The deep blue flags with the Ashoka chakra in the centre jacked upon the stacked tin encampments around the ghettos in many Indian cities never fail to recognise Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar as their messiah. However, this narrowing down of Babasaheb only as an icon of a select few, especially the Dalits, somewhat distresses me, primarily because there are many Ambedkars within Babasaheb which sometimes derisively go unnoticed. This has been the case because Indian society in general and the political leadership in particular catalytically glorified, categorised and promoted Babasaheb only as an icon of the Dalit community and father of the Indian Constitution rather than exhibiting him as an illustrious son of this country.
There should not be any qualms in accepting Babasaheb as the messiah of the Dalits. However, Babasaheb’s glorification only as the architect of the Indian Constitution and the leader of Dalits fails to recognise his erudition on various subjects like economics, journalism, feminism, labour law, education, comparative religion and so on, which makes him a polymath in real sense. Such scholarship would make many envious of him for his calibre and intellect, yet there remain many critical facets of his cognition that have not been fully appreciated. It is extremely challenging to do justice to the contributions of Babasaheb in one article because his scholarship has such a wide range of elements from different walks of life. However, I shall bring to your notice three fundamental teachings of Dr Ambedkar which one should re-read, contemplate and embrace for a better tomorrow in 21st–century India.
One may ask why it is necessary to embrace Ambedkar’s contribution now, when India has made considerable progress over the last few decades since independence and what contemporary relevance do his ideas hold? I presume there are three broad reasons to this. The first reason stems from the fact that we constantly hear anecdotes of how Muslim minorities, women, Dalits and Adivasis are being threatened, assaulted and killed because of the visceral hatred for them. Two, the funding licences under Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) of several faith-based organisations and research forums are being terminated. Three, students, journalists, educators and politicians are being jailed by invoking draconian laws and misusing ruthless vigilance and state power. Such hatred and desire for a communal homogeneity is ironically based on majoritarian and authoritative politics, which in essence is detrimental to the India story and her diversity. At such a moment in time, one should singularly focus on Ambedkar’s scholarship because in crisis of liberal deliberations he stands tall, and though his contributions were ignored for long they are imperative for times to come.
We are Indians first and Indians last
The first and the foremost learning from reading Ambedkar’s erudition relates to the idea that we are Indians first and Indians last. Lately, the question of unity in diversity for a country as large as India is at constant threat because parochial ideas are easily propagated under the fomentation of ‘Hindu nationalism’ based on Hindu majoritarian and authoritarian style of politics. At such instances, the superstructure of the democratic system is plagued and the political system based on communal homogeneity flourish. Regrettably, in the recent past several events which endorse such diminutive ideologies inflicted damages to property and people especially the religious minorities. For instance, events which were witnessed during the NRC and Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 protests are treacherous and encourage radicalisation based on ascribed identities like religion.
Unfortunately these myopic ideas are diagonally opposite of what Babasaheb envisaged when he said we are Indians first and Indians last. The patriot in Babasaheb during the 1929 deliberations of the Simon Commission explicitly stated, “the most vital need of the day is to create among the mass of the people the sense of a common nationality, the feeling not that they are Indians first and Hindus, Mohammedans or Sindhis and Kanarese afterwards, but that they are Indians first and Indians last. If that be the ideal then it follows that nothing should be done which will harden local patriotism and group consciousness.”(Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches Vol. 2: Evidence Before Simon Commission 1928. Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of India.)
There are several instances where communal segregation and discrimination has promoted group consciousness and hardened local patriotism which culminated in radicalisation and communal disturbances. The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir serves as a good example. Atrocities on women, children, minorities and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are all emanating from group consciousness and radicalisation based on communal lines. The political pathway that follows communal, ethnic, traditionalistic lines which promotes segregation of people based on ideologies that levitate on locality, religion and caste will sink deep into a quagmire. Thus, in order to avoid this mishap, India and Indians needs to adopt Babasaheb’s perspectives based on the sense of common nationality based on the idea of we all are Indians first and Indians last.
Proposition of the term ‘minority’
The second learning which one should clasp from the scholarship of Babasaheb relates to his proposition of the term ‘minority’ for political purposes. The germane question of minority has become more relevant in today’s times because we see that the cleavage between minorities and majority appears to have grown substantially under the current political regime.
While the term ‘minority’ as interpreted by the Hindu majoritarian government or its non-state agents’ perspective limits us only to the religious dimension or demographics, Babasaheb’s perspective does not limit us only to the numerical or demographic form of minority. Rather, he ventured beyond the circumscribed version of minority and included also a social discrimination aspect to his definition. Here, I do not mean that Babasaheb altogether rejected the idea of minority in a numerical sense, but he ventured beyond that aspect of the term. This has been rightly argued by Ambedkar before the Indian Statutory Commission on October 23, 1928. He said, “I think we must be very careful in using the word “minority”. I do not think simply because a community happens to be a community composed of small numbers it is therefore necessarily a minority for political purposes. A minority which is oppressed, or whose rights are denied or the majority would be a minority that would be fit for consideration for political purposes.” In 1928, Babasaheb was arguing for the oppressed classes and his sense of minority especially related to the Scheduled Castes, but in today times the non-numerical aspect of the term minority as defined by Babasaheb still holds a lot of weight.
Furthermore, Babasaheb’s struggle for the minorities was not limited only to the definitional aspect of it; he also ventured beyond and demanded safeguards for the minority as he envisaged that a communal majority government may come to power in the times to come. Ambedkar was never party to the suppression of his people and unequivocally argued even with the British for their rights. Unfortunately the Janus-faced leadership and their sense of minority in India is plagued by the number and religious aspects and does not treasure the individual rights of minorities for which Ambedkar fought so vehemently with the British and the members of the constitutional drafting committees.
Hindu Raj and the rule of the majority
The third and most important aspect of Ambedkar’s teachings which India at this point cannot afford to overlook relates to his perspectives on ‘Hindu Raj’ and the rule of the majority. As far as the former is concerned, Babasaheb explicitly noted that “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.” (Ambedkar, B. R. (1946). Pakistan or the Partition of India. Reprinted by Government of Maharashtra.) The events which have unfolded in the last nine odd years are seeing his fears come true. However, if Hindu raj becomes a reality, then democratic principles of liberty, equality and fraternity would cease to exist and a state based on religious principle framed primarily by non-state agents will prevail. If promises are being made and votes are being fetched by calling India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and the dreams of ‘Akhand Bharat’ are cultivated in the minds of the people, demand for ‘Hindu Raj’ is not distant. The declining number of Muslim MPs in India validates this aspect.
Similarly, on the aspect of the rule of the majority, Babasaheb eloquently marked in the notes and drafts submitted to the sub-committee on Fundamental Rights in March 1947 that “Unfortunately for the minorities in India, Indian nationalism has developed a new doctrine which may be called the Divine Right of the Majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority. Any claim for the sharing of power by the minority is called communalism while the monopolizing of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism. Guided by such political philosophy the majority is not prepared to allow the minorities to share political power nor is it willing to respect any convention made in that behalf as is evident from their repudiation of the obligation (to include representatives of the minorities in the cabinet) contained in the Instrument of Instructions issued to the Governors in the Government of India Act of 1935”(Rao, S. B. (1967). The Framing of India’s Constitution: Select Documents, Volume II. New Delhi: The Indian Institute of Public Administration.) Nothing fundamentally different is happening in India at this point in time.
However, Babasaheb also cautioned about the rule of majority during the deliberations on Communal Award. He specifically noted two crucial aspects of rule of majority: firstly he pronounced that one should not trust someone with unlimited political power primarily because a state with men who have unlimited political power will never let free the ones they rule; and secondly he said that “as a King has no Divine Right to rule, so also a majority has no Divine Right to rule. Majority Rule is tolerated only because it is for a limited period and subject to the right to have it changed, and secondly because it is a rule of a political majority, i.e., majority which has submitted itself to the suffrage of a minority and not a Communal Majority.” A clear warning has been raised and reasons are being furnished for why democratic rule is tolerated, and why unlimited political power is harmful. However, majority rule should be based on political rather than communal majority, because the overlap between communal and political interests would transcend into the rule of communal majority which has the potential to tyrannise the fabric of democracy in India.
Though there are innumerable contributions of Ambedkar which India cannot afford to overlook, they have for a very long time been ignored. Moreover, just to cushion their sins, the political pygmies have started revering, glorifying and celebrating Ambedkar, but mere glorification of Babasaheb won’t give them much solace. His teaching and perspectives on various aspects are extremely crucial for a socially and religiously diverse country like India. Despite Ambedkar’s persuasive arguments and his unmatched commitments for social and religious egalitarianism, it is unfortunate that his contributions remain neglected and unrecognised in his own land. It is the need of the hour to re-read, contemplate and embrace Ambedkar for a better tomorrow – a sensible way to celebrate him and his scholarship.
Sachin Bharat Bahule is a Doctoral Scholar at the Department of Economics, Savitribai Phule Pune University.
Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.