History produces few people who leave such an indelible mark on the society that their life comes to be seen as a metaphor for liberty, as an icon for progress and change. One such person who was a rare combination of immense knowledge, exceptional political prowess and an unwavering commitment to social change, was Dr BR Ambedkar.
Trained as an economist and a lawyer, he is credited to be the key ideologue of institutions that form the backbone of India, of institutions such as The Reserve Bank of India (which was based on the ideas that he presented to the Hilton Young Commission), and of nothing less than edifice of this nation – the Constitution of India – the drafting committee of which he chaired.
Still, his greatest achievements are in the sphere of ideas, politics and social change that shaped the character of the nation, India and of democracy as conceived by the world at large. On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, or dearly known as Baba Saheb Ambedkar in India, it is apt to understand his contributions in the domain of ideology, politics and social reform so that in these perilous times, we can draw inspiration from this fountainhead of equality and justice and make this world a better place.
Ideologically, one can place Ambedkar in the leftist traditions, though not in its traditional forms. He was one of the few people in modern India who had developed a home-grown genre of Marxism and for Ambedkar this stood in comparison with the ideology of Buddhism – a peculiar, yet profound blend that is characteristic of an Indian philosopher. In his essay titled “Buddha or Karl Marx”, Ambedkar compared the common ideals of Buddha and Marx and submitted an ultimate analysis that socialism can only be sustained if it walks on the path laid out by the Buddha. According to him, Buddhism was “an ultimate aid to sustain Communism when force is withdrawn” and so he criticised Lenin because he failed to deliver ‘liberty and fraternity’ in the pursuit of equality. He declared that: “Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all.”
It is indeed the contribution of Dr Ambedkar that the commitment towards liberty, fraternity and equality through the means of non-violence and democracy, has become a central characteristic of our constitution. He categorically stated while addressing the constituent assembly (November 25, 1949) that, “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy, which means, a way of life which recognise liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.”
It was this ideology that was transmitted in institutions of higher learning which absorbed from him just as a fertile land absorbs from a fountain-spring. Especially those with which Dr Ambedkar was directly associated with, such as the Elphinstone College and Sydenham College in Mumbai, Ramjas College at the University of Delhi and even internationally, the Columbia University and the London School of Economics, have ever-since celebrated the intellectual prowess of Dr Ambedkar from the times he was associated with them. Globally, where liberal student activism meets politics, often Dr Ambedkar is recalled as a source of eternal inspiration.
In the domain of politics, Dr P Kesava Kumar has aptly described that one can see “Ambedkar’s association with the grand political streams such as liberal, radical or conservative through his writings… At the same time he differentiates himself with these three dominant political traditions.”
The core of political thinking of Ambedkar is contained in two of his statements: 1. “The rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of society”, and 2. “a democratic form of government presupposes a democratic form of society”. For him, society preceded politics and it is therefore unsurprising why Dr Ambedkar found himself at odds with the Nationalists of the Indian National Congress on more than one occasions. Hence, in 1932, despite the fierce opposition of Gandhiji regarding the British proposal of a separate electorate for untouchables, for the latter feared that such an arrangement would divide the Hindu community, Ambedkar held steadfast his own position that political equality cannot be achieved unless socially backward groups or the “depressed classes” are not given an equal footing in the political arena.
Gandhi protested by fasting while imprisoned in the Yerwada Central Jail of Poona and yet had to eventually give in (which was exceptionally rare for the person of Mahatma Gandhi) to the demands of Ambedkar, and this resulted in the ‘Poona Pact’ which gave 148 seats to the depressed classes in the provision legislatures. Indeed, the political liberation of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in modern indian history owes much to the determination and commitment of Ambedkar to their cause.
Yet, the most radical avatar of Dr BR Ambedkar can be seen in his role as a social reformer, while at the same time it can be observed that his radicalism was never devoid of the spirit of intellectual reasoning and liberty. This becomes evident in his undelivered speech – “The Annihilation of Caste” – prepared as the presidential address for the annual conference of a Hindu reformist group Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, which he later got published at his own expense which thereafter became an instant classic in the Indian intellectual history. Here again, he only agreed partially with Gandhi’s mantra of ‘inter-dining and intermarriage’. He found inter-caste dining an “inadequate remedy” as he pointed that “there are many castes which allow inter-dining… But it is a common experience that inter-dining has not succeeded in killing the spirit of Caste and the consciousness of Caste.”
According to him, inter-marriage was the only solution to the problem and that “fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling-the feeling of being aliens-created by Caste will not vanish”. However, on further analysis, he found even inter-marriage an impracticable idea. He objected that: “Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from commingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind. The destruction of Caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change.”
Finally, Ambedkar submitted that “The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the Shastras.” Hence, in 1927, he is seen ceremonially burning copies of the ancient text Manusmriti invoking the imagery of an anti-thesis to Sir Thomas More (who burnt reformist texts to protect Catholicism as British Chancellor in the early 1500s) bringing the circle of history to a just consummation.
His message to his followers “educate, organise, agitate!” still resounds the corridors of Indian socio-political world right from the Hyderabad Central University to the villages of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan where the scheduled castes are still discriminated against and are forced to live in segregated localities in the villages. The embers of the ‘permanent revolution’ he has talked about in his various writings still burn in our minds as we commit ourselves to keeping his teachings alive, in spirit and in action.