Ambedkar for our time

He will be relevant as long as concerns of most disempowered are unheard.

Written by D. Raja | Updated: April 14, 2015 9:22 am
A fruitful understanding of Ambedkar and Nehru may be the need of the hour. A fruitful understanding of Ambedkar and Nehru may be the need of the hour.

Today the nation celebrates the 125th 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 emphasised 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, organisation 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.

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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 realise 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 characterisation, 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.

Recognising the commonalities between Nehru and Ambedkar is vital to making democratic socialism applicable to marginalised 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 radicalise 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 marginalised. 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 prioritising the concerns of those who were subjugated by a patriarchal social and economic order. Unfortunately, the Hindu Code Bill was opposed by the Jan Sangh and the RSS.

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 which 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.

The writer is national secretary, CPI, and Rajya Sabha MP.

editpage@expressindia.com

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    Haradhan Mandal
    Apr 14, 2015 at 5:55 pm
    If I am not wrong - tallest communist and leftist leaders (most of them are treated like doyens by the communist/leftists) treated/evaluated him as 'casteiest' and 'regressive' according to their understanding and analysis of their doctrines! Change is welcome - but it may explain the failures/shortcomings of the 'leaders' - who were incapable to see the difference between the ground realities Of India and Marxist theories of Christian Western Europe! Or they refuse to acknowledge because of their own social lineage?
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    1. I
      IndianWellWisher
      Apr 14, 2015 at 9:30 am
      Didn't he also say reservations for a limited period only? Didn't he foresee the misuse by politicians?? How sad.
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      1. I
        IndianWellWisher
        Apr 14, 2015 at 9:34 am
        US free public school system was a far better method to achieve equality than reservations.
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          Aditya Gaiha
          Apr 14, 2015 at 1:21 pm
          Dr Ambedkar did not write the entire consution he improved upon the earlier versions including the Act of 1935. He was of course a tireless social worker and strived to eliminate discrimination based on caste, however he left the battle half way in so far as the Hindu code went, and as far as the uniform civil code went. he also left the battle half way to reform Hinduism by converting to Buddhism. He was amongst the long list of leaders who opposed full Independence of India from the British rule and he openly opposed hiji and the Congress call for full freedom in the round table conferences. he was used as a stooge to delay freedom for India by the British. His m appeal was also questionable. Despite his shortcomings and misgivings he was a towering leader and intellectual thinker of his times but unfortunately he has been almost beatified now which does more harm then good. Let us now loose our objectivity by beatifying anyone.
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            Anil Maheshwari
            Apr 14, 2015 at 12:54 pm
            No doubt, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was a towering personality. But we should not forget M.C. Rajah, the Dalit leader from Madras whose thunders were stolen by Dr. Ambedkar who enjo the patronage of Mahatma hi while Rajah was unlucky in this regard. C._Rajah
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              natarajan
              Apr 14, 2015 at 10:32 am
              Mr.Raja should know by this time that nehruvian socialism was exploited by the politicians to keep the people in perpetual poverty.and communists all over the world are quite good at keeping the people in perpetual poverty so that they don't have to think about anything else but their next meal. and the politburo can enjoy themselves the luxuries.let the communists think differently to pull out people out of poverty rather than blaming others for their folly
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                Harsh
                Apr 14, 2015 at 7:55 pm
                They have done their job with all the sincerity to serve the humanity at large but what we have given in return is the question today. We fail to protect democratic, secular and socialist India that ensure equality and prosperity to all. We allow to make a mockery of our political system that leads to frustration of common man towards system itself. We sincerely fail in propagating what we were before independence and what we have achieved after independence. The legal right that was given us in the form of consution of equality and prosperity to all that right itself we put under question and its existence under suspension and may be under deletion in near future. The artificially created frustration with the help of technology of common man leads himself/herself towards slavery. It is and it was our duty to protect them from this electronic hacking invasion and the mistake that our ancestor have done thousand and thousands year back may not have repeated again but we failed. Thus, it is easy to acquire the prosperity with hard work and sincerity but it require real intelligence to sustain it, where we are severely lacking. That needs to acquire and sustain, so we can put forward an example towards the world and not become their miserable follower.
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                  PKR
                  Apr 14, 2015 at 2:31 pm
                  Why did he change his name from Sakpal to Ambedkar?Why did he feel ashamed of it?He actually could have fared better if he had not adopted the Brahminical surname and converted to Buddhism on his death bed
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                    Comment
                    Apr 15, 2015 at 12:04 pm
                    I Thank all the reporting and editing staff of The Indian Express, for bringing forth the history and doings of our great leaders for the people of today to understand and Grasp.... the above column is illustrative of the works of Mr. Ambedkar, how he was against the RSS ideology and so on, but yet these politicians want to brainwash the present society with their talks of the past thinking that no one ever remembers the past Indian history and want to dig into their vote banks quoting Acche Din and then show us that we are still minorities
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