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Ambedkar’s nationalism addressed the heart of the matter

Ambedkar’s understanding of the question of the identity and existence of the nation was based on his incisive analysis of the oppressive character of Brahmanism that pervaded a society built around the caste system, writes Ronki Ram

Dr B.R. Ambedkar was an iconoclastic social reformer who, at the very formative years of his career, realized what it meant to be an Untouchable and how a struggle against untouchability could be launched. The social-reform movement of the caste Hindus could not win him over because of his existential understanding of the horror of untouchability. For the social reformers, the issue of untouchability was a mere problem. This problem was exterior to them in the sense that it affected only the Untouchables but not them. They themselves had never experienced the sinistrous blows of untouchability. Though they were sympathetic to the cause of then Untouchables, they belonged to the camp that imposed this inhuman system of social segregation.

Dr Ambedkar’s analysis of the origins of the untouchability and his action plans for its eradication were different from the approach and practice of the caste Hindu social reformers. What distinguished him from the other social reformers was that he looked at the evil of untouchability from below – from the vantage point of the socially excluded and the oppressed.  This perspective led him to think differently from the dominant stream of social and political thought of his time. His major works – Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development; Annihilation of Caste; The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?; Who Were the Shudras among others – are testimony to this perspective and his independent, original and rational thinking. He smashed the mythological basis of untouchability and laid bare its social and economic roots.

He built a strong case against the thesis of birth-based untouchability, which forced untouchability on those kept outside the caste system and made their life hell. He exhorted its victims to oppose it tooth and nail. He said, “It is disgraceful to live at the cost of one’s self respect. Self-respect is the most vital factor in life.  Without it, man is a mere cipher. To live worthily with self-respect one has to overcome difficulties. It is out of hard and ceaseless struggle alone that one derives strength, confidence and recognition.” He drew a distinction between merely living and living worthily.  For living a worthy life, Ambedkar said, society must be based on liberty, equality and fraternity. For Ambedkar, social tyranny was more oppressive than political tyranny and “a reformer who defies society, is a much more courageous man than a politician, who defies government”.

Ambedkar was of the kind who defied society. In the beginning of his social-reform crusade, he tried to get respect and equality for the then Untouchables through reforms within the social set-up of Hinduism.  He continued his struggle for empowerment of the then Untouchables by seeking changes within the fold of Hinduism till 1935. When he realized that the liberation of the then Untouchables within Hinduism was impossible, his scathing criticism and tirade against Hinduism began. Ultimately, he became convinced that then Untouchables could seek empowerment only outside Hinduism,  hence, his conversion to Buddhism. For Ambedkar, liberation of then Untouchables was the foremost issue and he emphasized that they themselves had to come forward for its realization. Thus, Ambedkar provided a subaltern perspective to see through the chameleon of Indian caste-ridden social set-up and ways to guard the interests of the then outcastes.  

Ambedkar takes vows at his conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur on 14 October 1956

Dr B.R. Ambedkar made strenuous efforts to transform the hierarchical structures of Indian society for the restoration of equal rights and justice to the oppressed lot by building a critique from within the structure of Indian society. His was not a theoretical attempt but a practical approach to the problems of untouchability. He tried to resolve this perennial problem of Indian society not by making appeals to the conscience of those who religiously practised untouchability or begging them to transform their outlook but by relentless struggle against the socio-religious and politico-economic structure, where he thought the roots of the untouchability lay. He concluded that until and unless the authority of the Dharmashastras, which provided divine sanction to the system of discrimination based on caste, was shaken, the eradication of untouchability could not be realized.

It is in this context that Dr Ambedkar’s views on Indian nationalism needs special attention. His views on Indian nationalism are in stark opposition to the dominant discourse of nationalism represented by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru; Hindu nationalism represented by Raja Rammohan Roy, B.G. Tilak, M.S. Golwalkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee; and Communist-secular-socialist nationalism represented by M.N. Roy, R. P. Dutt, T. Nagi Reddy and E.M.S. Namboodiripad. His views on Indian nationalism are not only distinct but also original. Hindu nationalism in essence aims at strengthening the brahmanical supremacy in post-colonial India. The communist-secular-social nationalism had the abolition of class as objective, but its ideologues, like that of the Hindu nationalism, also belonged to the upper-castes and were myopic to the question of ending the sufferings of then Untouchables.

Dr Ambedkar’s conception of nationalism articulated and synthesized the national perceptions and aspirations of the downtrodden. It constructed an anti-Hindu and anti-brahmanical discourse of Indian nationalism.  It aimed at establishing a casteless and classless society where no one would be discriminated against on the basis of birth and occupation. Within the Dalitbahujan framework of Indian nationalism, Ambedkar built a critique of pre-colonial Brahmanism and the asymmetrical social set-up, the graded caste system, that was central to it, under which the higher up you belonged in the caste hierarchy the more unproductive and exploitative you were.

Ambedkar’s understanding of the question of the identity and existence of the nation was based on his incisive analysis of the oppressive character of Brahmanism that pervaded a society built around the caste system. Since the dominant Hindu discourse of Indian nationalism remained indifferent to the removal of the caste system, and the economic analysis of the communist secular socialist school also failed to highlight the issue of caste in its mechanical interpretation of class, Ambedkar – himself an Untouchable and victim of untouchability – formulated his own framework from the perspective of the Untouchables to understand the system of caste and untouchability. The foundations of Dalitbahujan nationalism lie in this framework developed by Ambedkar. It aimed at restructuring Indian society into a casteless and classless society – an egalitarian Sangha.  Annihilation of caste was its central theme. Caste for Ambedkar was nothing but Brahmanism incarnate. He wrote, “Brahmanism is the poison which has spoilt Hinduism.” Ambedkar realized that any form of nationalism whose roots were steeped in Hinduism could not bring relief to the outcastes. Any discourse of nationalism bereft of annihilation of caste was just not acceptable to him. The agenda of annihilation of caste was so important to him that it became a central point of his struggle against colonial rule. In the first Round Table Conference, he minced no words in criticizing the British government for its failure to undo untouchability.  

Swaraj without extinction of caste had no meaning for Ambedkar. In his undelivered speech to the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore, he said, “In the fight for swaraj you fight with the whole nation on your side. In this, you have to fight against the whole nation and that too your own.  But it is more important than swaraj. There is no use having swaraj, if you cannot defend it. More important than the question of defending swaraj is the question of defending Hindus under the swaraj. In my opinion, only when the Hindu society becomes a casteless society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend itself. Without such internal strength, swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery.” Thus, it was Ambedkar’s subaltern perspective, which distinguished his conception of swaraj from that of the protagonists of the various shades of the national freedom movement. In his editorial in the Bahishkrit Bharat, Ambedkar wrote on 29 July 1927, “If Tilak had been born among the Untouchables, he would not have raised the slogan ‘swaraj is my birthright’, but he would have raised the slogan ‘annihilation of untouchability is my birthright’.”   

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The Case for Bahujan Literature

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Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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About The Author

Ronki Ram

Ronki Ram is the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Professor of Political Science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. He is also a visiting professor at the Centre of Sikh and Panjabi Studies in the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Among the books he has authored or edited are ‘Dalit Pachhan, Mukti atey Shaktikaran’ (Dalit Identity, Emancipation and Empowerment. Patiala: Punjabi University Publication Bureau, 2012), ‘Dalit Chetna: Sarot te Saruup (Dalit Consciousness: Sources and Form; Chandigarh: Lokgeet Prakashan, 2010) and ‘Globalization and the Politics of Identity in India’, Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2008 (edited with Bhupinder Brar and Ashutosh Kumar). Ram has been a professor of Contemporary India Studies at Leiden University in Leiden, the Netherlands. He holds a PhD in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a post-doctoral fellowship in Peace and Conflict Resolution from Uppsala University, Sweden.

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