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Ambedkar and his contemporary relevance

Context

  • Besides Gandhi, BR Ambedkar has emerged as the epitome personality of modern India, who has been appropriated across the political spectrum – from Hindutava axis (RSS), Congress (whose apathy towards social questions Ambedkar criticised), Communists ( who foresee an integration of proletarian class with the depressed classes of India) and Islamists ( who harbour a bridge of Dalit-Muslim unity for a socio-political goal).
  • In this context, the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrated on 14th April this year again saw mobilisation efforts by all political groups who in turn make promises of Dalit emancipation in their own myriad forms.
  • Therefore, it is essential to view Ambedkar and his political thought (embedded in his social doctrine) in a holistic manner through ample intersection with the historical events in pre-independence India and the underlying significance it carries today.

Background

  • As a very young student in his 20s studying in Columbia University of USA on scholarship, his first foray in the politics was when he participated in the meetings of Montague-Chelmsford constitutional reforms to be granted by the British in 1919. This thumping came after the push by his professors who were in awe of his brilliance.
  • The initial footprint of Ambedkar in the mass politics however arrived somewhat later when he made efforts towards the cohesion of the depressed classes, and orgainsed Satyagraha movements for the temple entry, use of public spaces like wells. He also declared Manusmriti, the ancient law text which legitimised discrimination, a book to be burnt. It was happening in late 1920s.
  • After the Simon Commission of 1927 did not include any Indian and the subsequent protests throughout India, the challenge to form a constitutional programme was realised as Nehru Report in 1928. The Round Table Conferences however again called different representatives of different communities where Ambedkar represented depressed classes, which Gandhiji and Congress objected. Ramsay Macdonald’s Communal Award of 1932 to depressed classes was rejected by Gandhiji who went to fast-unto-death by reasoning that separate electorate for the depressed classes will divide the Hindu society. Poona Pact was henceforth signed between Gandhiji and Ambedkar where Gandhiji accepted reservation of seats for the depressed instead of separate electorate – however Ambedkar repented this decision later. This also created a rift between Gandhiji and Ambedkar and their ideological conflict which reflects in contemporary India substantially as we discuss later.
  • Ambedkar published “Annihilation of Caste” in 1936 which took forward the faultlines within the Hindu society overtly and their historical antecedents. He proclaimed that Shudras are of same race as Aryans and both of them belonged to India by discarding Aryan Invasion Theory. He said that initially there were only three Varnas and Shudras were a tribe within the Kshatriya Varna who disregarded Brahmins for political affairs. On untouchables, he said that they were different wandering tribes and were attuned to the past traditions like beef eating etc. while Brahmanism was in ideological contestation with the Buddhist thought and hence was evolving to include new values which give space to agrarian economy ( like not killing livestock).
  • In 1940s, when the wave of Pakistan movement was blowing tremendously among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, he critically analysed the nature of Islamic societies in the work “Pakistan or the Partition of India” published in 1944. He said that the idea of only one “true” belief is antithetical to the concept of democracy which is the basis of both Islam and Christianity. He even went on to proclaim later that conversion to Islam or Christianity will only denationalise the depressed classes.
  • On the insistence of Gandhiji, Ambedkar was brought in the Constituent Assembly and was made the Chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. It was to pass a symbolic message to the succeeding generations that an “untouchable” has drafted the sacred constitution of the largest and most diverse democratic nation of the world. He is therefore rightly nomenclatured as “modern Manu”.
  • He served as the first law minister in the cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru after the first General Elections of 1951 ( even though he could not win election and was made to come back as a member of Rajya Sabha). He was thus the exemplary force behind drafting the Hindu Code Bill which made the uniform provisions for the equal treatment within the confines of family, particularly for women. He is also said to be very supportive of uniform civil code for every citizen of the country.
  • At the gasping end of his last years, he got disillusioned with the affairs within the country, and that there was no significant change in the conditions of the depressed classes. He as a last resort converted to Buddhism, however the Buddhism followed in India is Mahayana Buddhism which is close to and influenced by Bhakti movement and is therefore little to distinguish between Buddhists and Hindus in India.

Ideas of Ambedkar and their significance

  • From the beginning, he was critical of the freedom movement and the social reform movements (by Indian Social Congress held parallel to Indian National Congress meetings). The freedom movement neglected the social milieu of the country fearing divisions in the struggle if the questions are raised in the discourse. The social reformations at the time of Ambedkar were concentrated largely on the reforms within the family of individuals than within the society which perpetuates discrimination against certain groups.
  • He was a staunch constitutionalist and rejected Gandhiji’s Sarvodya idea to transform society and economy. He was also critical of Gandhiji’s notion of “village republic” and the Panchayati Raj institutions and declared villages as doyen of superstitions, ignorance and casteism. However, today we accept the Gandhian thought amicably and have institutionalised the ancient tradition of Panchayati Raj through 73rd constitutional amendment, though Ambedkar fears can be settled if the institutionalisation is robust and inclusive.
  • The caste discrimination still rampant, but is certainly on the decline plane. As Ambedkar envisaged that Dalits breaking the shackles of caste-occupations and merging with the industrial urban society will automatically weaken the caste system is being proven very true. India should expand the technical skills beyond the caste restricted skills and integrate people into the new system of the economy. Dalit capitalism is seen as one of the product of this thought.
  • Ambedkar also emphasised on the formal education of the depressed classes – both intellectual (which remained limited to Brahmins) and technical (which were caste-based). The state should strengthen the education sector so that the enrolment and quality remains efficient in the schools where the poor dalits study.
  • On the aspects of education and employment (economy), Ambedkar visualised state-socialism as the key to realised the goals as mentioned above. He thought that the state should provide education and control agriculture and industries for the desired social transformation.
  • The constitution of India is majorly a social document as described by Granville Austin, the formost authority on Indian constitution. The imprint of Ambedkar is visible in fundamental rights of equality, reservation for Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes, National Commissions for Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes, and Directive Principles of State Policy etc.
  • Ambedkar was against the separate status accorded to the state of Jammu and Kashmir by Article 370 of the constitution.
  • RBI was conceptualised and formulated by Ambedkar as he was a trained economist.
  • The importance of waterways was also thought over by Ambedkar. Indian government in 2015 upgraded waterways to the national waterways after borrowing from his vision.

Practice Questions

  1. How do you view the role of BR Ambedkar in the broader context before the political independence of the country? Explain.
  2. What is the contemporary relevance of the key ideas of Ambedkar in India? Elucidate.
  3. How does the conditions of the Scheduled Castes reflect in view of some movements in India ( Una and elsewhere) and the role of Ambedkarite thinking in shaping them?
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  • Largeyasmall

    Sure man, you raised a valid​ point here, it was not Gandhi but the hole depressed clads leaders​and Anglo Indian member who get him in. At last Ambedkar joined that assembly.

  • itisvinit

    Gandhi actually forced to name Ambedkar as the chairman of the drafting committee, even though his election may be controversial.

  • itisvinit

    I agree

  • kapil

    very nice article

  • arv44

    factually this paragraph is wrong: ~On the insistence of Gandhiji, Ambedkar was brought in the Constituent Assembly and was made the Chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. It was to pass a symbolic message to the succeeding generations that an “untouchable” has drafted the sacred constitution of the largest and most diverse democratic nation of the world. He is therefore rightly nomenclatured as “modern Manu”.~
    It was Jogendra Nath Mandal who resigned from his seat in Bengal when Dr Ambedkar lost the election. Mandal made sure that Ambedkar enter the constituent assembly. Congress ensured Ambdekar defeat not membership at the first instance.

  • Superb write-up!! Thank you /

  • KopSC

    thank you so much..this was much needed

  • rashmi

    Excellent write up