Monday, January 4, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Relevance of Ambedkar (N Ram)

Volume 27 - Issue 01 :: Jan. 02-15, 2010
from the publishers of THE HINDU • Contents


Relevance of Ambedkar


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

IN the centenary year of his birth, Babasaheb Ambedkar stands taller
than he ever did before – his 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

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 (claiming, during the historic
anti-khot mobilisation of peasants in Bombay in early 1938, that "I
have definitely read studiously more books on the Communist philosophy
than all Communist leaders here"), 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.

During Dr Ambedkar's lifetime, his many opponents and critics –
especially Congressmen – alleged from time to time that he had missed
the main strategic task or objective. Such criticism gained wide
currency, especially in the press which tended to patronise him as a
sort of sub-national leader, a sectional leader of the Scheduled
Castes rather than the towering and challenging national figure he was
in every objective sense. Unfortunately, some of the heroes of the
freedom struggle, social reactionaries themselves, completely missed
the point about how Dr Ambedkar's studious, tough-minded, powerful
social questioning and battles fitted into the overall picture; some
of them even questioned his patriotism and called him names, but who
remembers them today? Looking at this inspiring but contradictory
freedom movement experience in late-twentieth century light, we can
begin to appreciate why Dr Ambedkar was unerringly on target on social
questions and his critics and opponents dead wrong (even if they were
so for understandable reasons).

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. What is impressive is that the giant
whose moderately couched, constitutionally canalised socio-political
revolt we are observing retains a formidable constituency – in terms
of people, gut issues and social and moral dilemmas to be addressed by
a complicated nation which needs to find its way out of a host of

Aside from his collected works, there are some reasonably good
biographies, such as W.N. Kuber's Dr. Ambedkar: A Critical Study
(People's Publishing House, New Delhi, 1973) and B.R. Ambedkar in the
Builders of Modern India series (1978). Eleanor Zelliot's unpublished
PhD dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania (1969) and Gail
Omvedt's more recent studies on Dr Ambedkar and Dalit Labour
radicalism and protest movements do contribute useful insights. This
literature can be significantly improved upon if centenary celebration
resources are intelligently deployed in the relevant research and
study (as the Central government has promised).

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. When critics challenged him to
specify his "ideal society" in lieu of a caste-based order, he
replied: "My ideal would be a society based on liberty, equality and
fraternity." He specified that his ideal society would be mobile;
there would be "social endormosis"; there would be fraternity, which
was only another name for democracy; and democracy was primarily a
mode of associated living, of conjoining communicated experience and
breeding an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow human

"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.

It was no wonder that Gandhiji, a notable compromiser in such matters,
declared more than half a century ago: "Dr Ambedkar is a challenge to
Hinduism." He remains so today, which is why the votaries of Hindutva
and the forces which form part of the RSS constellation will not be
celebrating Ambedkar.

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. The abandonment of this progressive legislative
measure meant the betrayal of Dr Ambedkar's vision on such gut issues.

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 – as an individual of prodigious
intellectual, political and moral gifts and as a towering national
figure representing large forces of historical change in a process
that is painfully incomplete – inspires awe.


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