Sixty-six years ago, on September 30, 1956, a meeting of the executive committee of the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) was held at the residence of Dr B.R. Ambedkar in New Delhi. Dr. Ambedkar presided over the meeting in which a resolution was passed to convert the federation into a new political party – the Republican Party of India (RPI). After Dr Ambedkar’s death, leaders of RPI officially formed the party on October 3, 1957.
The SCF was part of Dr Ambedkar’s political strategy for securing and safeguarding the rights of ‘the untouchables’.
However, after the adoption of the constitution of India in 1950, a political party such as the SCF – which had caste connotations in its name – was seen as incompatible. In his last days, he wanted to expand his political horizons and therefore established the RPI. Eleanor Zelliot in her book, Ambedkar’s World – The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement, explains that “the thought behind the new party was much like the expectation which accompanied the conversion – that the Untouchables would be brought into a larger group”.
Keeping in mind the requirements of parliamentary democracy, Dr Ambedkar endeavoured to lay the ground for the RPI to play the role of a strong political opposition against Congress. To achieve this, he was also making efforts to form a larger alliance with socialist, rationalist leaders across the country like Ram Manohar Lohia, P.K. Atre, Madhu Limaye, etc.
But the RPI could not become a major political party as Dr Ambedkar had envisaged. According to Sukhdeo Thorat, the leaders who took over the RPI could not follow the ideological path laid down by Babasaheb.
Instead, they engaged in the fruitless discourse of finding various alternative ideological solutions. The Dalit Panthers is an example from the 1970s. Their manifesto gave rise to the popular debate of ‘Marxism versus Buddhism’. Dr Ambedkar’s ideas of socialist democracy and the principles of morality given by Buddha were completely left out of the discourse.
Giving importance to their own political careers over ideology, the RPI’s leaders divided the party into more than 40 different fractions. Over time, Brahmanical parties have also contributed to the weakening of the Ambedkarite political movement. They have aided in the RPI’s disintegration, pitting the factions against each other and pampering some of them for their own benefit.
This was followed by the rise of ‘Bahujan’ politics led by the leaders of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). According to the BSP’s ideology, the term Bahujan included 85% of India’s population – Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes (OBC), minorities. Everyone except Brahmins and forward castes. Based on this calculation, the BSP and its leaders tried to instil a Bahujan consciousness in the masses and succeeded in forming the government in Uttar Pradesh a few times.
“Charatha Bhikkhave Chaarika, Bahujan Hitaya Bahujan Sukhaya,” is a verse from the Vinaya Pitaka. In Pali, bahujano (bahu + jano) means most people, the multitude, the world, mass of people, or crowd. Buddha used the word Bahujan in its simple numerical sense. It has no philosophical or ethnic connotations.
Ramesh Jiwane, a writer and an Ambedkarite activist from Yavatmal, strongly criticises Bahujan politics. Explaining the contradiction between the two ideologies, he points out that while Bahujan ideology is the politics of assimilation of castes, Ambedkarite ideology stands for the annihilation of caste to establish equality.
Bahujan politics over the years have done great harm to the Ambedkarite movement with respect to Hinduisation of the masses. It mellowed Dr Ambedkar’s revolutionary efforts of embracing Buddhism by throwing away the shackles of caste.
Bahujan politics urged the masses to stay within the confines of their caste and assert their caste identity only for politics. The biggest failure of the BSP’s Bahujan politics is the emphasis on adding more caste groups to build numerical strength for political gain without any effort to educate the downtrodden masses to build social consciousness towards equality. The recent downfall of the BSP in the Uttar Pradesh state elections is a manifestation of the failure of the Bahujan politics.
The Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a regional party in Maharashtra led by Prakash Ambedkar, is also trying to replicate the same Bahujan formula in the state. The VBA is trying to woo various caste groups by supporting their individual political demands. For instance, it has supported the demand for reservation made by the Dhangars under the Scheduled Tribe category and for Marathas as OBCs.
From all of this, it seems like Ambedkarite political movement has lost its path. Politics in the name of Bahujan, Mulnivasi, Vanchit, etc., has been compromised from the start as they haven’t held on to the foundation of the ideology on which the Ambedkarite movement started. The Ambedkarite political movement must confront capitalism and Brahmanism and must provide solutions through socialist democratic means. It must strive to uproot the existing social inequalities.
In the Blueprint of RPI, Dr Ambedkar listed seven conditions necessary for the successful working of democracy, one of which is developing a public conscience. According to him, “Public conscience means conscience which becomes agitated at every wrong, no matter who is the sufferer and it means that everybody, whether he suffers that particular wrong or not, is prepared to join him in order to get him relieved.”
The other conditions are requirements like: there must be no glaring inequalities in society, the existence of an opposition, equality in law and administration, observance of constitutional morality, no tyranny of the majority over the minority, and the functioning of moral order in society.
After 75 years of independence, socio-economic inequalities are at their peak, caste crimes are rising, and an ineffective opposition like Congress is at the centre with no ideological foundation. It is high time that the followers of Dr Ambedkar work towards the revival of Republican politics. Political thinkers and leaders must throw away the burden of caste-bound political experiments and bring republican politics– with socialist and democratic ideological foundations – into the mainstream. That will surely lead us to the enlightened India that Dr Ambedkar had envisioned.
Sunny Uke is a law graduate and LLM student at Amravati University. Prashant Bhaware is a law graduate. They write from an Ambedkarite and social justice perspective and have explored various topics in their writings with an intersection of caste, disability, and mental health.
Featured image: People scatter rose petals in front of a portrait of B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Reuters
This article was first published on The Wire.