Millennium Post (Kolkata)
Leader of the marginalised
As a democrat who detested anarchy; a nationalist who held national integrity supreme and a socialist — Ambedkar continues to inspire political evolution
Today is the birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar whose relentless fight for equality and justice led to an awakening towards social change in India. The nation pays rich tributes to him for his phenomenal contributions in building modern India. His mission was not only to liberate the depressed classes but also to shape India into a progressive nation devoid of all forms of discrimination based on birth, gender or faith. Though Ambedkar’s dream of emancipating victims of social exclusion was not fulfilled in his lifetime despite his embracing Buddhism, his vision and ideology have profoundly inspired the political evolution in the country. While on one hand, the movement of marginalised classes who constitute more than half of the Indian population has become more pronounced for social and political empowerment in the national political scenario. On the other hand, inclusion and empowerment of weaker sections have become part of the agenda for all political parties. Granted that the words and deeds in politics suffer from disharmony, yet adherence to ‘Ambedkarism’, at least in letter, in itself is a remarkable break from a traditional conformist mindset. The transition from a tyrannical caste-based society, basically a political economy consecrated by religion, to an egalitarian social order has been accepted officially by all.
As a visionary, he propounded that ‘fraternity is only another name for democracy’. His political philosophy rests on deductive logic based on social realities far different from the utopian ideologies of ‘social contract’ propounded by Hobbes, Lock and Rousseau or Karl Marx’s communism. As a committed democrat, he chose a secular approach to politics and detested communalism, anarchism and violence. For him, democracy is not merely a form of government, rather “it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen”. He envisioned the future of India as a nation with equal social and economic opportunities for all citizens, with unity and integrity as guiding principles.
As an architect of Indian Constitution, he enshrined the fundamental rights and directive principles to ensure democratic socialism; the former guarantee human rights and the latter bind the State to address the larger interests of fraternity and unity. He believed social democracy to be the essence of a nation and society and envisaged that it could be realised only through the trinity of principles namely: liberty, equality and fraternity. According to him, a democratic polity becomes preposterous in the absence of a democratic society. He cautioned that the three principles are inseparable and without any of the three, the supremacy of a few over many will prevail. Ambedkar, however, believed that ‘without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of thing. It would require a constable to enforce them’ — obviously the State.
By ‘constable’ he was basically advocating in favour of a strong Union as opposed to a loose association of states called federation. ‘I like a strong united India, much stronger than the Centre we had created under the Government of India Act of 1935,’ said Ambedkar in the constituent assembly on Dec 17, 1946. For him, ‘dual polity’ only means divided authority which could lead to a diversity of laws and chaos as it happens in many federal states in the world. He believed that equality and fraternity can be better ensured among citizens through a stronger Union with a single judiciary, uniformity in fundamental laws (civil and criminal), and common All India Civil Services. However, he called such an arrangement as ‘Indian federalism’ with residual powers vested in states, which continues to work even today, no matter whether characterised as ‘competitive’ or ‘cooperative’ federalism. Ambedkar believed that in a country with diverse social practices, different identities and a divisive institution of caste, federalism in its original form will only endanger the unity of the nation. He was quite discerning as he said ‘they cannot make history who forget history’.
Notwithstanding his scathing attack on Indian social order and religion against the evil of caste discrimination, Ambedkar was a staunch nationalist. His actions spoke louder; so much so that he was in favour of geographical considerations as the criteria rather than linguistic, for the reorganisation of states. He even strongly opposed the idea of special status to Jammu and Kashmir as he saw it as contrary to the principle of equality. He was also in favour of recognition of Hindi as an official language as it had a wider communication base and provided mobility for the working class. Most importantly, he opposed the idea of unqualified ‘reservations’ as such “exception will eat up the rule” (equality of opportunity), endangering the feeling of nationhood. He agreed eventually on ‘backwardness’ as the criteria for reservations and on limiting the affirmative action to a ‘minority of seats’. He, however, felt that it would be a delusion to call ourselves a ‘nation’ unless we achieve the social and psychological meaning of the term. He saw caste as anti-national for it brings about separation in social life and generates jealousy and antipathy among castes.
Ambedkar visualised a strong Union as a vehicle for nation-building. In hindsight, we may well appreciate his farsightedness. The last two decades witnessed the rise of separatist overtones in politics, caste-based agitations and local patriotism manifesting in aggressive forms all over the country. Regional parties tend to put primacy on local concerns over those of the nation. Centre-state relations are often affected by ‘extraneous’ reasons jeopardising constitutional values and national goals. Blame game too has become commonplace. Equality and fraternity still elude our society as atrocities on weaker sections, women and minorities continue. Caste still prevails as a primary social identity uniting people on sectarian lines but ironically disintegrating the social fabric of India.
Unfortunately, it has become an idiom of politics with consequent fallout on governance and delivery, as an undoing of democracy. If the issues that threaten the unity of the nation were not addressed with firm and united resolve, the independence of India could be at risk again, Ambedkar had warned.
Though religion gave birth to the caste; poverty and backwardness sustain it perpetually. Increased economic mobility, inter alia, can create social mobility in the long run. Akin to the vicious cycle of poverty, the syndrome of caste too has a connection with the cycle of backwardness i.e., endogamy, social exclusion, restricted socio-economic mobility and backwardness. Both the cycles are interrelated and complement each other. The good news is that economic mobility in this century is fast making inroads into the rigid caste hierarchy with urbanisation and growth of non-traditional sectors like hospitality, IT, health, skill-based services, travel etc., supplanting ‘ascription’ with ‘achievement’. Someday the clouds will be cleared and there will be sunshine. But we must keep working. A strong Centre should be accepted in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution but neither on party lines nor political convenience, which unfortunately has been the practice for quite some time. Similarly, the Union shall perform its role as the custodian of the Constitution and as the ‘constable’ to enforce the trinity of principles without fear or favour. Ambedkar’s final message is prophetic as he said that “with independence, we lost the excuse to blame the British, and if hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves…we must resolve to remove the evils which induce people to prefer government for the people over government by the people”.
Ambedkar believed that in a country with diverse social practices, different identities and a divisive institution of caste, federalism in its original form will only endanger the unity of the nation