Tuesday, August 23, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Ambedkar's way & Anna Hazare's methods


August 23, 2011
Ambedkar's way & Anna Hazare's methods
Sukhadeo Thorat

Following Dr. Ambedkar's example, Team Anna should use constitutional
methods and enhance people's faith in them. Otherwise it will convey
the message that only coercive and unconstitutional methods work.

A group of people, with placards showing Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, staged a
demonstration in Delhi a few days ago against Anna Hazare's proposals
on the Lokpal and the methods used by his team. More often than not,
Dalits look with suspicion on any attempt to tamper with the
Constitution. Team Anna has, however, suggested that its Lokpal bill
would benefit Dalits more than anyone else. This led me to look at Dr.
Ambedkar's position as compared to the mode of agitation being
deployed by Anna Hazare and his team.

In his last, visionary speech after the submission of the drafted
Constitution on November 25, 1949, Dr. Ambedkar warned of three
possible dangers to the new-born democracy. These related to social
and economic inequalities, the use of unconstitutional methods, and

Dr. Ambedkar first pointed to the contradiction between equality in
politics in the form of one-person-one-vote and the inequalities in
social and economic life. He argued that for political democracy to
succeed, it needed to be founded on the tissues and fibres of social
and economic equality. He warned that we must remove this
contradiction at the earliest possible moment, or else those who
suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political
democracy. Although we in India are trying hard to reduce the vast
inequalities that exist, the working of political democracy is already
under heavy stress due to discontent in some parts of country.

Dr. Ambedkar's second, and more important, warning in the present
context related to the methods to achieve social and economic
objectives. He urged the people to abandon bloody as well as coercive
methods to bring about change. This means abandoning methods of civil
disobedience, non-cooperation, coercive forms of satyagraha and fast.
Referring to the use of these methods during the British period, Dr.
Ambedkar observed: "When there was no way left for the constitutional
methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a
great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods." But using
them since that period, in his view, was "nothing less than the
Grammar of Anarchy." He advocated that "the sooner they are abandoned,
the better for us as a nation."

Dr. Ambedkar's third warning related to "hero worship." He was
immensely concerned over the political culture of "laying down the
liberties at the feet of great men or to trust them with powers which
enable them to subvert their institutions." He believed that there is
nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered
life-long services to the country. But there are limits to
gratefulness. No man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, and no
nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far
more necessary in the case of the people of India than in the case of
any other country, for in India, bhakti, or what may be called the
path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in politics, unequalled
in magnitude to the part it plays in the politics of any other country
in the world, argued Dr. Ambedkar. He went on to add that bhakti or
hero-worship in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul,
but in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation
and to eventual dictatorship.

These views of Dr. Ambedkar also evolved through a much deeper
commitment to constitutional methods and their use in the
anti-untouchability movement during the 1920s and the 1930s. The 1920s
and the 1930s saw a series of agitations led by Dr. Ambedkar to get
public wells, tanks and Hindu temples opened to "untouchables." In the
present context, recalling two such incidents is very relevant,
namely, the agitation for access to a water tank in Mahad, and for
entry into the famous Kalaram temple in Nasik. In both cases, Dr.
Ambedkar was up against violent high-caste Hindus, with the British
sitting on the fence.

Dr. Ambedkar started the Mahad agitation in 1927, but the
"untouchables" got access to the tank only in 1937 through a court
order. The people of the high castes had managed a court order to ban
the entry of "untouchables" into the tank on the grounds that it was a
private tank. Dr. Ambedkar accepted the court order and discontinued a
second march to the tank. But he fought through the courts and got
justice in 1937, almost after 10 years. He did this using legal
instruments and a peaceful mass movement, without the coercive means
of fasts and hunger strikes.

Similarly, the agitation for entry into the Kalaram temple went on for
four years, from 1930 to 1934. He discontinued the agitation in 1934
following opposition by priests, notwithstanding the support extended
by Gandhiji. But he fought a legal battle, along with a peaceful
agitation, for the next four years, and in 1939 ultimately secured
entry to the temple for "untouchables."

During the 1920s and the 1930s, Dr. Ambedkar combined mass
mobilisation with legal methods in the anti-untouchability movement,
but never allowed unconstitutional and coercive methods to take hold,
despite instances of violent attack on "untouchables." Once he came
face to face with Gandhiji with the latter's fast-unto-death and he
had to compromise on the demand for a separate electorate with what is
the present-day political reservation. Coercive means forced him to
surrender the demand for a separate electorate, the consequences of
which are visible today.

Team Anna should realise that the Indian Constitution provides ample
opportunities for advocacy, through discussion and lobbying with
parliamentary Standing Committees, Groups of Ministers, the Ministers
concerned, the Prime Minister, courts, and above all through a
peaceful agitation. With several political parties on their side, the
possibility of reaching a middle ground is high. Experience with
constitutional means shows that civil society activists, through their
constant struggles, have persuaded the two successive United
Progressive Alliance governments to acknowledge several basic rights
and convert these into laws. The right to employment through the
Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the
right to information, rights under the Forest Act, the right to
education, and now the right to food, are some of the revolutionary
measures that civil society has been able to accomplish through
constitutional methods. It is an opportunity for Team Anna to use
constitutional methods and enhance the faith of people in these;
otherwise Team Anna will convey the message that only coercive and
unconstitutional methods work.

As Dr. Ambedkar observed, due to certain aspects of Indian culture our
people are highly vulnerable to hero-worship. How a yoga teacher could
convert yoga devotees into religious devotees and finally into
political supporters within a few years' time is a classic example of
what hero-worship and bhakti can do. Another religious preacher has
threatened that he would use his religious followers for political end
which he thinks does not require discussion with them as they follow
him in whatever he tells them to do.

Anna and his team should recognise that for a new democracy like ours,
which is operating within the framework of undemocratic relations
based on the caste system, constitutional methods and social morality
need to be cultivated and promoted with a purpose. The Lokpal Bill is
too important a piece of legislation to be passed under threat and
unreasonable deadlines. All its aspects need to be discussed with
extreme care and with consensus among all sections. Dalits have begun
to express concern about its implications for them. In a society where
the anti-caste spirit and prejudices are present in abundance, they
feel that given its proposed wide-ranging powers, it may be misused.

The Commissioner for Scheduled Castes reported about 11,469 complaints
by Dalit government employees during the period from 2004 to 2010 that
were linked to caste prejudice. Several thousand more complaints under
the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes
(Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, such as giving "false or
frivolous information to any public servant and thereby cause such
public servant to use his lawful power to the injury or annoyance of
member of SC/ST" are waiting for justice. Therefore, Dalits have begun
to seek safeguards against the complaints emanating from caste
prejudices in the Lokpal Bill. I think the government has rightly
brought the bill for an open discussion before the Standing Committee
that comprises MPs from all parties, so that the Bill is discussed by
all sections in a peaceful milieu and not under duress and force.

Anna Hazare knows that the road to social change is a difficult one.
He helped Dalits in a number of ways, including by repaying loans
taken by Dalits with contributions from villagers. Yet he could not
bring about fraternity between them — Dalits continue to stay in
segregated localities in his village. Corruption, like untouchability,
is deeply embedded in the social fabric of our society. Therefore,
besides legislation its eradication requires changes through education
and moral regeneration.

(Sukhadeo Thorat is Professor of Economics, Centre for the Study of
Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University. E-mail:


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