If BR Ambedkar, Dalit leader and architect of the Indian Constitution, were alive today as the 90-crore strong electorate votes to elect its next set of leaders who would govern the country, he would be surprised and disappointed to know how the words in his last address to the Constituent Assembly more than 70 years ago still ring true, even on his 128th birth anniversary.
Bhimrao Ambedkar, born on 14 April 1891 to an austere and religious Mahar family in Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, fought his way through the entrenched oppression of belonging to a lower-caste family to become a lawyer, political leader, economist, torchbearer of the anti-caste movement and one of India’s greatest liberal, intellectual thinkers.
April, it is said, is the cruelest month, and today, India is at the crossroads as rising communal violence, hatred, murders of journalists, activists and intellectuals, and systematic undermining of institutions form the backdrop to the ongoing seven-phase general election. In such a heated atmosphere, Ambedkar’s lifelong fight for an equal and independent India ridden of the caste system seems like a distant dream flailing to survive.
Placing creed before country
In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November, 1949, Ambedkar expressed his anxiety about India losing her independence for the second time due to the “treachery of some of her own people”. He went on to say that his fear was deepened by the realisation of the fact that the country will have several political parties with opposing political creeds. “Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain, that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever,” he had said.
Looking at this from today’s perspective, the ruling political party (BJP), under the aegis of its ideological fountainhead RSS, seems to be leaving no stone unturned to establish a “Hindu rashtra”, sidelining minority communities in the process. Union minister and BJP leader Maneka Gandhi’s recent comment in Sultanpur that Muslims should vote for her, otherwise she would not be inclined to respond to their requests, shows the erosion of India’s democracy. If anything, the idea of what constitutes a democracy has been distorted under the present central government to such an extent that it is being projected as a give-and-take-relation, thus going against Ambedkar’s ideals.
Annihilating the caste system
Caste continues to play a crucial, deciding factor in determining the fate of candidates in elections in a large number of states in India, be it in local, Assembly or parliamentary polls. Be it the Jats of Haryana, Meenas and Rajputs of Rajasthan, Lingayats of Karnataka or Brahmins, political parties play according to the caste arithmetic at hand. For Ambedkar, caste was not a division of labour; it was a division of labourers. Even as an economic organisation, caste was a harmful institution. His problem with Hinduism was that blind belief in ‘shastras’ was the root cause of the caste system in India. For him, the caste system went against the idea of a nation and was “anti-national” in principle. He called upon Hindus to annihilate caste and set up a new social order of equality, liberty and fraternity, similar to the principles of a democracy. Towards the end of his life, his growing alienation with Hinduism led him to embrace Buddhism, along with his followers.
Liberty, equality and fraternity
For Ambedkar, the constitutional pillars of liberty, equality and fraternity could operate only in a trinity and could not be divorced from each other. We still live in an unequal society, where the wealth of the nine richest Indians is equivalent to the bottom 50 percent of the population. In the absence of an equal social system, liberty produces supremacy of a few over the many and kills individual initiative, according to Ambedkar. One of the things we see being eroded is the idea of fraternity – of Indians being one people. The threat is more real when BJP chief Amit Shah says that the BJP will enforce the National Register of Citizens, and promises to remove all infiltrators except Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, if voted to power for a second consecutive term. This constant effort to polarise the masses, accentuate the differences between communities and religions in a country as diverse as India goes against the idea of fraternity.
Citing John Stuart Mill, Ambedkar warned of the dangers of laying our “liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enables them to subvert their institutions”. For a long time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been posited by the BJP as the hero, the messiah our country needed. Earlier, Indira Gandhi had a similar cult-like following at a nationwide level. The unprecedented rise of social media has only helped cement this “bhakti” towards Modi. In BJP rallies across the country, people are asked to vote for Modi by voting for the saffron party candidate. Ambedkar also said that bhakti in religion leads to salvation, but in politics, it is a “sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship” in a democracy.
Ambedkar also said that political democracy should be made into a social democracy, adding that the contradictions between the two should be resolved, else they will undermine democracy itself.
Erosion of constitutional morality
As the Indian social fabric becomes increasingly fragmented, the basic tenets of the Constitution, including secularism, are being challenged. One of Ambedkar’s pleas was to maintain constitutional morality at any given time. According to him, if India were to maintain its democracy, the first thing to be done is to “hold fast to the constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives”. Abandoning constitutional morality would open the gates to anarchy, a state we seem to be descending into.
Mob lynchings in Una, Alwar, Ajmer, Muzaffarnagar and Dadri and the rise of gau rakshaks are evidence of rising intolerance in the past five years. People are taking the law into their own hands to justify their point of view. In fact, Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde has said that the BJP is here to change the Constitution and called being secular a “new fad”.
Politics is not possible without invoking historic figures that have left an indelible mark on India’s landscape. Keeping this in mind, the appropriation of Ambedkar by several political parties, including the BJP, which ideologically differs from his worldview, is not surprising. This strategy is used as a means to neutralise the ideological threat they pose. Last year, the Uttar Pradesh government attempted to appropriate him as a Hindu icon and decided to mention Ambedkar’s middle name ‘Ramji’ in all references to him in the state’s official correspondence.
However, the NDA government’s celebration of Ambedkar indicates only a superficial embrace of the man, rather than a commitment to bringing in social reform, as he espoused in his writings.
Dalit community – a political orphan
Most political parties treat Dalits as political orphans due to the lack of a unifying face across the nation, as Ambedkar once was. His relevance is amplified by the fact that there is no Dalit leader with a pan-Indian appeal and presence. The community appears to be leaderless, which leads to political parties competing to bring them under their banner, thus reducing them to a vote bank. For mainstream political parties, the presence of Ambedkar as a Dalit icon is required as their own leaders have failed to provide social justice to the community.
Ambedkar’s idea of nationalism was freedom from social inequality and untouchability. He wanted to broaden the social base of Indian nationalism by rejecting Brahminical imperialism under the caste system.
“I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion,” he had said. “How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us. For then only we shall realise the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realising the goal.”
However, in the present context, nationalism has been reduced to not questioning anything the government in power does. It is invoked in a forceful manner, spreading fear among the people.
Ambedkar hated hereditary, dynastic rule and a one-party system. Both the Congress and BJP have been guilty of this at different points of time. He warned that despotism does not cease to despotism because it is elective. “The real guarantee against despotism is to confront it with the possibility of its dethronement, of its being laid low, of its being superseded by a rival party.”
Whether this happens in the ongoing Lok Sabha election is yet to be seen.
Updated Date: Apr 14, 2019 11:19:36 IST