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Ambedkar and Nehru on caste and economy

Nehru and Ambedkar differed on socialism. While Nehru talked of equal opportunities for all, for Ambedkar, equality between castes was an inalienable part of socialism

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar (14 April 1891 – 6 December 1956) and Jawaharlal Nehru (14 November 1889 – 27 May 1964) were contemporary Indian statesmen. Both are described as builders of modern India. While Nehru was born into a Brahmin family and was the son of eminent lawyer and Congress leader Motilal Nehru, Ambedkar came from a Dalit (Mahar) family. Both led different childhoods. While Nehru lived a life of opulence and luxury, Ambedkar had to face untouchability as a child and even adulthood did not bring him freedom from the sting of the abhorrent practice.

Much to his dismay, Ambedkar saw that his entire community was forced to live with untouchability. That was when he decided to put an end to this obnoxious social practice. His family was poor but he travelled to America and Britain for higher studies on scholarships awarded by Maharaja Gaikawad of Baroda. He acquired the highest degrees in economics and law. Nehru was also educated in Britain. Both were excellent writers and authored many acclaimed books.

Dr Ambedkar was a top-notch scholar and had done his master’s from Columbia University in the US, majoring in Economics, with Sociology, History, Philosophy and Anthropology as other subjects of study. He was also a PhD (from Columbia) and a DSc (London School of Economics) in Economics, and a barrister. He had a deep knowledge of Hindu religion and Buddhism. Nehru did not hold as many high academic degrees as Ambedkar but he too was a scholar of rare intellect. If anyone could be compared with Ambedkar in terms of intellect and knowledge, it was no one other than Nehru.

Both joined politics in the 1920s but through different routes. Dr Ambedkar returned to India from England in 1923 after becoming a barrister and was appointed as a professor in law in Mumbai. He launched two social movements – one for getting Dalits access to Chavdar Tank and another to the Kalaram temple.

Ambedkar on caste

Dr Ambedkar said that the Congress, since its birth, had talked of two kinds of reforms – political and social. Some Congress leaders wanted to take up both the causes together, while others preferred political over social. By social reforms, he meant reforms within the family, such as a ban on child marriage and encouraging widow remarriage. But social reform aimed at disbanding the institution of caste was not on the Congress agenda. Yet, no social reform was possible in India without breaking the stranglehold of caste, because caste was at the root of all social evils. That was why the Congress’ social-reform movement soon lost steam and political reform became its prime agenda. According to Dr Ambedkar, a political revolution couldn’t succeed unless it was preceded by a socio-religious revolution. But the Congress never worked for a social revolution aimed at dismantling caste.[1]

Ambedkar said the caste system was not a division of labour but a division of labourers. It was a layered system, in which the labourers were placed one above the other. This division of labourers was based on birth. It gave no weight to aptitude and competence. Many people thus were caught up in doing things they did not like. The caste system thus was injurious from the economic point of view.

Ambedkar and Nehru

He wrote, “The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s loyalty is restricted only to his caste.”[2]

Regarding society, Ambedkar said that it should be based on liberty, equality and fraternity. He held that democracy was not only a form of government but a system in which all the citizens participate in governance, after thinking through issues and discussing them with each other.[3] Respect for one’s fellow beings is the basis of democracy.

According to Ambedkar, how the Hindu system gave birth to classes such as the Untouchables and Tribals demands deep contemplation. If the Hindu civilization gave birth to these classes, then it doesn’t qualify to be called a “civilization”. It is a conspiracy for suppressing humans and enslaving them. It is “satanic”.[4]

In other words, Hindu religion and its philosophy create a heaven for the Brahmins and a hell for the common man. He did not agree with the argument that a section of the Hindus is rigid and believes in caste while another section is not so rigid because it does not believe in caste. Ambedkar said that the gist of Manusmriti, the Vedas and the Bhagwad Geeta is the same. They are all cast in the same mould. The same thread runs through all of them and they are parts of the same whole.[5] He thus believed that all Hindu scriptures promote caste.

Nehru’s thoughts on caste

Jawaharlal Nehru has not written specifically on caste and Hindutva. His book The Discovery of India, which talks about India’s ancient culture and civilization, reveals his views on the issue. He writes that the word “Hindu” finds no mention in the ancient scriptures. Its first usage was recorded sometime in the 8th century and was used by atheists. Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who visited India in the 7th century, writes that the word was used for those who inhabited the Aryan country. Hinduism emerged as a religion much later.[6]

Hence, the word “Hindu” cannot be defined. Hinduism is a belief, but it’s difficult to say whether it is a religion. But Hinduism has a speciality: the foreigners who came to India were absorbed into the Hindu culture.

When Aryans forayed into India, they defeated the Dravidians, who were the inhabitants of this land. This victory was both racial and political. Perhaps, Aryans considered themselves superior and that created a chasm between them and the Dravidians. Caste is neither a completely Aryan concept nor a completely Dravidian one. The struggle between the Aryans and the Dravidians gave birth to the caste system.[7] Initially, there were only four castes. This was along the lines of Plato dividing society into three classes in his book Republic. Initially, four castes emerged – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. At the time, Aryans represented a race and the word “Aryan” was used to indicate superiority. The caste system came into being in the post-Vedic era. Later, it became rigid.

The domination of the priestly class continued till the era of the Upanishads. India witnessed an intellectual revolution at the end of the Upanishad era, triggered by the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism. Jainism and Buddhism were rebellions within the Vedic religion. They refused to accept the authority of the Vedas. Although these religions did not assail caste directly, they did not recognize it either. This definitely weakened the hold of caste on Indian society. In that era, new castes emerged from the Kshatriya class. Social transformation quickened in this era. The founders of both Buddhism and Jainism were Kshatriyas and they challenged the supremacy of the Brahmins. This period saw the spread of consciousness among the Shudras and more than a caste, the word Kshatriya began to be used as a title demoting a high social position. Caste system became flexible and the word Kshatriya started being used for all kings.[8]

Nehru’s thoughts on socialism and economy

Fabian socialists had a great influence on Jawaharlal Nehru. He believed that a socialist society could exist only in a democracy. He believed that any revolution should spring from among the masses and it should not be thrust upon them. Violence should not be used to achieve socialist ideals. He was very impressed with the Soviet economy but believed that India couldn’t use the instruments that were used by the Soviet Union for spurring economic growth. Perhaps, he meant that India couldn’t use violent means. He believed that political democracy would usher in social democracy in India. He was a supporter of mixed economy – the private sector could be entrusted with industries that required less capital outlay but the core, big industries remained with the State.[9]

Nehru categorically opposed the Zamindari system. He said, “I should readily admit that I am a socialist and have no faith in kings and emperors. I also do not believe in an industrial system that creates modern kings and emperors (industrialists) and is given to rapacious ways.”[10] As a Congress leader, he played a key role in giving a socialist orientation to the programmes of the party. Nehru afforded a socialist vision to India’s Freedom Struggle and after 1929, became a symbol of socialist ideas. He was first elected president of the Congress in 1929. Subsequently, he was re-elected to the position in 1936 and 1937.

He said, “I have come to firmly believe that socialism is the only solution to the problems of the world and of India. When I use this word, it is not in a vague humanitarian sense, but in scientific and meaningful sense, which warrants comprehensive and revolutionary changes. And that means abolition of private property – barring in a very narrow sense; and replacing the current profit-oriented system with the highest ideal of cooperative service.”[11]

The influence of Nehru over the Congress was second only to Gandhi’s. By 1930, Nehru had become a powerful leader within the Congress and his stature grew with time. After Gandhi’s death, he became the unquestioned leader of the Congress. He was prime minister from 1946 to 1964 and always kept the foreign affairs department with him. He had differences with Gandhi on many issues but still, in 1940, Gandhi chose him as his successor.[12]

Nehru was dead against the use of religion in politics. On this issue, he was on the same page as the liberal Western thinkers. Even in private life, he was not religious. He admitted that he did not have faith in any religion – not even in Hinduism. He remained an atheist till his last breath. He said that humanism was the highest religion and service of the poor, the highest worship.[13] On several issues, he differed from the then President Dr Rajendra Prasad, including on secularism. After Independence, when Rajendra Prasad proposed renovation of the Somnath Temple using public funds, Nehru vehemently opposed it. He held that public money should not be spent on religious activities.

After Partition, he emphasized that Muslims would continue to be equal citizens of India. He was strongly against any kind of discrimination on religious grounds. He firmly believed that the country could be kept united and integrated only by following the policy of secularism. He was a diehard opponent of majoritarianism.

Ambedkar advocated a separate electorate for the Untouchables. He even managed to persuade the British government to grant it. But Gandhi blackmailed Ambedkar and forced the latter to make the Poona Pact. On this issue, all the other leaders of the Congress either kept mum or supported Gandhi. Nehru did not utter a word in support of Ambedkar.[14]

2) Dr Ambedkar being sworn in as India’s first law minister by President Dr Rajendra Prasad as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru looks on

When Ambedkar was working on a programme for the empowerment of the Dalits and was talking of annihilation of caste, Nehru backed Gandhi by saying that “Caste was a social group, based on work”.[15] He held the view that each caste had its work cut out for it, making society efficient; however, later, the caste system turned rigid and in its present form, it is not suited to democracy. Nehru’s thoughts on caste were almost the same as those of other upper-caste thinkers and leaders like Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayanand Saraswati. Dr Ambedkar wrote a lot about untouchability and opposed it with his entire might but Nehru did not have a word to say on it.

In 1946, it was on Gandhi’s advice that Ambedkar was appointed chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. There were long debates in the Constituent Assembly on the form and content of the Constitution. Addressing the Constituent Assembly after it adopted the Constitution, Ambedkar said, “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 … 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 Nehru did not subscribe to any religion, Perry Anderson in his book, Indian Ideology, cites two instances that indicated otherwise. But such instances were an exception. On 14 August 1947 – the eve of Indian Independence – Nehru and others sat before a hawan kund in Delhi where pujaris conducted rituals and chanted Vedic mantras.[16] After Nehru’s death, his last rites were performed with Hindu rituals. Of course, Nehru can’t be held responsible for the way he was cremated but it does show that the people around him had strong faith in Hindu customs and rituals.

Ambedkar’s views on socialism and economy

Ambedkar’s views on socialism can be found in his book State and Minorities. Dr Ambedkar was not a classical socialist. His socialism was unique. It can be said that he believed in state socialism or evolutionary socialism. He was a firm opponent of social and economic inequality and worked for its elimination all his life. His socialism was rooted in India. He saw the caste system from the Indian perspective. For other thinkers, socialism was a Western import.

Ambedkar wrote that in India, the landholdings were very small, which was harmful for agriculture.[17] In contrast, England has large landholdings. He said that the scattered holdings should be consolidated and the areas increased.[18]

He had closely observed the interrelationship between caste system and poverty in India. He saw that people of the lower castes were caught in the vicious cycle of poverty. He believed that it was the duty of the State to extricate the poor from this cycle by providing economic assistance to them. For this, he wrote, more taxes should be imposed on the rich; the rich could afford treatment in costly hospitals, and they could get their children educated in expensive schools, but for want of resources, the poor couldn’t.[19]

Nehru and Ambedkar had slightly different views on socialism. While Nehru talked of equal opportunities for all, for Ambedkar, equality between castes was an inalienable part of socialism. Thus, for Dr Ambedkar, socialism was not only a tool for building a better economy but also for building a better society, free from evils.

Dr Ambedkar’s socialism was compatible with parliamentary democracy. He said that for democracy to function smoothly, every citizen should have some fundamental rights, which the State couldn’t deprive them of and which should be enforceable by the courts. He believed that democracy should not be confined only to governance but should pervade society, too. Parliamentary democracy should be based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. He said that the Hindu scriptures, being the root of the caste system, the State should strip them of their sacred status and till caste remained, democracy couldn’t function well.

Dr Ambedkar said that big industries should be owned, controlled and run by the State. According to him, the insurance sector should be in State control; people might own private property but it should be limited to small industries and small landholdings; the industries would thus be owned both publicly and privately.[20]

Nehru and Ambedkar both did not subscribe to some theorizations of the path-breaking European socialist thinker Karl Marx. Both did not agree with the economic interpretation of history or class struggle. They also did not agree with the tenet of dictatorship of the proletariat. Both had unshakeable faith in state socialism, evolutionary socialism and parliamentary democracy – which bring about change at a slow pace. But they differed on the issue of caste. Dr Ambedkar considered Indian society a conglomeration of castes with contradictory interests. Nehru did not see Indian society that way.

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia;  copy-editing: Anil)

[1] B.R. Ambedkar, Dr Ambedkar Pratishthan, New Delhi, 2013, Volume 1, p 55.

[2] ibid, p 77.

[3] Valerian Rodrigues (ed), The Essential Writings of B. R. Ambedkar, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018.

[4] B. R. Ambedkar, Achhoot Kaun Aur Kaise, p 5, Gautam Book Centre, Delhi, 2008.

[5] B.R. Ambedkar, Dr Ambedkar Pratishthan, New Delhi, 2013, Volume 6, pp 102-106.

[6] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, Penguin Books, Gurgaon, 2010, pp 68-71.

[7] ibid, pp 81-82.

[8] ibid, pp 120-123.

[9] C. N. Chitta Ranjan, Nehru and Socialism, Vol No 47, November 2006.

[10] ibid, 236.

[11] ibid, 236.

[12] Ramchandra Guha, Makers of Modern India, Penguin Books, Gurgaon, 2012, pp 326-327.

[13] Vivek Kumar Srivastava, ‘Nehru and his views on Secularism’, Mainstream Weekly, Vol No 47, November 2014.

[14] Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2016, p 53.

[15] ibid, pp 54-55.

[16] Tai Yong Tan and Gyanesh Kudaisya, The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia, London, 2000, pp 53-54.

[17] B.R. Ambedkar, Small Holdings and Their Remedies.

[18] B.R. Ambedkar, Dr Ambedkar Pratishthan, New Delhi, 2013, Volume 2, pp 245-255.

[19] Vivek Kumar Srivastava, ‘Ambedkar and his Vision of Socialism’, Mainstream Weekly, Vol No 19, April 2016.

[20] Badal Sarkar, ‘Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s theory of State Socialism’, International Research Journal of Social Sciences, Vol 2 (8), August 2013.


About The Author

Mukhtiyar Singh

Mukhtiyar Singh holds a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University and teaches in Delhi University

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