Why we need Ambedkar more than ever: analysis
Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar, whose birthday is celebrated on April 14, was a major aberration for Indian nationalist iconography. His valiant challenge to Mahatma Gandhi’s moralistic appeal was based on the assessment that social elites lack ethical convictions to emancipate Dalits. Ambedkar wanted to elevate the Dalits from their subdued and depressing social status to an egalitarian claimant on social rights and political power. This democratic claim is often belittled as a narrow political act, reducing Ambedkar to a mere Dalit leader. But he was much more than that.
In post-independence India, Ambedkar’s political philosophy has revolved around three main themes.
First, he hoped that the modern Constitution, with its rational and welfare-oriented directives, would be more effective in bringing about substantive social change. Second, he assumed that Dalits will emerge as a powerful political force and participate in the new democracy. Third, he envisioned that Buddhism will help India to reinvent its glorious ethical past and promote liberal principles (primarily liberty, equality, and brotherhood).
In the post-liberalization period, Ambedkar has been adopted by several communities as a key thinker on subordinate rights, social justice, and ecological issues. Dalit and other social movements place him in a high mantle as a heroic individual, as an apostle of great virtues, as one of the main nationalist icons. However, Ambedkar’s ambition to establish socially marginalized groups as a crucial participant in political power remains unfulfilled. The Dalit political movement has been peripheral and insignificant, while Hindutva organizations have appropriated Ambedkar as their central cultural symbol and have successfully attracted the newer Dalit communities in their fold.
The last political team that Ambedkar established, the Republican Party of India, collapsed shortly after its creation. Another radical alternative, the Dalit Panthers, died slowly. In Uttar Pradesh, under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and, later, Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) offered a political alternative. But over the past decade, it has become a peripheral force. In the rest of India, the Ambedkarite political movement is still in its infancy.
Since Narendra Modi came to power, Ambedkar’s portrayal as a Hindu reformist nationalist icon has prevailed over his radical anti-caste identity. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to show that they are equally sensitive to Ambedkar’s political ideas and committed to the values of constitutional justice. On April 14, 2017 Modi visited Deekshabhumi in Nagpur and announced various welfare measures for the Dalits, which is a strong political statement. Across the country, his government has built organized monuments, statues, monuments and cultural programs, and symbolic events to demonstrate his sincerity towards Ambedkar and his followers.
The BJP also tried to test its pro-Dalit social engineering in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a dedicated samarasta (harmony) program to connect the most disadvantaged social groups with the Hindutva project. Sub-caste factionalism within the Dalits helps the BJP to mobilize the most disadvantaged Dalits. Popular Dalit personalities like Ramnath Kovind, who was elected as president as the candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and NDA allies Ramdas Athawale or Ramvilas Paswan have helped the BJP expand its electoral support base. Dalit’s new leadership often speaks the political language of RSS, without apologizing for its communal character.
For the first time, the BJP has also garnered considerable support among the Dalit middle classes, as well as among neo-Buddhists. Dalit’s new entrants to right-wing politics see it as a pragmatic and rational option, especially when “secular” political parties have failed to bring any substantial material benefit to the community.
The rise of the BJP, the decline of Dalit’s independent political movement, and the decline of parties with the ideology of social justice aside, lead us to believe that a large number of Dalits have strayed from Ambedkar’s radical vision. But this is too early to say. Despite the right’s success in appropriating Ambedkar, its political and social vision remains a challenge to the Hindutva cause.
For the future of India, Ambedkar envisioned an ideological force for democratic socialism. He valued modernity as a force for the progress of humanity towards true freedom, with regard to the liberation from conservative religious ties and the establishment of fraternal social life. Ambedkar’s political philosophy is a dynamic resource that has not yet been activated in its true spirit. Like Karl Marx, any reading of his key texts not only ignites our critical capacities, but also introduces us to the serious struggles in which people face social and economic oppression. Ambedkar’s critical ideas free us from the dungeon of the caste psyche, cultural prejudices and hegemony of the higher castes.
Ambedkar in his true spirit would be a bête noir to the right school of thought. He was extremely harsh against the Brahminic Hindu religious order, and critically apologized to nationalist leaders (including Gandhi and Nehru). He forcibly rejected Hindutva as the ideological force to imagine the new nation. In his book, Pakistan or the Partition of India, he proclaimed that the “Hindu Raj” will be the greatest calamity for the country and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
Some Dalits today have moved to right-wing politics, hoping that it will bring them some material benefit. However, such hopes are rarely fulfilled. Although economic growth has generally improved, real life conditions for Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized communities demonstrate their persistent marginalization and exclusion. Furthermore, the cultural hegemony of the upper caste, the dominance of the social elite in public institutions, the increasing descent of the Dalits into the informal labor market and the absence of political deliberation on social justice has become the new norm.
Ambedkar’s political philosophy is underutilized. When the deprivation and destitution of a great mass are growing, while the economic and political power of a social elite minority is rapidly increasing, it is imperative to recover the discourse of social justice and socialism. Ambedkar will continue to be the key intellectual figure who provides the critical resource to challenge the dominance of the right.
Harish Wankhede is an assistant professor at the Center for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The opinions expressed are personal.