Today's Editorial

07 October 2016


The unsung hero



Source: By Achintya Kumar Dutta: The Statesman



Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, son of a Mahar soldier, was unquestionably India's first untouchable leader who spread the message of non-violent struggle to secure justice and human dignity for the downtrodden. Ambedkar brought the attention of the world to the cause of the Untouchables and gave it global publicity.


He excoriated the caste Hindus for practising Untouchability and asserted autonomy and social identity for the Untouchables, demanding their political right including the right of separate representation. Moreover, he mobilized them to launch a Satyagraha movement (1927) to establish the civic right of the untouchable Mahars at Mahad in Bombay Presidency by drinking water from Chowdar tank, where they had no access.


Ambedkar's insistence on separate electorate for the Untouchables and consequently the Communal Award (1932) had stirred India's nationalist politics.  Mahatma Gandhi had strongly opposed it, stalled it by resorting to fast and finally consented to reservation of seats. Ambedkar was critical of Gandhi and the Congress for doing little for the Untouchables. To him, Gandhi's anti-untouchability campaign was a failure. It is often argued that he never insisted on the removal of Untouchability as much as he insisted on the propagation of Khadi or Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi never launched any Satyagraha or fast for the removal of Untouchability and was reluctant to antagonize the Hindus for the cause of the Untouchables.


Undeniably, the Mahatma was the first and only Indian politician to connect the issue of abolition of Untouchability with swaraj and single-mindedly challenged it. Consequently, he was opposed by the orthodox Hindus who figured prominently in the Congress. They thought Gandhi was moving very fast while for Ambedkar he was going too slowly.


Critics condemn him as an opportunist for allying with the British from the late 1930s and also for his rapprochement with Congress from 1946. But he did not switch to the allies for any post or personal gain. On every occasion he tried to use his position for the defence of the Untouchables and therefore the doctrine of alliance should not be mistaken for pure opportunism but pragmatism. In this respect, Ambedkar's career differed from that of other Untouchable leaders in the Congress who hardly used their position to defend Untouchables as much as they might.


Ambedkar asserted social democracy and sharing of political power by all, including the Dalits. To him, without social liberty, political freedom was meaningless for them. Ambedkar was not anti-national. He rather wanted to see the Indian nation based on egalitarianism and a non-hierarchical society. Thus providing a secular cultural component of Indian society, he invoked the egalitarian cultural tradition of Buddha, Kabir and Phule. He dreamt of India from a perspective of an inclusive nation. So his efforts in mobilizing the Dalits for liberation and empowerment should not be considered as separate from the process of modern nation-building. Arguably, Ambedkar's struggle was different from that of the traditional Congress leaders, but it was vital.


Apart from piloting the Constitution, Ambedkar as the country's Law Minister made another great contribution to the issue of women's rights. He oversaw the drafting of the Hindu Code Bill that would, for the first time, allow Hindu women to choose their marriage partners, to divorce them if necessary and to inherit a fair share of ancestral property. These reforms came into effect only after he resigned from the Cabinet (1951) because of orthodoxy and hostility of the traditionalist Congressmen. Disgusted by upper caste conservative Hindu-led Congress politics, Ambedkar finally embraced Buddhism (1956). This conversion was a collective one and an expression of social revolution against Hindu society.


Surprisingly, Ambedkar remained unsung in India for long. He was hardly mentioned in the official speeches for decades. The publication of Ambedkar's collected works did not begin before the 1970s in contrast to the upper caste Congress leaders. The portrait of this architect of the Indian Constitution did not appear in Parliament before 1990. Even the government of Maharashtra was hesitant for years before naming one of the state universities after Ambedkar.


Ambedkar's political legacy becomes explicit in Indian politics from the 1960s as demonstrated by Republican Party of India, formally established in 1957 but conceived by Ambedkar a few months before his death. It played important role in the politics of Maharashtra. Another organization whose roots could be found in Ambedkar philosophy was the Bahujan Samaj Party, which achieved political success in northern India in the 1990s. This party's programme as well as strategy was inspired by Ambedkar's political legacy. Its leader, Kanshi Ram was deeply influenced by two of Ambedkar's classics -- Annihilation of Caste and What Ganhi and Congress have done to the Untouchables. About 15,000 statues of Ambedkar were erected by Mayawati during her second innings as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, signifying that Ambedkar became the Dalit symbol through which Untouchables could assert their presence in the country's public space. These are indicative of the increasing popularity of Ambedkar's thoughts and the Untouchables' rise to power. Some of the leading political parties realized it and hoped to reap political dividend. Hence, Ambedkar is placed among the Hindu nationalist and eminent leaders of India so as to win over the Untouchables who comprise one-fifth of the electorate in the Hindi-speaking zone, though cynics described him as pro-British, regardless of nationalist sentiment and the person who introduced the evil of quotas in job, administration and education.

Ambedkar also wrote with eloquence and authority on multiple issues including religion, caste, nationalism and colonialism which are not only relevant in India but  all over the world where non-violence prevails, where people in a plural society would believe in inclusion, and where the marginalized strive for their rights and liberty.  Ambedkar's ideals are as relevant today as they were 60 years back. His work on the empowerment and inclusion of excluded groups made him an icon for the marginalised. This is a matter of great pride for India. At the same time it is a matter of shame that millions of Dalits face social discrimination and humiliation today in their everyday life. Such incidents remind us of the relevance of Ambedkar and the uncivil nature of our civil society in post-modern times.


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