India: More Ambedkar’s Than Gandhi’s

As far as the striving for the modern values of liberty, equality and fraternity goes, Gandhi seems to be a pygmy before Ambedkar

Last month, we observed Dr. Ambedkar’s 56th death anniversary. In these 56 years, India has changed beyond recognition. Who has contributed the most to her transformation? Who has built today’s India? In other words, whose is the biggest influence on contemporary India? If you pose this question to a ‘Savarna’ Hindu, the answer will invariably be either Gandhi or Nehru. Some middle class people might well say that many personalities have influenced India. Their list may carry other names but Gandhi and Nehru will definitely figure in it. Very few will put Ambedkar in that list.

But, if you ask the same question of Dalits and members of educationally and socially backward classes, now generally described as OBCs, most of them will name Ambedkar. The educated section of the Dalits and Backwards owes its thought process and mental make-up to the Ambedkarite ideology, either directly or (mostly) indirectly.

Baba Saheb died in Delhi on 6 December 1956. He was working till late in the night. In the morning, he was found lying lifeless on the heap of documents he was working on. His death sent a wave of sorrow in a small circle in Delhi. I say a small circle because at that time, there was no big group of Dalits and Backwards in Delhi. There is none even today but things have changed considerably.

But yes, Mumbai and Maharashtra were immersed in grief and the huge turnout for his funeral procession is remembered even today. Newspapers wrote editorials on him and a clutch of dignitaries, including President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Nehru, mourned his demise. But still, that was nothing as compared to the respect Ambedkar commands today.

Till 1960, the biography of even Vinoba Bhave was taught in schools and colleges but Ambedkar was not even mentioned. Ambedkar gradually came on the centre stage – not courtesy the media or the government publicity machinery but on his own strength. As education spread among the Dalits and OBCs, the influence of Gandhi and Nehru, who were thrust upon them, began waning and Ambedkar took their place. If there is any single personality whose statues dot the villages and hamlets, cities and towns across the country, it is Ambedkar’s. His statues outnumber those of every other leader. And very few of these statues have been installed by the government. Most have been put up by that class which regards him as its liberator. The fact that the highest number of statues in the country are of modern India’s biggest iconoclast, is in itself, a moot point. But then, one cannot wish away the reality. In this race, Nehru stands nowhere and even Gandhi has been left far behind and the gap is widening by the day. No leader can match Ambedkar’s popularity in the country today. Besides mythological-historical personalities like Ram, Krishna and Buddha, there are only two individuals on whose birthdays the country observes a national holiday – Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s.

In the initial days, Ambedkar’s popularity and influence was not a patch on Gandhi’s. The Indian bourgeoisie class tried its best to give Gandhi the status of an international personality. Dozens of ‘Gandhi Prathisthans’, hundreds of universities and thousands even lakhs of writers-intellectuals tried hard to build his image as that of a messiah of the oppressed. But they did not succeed. Today, Gandhi may be seen as an anti-imperialist and a leading light of the national movement but as far as the striving for the modern values of liberty, equality and fraternity goes, Gandhi seems to be a pygmy before Ambedkar – and sometimes even an anti-hero. For instance, a contemporary intellectual may find it difficult to believe that an Indian national hero of the 20th century was a supporter of the Varna and Caste system. After 1940, Gandhi did emerge as a liberal nationalist leader but science, modernism and logic still did not have the needed space in his ideology. After Gandhi’s death, Vinoba Bhave inherited his mantle and ultimately he began being described as ‘Sarkari Sant’ (Government saint). Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul, in his famous book “India: A wounded civilisation”, has portrayed Vinoba as an anti-hero. We will have to decide whether Nehru or Lohia were the real inheritors of Gandhi or whether it was Vinoba. Nehru had made his differences with Gandhi on many issues very public and Lohia described himself as an ‘outcaste’ Gandhian. It is my firm belief that had Lohia broken away from Gandhi completely, he would have been a greater thinker. The inheritors of Gandhi’s legacy today are either busy giving a modern veneer to their conservative notions of Hindu society or, like Anna Hazare, are militating against corruption in government or for establishment of ‘Gram Swaraj’ or other similar campaigns raising slogans like ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ or ‘Vande Mataram’. There is no doubt that they enjoy the support of a big section of civil society or the middle class but social transformation, building a better society which is just and egalitarian, is not the objective of this section. It has no vision regarding it either.

Ambedkar’s legacy has no fixed shape or structure. But it is expanding with each passing day. Dalits, OBCs and even a section of the general category ‘Savarna’ classes have become the carriers of Ambedkar’s legacy. They have their own opinion on every issue, whether big or small. They have their own firm beliefs, their own vision. This vision encompasses scientific and logical thinking. They have completely rejected the entire system of Varna, caste and rural hierarchy. They see Gandhi more as a mythological figure than as a historical one. Mythological personalities are worshipped; we do not learn things from them. Also, they are never the subject matter of any debate. It is Ambedkar who is the subject matter of debates and discussions. He interests them and they can learn a lot from him. Today, lakhs and crores of Indian youth are coming under the influence of Ambedkar’s thoughts and his vision. Ambedkar is inspiring them to build a new, modern India based on the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity.

The new generation, upholding the legacy of Ambedkar, is strengthening Indian nationalism – a nationalism which is scientific and just in the true sense. Their nationalism is not the nationalism that takes pride in rivers and mountains. It is not ‘Shujalam, Shufalam’ (richly-watered, richly-fruited) nation of ‘Vande Mataram’. This is the nation of crores of workers, farmers, dalits and artisans. Those bent upon distorting the concept of nation may think that corruption is the biggest problem besetting the nation but that is not true. The biggest problem is the exploitation of men, the exploitation of the entire nation by a particular section. Where is this section?

Ambedkar had worked in very difficult circumstances. He had no interest in becoming Gandhi-Vinoba. He was interested in becoming Voltaire, Rousseau and Marx. He worked silently. He brought the Dalit problem to the centre stage of the nation. After 1932, even leaders like Gandhi turned towards him. It was Ambedkar who drew Gandhi’s attention. The so-called modern anti-imperialist leaders like Nehru and Subhash did not like this. But Ambedkar continued his work. He had studied Marxism extensively but he had no interest in becoming a rigid Marxist His work was more challenging than that of Italian thinker-warrior Antonio Gramsci. Like Marxists, he believed that politics is only a super-structure. Nothing would change by bringing about changes in politics. It is society which needs to be changed. Once the society changes, the super-structure of politics will also change. Hence, his emphasis was on social change. For him, social change meant a change in the way the society thought. He did not mince words in slamming the thought and philosophy based on superstitions and rites and rituals. As far as thoughts were concerned, the country of their origin, the era to which they belonged and the direction from which they came never mattered to him. Many conservatives – and Gandhi joined their ranks sometimes – branded some thoughts as Western and rejected them. “Hind Swaraj” is based on this negation. Ambedkar flayed all this in his book ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables’. It was the first systematic repudiation of Gandhism. Another key contribution of his was pitting Buddhist common sense against Vedic classicism that had become the nucleus of the Indian Renaissance.

He was a Minister in the Government of India for a very short time but he did important things in that brief period. His key role in the drafting of the Constitution of India is well known. And so is the historic tabling of the Hindu Code Bill in the Parliament by him in his capacity as Law Minister. But few people know that he played an important role in the launching of irrigation and power generation projects and in reforming the financial system of the states. The Damodar valley project and Hirakud dam were the result of his vision. He was one of the persons who ensured that the Gandhian model of development did not come in the way of the Five Year plans.

That is why, today’s India appears to be more of Ambedkar’s than Gandhi’s. The deepening roots of India’s democratic polity are a legacy of Ambedkar. The growing interest of the younger generation in modernity and science is the legacy of Ambedkar. It was Ambedkar who laid the foundation of social justice. And today, the concept of social justice dominates every single political stream of the country. There is, of course, a section which wants to brand Ambedkar as a leader of the Dalits. There are also some who want him to be confined as a leader of the ‘Mahars’. I can only speculate on their understanding of Ambedkar. Those who want to confine a leader who was an advocate of constant change to a limited arena are definitely not carrying his legacy forward. Ambedkar had said once, “The Indian tendency to accord the status of ‘Guru’ to demi-gods is more injurious to democracy than anything else. In politics, the tendency to worship is bound to lead to degradation and ultimately to dictatorship”.

Published in the January 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine


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