorsed caste separation and remained a major political force, there was little hope for the Dalits within the Hindu fold. Standing not only for the separation of church and state, but also the separation of politics and religion, he declared:
If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy….
While Ambedkar sympathized with the portrait of a communist society painted by Karl Marx, he sought to change society through constitutional means. Tactics of revolution and class struggle did not feature in his political recipe. Looking at the USSR, he felt that secular socialism may provide equality but would fall short on liberty. He was distrustful of the Indian socialist parties. Once he berated a socialist audience by saying that he had read more books by Marx than any one of them.
Quite a while back, he had embarked on what became a decades-long reflective venture into diverse religions and philosophies. As Mihir Shah has observed:
Ambedkar tested every big and small, old and new religion available to Indians, trawled through the texts and tenets of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians and indeed made himself an entire career as a scholar of comparative religions alongside his enormously busy public life as a mass leader, a politician and a scholar.
He attended Buddhist conferences and met Buddhists from many nations. At the end, his questlanded him firmly within the embrace of Buddhism, a belief system he had been attracted to from a young age. He felt that the original teachings of the Buddha were based on the principles of compassion and social egalitarianism. It was an emancipatory path not just for the individual but for the community as well. Yet, he did not accept the creed, rites, customs and organization of any extant Buddhist school. He saw that many Buddhist traditions had been coopted to provide justification for greed, power and violence.
After establishing the Buddhist Society of India in 1955, he and Savita, his wife, converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony in Nagpur conducted by a Buddhist monk. It was the prelude to an unprecedented event. For, on the same occasion, half a million of his mostly Dalit supporters also took the traditional Buddhist vows. Two days on, he oversaw the conversion of 300,000 more Indians to Buddhism. A few months on, the Indian Buddhist community had a million new members, a pace of religious conversion rarely seen in history.
Not only that, he actually found a new Buddhist denomination that was consistent with his secular egalitarian outlook. Called Navayana Buddhism (or neo-Buddhism), he framed it to be in line with the original, unblemished philosophy of the Buddha. His last book, The Buddha and His Dhamma, is now read as a scriptural text by the followers of Navayana Buddhism.
Ambedkar also consulted and made plans to found the Republican Party of India that would embrace socialist principles and champion the cause of Dalits, women and the underprivileged. But when the party was established in 1958, he was not around, having passed away from complications of diabetes in 1957.
It is difficult to critically encapsulate the ideas, accomplishments and legacy of Ambedkar—polymath, statesmen, activist—in a short article. It has thus not covered his role as a champion of women’s rights in India. Below I sum up his role in relation to the intertwined issues of caste, class and religion.
Dalit Politics: Neoliberalism has intensified economic inequality and barely dented extreme poverty. Accordingly, the social and economic conditions of Dalits, a fifth of the population of India, remain precarious. The BJP government has offered more public service jobs, free supply of cooking gas and construction of toilets in Dalit and minority areas. But such corruption tainted programs have had mixed results. And the upsurge of fundamentalist Hindu political entities, notably the RSS and BJP, has witnessed a rise in violent, discriminatory acts against Dalits. Cow-based violence directed at Dalits and their local leaders has gone up, and many Dalit women have been sexually assaulted.
Dalits constitute a key voting bloc, and Dalit parties are major players in key state-wide elections. Mired in political jockeying, thuggery and crony capitalism just like the major political parties, their charismatic but corrupt leaders have amassed much wealth, and are more bent on retaining their hold on their constituents than anything else. Currying favor with those in power is a time-honoured practice. These parties do not have much in common with Ambedkar’s egalitarian, humanistic vision and are at ease within the ambit of the neoliberal system. Despite their grandiose claims, they have done little to advance the status and conditions of Dalit people.
Securing the Dalit vote is a key concern for the BJP. It is an underlying factor behind the grand official events held to celebrate Ambedkar as one of the founding fathers of the nation. Prime Minister Modi and other BJP and RSS luminaries have showered him with glowing praise. They declare that the ideas of Ambedkar and other Dalit champions like JG Phule resonate with the Hindutva doctrine. Pointing to select events like a meeting between the Ambedkar and senior RSS luminaries during colonial rule, they say that the RSS has always stood for Dalit rights. N Modi has even encouraged his party members to spend two nights in a Dalit home.
These are but stratagems to reverse the tide of slackening support from the Dalits caused by the surge of anti-Dalit violence. Dalits participation in RSS training camps has also been declining. Thus when you see Home Minister and BJP President Amit A Shah—for whom Muslims are `termites’ and `infiltrators’ who should be dumped into the Bay of Bengal—in a solemn prayer-like stance in front of Ambedkar’s image, you see political duplicity attaining Himalayan heights. In the process, Ambedkar’s trenchant critique of Hinduism, his negative verdict on turning India into a religious state and his enlightened multiculturalism are censored from the RSS version of history.
All ruling parties in India have deepened economic inequality, compromised on democratic norms, and at best taken baby steps to address the plight of the poor, marginalized Dalits. Ambedkar espoused a socialist, democratic and multicultural system for India. He aimed to annihilate the caste system, not just tinker with it. His basic ideas are as much of value today as they were in the past. Yet the respect he garners from the varied social sectors is a superficial appearance of unity. It actually masks deep socio-political divisions. Each sector adopts Ambedkar essentially to claim that he stood for what it stands for, and not what its opponents stand for. For the RSS bigots, Ambedkar belongs within the Hindutva fold while for the anti-Modi student protestors, he embodies the politics of tolerance and inclusion.