Why we need Ambedkar more than ever
Even though Ambedkar’s political philosophy is under-utilised, he will continue to be the key intellectual and political figure
Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar — whose birth anniversary falls on April 14 — was a major aberration to the Indian nationalist iconography. His fearless challenge to Mahatma Gandhi’s moralist appeal was based on the assessment that social elites lack ethical convictions to emancipate the Dalits. Ambedkar wanted to elevate the Dalits from their subjugated and depressing social condition to an equal claimant over social rights and political power. This democratic assertion is often belittled as a narrow political act, reducing Ambedkar to a mere Dalit leader. But he was much more than that.
In post-Independent India, Ambedkar’s political philosophy has churned around three major themes.
First, he hoped that the modern Constitution, with its rational and welfare-oriented directives, will be more effective in bringing substantive social changes. Second, he assumed that Dalits will emerge as a potent political force and will participate in the new democracy. Third, he visualised that Buddhism will help India reinvent its glorious ethical past and advance liberal principles (mainly liberty, equality and fraternity).
In the post-liberalisation period, multiple communities have adopted Ambedkar as a key thinker on subaltern rights, social justice and ecological issues. Dalit and other social movements place him on a high mantle as a heroic individual, as an apostle of great virtues, as one of the leading nationalist icons. However, Ambedkar’s ambition to establish socially marginalised groups as a crucial participant in political power has remained unfulfilled. The Dalit political movement has been peripheral and insignificant, while Hindutva organisations have appropriated Ambedkar as their core cultural symbol, and have successfully attracted newer Dalit communities into their fold.
The last political outfit that Ambedkar established, the Republican Party of India, crumbled soon after its inception. Another radical alternative, the Dalit Panthers, died a slow death. In Uttar Pradesh, under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and, later, Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) offered a political alternative. But over the last decade, it has become a peripheral force. In the rest of India, the Ambedkarite political movement is still at a nascent stage.
Since Narendra Modi came to power, the representation of Ambedkar as a Hindu reformist nationalist icon has taken precedence over his radical anti-caste identity. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wishes to showcase that they are equally sensitive to Ambedkar’s political ideas and committed to the values of constitutional justice. On April 14, 2017, Modi visited Deekshabhumi at Nagpur, and announced various welfare measures for the Dalits, which is a loud political statement. Across the country, his government has built monuments, statues, memorials and organised cultural programmes and symbolic events to prove its sincerity towards Ambedkar and his followers.
The BJP also tried to test its pro-Dalit social engineering in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a dedicated samarasta (harmony) programme to connect the most disadvantaged social groups into the Hindutva project. The sub-caste factionalism within the Dalits helps the BJP to mobilise the worst-off Dalits. Popular Dalit personalities such as Ramnath Kovind who was elected as president as the nominee of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and NDA allies Ramdas Athawale or Ramvilas Paswan have helped the BJP expand its electoral support-base. The new Dalit leadership often speaks the political language of the RSS, without being apologetic of its communal character.
For the first time, the BJP has also gained considerable support among the Dalit middle classes as well as within the neo-Buddhists. The new Dalit entrants in the Right-wing politics regard it as a pragmatic and rational option, especially when the “secular” political parties have failed to bring any substantive material benefits to the community.
The rise of the BJP, the decline of the independent Dalit political movement, and the relegation of parties with the social justice ideology to the sidelines, make us believe that a large number of Dalits have moved away from Ambedkar’s radical vision. But this is too early to say. Despite the success of the Right-wing in appropriating Ambedkar, his political and social vision remain a challenge to the Hindutva cause.
For India’s future, Ambedkar envisioned an ideological force of democratic socialism. He valued modernity as a force of humanity’s progress towards true freedom, by which he meant liberation from conservative religious bondages and establishment of fraternal social life. Ambedkar’s political philosophy is a dynamic resource yet to be activated in its true spirit. Like Karl Marx, any reading of his key texts not only ignites our critical capacities but also introduces us to the grave struggles that people are engaged in against social and economic oppression. Ambedkar’s critical insights liberate us from the dungeon of the caste psyche, cultural prejudices and upper-caste hegemony.
Ambedkar in its true spirit would be a bête noir to the Right-wing school of thought. He was extremely harsh against the Brahminical Hindu religious order, and was unapologetically critical towards nationalist leaders (including Gandhi and Nehru). He forcefully rejected Hindutva as the ideological force to imagine the new nation. In his book, Pakistan or the Partition of India, he proclaimed that the “Hindu Raj” will be the greatest calamity for the country, and, therefore, it must be prevented at any cost.
Some Dalits today have moved towards Right-wing politics, with the hope that it will bring them some material benefit. However, such hopes are rarely fulfilled. Though economic growth, in general, has improved, the real-life conditions of the Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised communities prove their persistent marginalisation and exclusion. Further, upper-caste cultural hegemony, the social elite’s dominance in public institutions, the growing relegation of Dalits into the informal labour market, and the absence of political deliberation on social justice has become the new norm.
Ambedkar’s political philosophy is under-utilised. When the deprivation and destitution of a large mass are growing, while the economic and the political power of a minority social elites is on a rapid surge, it is imperative to bring the discourse of social justice and socialism back. Ambedkar will continue to be the key intellectual figure that provides the critical resource to challenge the dominance of the Right-wing.
Harish Wankhede is an assistant professor with the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal