Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born on 14th April, 1891 in a small town at Mhow Cantt near Indore in Mahar caste, which is known as untouchable caste in Maharashtra. He died on 6th December, 1956. His name was Bhim Sakpal, during childhood. His father was Ramji Sakpal, who was the follower of Saint Kabir. Therefore, he never believed in caste. He adopted Buddha religion along with 5 lakh people in a historical congregation on 14th October, 1956 at Nagpur.
After doing High School from Satara (Maharashtra) in 1907, Ambedkar got admission in Elphinstone College, Bombay. He was given ‘Gayakwad scholarship’ by Maharaja Gayakwad of Baroda for his study in college and with this scholarship itself, he got admission in Columbia University, USA and did his M.A. from there in 1915.
He was the first Indian among untouchables who went abroad for higher education. He got PhD in 1917 from Columbia. In 1916, after submission of his PhD thesis, he went to London for the study of law and also took admission in London School of Economics and Political Science for the study of economics. In 1921, he got the degree of Master of Science and also PhD on his thesis entitled, “The Problem of the Rupee” from London University. Simultaneously, he did Bar at Law.
In 1923, Ambedkar started his law practice and also devoted himself for the upliftment of Dalits (depressed class) and poor. In 1930, he became the president of the All India ^Depressed Class Association. In 1936, he formed an Independent Labour Party, which later on turned into All India Scheduled Castes Federation.
On 7th August, 1942, Ambedkar became the member of the Council for Governor General. In his chairmanship, the Constitution of India was drafted. On 3rd August, 1949, he took the char ge of the Law Minister in the Government of India. In 1955, he formed Bharatiya Buddha Mahasabha. Ambedkar always felt that the depressed class has no honour in the Hindu religion which also reflects in his writings and actions.
Writings of Ambedkar:
1. The Untouchables, Who are they?
2. Who were the Shudra?
3. States and Minorities
4. Emancipation of the Untouchables
5. Annihilation of Caste
Concept of Dalit:
Generally, the word Dalit includes those who are designated in administrative parlance as Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). However, in common political discourse, the term Dalit is so far mainly referred to Scheduled Castes.
The term ‘Scheduled Caste’ was used for the first time by the British in Government of India Act, 1935. Prior to this, the untouchable castes were known as depressed classes in public discourse. Mahatma Gandhi gave them the name Harijan – man of God. Gandhi himself did not coin the name. He borrowed the name from a Bhakti saint of the 17th century – Narsimh Mehta.
Traditionally, according to the Hindu code of conduct, the untouchables were placed at the bottom of hierarchy and had different names in different parts of the country. They were called Shudras, Atishudras, Chandals, Antyajas, Pariahas, Dheds, Panchamas, Avarnas, Namashudras, Asprusthas, etc.
The word dalit is a common usage in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and many other Indian languages, meaning the poor and oppressed persons. Shah (2001) views: “Dalit includes all the oppressed and exploited sections of society. It does not confine itself merely to economic exploitation in terms of appropriation of surplus.
It also relates to the suppression of culture – way of life and value system – and more importantly the denial of dignity. It has essentially emerged as a political category. For some, it connotes an ideology for fundamental change in the social structure and relationships.” The word dalit indicates struggle for an egalitarian order (Zelliot, 2001: 232).
Dalit is a by-product of the Ambedkar movement and indicates a political and social awareness. Ambedkar adopted a different approach and philosophy for the emancipation of Scheduled Castes. He wanted to liberate the Dalits by building an egalitarian social order which he believed was not possible within the fold of Hinduism whose very structures were hierarchical which relegated the Dalits to the bottom. He asserted that the Dalits should come forward and assert for their own cause. He gave them a mantra – educate, organize and agitate.
Dalit Liberation: Subaltern Approach:
With the advent of Ambedkar into the Indian political arena during 1920s, the issue of social reforms achieved a new dimension. He was of the opinion that until and unless the downtrodden themselves came forward to fight their battle, no one else could alleviate their grievances. No one else could know better than them about their own state of affairs.
Ambedkar impressed upon the people to understand their own affairs themselves. Self-awakening, he believed, could provide them necessary strength to fight against evils in society. “Ambedkar (started) exercising the spirit of despair from the minds of dumb millions who had been forced to live the lives of sub-human beings.
Here was a liberator preaching them the grand universal law that liberty is neither received as a gift; it has to be fought for. Self-elevation is not achieved by the blessing of others but only by one’s own struggle and deed. Those inert dormant masses lacked courage and needed a vision and a mission. Ambedkar was aspiring them to do battle for their human rights. He was driving them to action by acting himself…. Ambedkar was displaying energy by his own action; arousing their faith by showing faith” (Keer, 1971).
Ambedkar realized that caste and Brahminic Hinduism reinforce each other and discriminate against the downtrodden sections of the society. He traced the genesis of the oppressive nature of the caste-dominated Indian society to the ‘sacred’ Shastras of the Hindus who guarded them so closely that if anyone except them read or hear them he would commit any act of sacrilege.
Manusmriti sanctioned severest punishment for such a sacrilegious act. According to Ambedkar, the Vedas, Smritis and Shastras were all instruments of torture used by Hinduism against the untouchables (Lobo, 2001). In fact, it was Ambedkar’s subaltern perspective, which pierced through the Shastras to reveal their true face.
He emphasized in his Annihilation of Caste that the Smirits and Shastras were not the embodiment of religion but a system of rules to deprive the untouchables even of their basic needs and deny them equal status in the society. Therefore, he said that there is no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed and there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion that discriminate against its own people whom it bracketed as untouchables.
An another aspect of Ambedkar’s subaltern approach for the emancipation of Dalits and their empowerment was his distinct formulation of Indian nationalism in opposition to the dominant discourse of Hindu nationalism as represented by Raja Rammohan Roy, B.G. Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
His conception of nationalism articulated and synthesized the national perceptions and aspirations of the downtrodden. Ambedkar’s alternative form of nationalism, popularly known as ‘Dalit-Bahujan Samaj’, also incorporated the subaltern philosophy of Jyotirao Phule and Periyuar E.V. Ramaswami Naicker. It constructed an anti-Hindu and anti-Brahminical discourse of Indian nationalism. It aimed at establishing a casteless and classless society where no one would be discriminated on the basis of birth and occupation.
Within the Dalit-Bahujan framework of Indian nationalism, Ambedkar built up a critique of pre-colonial Brahamanism and its inegalitarian social set-up based on low and high dichotomy of graded caste system. This system of inegalitarianism led to the process of exploitation by the unproductive Brahminical castes of the various productive castes. Thus, Ambedkar provided a subaltern perspective to see clearly the chameleon of Indian castes-ridden social set deceptively appearing in crimson colours and the ways to guard the interests of the Dalits.
Analysis of the Writings of Ambedkar:
Rodrigues (2002) made an attempt to highlight the best of Ambedkar’s writings, reflecting the depth and range of his life’s work, his intellectual incisiveness, and his realistic assessment of the social and political issues. We find that the analysis given by Rodrigues is very useful for the understanding of Ambedkar’s writings. Therefore, we are describing here the abridged version of the Rodrigues’ analysis on the following issues as reflected in Ambedkar’s writings.
Exploration of Concepts:
Ambedkar found the need to reflect upon a wide range of concepts either to substantially explore them, decipher their different determinations, or to chisel and fine tune them by removing the dross. He adopted different approaches to present them, sometimes in the light of historical developments and at other times, in view of contentions.
There are times when he attempted to extrapolate them from a mass of data. Occasionally, he appropriated a concept from a scholar and suggested certain innovations, or drew on his or her authority to reinforce certain dimensions of a concept at hand. There are certain concepts that he radically overhauls and as, for instance, the concept of ‘Kamma’.
Sometimes, the determination of a concept is brought out by contrasting it with kindered concepts such as between religion, dbamma and sadhamma. Dealing with different types of concepts, he is much more at home with concepts that are less abstruse and closer to experience, lending themselves to actual practice and illustration by example. With his focus on concepts and arguments, Ambedkar contributed to building not merely a framework for social sciences in India but also the basis of healthy public debate.
Ambedkar undertook different types of studies, some involving the collection of sizeable data and the other processing such as the election studies of 1937 and 1945, focusing on the constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes. He undertook several case studies, often to drive home a point better.
There are studies where he attempted to locate the major changes in policy or issues over a period by dividing the period into appropriate stages. These projects required resort to documents and archives for necessary data, such as doctoral studies of Ambedkar, which drew not merely from official documents but also from archival data. In them, there are the standard references to the manuscripts and texts.
There are studies such as Who were the Shudras?, exegetical in nature, which delve into texts but propose an alternative thesis because the existing explanations of these texts do not account for certain known details or passages. Studies, such as The Untouchables, resort to the method of constructing a distinctive thesis centred on a characteristic feature in a determinate group, existing solely in that group and universally shared by it.
Ambedkar also dwelt a great deal on interpretation and on the criteria appropriate for it.7He argued that Gandhi’s interpretation of Hinduism did not stand up to the criteria of interpretation, Further, he felt that interpretations which do not take popularly held beliefs and strong evaluations into account, do not materially affect the situation studied.
The ideas and ideals of John Dewey, Edwin R.A. Seligman, the Fabians and the British Idealists had a deep impact on Ambedkar. He described himself as a ‘progressive radical’ and occasionally as a ‘progressive conservative, the qualification, ‘progressive’, being generally present, distinguishing himself from the liberals and the communists depending on the case.
He saw the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Indian Constitution as upholding economic democracy. His notion of liberty was avowedly that of the T.H. Green kind. Although he talked of equality before law and considered it as a major contribution of the British rule in India, he was not satisfied with this notion and advanced stronger notions such as equality of consideration, equality of respect, and equality of dignity.
He was sensitive to the notion of respect, and the notion of community was central in his consideration. The demand for ‘fraternity’ in the French Revolution was seen by him as a call for ‘community’. The Buddha, he argued, strove for building communities while Brahminism attempted to fragment them.
At the same time, Ambedkar recognized the critical role of the state, the legacies of Columbia University, London School of Economics and the colonial state in India being in consonance with such recognition. He strongly defended a developmental and ameliorative, and consequently an interventionist approach, as against the Gandhians and the Liberals.
The state was invested with a pivotal role in the economy. But, whenever such pivotal role for the state is alluded to, it is based on the premise of a regime of rights that suggested the reasons and limits of interventions. He was deeply suspicious of embedded identities asserting themselves in the name of ethnic, linguistic and cultural claims, relating such assertions to the problem of majorities and minorities.
When identity assertions took place, he felt, the minorities are likely to be the victims. He qualified majoritarianism with strong grids of the rule of law, special privileges to minorities, and the existence of a civil society which could nurture democracy as a civic virtue.
His opinion that politics and institutions deeply affect the question of representation, found expression in his suggestion before the Simon Commission, that if adult franchise was introduced, he would favour a joint electorate with reservation for depressed classes and if limited franchise was continued he would demand a separate electorate.
One of the Ambedkar’s most important arguments against Hinduism was that caste and untouchability did not let Hindus act as a community. There is an emphasis on moral order. He rarely gave a deductive picture of religions but went into the sociological moorings that threw up a diversity of beliefs and practices.
At the same time, he admitted that a commonly held religious belief has an impact on socially differentiated constituencies. He found a lot of doctrinal cleavages within Hinduism. He had no great fascination for bhakti with which he was nourished in his childhood, castigating the bhakti saints for failing to attract the Shastras, which provided the normative and sacred grids for sustaining and justifying unjust social institutions.
Ambedkar showed an extraordinary interest in Marxism, particularly in the 1950s. All his major writings during this period, viz., Buddha and the Future of his Religion, The Buddha and his Dhamma and Buddha and Karl Marx, refer to Marx as the central figure. He identified certain crucial areas on which he agreed with Karl Marx: the task of philosophy is to transform the world; there is conflict between class and class; private ownership of property begets sorrow and exploitation; and good society requires that private property be collectivized.
He found that on all these four issues Buddha is in agreement with Marx. He, however, rejected the inevitability of socialism, the economic interpretation of history, the thesis on the pauperization of the proletariat, dictatorship of the proletariat, withering away of the state and the strategy of violence as a means of seize power.
He felt that the Buddhism, which called for self-control and a moral foundation for society, could provide the missing dimensions for a socialist project and for the purpose, called for a dialogue between Marxism and Buddhism. Therefore, while liberal and modernist alliances of Buddhism were taking place elsewhere, Ambedkar wanted to relocate Buddhism in the trajectory of Marxism and vice versa.
A large part of Ambedkar’s writings had a direct bearing on Hinduism, most of which remained unpublished and in the initial draft form during his lifetime. In these studies, which he undertook mainly from the second half of the 1940s, Ambedkar argued that Buddhism, which attempted to found society on the basis of reason and morality, was a major revolution, both social and ideological, against the degeneration of the Aryan society.
It condemned the varna system and gave hope to the poor, the exploited and the women. It rallied against sacrifices, priestcraft and superstition. The Buddhist Sangha became the platform for the movement towards empowering and ennobling the common man.
However, Brahminism struck back against the revolution through the counter-revolution launched by Pushyamitra. Here, Ambedkar deployed a specific terminology employed to explain mainstream European transitions of nineteenth and twentieth centuries and he felt that the corresponding explanation was appropriate for India too, although the periods in question were wide apart.
For Ambedkar, literature, which legitimized and instituted the counter-revolution, was Smriti literature in general and Manusmriti in particular. It gave birth to the principle of assigning human beings to social roles, reduced the Shudra to servitude and condemned women to ignominy.
On the contrary, the governing principle during the Vedic period for assigning social roles was varna, the principle of worth, which allowed wide mobility although it ordered society hierarchically. The trajectory of social transformation that Ambedkar traced was divided into the following phases: the Vedic society and its degeneration into Aryan society; the rise of Buddhism and the social and moral transformation it set into motion; and finally, the counter-revolution and the rise of Brahminism.
Ambedkar found that the Hindu scriptures do not lend themselves to a unified and coherent understanding. There are strong contentions built into them within and across trends and traditions. There are cleavages within the Vedas; the Upanishadic thought is in contentions with the Vedic thought; Smriti literature argues against Sruti literature; sometimes the Vedas are considered lower than the Shastras; gods are pitted against one another; and tantra is tallied against Smriti literature.
The icons of Hinduism such as Rama and Krishna have little to recommend them, in that there is nothing morally elevating about them. Further, Ambedkar generally tended to suggest a later date to the central texts of Hinduism as compared to other Indian scholars.
He did not comment much on the Upanishads, and compared to the rest of the Hindu literature, is relatively favourably disposed towards them. As late as 1936, Ambedkar felt that Hinduism could be redrafted on the basis of Upanishadic thought. For Ambedkar, the Gita is a post-Buddhist text.
It is primarily a defence of karma-kanda, i.e., religious acts and observance, by removing the excrescence which was grown over it. The Gita advances a set of philosophical arguments to save Brahminism in the context of the rise of Buddhism and the inability of the former to defend itself by a mere appeal to the rituals and practices of the Vedas. He finds that the Gita defends the position of Jaimini’s Minamsa against Badarayan’s Brahmasutras.
Ambedkar developed a new interpretation of Buddhism which made commentators label it “Ambedkar’s Buddhism”. His magnum opus, The Buddha and His Dhamma highlights the central issues that concerned him throughout his life and demarcates his view sharply from that of his adversaries.
The work contains the central teachings of the Buddha along with a commentary built into it. The commentary transposes the Buddha’s teachings to the present and suggests its contemporary relevance with respect to the problems that confront humanity. He saw Buddhism as an ideology that engages with the world, privileging the poor and exploited.
Ambedkar repeatedly asserted that Buddha has a social message. Further, he constructed Buddhism in opposition to Hinduism arguing that if there are some traces of Hinduism in Buddhism, they could be attributed to Brahminical interpolations. Ambedkar also upheld the superiority of Buddhism over other religions, particularly Islam and Christianity.
Ambedkar’s understanding of caste and the caste system underwent certain significant changes over the period of his writings. Initially, he had argued that the characteristic of caste was endogamy, superimposed by exogamy in a shared cultural ambience. He suggested that evils such as sati, child marriage and prohibition on widow remarriage were the outcome of caste.
Further, if a caste closed its boundaries, other castes were also forced to follow the suit. The Brahmins closing themselves socially first gave rise to the system of castes. Ambedkar continued to emphasize the endogamous characteristic of caste but roped in other features such as the division of labour, absence of inter-dinning and the principle of birth, which he had earlier largely absorbed within endogamy.
He also found that the caste name is an important feature, which keeps inequality in the normative anchor of the caste system. Graded inequality restricts the reach of equality to members of the caste at the most. Ambedkar thought that caste is an essential feature of the Hindu religion.
Although a few reformers may have denounced it, for the vast majority of Hindus breaking the codes of caste in a clear violation of deeply held religious beliefs. He found Gandhi subscribing to caste initially and later opposing it but upholding varna instead. Gandhi’s conception of varna is the same as that of caste, that is, assigning social agents on the basis of birth, rather than worth.
It led to upholding graded inequality and the denial of freedom and equality, social relations that cannot beget community bonds. The solution that Ambedkar proposed was the annihilation of caste. He suggested inter-caste marriage and inter-dinning for the purpose although the latter by itself is too weak to forge any enduring bonds.
Further, he felt that hereditary priesthood should go and it should remain open to all the co-religionists endowed with appropriate qualifications as certified by the state. Ambedkar, however, felt that these suggestions would not be acceptable to Hindus. After the early 1930s he gave up any hope of reforming Hinduism except for a belief while with the Hindu Code Bill which was, in a way, the continuation of the agenda he had set for himself in the 1920s.
Ambedkar’s engagement with untouchability, as a researcher, intellectual and activist, is much more nuanced, hesitant but intimate as compared to his viewpoint on caste, where he is prepared to offer stronger judgements and proffer solutions. However, with untouchability, there is often a failure of words. Grief is merged with anger.
He often exclaims how an institution of this kind has been tolerated and even defended. He evinces deep suspicions about the bona fides of others in terms of their engagement with it. He distinguished the institution of untouchability from that of caste, though the former is reinforced by the latter, and Brahminism constituted the enemy of both.
He felt that it was difficult for outsiders to understand the phenomena. He thought human sympathy would be forthcoming towards alleviating the plight of the untouchables, but at the same time anticipated hurdles to be crossed – hurdles made of age-old prejudices, interests, religious retribution, the burden of the social pyramid above and the feeble resources that the untouchables could muster.
He found that the colonial administration did little to ameliorate the lot of the untouchables. He argued that the track-record of Islam and Christianity, in this regard, is not praiseworthy either, although they may not subscribe to untouchability as integral to their religious beliefs.
Ambedkar felt that untouchables have to fight their own battle and if others are concerned about them, then, such a concern has to be expressed in helping them to fight rather than prescribing solutions to them. He discussed attempts to deny the existence of untouchables and to reduce the proportion of their population in order to deny them adequate political presence.
He resorted to comparison with what he called the parallel cases, such as the treatment meted out to slaves and Jews but found the lot of the untouchables worse than theirs. He argued that in spite of differences and cleavages, all untouchables share common disadvantages and treatment from caste Hindus: they live in ghettos; they were universally despised and kept outside the fold.
He maintained a graphic account of the course of the movement of the untouchables, although this was much more specific about the movement in the Bombay Presidency. He threw scorn at the Gandhian attempt to remove untouchability and termed it as a mere facade aimed at buying over the untouchables with kindness.
He presented voluminous empirical data to defend such a thesis, and suggested his own strategies to confront untouchability, warning untouchables not to fall into the trap of Gandhism. He exhorted them to fight for political power. Although he did not find the lot of untouchables better among Christians and Muslims, he felt that they had a better option as they did not subscribe to untouchability as a religious tenet. Ambedkar was also deeply sensitive to insinuations offered by others to co-opt untouchables within their political ambit.
Ambedkar rarely went into the question of the origin of untouchability in history. He rebutted the suggestion that race has anything to do with it, and did not subscribe to the position that caste has its basis in race either. However, in one instance, he proposed a very imaginative thesis that untouchables were broken men living on the outskirts of village communities who, due to their refusal to give up Buddhism and beef-eating, came to be condemned as untouchables.
He did not repeat this thesis in any central way later to the fold either. It has to be noted that the thesis was proposed when Ambedkar was fighting for the recognition that untouchables were a separate element in India and, therefore, should be constitutionally evolved with appropriate safeguards, while the colonial administration and Gandhian leadership were prepared to recognize only the Muslims and Sikhs as distinct communities.
As in the case of the untouchables, Ambedkar attempted to construct a separate identity of Shudras as well and this too during the second half of the 1940s. He identified himself with the non-Brahmins and attempted to build a non-Aryan Naga identity ascribing to it the signal achievements of Indian civilization. He also proposed to write on the clash of the Aryans and the Nagas much more elaborately than he was to do. However, his exploration of the Naga identity remained quite thin.
We find in Ambedkar’s works a great deal of discussions about primitive tribes and what were called ‘criminal’ tribes. He saw them basically as outside the pale of civilization and blamed Hinduism for confining them to such sub-human levels. He ridiculed the Hindus for applauding their attitude to such degradation in the name of toleration.
Ambedkar, however, did not explore the tribal cultures and also not attempted to build a political bridgehead with them, although in terms of deprivation, he felt, the untouchables and these communities formed a common constituency. Ambedkar did recognize a myriad of other identities in India such as sub-castes, castes, groupings of castes such as touchables and untouchables, twice-born or ‘regenerated’ castes and the Shudras religious groups, regional identities and sometimes identities resulting from the mutual reinforcement of all these groups.
Ambedkar acknowledged the presence of linguistic and cultural identities but he was deeply suspicious of them. It is not so much their productivity to cast themselves as a nationality that makes him apprehensive but their tendency to exclude minorities that do not share the dominant identity.
He, however, considered the fact of identity seriously, going to the length of suggesting that he was a conservative but arguing that identity should be within the bounds of rule of law, the demands of development, justice and participation. For the same reasons the ideal solution for the problem of linguistic states is not “one language, one state” but “one state, one language”.
Social reforms in India were increasingly fragmented into regional ambits by the first decade of the twentieth century becoming part of the emerging regional identities. Ambedkar refocused the reform question at the all-India level once again and, in a way, made Gandhi to accord priority to it in spite of the discomfiture of Jawaharlal Nehru and others.
Ambedkar also took an active interest in the working class movement and sometimes occupied formal positions in the trade unions. He understood their concerns as had lived in a working class locality for over two decades. However, he felt that the Indian working class had not come to address the caste question.
On the contrary, the division of labour in industrial establishments was based on caste relations and he pointed out that as long as the working class was fragmented into castes, their common bond would prove too fragile to wage determined struggles.
Unlike in the domain of politics and religion, Ambedkar’s intervention in relation to economic thought and issues was intermittent though persistent over a long period. For his Master’s at Columbia University, Ambedkar wrote a lengthy dissertation, which he did not eventually submit. It was entitled as Ancient Indian Commerce and included three fascinating chapters, viz., “Commercial Relations of India with the Middle East’,
‘Commercial Relations of India in the Middle Ages’, and ‘India on the Eve of the Crown Government’. It projected India as a land, which has deep and varied ties with other countries based on the nature of its economy. He portrayed very vividly the exploitative nature of the Company’s rule in India. In The Administration and Finance of East India Company, Ambedkar provided a lucid account of the organization of the East India Company, its sources of revenue and items of expenditure upto 1857.
The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India builds on Ranade’s work on provinces and the centre in British India from 1833 to 1919. The arguments for centralization and decentralization almost echo our arguments in the present: with Ambedkar himself discretely subscribing to financial decentralization on the principle that power and responsibility should belong to that level which can make optimum use of it.
Such an allocation, while making the states strong and viable, would contribute towards strong and effective central government as well, by taking away from it power and responsibility which it cannot exercise effectively.
In his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics entitled The Problem of Rupee: Its Origin and its Solution, Ambedkar favoured the gold standard rather than the silver standard that was introduced in India in 1835 or the gold exchange standard as proposed by scholars such as Professor Keynes.
After these major forays into the domain of the economy, Ambedkar made only certain selective interventions in this area. His policy interventions in agriculture were basically four-fold: he demanded the abolition of intermediaries between the direct producer and the state as was manifest for instance in the ‘Khoti’ system, prevailing in the Konkan.
He demanded an end to traditional obligations imposed on inferior public servants belonging to lowly castes and that they be replaced with contractual obligations. He suggested the nationalization of agriculture and distribution of all surplus land to the Scheduled Castes.
In 1917, Ambedkar brought out a long article on ‘Small Holdings in India and their Remedies’, arguing for consolidation of holdings though he did not extend unqualified support to the then prevailing position for the enlargement of holdings. His position was: “To a farmer a holding is too small or too large for the other factors of production at his disposal necessary for carrying on the cultivation of his holding as an economic enterprise.”
Colonialism and Nationalism:
Ambedkar’s critique of colonialism ranges across a whole spectrum from the economy to the nature of the colonial discourse. In terms of the later, Ambedkar demanded that the terms of the discourse be altered. He had no defence to offer in favour of colonialism but he did not want power to go to those who would not promote partisan ends in the name of the people.
Ambedkar’s considered judgment was that colonialism benefited the untouchables least, except for the rule of law which it inaugurated, allowing some space for them. He insisted on a responsible and accountable government based upon adult franchise, and was one of the first top rung leaders in India to demand universal adult franchise early on in his submission before the Simon Commission, in the strongest possible terms.
However, Ambedkar remained wary of nationalism, particularly given the experience of the Second World War. He was primarily concerned with a regime of rights, based on justice and upholding democracy. In a way, he was forced to engage with nationalism seriously when the Muslim League made the demand for a separate Pakistan in 1940.
With respect to nationalism Ambedkar placed a great deal of emphasis on the volitional factor. He felt that once large masses of people begin to believe that they are a nationality, then, their identity as a separate nation had to be faced. He blamed both the Congress and the Muslim League for precipitating this tendency.
He, however, felt that different nationalities had often remained within a single state and have negotiated terms of associated living. National self-determination is not something inevitable, but the pros and cons of whether nationalities decide to live together in a single state or wish to go their own ways, have to be assessed. He felt that under certain conditions it might be better to be separated than to live in a united state.
Ambedkar did not take an active interest in international relations except in its broader ideological implications. But, where there were some issues that he felt were significant for the future of India. He located India’s place firmly in Asia and in the cultural traditions infused with Buddhism. He saw a threat to India from the Communist bloc, particularly given the age-old strategic interests.
He was deeply concerned with the occupation of Tibet by Communist China and the response of the Nehru government to this issue. His view regarding Jammu and Kashmir was that it comprised three regions: Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh. He considered it appropriate to hand over Kashmir to Pakistan and to integrate the other two regions with India.
The major area of Ambedkar’s work was on constitutional democracy. He was adept at interpreting different constitutions of the world, particularly those that mattered insofar as they were committed to democracy, along with their constitutional developments. This becomes obvious if we note the references that he adduces to the different constitutions, in the debates of the Constituent Assembly.
He was a key player in the constitutional developments of India from the mid-1920s and on certain issues such as Uniform Civil Code he was to anticipate some of the major issues that have been the topics of debate in India. Ambedkar evolved certain basic principles of constitutionalism for a complex polity like India but argued that ultimately their resilience would depend on constitutional ethics.
Ambedkar also dwelt on several substantive issues of law. In fact, we can understand the significance that law had in his scheme of things by recourse to his larger social and ideological understanding. He was deeply sensitive to the interface between the law on one hand, and customs and popular beliefs, on the other.
He felt that law was definitely influenced by customs and popular beliefs but stressed that customs may defend parochial interests, but may not uphold fairness, and may be based on their usefulness for the dominant classes. They may not be in tune with the demands of time or in consonance with morality and reason.
Ambedkar also admitted the possibility of customs having the upper hand over law when they begin to defend vested interests, but that with its emphasis on freedom and democracy, law could be placed in the service of the common good. On the other hand, customs, while promoting healthy pluralism, may give rise to a highly inegalitarian order. At the same time, he defers to pluralism, if it can uphold rights.
In all these qualifications, Ambedkar’s contention is that the legal domain is an autonomous sphere. He also deployed a complex understanding of rights to situate the domain of law. He distinguished the realm of constitutional law from the acts of legislature, but acknowledged that popular aspirations and the democratic mandate was the common ground for both.
At the same time, it is law which determines what are popular and democratic aspirations and what constitute the relevant categories, given the existence of domain of rights. The constructionist role of the state, confronted with long-drawn and irreconcilable disputes, is so prominent in Ambedkar’s writing that quite often he avoids substantive definitions and resorts to the legal fiction that “so and so is that was specified by law”.
He did not reconcile the tension between democracy and law and in his exposition, the domain of reason and morals are often in contention with that of law. Ideally, of course, he envisaged a democracy informed by law and a law characterized by sensitivity to democracy.
At the same time, he looked to a system of law which upheld reason and morality, though he saw reason and morality as far too feeble to ensure social bonds without the authoritative dictates expressed in law. Religion, according to him, could play a major role in lightening the task of law. Ambedkar’s views on constitutional democracy were reflected in his relations with Gandhi and Nehru on the issues of untouchability and the Hindu Code Bill respectively.
One of the issues that Ambedkar paid close attention to was power and governance. He thought that governance must reflect sociological reality as closely as possible lest those wielding power to their advantage suppress the excluded groups.
Ambedkar spent a great deal of his time and energy in advancing proposals for the purpose stressing the need to respect justice and equity. While he was opposed to overrepresentation to Muslims as expressed in the constitutional reforms of 1909, he did not accept that minority representation should be exactly in proportion to its population.
His commitment to democracy as the mode of governance was unwavering but he argued that democracy needed to become a way of life. He developed some interesting arguments on why parliamentary democracy was the most suitable form of government for India and advocated feasible modes of representation and franchise.
His writings dwell extensively on such monumental issues as the presidential versus parliamentary form of government, the relationship between the executive and legislature, the role of the judiciary and judicial review, constitutional bodies such as the Election Commission, the federal division of powers, states in a federation, the role of the Governor, the Constitution and the legislature, constitutional amendments, political parties, and public opinion.
One of the domains that Ambedkar was engaged in very closely was civil society in terms of its operative dimension. He basically saw it as the conscience-keeper of the political sphere, determining the course of governance in the long run. Civil society is the domain in which one has to struggle for human values.
He viewed religion as an important institution of civil society, which included other institutions such as political parties, the press, educational institutions and unions and associations. It is a contentious terrain of agreement and disputations resulting in relatively stable zones of agreement.
Religion can play a major role in deciding the nature and stability of such agreement. Ambedkar’s loathing for violence as a mode of constituting governmental authority or to settle issues in civil society was to have far-reaching implications for constitutional democracy in India.
However, he emphasized the value of transformative interventions, and it is in his own organization of associations and movements and educational institutions, his writings on the need for social transformations, and eventually his conversion to Buddhism, that Ambedkar’s role can be seen.
Ambedkar was deeply alive to the fact that ideologies undergo mutation in their interaction with social cleavages. He felt that Islam in India had not succeeded in eliminating caste cleavages but argued that since Islam does not subscribe to the caste ideology, the convert has access to larger spaces of the community which he would not otherwise have had.
He engaged in more rigorous study of Christianity in India than of Islam. He rejected Gandhi’s opposition to conversion but felt that, given its resources, Christianity should have attracted more converts but it had not due to its own inadequacies.
Ambedkar was ambivalent towards conversion as a strategy till he opted for Buddhism. This ambivalence was particularly true with respect to conversion to Islam and Christianity, though he dismissed the argument that most of the conversions were done for material gains.
Even if it was so, it did not matter in the longer run and he cited many illustrations for the purpose. He did not agree that all religions are different paths to the divine and they are all equal. There are gradations in religions in terms of the basic values they uphold and conversions were attempts to reach out to these values.
Disadvantaged and Supportive Polity:
Ambedkar made two major contributions in terms of evolving a polity, which would extend special considerations to the disadvantaged. He was the first major theoretician in India who argued that consideration for the disadvantaged should be the constitutive basis of the state. He developed a complex set of criteria to determine disadvantaged and attempted to specify its various gradations.
Untouchability was only one of the disadvantages, although one of the most degrading and poignant. Further, he concentrated on the socially engendered disadvantaged, but because he felt that most disadvantaged are engendered by dominant social relations that attempted to convert them into natural disadvantaged. He distinguished disadvantaged from difference – cultural, religious, ethnic, or linguistic – and approached these issues separately for the adoption of appropriate policy measures.
His second contribution was to develop a system of safeguards for the disadvantaged in general and the untouchables in particular, which could be enforceable, quantifiable and accountable – a system that he evolved from early on but found its shape at the time of his deputation before the Simon Commission.
This system further evolved through the participation of the disadvantaged, particularly the depressed classes themselves. These safeguards were negotiated with the broader polity with the inevitable confrontations, such as Gandhi’s fast unto death in 1932. A standardized system of safeguards at the all-India level came to be introduced during Ambedkar’s tenure as labour member in the Viceroy’s Council.
The Indian polity has not contested the necessity or range of these policies, for SCs and STs, and segments of society which consider themselves as disadvantaged have resorted to this model to make their claims negotiable, proving the enduring appeal of the scheme that Ambedkar advanced.
Disadvantaged and Preferential Treatment:
There are diverse types of disadvantages that men and women suffer and a common yardstick cannot be applied for their amelioration. However, there are common principles on the basis of which ameliorative measures to handle disadvantages can be pursued. It is not enough that equal resources and opportunities are assigned to people. Therefore, the disadvantaged need to be extended certain preferences that result in giving a fair opportunity to them.
Concept of Exploitation:
For Ambedkar, economic exploitation was a major issue to contend against. It explains his life-long critical engagement with Marxism. However, he felt that there are other sources of exploitation and marginalization besides economic exploitation, which deprive people of those basic goods indispensable for the constitution of a confident self, a life of a mutual recognition and participation in collective affairs.
Reason, Rights and Identity:
Ambedkar argued that it was in modern era that human reason came into its own and extricated itself from bonding with myths, customs and religious ideologies. There has been a reversal of the relation between myths and traditions on one hand, and reason, on the other. He saw freedom, equality and fraternity as essential conditions for a good life and argued that they should be understood and pursued as one entity. It was only on their foundation that a comprehensive regime of rights could be built.
While Ambedkar acknowledged the possibility of diverse religious and moral standpoints that were reasonable he did not see them as equally predisposed towards freedom, equality and fraternity. Buddhism alone cherished such goals comprehensively and offered a complementarity to freedom, equality and fraternity.
Pluralism and its Limits:
Ambedkar felt that a liberal democracy has a natural tilt towards the culture and way of life of the majority. It posits itself as the normal and the expected. If the political society is relatively homogeneous, such a tendency may not provoke deep resentment, but in societies which are culturally plural, it may spell doom for the identity of minorities. Therefore, it is necessary that proper safeguards be provided for the expression of these identities.
Constitutionalism and Rule of Law:
Ambedkar felt that to sustain rights, to let identities thrive as well as make them respect rights, to maintain an order favouring the disadvantaged and to facilitate a vibrant civil society, constitutional order expressed in the rule of law becomes imperative.
To conclude, it can be stated that both in his training and in his vision of life, Ambedkar was deeply aware of the larger dynamics of the world, its complexity and differential bearing on social groups, localities and nations.
He was pragmatic in his approach although not in his concerns. The backward classes in India, while avowing the political legacy of Ambedkar, are yet to engage with the understanding that marked his political involvement while their counterparts will probably rest content in retaining him merely as a symbol.
Besides, given the size of dalits, low castes and disadvantaged in general, no political party can afford to ignore the electoral dividends that Ambedkar as an ally can bestow. For the state to sustain a modicum of hegemony Ambedkar has become an indispensable necessity today.