Reclaiming Dr. Ambedkar

Dr. B R Ambedkar was voted as the ‘Greatest Indian After Gandhi’ in a poll conducted by Outlook, CNN IBN, and History TV18. Ambedkar beat Nehru and Sardar Patel, as well as APJ Abdul Kalam, to emerge victorious.

The poll went through three separate methods (ranking by jury, ranking by market research, and ranking by popular vote by phone and website), and two phases, and Ambedkar emerged at the top following the cumulative ranking. Significantly, the jury ranked Ambedkar second, after Nehru; the market research company ranked him 6th; and it was in the popular votes category that Ambedkar truly came into his own, polling 19,91,734 votes, head and shoulders ahead of Kalam (13,74,431) and Sardar Patel (5,58,835). It is also intriguing that Nehru, ranked first by the jury, came bottom in the popular votes category.

The popular voting (through phone calls, online, and missed calls) was highest from Maharashtra, followed by Uttar Pradesh, and then Gujarat. No doubt, there must have been a considerable component of organized polling by Dalit groups from Maharashtra and UP, but it is equally true that there might have been organized polling for Sardar Patel from Gujarat. It could be argued that such polls are rather superficial. But the fact that Ambedkar emerged victorious in such a poll is, undoubtedly, significant.

The responses from various quarters to this poll (as quoted in the Outlook) are quite significant. On the one hand, you have some (like N Ram) who assert that “Nehru stands streets ahead of others,” while Ambedkar “stands taller today than ever before.” Then, you have BJP leaders like Arun Jaitley assert that “Sardar Patel stands much taller than the rest.”

And there are Hindutva ideologues like Sudheendra Kulkarni, who equate Ambedkar’s legacy with ‘intolerance’ and ‘disharmony’: code words for a rejection of the varnashrama social order and of Hindutva. Kulkarni calls for Hindu society to “carry forward” Ambedkar’s vision, which according to him was one of “eradication of caste-related evils in its fold,” while accusing Ambedkar’s followers of seeking to ‘malign’ Hinduism and promote foreign-funded conversion! No wonder, the Dalits of Kandhamal are being attacked by the Sangh Parivar, because they converted to Christianity!

Kulkarni, of course, deliberately misrepresents Ambedkar. Ambedkar did not think that caste-related ‘evils’ could be eradicated without annihilating caste itself – and he saw the caste system as being implicated in the warp and weft of Hindu society.

Kulkarni invokes Gandhi’s legacy as a counter to Ambedkar’s; ironic, given the fact that the RSS’-inspired Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi. Anand Patwardhan’s latest documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade, shows the enactment of the play Mee Nathuram Boltoy, in which the character of Godse makes a sarcastic comment about how he, unlike Gandhi, did not want to clean his own toilet. Clearly, the right-wing upper castes who hated Gandhi, did so not only on communal grounds, but because he broke the pollution taboo of Hindu caste society, too. Gandhi and Ambedkar differed historically in their social and political vision. But Hindutva can neither accommodate Gandhi nor Ambedkar (they have tried both) without deliberate distortion of their respective ideas.

Then you have those who suggest that now, finally, Ambedkar can be smoothly accommodated in the pantheon of ‘national leaders’, rather than remaining a subversive, uncomfortable figure as a ‘Dalit icon.’ ‘Greatness’, it is suggested, must mean that Ambedkar the scholar, the constitution-maker, must be recognized, because the ‘Greatest Indian’ cannot be a leader of Dalit assertion alone. Ramchandra Guha, for instance, says that “Dr Ambedkar’s legacy has been distorted to suit particular interests. He was a great scholar, institution-builder and economic theorist. To project him as just a Dalit icon, or treat him like a prophet, does not do justice to his memory.”

But why should Ambedkar, the Dalit icon, be less than, or at odds with, ‘national’ greatness? Surely, the continued and renewed relevance of Ambedkar is precisely due to the fact that his radical democratic social vision, and his activism on the question of Dalit dignity and rights, resonate at a time when, 66 years after Independence, atrocities and discrimination against Dalits show no signs of abating. The stubborn persistence, even assertion, of feudal practices point to the weak foundations of democracy and modernity, and distorted, stunted capitalist growth. Ambedkar’s resurgence is relevant, precisely because it reflects the defiant assertion and resistance of the oppressed and exploited. It is significant that statues of Ambedkar continue to be visited with vicious violence, not only in Maharashtra and UP, where his image could be said to be associated with specific political parties, but even in Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Clearly, all over the country, Ambedkar is associated with Dalit social and political assertion, with the values of equality and dignity, with a radical challenge to feudal conservatism and majoritarianism, and that is why violence is meted out with such fury to his symbolic presence.

Can Ambedkar the embattled iconoclast, lifelong at bitter odds with India’s nascent ruling class, be equated now with a sanitized constitutionalism, shorn of his contrarian legacy? In a way, the figure of Ambedkar has acquired recognition and acceptance across the political spectrum. Not only the parties of the Bahujan and Ambedkarite traditions, but even the Congress and the BJP, ritually embrace Ambedkar. But Ambedkar’s radical legacy is one that continues to be unpalatable for most of the dominant political streams.

When Ambedkar was unsure of his election to the Constituent Assembly, he prepared a memorandum in March 1947, published in May 1947 as States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India. This document, presented as a ‘Constitution of the United States of India,’ was far ahead, in its radical democratic social vision, of what became the Indian Constitution. This document recommended that “Key industries shall be owned and run by the State... the State shall compel every adult citizen to take out a life insurance policy commensurate with his wages as may be prescribed by the Legislature... agriculture shall be a State industry.” The same document also advocated the state acquiring all agricultural land, dividing it into farms of standard size, and letting out the farms for cultivation to residents of the village as tenants, to be cultivated collectively.

The document prophetically observed that private enterprise, if linked to industrialization, “would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe and which should be a warning to Indians.” Ambedkar observed how capitalism was fundamentally opposed to democracy: “Anyone who studies the working of the system of social economy based on private enterprise and pursuit of personal gain will realise how it undermines, if it does not actually violate, the last two premises (i.e that the individual shall not be required to relinquish any of his constitutional rights as a precondition to the receipt of a privilege, and that the State shall not delegate powers to private persons to govern others) on which Democracy rests.”

He brilliantly responds to the argument that State control would curb ‘liberty’: “To whom and for whom is this liberty? Obviously this liberty is liberty to the landlords to increase rents, for capitalists to increase hours of work and reduce rate of wages. …In other words what is called liberty from the control of the State is another name for the dictatorship of the private employer.”

He rejected the idea that “the scope and function of Constitutional Law was to prescribe the shape and form of the political structure of society”, insisting that “it was equally essential to prescribe the shape and form of the economic structure of society, if Democracy is to live up to its principle of one man, one value,” rather than just ‘one man, one vote.’

All the above ideas point to a vision that flies in the face of the actual practice of India’s ruling class parties, including the ones that swear by Bahujan and Ambedkarite values, but promote unfettered neoliberal policies with zeal.

Ambedkar, as Labour Member of the Viceroy’s Council,1942-45, played a role in recognizing many of the historic demands of the Indian working class; among other things, the passage of the Minimum Wages Act and the recognition of the worker’s ‘Right to Strike.’ What would Ambedkar say about the fate of workers in India today?

Ambedkar resigned from the first Cabinet in independent India due to the Nehru Government’s betrayal and backtracking on a crucial piece of reform legislation drafted by Ambedkar – the Hindu Code Bill, which had clauses against caste discrimination, and providing for property and inheritance rights for women. The Hindu Code Bill was virulently opposed by several leaders within the Congress and the Constituent Assembly. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, said the Bill would “shatter the magnificent structure of Hindu culture.” In his resignation letter, Ambedkar declared, “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu Society untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap. This is the significance I attached to the Hindu Code.” He lamented that “After a life of four years, it (the Bill) was killed and died unwept and unsung, after 4 clauses of it were passed…In regard to this Bill, I have been made to go through the greatest mental torture. The aid of Party Machinery was denied to me.”

Historically, the Left and Ambedkar had many differences. But it must not be forgotten that it was the communist women’s organization which had, at the time, spearheaded a mass campaign on the streets in favour of the Hindu Code Bill.

The film Jai Bhim Comrade ends with the youthful voice of Dalit poet Sheetal Sathe, singing of how ‘Bhim’ has been trapped by the market and by opportunists; and calling for the rise of Bhim from within the fighting resistance of the people. India’s ruling class can never do justice to Ambedkar’s radical legacy. That legacy must be revived and reasserted by those who struggle for revolutionary social transformation – against feudal and patriarchal exploitation and atrocities and the imperialist, neoliberal policy regime which coexist and cooperate with each other.

Liberation Archive