3 years


BR Ambedkar: Uses of an Icon

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Every party wants a slice of him six decades after his death. Ambedkar is bigger than the collective desperation of Ambedkarites

In the 65 years that he lived, BR Ambedkar had one constant feeling: being hounded. From the lowliest government functionaries—who would throw files at him because they could not afford his polluting touch—to independent India’s first Cabinet, where he was a barely tolerated member, the feeling of being— for the lack of a better word—outcaste never left him. This feeling was not the result of caste but one of ideas as well. From the kind of laws that India needed to the idea that democracy in India required constant inculcation, the man from Mhow was ahead of his times. It took India nearly 60 years after his death to recognise him as a modern builder of the country. In the interim period, he remained a Dalit icon.

That has changed, suddenly. On 26 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded Ambedkar handsomely. It was a fitting occasion. The task of crafting India’s Constitution was completed on that day 66 years ago. Next year marks the 125th anniversary of Ambedkar’s birth and a series of events and celebrations has been lined up. In the Lok Sabha, a special discussion was organised on commitment to the Constitution last week. In his second intervention on Ambedkar—on 1 December in the Rajya Sabha—Modi came closest to exploring the economic themes that were close to Ambedkar’s heart: the importance of economically vibrant cities in ending caste-discrimination and giving opportunities to Dalits; the necessity of industrialising the country; and importantly for this age, the looming resource constraints of India.

Other than that, the debate mirrored the concerns of a partisan age. It was also shrill. Initiating the debate in the Lok Sabha, Home Minister Rajnath Singh paid fulsome tribute to the moving spirit behind the Constitution but could not resist taking a swipe at the Congress: his comments on the inclusion of the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ sparked an outcry both within and outside Parliament. In her speech, opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, too, could not overcome partisan temptation and said, “But these ideals and principles that are embedded in our Constitution and that have inspired us for decades are now under assault. What we have witnessed these past few months particularly are a complete negation of what our Constitution stands for and guarantees. Those who have no faith in our Constitution or played no role in its framing are now trying to be its torch- bearers. Can there be any greater mockery than this?” If all this were not enough, the Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge said there would be a “bloodbath” if the Constitution was changed.

The contradictions in these claims and counterclaims are delicious even if they are somewhat ironic. The BJP’s claims to Ambedkar, as Gandhi pointed out, border on the specious. It is true that the party was nowhere on the scene when Ambedkar was around, but its forerunner— the Bharatiya Jan Sangh—certainly existed. Along with the party, the set of attitudes that marked resistance to Ambedkar, too, was strongly entrenched. But what the Congress said was disingenuous: the hounding out of Ambedkar from independent India’s first Cabinet took place under Nehru’s watch. The liberal Nehru did not stand up for his colleague against the pressures of his party men.

The truth is that Ambedkar had two rare combinations that made him stand apart from the ruck of the other leaders of his time. At one level, he combined realism with a forward looking approach, an unusual mix for any leader. This was closely linked to the second aspect of his personality, the one that fused the scholar with the politician.

At least three public policy issues that Ambedkar highlighted and which India accepted, somewhat grudgingly over time, make him contemporaneous even today, almost 60 years after his death.

The first issue, and for Ambdekar politically most expensive, was his championing of inheritance and property rights for women as early as 1948. These suggestions, only incompletely incorporated into the Hindu Code Bill— passed piecemeal in the mid-1950s as a series of laws—dealt with property rights for daughters and widows, their inheritance of family property on an equal footing with men and undoing various other legal infirmities that marred Indian family law at that time. The machinations in the Nehru Cabinet on the subject where parts of the Code that were expected to create political trouble were dropped and the less controversial bits—but ones that also were less significant socially—were taken up, disturbed the Law Minister greatly. In his resignation speech on 10 October 1951, he listed this matter as the one that disturbed him the most and the one that forced his hand. Ambedkar said, “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu Society, untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”

Ultimately, it has taken judicial decisions spread over almost four decades— the last one of import being delivered as late as last year—to slowly enshrine these rights for women. When Parliament debated Ambedkar’s Constitutional achievements and contributions last week, no Parliamentarian raised this matter or deliberated on it.

The second subject that he dealt with and one which continues to echo until this day is the matter of creating new states based on linguistic identity. Ambedkar’s fears—of consolidation in North India and balkanisation in the South—were laid out in a 1955 booklet, Thoughts on Linguistic States. It is still instructive to take a look at the maps published in the appendix of the booklet. Ambedkar’s proposal to handle the north-south divide has slowly been realised over time. He advocated a division of Bihar along a north-south axis, something that was achieved ultimately by the creation of Jharkhand in 2000; he advocated a division of Uttar Pradesh into three states. In 2011, the state legislative assembly passed a resolution favouring the division of UP into four states. Ambedkar made similar proposals with respect to Maharashtra and what was then called Madhya Bharat. All these ideas are finding fruition slowly.

The third issue on which Ambedkar stands out, one that is not appreciated fully, is his foreign policy realism. Much agony and much greater angst accompanied India’s Partition in 1947. Unlike his contemporaries who reacted emotionally to the subject, the writer of Thoughts on Pakistan (1941) took a cool, and for his times, exceptionally realistic look at the issue. The book (and its second edition, Pakistan or The Partition of India, 1945) makes for almost prophetic reading today. If Thoughts on Linguistic States pictures Ambedkar as a federalist, his book on Pakistan makes him appear an arch-centraliser. He was fully cognisant of the dangers of having a weak centre, something that would have been inevitable if Muslims of the Subcontinent had not been allowed to have a separate country. This danger came close to being realised in 1946 when the British Cabinet Mission issued a plan that envisaged an exceptionally weak centre—wholly at the mercy of states—and allowed provinces to form groups as they pleased. While Ambedkar was not involved closely with those negotiations, his 1941 book presaged the danger. India, as we know it today, would have been ungovernable.

Once again, this has the concurrence of recent scholarship. Venkat Dhulipala, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina has argued that ‘Ambedkar wanted Hindus to carefully decide whether it was in their interest to disallow Pakistan’s creation so that they could have a ‘safe border’ of their imagination, or to welcome its separation from India so as to have a ‘safe army’. Furthermore, Hindus needed to consider whether it was better to have these Musalmans ‘without and against or if they should be within and against’. For Ambedkar, the answer was clear as daylight’ (page 137, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, 2015).

What stands out in all this is Ambedkar’s presaging rational solutions to these problems much before they finally worked themselves out through the political system over six decades in India. Today, there will be few who question Pakistan’s right to exist; only its right to create trouble is countered. In this way of approaching and figuring problems, there is only one modern Indian politician who stands close to him: the Indian Governor General of India, C Rajagopalchari. Both men, unsurprisingly, appreciated each other very well; both fared badly in the rough and tumble of Indian politics.

Assessing Ambedkar’s legacy is best left to future historians. Ambedkar is India’s first technocrat. He could not win an election. He is like a modern politician who is necessary but who has to be brought in through the Rajya Sabha. In some sense you can see this as his legacy.

There is a more subtle, and controversial, aspect to this member of modern India’s founding generation. This is closely linked to the futile efforts to claim his legacy. This pertains to his ‘collaboration’ with the British Raj. In recent decades— before it became fashionable to appropriate him as a symbol—it was fair game to beat him up as a collaborator with the Raj who did much to obtain official positions in late colonial India. Ambedkar served on the Viceroy’s Executive Council for a while. This single fact has been used to defame him. But here is an equally controversial comparison: a number of Indian leaders—from the Left to the Right—‘cooperated’ with the British. Here is a partial list: Sripad Amrit Dange (Left), Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Right) and Mahatma Gandhi (Centre).

Gandhi twice decided to suspend an agitation against colonial authorities, once in South Africa and once in India. In his case, his actions become a part of ‘strategy’; in Ambedkar’s case, a ‘compromise’. Does this make them any less human or, for that matter, less great leaders of India than they were?

All these leaders were products of a transitional age, when the British Empire was fading but India had yet to be fully imagined as a nation. India certainly was far from being a nation-state at that time. Their complex and at times contradictory stands on various issues has a direct bearing on their existence. What should leaders who want a better future for their country do: should they forget their day-to-day problem of existence within an oppressive system and choose a path of destructive utopianism? Or should they use opportunities, as they come, while never losing sight of the larger goal? Perhaps it is time that Indians stopped looking at these leaders in black and white and realised the complex choices they had to make.

“Ambedkar had the rare combination of an idealist—one who wanted a better life for the downtrodden—and a rationalist in politics. In today’s polarised politics, both are seen as exclusive categories, one belonging to the Left and one to the Right. Here was a man who showed that both were possible at the same time,” says Surinder Jodhka, a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University who has studied caste. India continues to long for such leaders.

Republican Alert

A selection from his last speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949, a day before the Constitution was adopted

On changing the Constitution

“I admit that what Jefferson has said is not merely true, but is absolutely true. There can be no question about it. Had the Constituent Assembly departed from this principle laid down by [the American leader] Thomas Jefferson [that the framers of a constitution could not bind future generations to a text forever], it would certainly be liable to blame, even to condemnation. But I ask, has it? Quite the contrary. One has only to examine the provision relating to the amendment of the Constitution. The Assembly has not only refrained from putting a seal of finality and infallibility upon this Constitution by denying to the people the right to amend [it] as in Canada or by making the amendment… subject to the fulfilment of extraordinary terms and conditions as in America or Australia, but has provided a most facile procedure for amending [it]. I challenge any of the critics of the Constitution to prove that any constituent assembly anywhere in the world has, in the circumstances in which this country finds itself, provided such a facile procedure for [its] amendment. If those who are dissatisfied with the Constitution have only to obtain a two- thirds majority and if they cannot obtain even a two-thirds majority in the Parliament elected on adult franchise in their favour, their dissatisfaction with the Constitution cannot be deemed to be shared by the general public.”

Indispensability of Independence

“Here I could have ended. But my mind is so full of the future of our country that I feel I ought to take this occasion to give expression to some of my reflections thereon. On 26th January 1950, India will be an independent country. What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain her independence or will she lose it again? This is the first thought that comes to my mind. It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future. What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only has India once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people. In the invasion of Sindh by Mohammed bin Qasim, the military commanders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mohammed bin Qasim and refused to fight on the side of their King. It was Jaichand who invited Mohammed Ghori to invade India and fight against Prithviraj [Chauhan] and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki Kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Mughal Emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh Rulers, Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh Kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the event as silent spectators.”

“Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is deepened by the realization… that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds, we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indian place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.”

On dangers to democracy

“It is not that India did not know what is democracy. There was a time when India was studded with republics, and even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited. They were never absolute. It is not that India did not know parliaments or parliamentary procedure. A study of the Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas discloses that not only there were parliaments— for the Sanghas were nothing but parliaments—but the Sanghas knew and observed all the rules of parliamentary procedure known to modern times. They had rules regarding seating arrangements, rules regarding motions, resolutions, quorum, whip, counting of votes, voting by ballot, censure motion, regularisation, Res Judicata, etcetera. Although these rules… were applied by the Buddha to the meetings of the Sanghas, he must have borrowed them from the rules of the political assemblies functioning in the country in his time.”

“This is the democratic system India lost. Will she lose it a second time? I do not know. But it is quite possible in a country like India—where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new—there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to a dictatorship... If there is a landslide, the danger of [this] possibility becoming actuality is much greater.”

“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

On Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

“[We must not be] content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles… are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty [and] equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. 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 which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”