Reading Ambedkar After Three Years of Modi Raj

- Dipankar Bhattacharya  (Liberation, August  2017 )

As part of its ‘appropriation of icons’ drive, the BJP is keen to appropriate Ambedkar in the service of Hindutva. We are told that Ambedkar stood for a strong nation transcending caste divisions and the BJP seeks precisely to achieve it through the unification of Hindus. Ambedkar stood for empowerment of Dalits, and the BJP propagandists have begun to cite the election of Ramnath Kovind as the biggest proof of the BJP’s commitment to the cause.  Ambedkar was the chief architect of the constitution of Republican India, for BJP that makes Ambedkar the ‘modern Manu’!  Ambedkar’s last act of protest was his decision to embrace Buddhism and even this is being sought to be used in the Sangh Parivar’s campaign of religious reconversion. Buddhism for the Sangh is only an extension of Hinduism and getting Muslims and Christians to convert to Buddhism therefore is becoming the preferred plan B or second option for the ‘ghar wapsi’ strategists.

Yet it is Ambedkar who offers one of the most powerful critiques of the Sangh-BJP scheme of things, and who actually warned against the ‘calamity’ that we are currently experiencing. Unfortunately, over the years Ambedkar’s profound critique of India’s caste system and his insightful commentary on the constitutional framework, on the underlying tension and contradictions that circumscribe this key text of Independent India have been systematically relegated to the background and he has been reduced to just another Dalit icon or to a scholarly lawyer who presided over the drafting of the Constitution. This de-ideologisation of Ambedkar, this reduction or reconstruction of Ambedkar as just an icon of identity politics stripped of his radical vision has made him vulnerable to mischievous Sanghi attempts at appropriation. It is therefore imperative for every defender of democracy to uphold and unleash the radical spirit and vision of Ambedkar regarding caste, nation, Constitution and democracy while exposing and challenging the dictatorial design of the current dispensation.

With the rise of the BJP as the predominant party of the Indian ruling classes and the unprecedented all-out intensification of the Hindutva offensive, acute convulsions are being felt across the society and polity. Along with the Muslim community, Dalits too find themselves at the receiving end of the Hindutva offensive. Ironically enough, the BJP is also making every attempt to woo Dalits and pit them against Muslims.  This combination of oppression of Dalits and the attempt to append the Dalit identity to the aggressive agenda of Hindutva marks a new challenging juncture for Dalit politics in India.

The mainstream Dalit politics in post-colonial India which had grown accustomed to banking on reservation as the main instrument of advancement was hardly prepared for this juncture. While only a small section of Dalits benefited from the system of reservation, a much larger section of OBCs benefited from zamindari abolition and the rise of agricultural productivity in the wake of Green Revolution. In both caste and class terms, the balance of power had changed significantly in the first few decades after Independence, with the rise of a powerful rich peasant or kulak class from intermediate castes alongside the predominantly upper caste feudal landlords of yesteryear and also the rise of traders and capitalists that challenged the erstwhile narrow base of domestic capital. By the time the Mandal Commission recommendation on OBC reservation was finally enforced, OBC power groups had already emerged as the dominant social force in large parts of India. The advent of the Mandal commission only helped consolidate this power in various spheres, most notably in terms of provincial governance and in the panchayati raj institutions.

Dalits by and large supported the new OBC power against the initial forward caste backlash, instigated and spearheaded in no small measure by the Sangh brigade. But very soon, the quest for Dalit aspirations and rights found itself pitted against the aggressive OBC power on the ground. In UP, Mayawati had to part ways with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP; in Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan had to try and carve out his own space beyond the domination of Lalu Prasad. In the course of combating the domination of OBC power, most mainstream Dalit leaders tilted towards the BJP which had by then begun to hide its Brahiminical ideology behind the mask of Mandal and rope in allies by promising to practise ‘coalition dharma’. We saw Mayawati go to Gujarat to campaign for Modi after the Gujarat genocide and share power with the BJP in UP while many Dalit leaders joined the NDA, if not the BJP. The trend continued even during the 2014 elections and after, when Udit Raj joined the BJP, Ram Vilas Paswan re-entered the NDA and stopgap Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi too revolted against Nitish Kumar only to join hands with the BJP.

The BSP had rightly raised the slogan ‘vote hamara, raj tumhara – nahi chalega, nahi chalega,'  (our vote and your rule shall not be allowed to continue) but then it gave a very simple answer to the challenge of changing the ‘raj’: ' vote se lenge PM, CM – arakshan se SP, DM’ (we will have our PM and CM through elections, and secure the posts of District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police through reservations). The question of the economic exploitation, the production and property relations underlying the power structure remained simply untouched. The abandoning of the agenda of land reforms and the consequent stagnation and even deterioration in the economic conditions of the vast majority of Dalits in rural India who are primarily landless labourers did not figure at all in the discourse of the BSP. Yet the BSP was eminently successful in the electoral arena with Mayawati becoming UP CM as many as four times and it seemed to be enough for mainstream Dalit politics.

Today, the electoral failures of the BSP and the renewed intensification of atrocities on Dalits have ignited a quest for alternatives and a rereading of Ambedkar among Dalits. The warm response of students at large and especially the Left student movement to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula gave a fillip to this process. Students of the Hyderabad central university and JNU spearheaded the #JusticeForRohith campaign, and the Modi establishment’s attempt to suppress it with sedition charges and police crackdown only boomeranged. Una was the next turning point – from  Dadri to Latehar, there had already been enough cases of Sangh-led cow vigilantism, but Una triggered powerful protests and Muslims were quick to join in. Along with this welcome prospect of Dalit-Muslim unity, Una also held out the exciting ideological-political possibility of Dalit-Left cooperation. The Saharanpur atrocities brought the Bhim Army to the fore, and the need for waging militant resistance to the Sangh’s violent designs is being felt quite widely.

The Una resistance has rejected the caste-based order of occupational ‘reservation’ that mandates Dalits to do all kinds of menial jobs from manual scavenging to the lifting of animal carcasses while insisting on land redistribution as the key to an alternative road of economic development. In doing this, it has rekindled the radical economic vision of Ambedkar enunciated quite clearly during his Independent Labour Party phase when he identified Brahminism and capitalism as the twin targets that must be defeated to bring about real democracy for the oppressed. And it is on this basis of a Leftward shift in the Dalit movement and a concomitant wholehearted recognition of the revolutionary potential and significance of Dalit assertion in the communist praxis of class politics that the Dalit movement and communist movement can come closer, cooperate and even converge in the quest for Dalit emancipation and social transformation.

Caste as 'Graded Inequality' and Ambedkar's Radical Vision and Strategy of Caste Annihilation

Ambedkar was very categorical that the emancipation of Dalits lay in the annihilation of caste itself  - outright annihilation as opposed to any kind of rationalisation or advocacy of moderation. In advocating this radical position Ambedkar had to take on none other than Gandhi, the most influential leader and rallying centre of the freedom movement. Ambedkar rejected the Gandhian idea of treating caste as division of labour or ‘varnashram’ and defined it as a system of graded inequality. The idea of division of labour as such is not antithetical to social mobility, but caste rules out social mobility and wants society to accept caste as a divinely ordained system. It is this notion of a divinely mandated non-negotiable hierarchical social division that makes caste thoroughly retrograde, and Ambedkar harboured no illusion about reforming it.

The call for annihilation of caste distinguishes Ambedkar from every other social reformer or social commentator in India. And however much Ambedkar may have moved away from Marx in his later years, the idea of annihilation of caste as the ultimate goal of Dalit emancipation essentially aligns him with Marx who had advocated a similar orientation for the emancipation of the proletariat. Just as the proletariat in Marx cannot think of its ultimate emancipation in a class society, Ambedkar's Dalits cannot make peace with a caste society. For Dalits to achieve emancipation, caste had to be annihilated lock, stock and barrel.

Since caste derived its legitimacy from the divine mandate attributed to the whole hierarchy, Ambedkar laid utmost emphasis on total rejection of this so-called divine design. This decisive opposition to Brahminism or the Manuwadi doctrine remained a defining tenet of Ambedkar's social and political philosophy. But Ambedkar was also clear that Brahminism legitimized and in turn was backed by the existing property relations and power structure and hence to annihilate caste, one has to not just reject Brahminism but also overcome the existing power structure. The Independent Labour Party founded by Ambedkar in the 1930s identified both Brahminism and capitalism as the twin targets of the new party. Abolition of private property and nationalisation of land were central to Ambedkar's economic philosophy, and even though the Constitution that India eventually adopted could not go this far, Ambedkar never underestimated the importance of the battle against the hugely inegalitarian land relations and distribution of wealth and income in the fight for social justice.  

Ambedkar made a very important observation in his polemic with Gandhi on the caste system. Rejecting the Gandhian thesis of Varnashram or division of labour, he pointed out that. ‘...the Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilized society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilized society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments. The Caste System is not merely a division of labourers which is quite different from division of labour—it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other’ (B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste). The key to combating caste therefore, Ambedkar suggested, is to unite labourers across caste divisions.

This gives us a crucial clue to the caste-class interface: class has to acknowledge and overcome the reality of the oppression and discrimination perpetrated through caste. Understood and upheld with such social sensitivity, class becomes the conscious social unit of mobilisation and mobility that can challenge and overcome the regimentation and stagnation that have crystallised around the hierarchical and hereditary network of caste. The opponents of class struggle and even many protagonists of class struggle, however, tend to limit class struggle only to the economic arena, reinforcing the stereotyping of class struggle as being indifferent to the reality of caste-based social oppression and injustice.

Ambedkar also repeatedly points to the endogamous structure of caste. More than promoting occasional inclusive events like community dining or common access to places of worship, Ambedkar therefore laid stress on  more effective negation of caste boundaries like inter-caste marriages. Such 'transgression' of caste boundaries can however become the norm only when there is much greater social mobility and freedom, especially freedom for women to decide about their own lives, including the questions of love and marriage. In other words, just as caste regimentation and patriarchy reinforce each other, the weakening of one will also weaken the other. The battle for gender justice must therefore be seen as a key task in the fight for caste annihilation.

Rejection of the Brahminical theology, resistance to the power structure of feudalism and capitalism, pursuit of class unification, and determined battle for gender justice and freedom of women from male domination - all these are integral to Ambedkar's vision and strategy of caste annihilation. But for all practical purposes, the mainstream politics of social justice has evolved and revolved around caste-based reservation and caste-based social engineering or piecing together of electoral equations, and the ideological thrust of annihilation of caste has been virtually banished to the background.

This has given rise to a kind of identity politics which is perfectly compatible with the domination of the Brahminical ideology. Indeed, we saw the BJP master the art of social engineering in Bihar in collaboration with the JD(U) and then apply it methodically in various other states, most notably in UP. And we today face the farcical situation where the combination of the most aggressive kind of corporate control and most horrific resurrection of Brahminical or Manuwadi ideology is being led from the front by an OBC PM who will now have the legal backing of a Dalit President.

The Constitution and Ambedkar's Prescient Warnings:
Undermining of the Constitution, Hero-worship and Soaring Inequality

Ambedkar is widely recognised as the father of the Indian Constitution. He surveyed the constitutional literature of Western democracies and also delved deep into past examples of collective functioning in India, most notably in the conduct of the Buddhist Sanghas, to produce a democratic blueprint for modern India. But most crucially, Ambedkar gave us a clear understanding of the contradictions that circumscribed the constitution. On the day the Constitution was formally adopted, Ambedkar did not celebrate the historic occasion by singing paeans for democracy; on the contrary, he took this opportunity to warn us about the contradictions that could actually jeopardise the very constitutional foundation of democracy in India.

In that historic last address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949 Ambedkar began by defending the Drafting Committee and the Constitution against various criticisms, but ended with very loud and explicit warnings about the future of democracy in India, about the danger of democracy retaining its form but giving place to dictatorship in fact. The address contains three major warnings – (i) whether the state and the people will function on the basis of the Constitution or anarchy will come to prevail, (ii) whether India will succeed in withstanding the cult of hero worship which is the surest recipe for degradation of democracy and advent of dictatorship and (iii) whether the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity – the cornerstone of the Constitution, will be upheld in practice or growing inequality and the resultant denial of liberty and fraternity will blow up the edifice of political democracy. Today all these three warnings sound more urgent than ever.

We have a government which habitually bypasses the institutions of parliamentary democracy (to take just one example, the Aadhaar card has been inflicted on the people bypassing the objections raised by the Parliament and the Supreme court’s express verdict against making it mandatory), we have a situation where an accused of umpteen criminal cases is foisted as Chief Minister and gets to decide whether the law of the land should proceed against him, and now we have empowered mobs lynching citizens on streets and even inside trains.

Ambedkar had hoped that unconstitutional methods of agitation or conflict resolution (he even mentioned the known Gandhian techniques of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha in this context) would be rendered unnecessary with all parties having assured access to constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives. But whether in dealing with the historically unresolved disputes like in Kashmir and the North East, or in addressing the issues of agrarian crisis and dignified livelihood for the toiling masses or justice for victims of caste and gender oppression and communal violence, the state has systematically suppressed the constitutional methods and promoted extra-judicial repression.

The second warning stemmed from the caution given by John Stuart Mill to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not 'to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.' Ambedkar reminded us that this caution was 'far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country, for in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world.''

'Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul’, but in politics, Ambedkar rightly warned us, ‘Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.’ We saw this cult deliver the disaster of Emergency in the mid-1970s when Indira Gandhi came to be equated to India by a sycophantic Congress President and today this cult is once again dangerously thriving around Narendra Modi. The Modi cult is directed not just against ideological adversaries or the political opposition, but against every BJP leader (be it Advani or Rajnath Singh) who may sound even remotely different from the official script.

The third thing, Ambedkar stressed, was 'not to be content with mere political democracy', but to make political democracy 'a social democracy as well ... which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.' Ambedkar cautioned us that 'these principles of liberty, equality and fraternity ... form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.' Ambedkar was very specific when he raised this point: "We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty." The net result was the fundamental conflict between formal political equality and huge social and economic inequality.

Ambedkar did not mince words while identifying inequality as a major potential threat to the future of constitutional democracy: "How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.” The economic inequality which was deeply entrenched in the period when Ambedkar was writing has spiralled sharply in the recent years of neo-liberal policies. Between 2014 and 2016, the wealth of the top 1% jumped by nearly 10 per cent, to close to 60% of the total national wealth. With the steady aggravation of this inequality, disparities of all kinds - countryside versus metropolitan cities, agrarian crisis versus corporate plunder and prosperity, and advanced areas versus backward regions - have also reached alarming levels. Along with this massive economic inequality add the renewed intensification of caste atrocities and communal polarisation and the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity sounds like a complete piece of fiction.

Nation, Caste and ‘Hindu Raj’

Ambedkar was equally clear that India did not have the fraternity necessary for the formation of a nation: "I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For then only we shall realize the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realizing the goal." For Ambedkar, there can be no real nationhood in a caste-ridden society. The castes, he declares without an iota of ambiguity, are anti-national: 'In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste.' This demolishes the very idea of a Hindu nation. The grand Hindu identity, Ambedkar points out, becomes relevant only in Hindu-Muslim riots, otherwise there is no sense of cohesion or community in what is just a conglomeration of castes.

Ambedkar also extensively dealt with the other key aspect of nationalism and constitutional democracy - the rights of minorities. In a Memorandum on the Rights of States and Minorities, dated March 24, 1947, which he submitted to the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights set up by the Constituent Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities, etc. Ambedkar made a scathing attack on majoritarianism: “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 monopolising of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism."

Given the number of religious, linguistic and national minorities that make up the mosaic that is India, there are multiple intersecting lines of demarcation between majority and minorities and the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan paradigm of the BJP can indeed be the most damaging blow to any real nation-building effort. With profound insight  Ambedkar had therefore warned against this danger in the most unambiguous words: "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. It is incompatible with democracy. Hindu raj must be prevented at any cost."

Today, short of an explicit constitutional coup declaring India a Hindu Nation or Nation-state, the Modi government is doing everything to push India in that direction. Muslims are being systematically pushed out of the arena of political representation in the legislative domain. This political invisibility is combined with an all pervasive insecurity in almost every sphere of life. From food and livelihood to education and culture, there is a concerted and increasingly genocidal assault on the Muslim community in India. This aggressive majoritarian rule is however as much anti-Dalit and anti poor as it is anti-Muslim.

As constitutional democracy in India faces its darkest juncture since the times of Ambedkar, it is important to forge a powerful fighting coalition to resist the fascist offensive on every front. The issue is not just to electorally oust this dispensation from power, but to rebuild India on the basis of liberty, equality and fraternity as Ambedkar had visualised. It is the escalation of the inherent contradictions that Ambedkar had pointed out so accurately that has pushed the nation into its present state of crisis. The Sangh-BJP fascist forces would like to aggravate the crisis and utilise it to the hilt to impose their corporate-communal agenda. Overcoming this fascist challenge means finding a progressive and emphatic democratic resolution of the crisis. The radical vision of Ambedkar is an invaluable source of clarity and strength in this task of reimagining and rebuilding India on a truly democratic basis.