On April 14, the nation will celebrate the 126th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar. In spite of being one of the worst victims of untouchability and having been denied basic human rights, Ambedkar rose as a colossus — a jurist, a Constitution-maker and, above all, a defender of the unity of India. In the words of the late President K.R. Narayanan, he was a “compassionate rebel”.
As history unfolds, the enduring relevance of Ambedkar’s thoughts and theories, his life and work in shaping the Indian nation is revealed. He stressed on constitutional morality. His ideology challenged social inequalities and emphasized sympathy for the oppressed, so that the emerging nation was built on firm foundations of equality and equal opportunity for all. Ambedkar became an influential figure because of his perceptive and critical appraisal of Indian social and economic realities. He understood the causes behind the plight of the most oppressed and exploited, and he prescribed education, organization and agitation for their progress and empowerment. His was a bottom-up approach to nation-building, and he will be relevant as long as the concerns of the most disempowered sections of society remain unaddressed.
India’s “tryst with destiny” began with a series of tragedies. Independence was twinned with Partition; India and Pakistan emerged as separate nations, displacing thousands and forcing mass migrations across the new borders. Communal riots in the western and eastern parts of our country led to the killing of thousands. It culminated in the assassination of Gandhiji by Nathuram Godse.
In the face of such threats to the very existence of India, Ambedkar had the historic, or rather, very difficult, task of drafting the Constitution. At a time when many had serious doubts about the idea of India as a unified country, he displayed rare maturity, wisdom and magnanimity in evolving a consensus for framing the Constitution, which eventually helped us emerge as a democracy, instead of an autocracy or theocracy. The Indian republic, built on the foundations of democracy and secularism, operating on the basis of universal adult franchise, owes a lot to his singular role in reconciling diverse viewpoints, through a process of accommodation and understanding. We must pay tribute to Ambedkar for his lofty vision of making secularism, social justice and socialism the foundational objectives of the Indian democratic republic.
Through the second half of the 20th century, scholars kept comparing Gandhi and Ambedkar. Many of the best minds of modern India were bent on understanding Gandhi and Ambedkar as fiercely opposed to each other. This juxtaposition may continue. But on Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, we come to realize that they shared a common vision. It is also necessary to use the entire spectrum of Ambedkar’s worldview to address the challenges of Indian society.
For instance, a fruitful understanding of Ambedkar and Nehru may be the need of the hour. In the light of the recent controversies over secularism, socialism and democracy, the commonalities between Ambedkar and Nehru must be brought into focus. It is not an exaggeration to assert that Ambedkar became the founder of secularism in this country when he invoked Buddhism to counter the social hierarchies of Hinduism. He felt that Buddhism, based on the ideals of enlightenment, compassion and equality, would lift everyone out of oppression. His attempt was to combine Buddhism, democracy and socialism in the modern Indian context. Nehru, too, is celebrated as a democratic socialist. There may be criticism regarding this particular characterization, but one cannot deny the fact that the idea of democratic socialism contributed positively to the making of modern India. It is in this context that we must explore how Nehru and Ambedkar contributed to the shaping of the concept of democratic socialism. Ambedkar could be hailed, without hesitation, for a conception of socialism that was more democratic and all-encompassing, striving towards the upliftment of people from the grassroots.
Recognizing the commonalities between Nehru and Ambedkar is vital to making democratic socialism applicable to marginalized peoples.
The way Ambedkar understood the significance of Buddha and Marx for our country, even though the two figures belong to different historical eras, makes his idea of socialism more relevant to a complex society like India’s. It offers both Ambedkarites and Marxists the possibility of a common platform for nation-building.
A combination of the ideas of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, with an emphasis on the ideal of a casteless society, would radicalize the former’s emancipatory programme.
There may be those who object to drawing Bhagat Singh into the context of Ambedkar. But we should be mindful of the fact that both are part of the consciousness of millions of peasants and working people.
Ambedkar’s evaluation of the colonial economy, first under the East India Company and then under imperial rule, unveiled a methodology of viewing history from the perspective of the marginalized. Ambedkar entered Indian politics at a time when Western scholars and Hindu nationalists were constructing a modern Hinduism based on Sanskrit, Brahmanism and Aryan theories. Ambedkar’s approach was more sociological and scientific. His drafting of the Hindu Code Bill, at the heart of which lies women’s equality and empowerment, is testimony to his approach of prioritizing the concerns of those who were subjugated by a patriarchal social and economic order. Unfortunately, the Jan Sangh and the RSS opposed the Hindu Code Bill.
Ambedkar stated that the problem of untouchability would be laid to rest if the caste system were destroyed. So his Annihilation of Caste is a manifesto for social equality.
He exposed the relation between caste and gender discrimination in India and heralded a new era for women’s empowerment through legislation. He opened a debate between caste and class in the Indian context that is significant even today.
His vision of India’s freedom is most revolutionary because it calls for the annihilation of caste, which is more fundamental than economic socialism.
In the end, Ambedkar stood for exploring the maximum possibilities of constitutional democracy – for he believed that constitutional methods could be used to achieve social transformation.
This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Indian Express on 14 April 2015.
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