By B.G. Verghese
Ambedkar was one of the outstanding leaders of the freedom movement who fought foreign rule as much as caste oppression within the Hindu fold. He was a democrat and constitutionalist and was no less a patriot than any for joining the Viceroy’s Council and fighting the system from within. Sadly he was never given his due outside his own dalit community in his lifetime or thereafter.
In his memorable closing address to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949 Ambedkar spoke of India’s social democracy deficit. He said the country had legislated one man, one vote, or political democracy, but there was rank inequality in the economic and social spheres. This mighty contradiction would have to be overcome as Liberty would not endure without Equality and Fraternity. The solution did not lie in bhakti or hero-worship, to which India was addicted, nor in civil disobedience, the “Grammar of Anarchy”, when democratic instruments and processes are available, unlike under colonial rule.
Ambedkar’s truths were little understood, less practised. Hero-worship has crippled national initiative and collective wisdom while Fraternity has become a forgotten word, never used, less understood. It was thoughtlessly diminished by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency when the Constitution was amended to embody secularism, a concept inherent in Fraternity, in the Preamble to the Constitution. Thus secularism, the narrower concept, has been separated from the far larger and richer value of Fraternity as something apart and distinct to the detriment of both. Today, secularism, much touted, has been hollowed out and Fraternity ignored, crippling equality in the process.
Look at India’s most pressing problems, communalism, casteism and linguistic, ethnic, regional, gender divides. They all stem from the “social deficit” and inattention to Fraternity.
One is reminded of this on reading “Ambedkar Speaks”, a telling three volume collection of his speeches edited by Narendra Jadhav. Passion and foresight are the hallmarks of the book. Himself a Mahar scheduled caste, Ambedkar fought for India’s freedom but also for dalit freedom within it. He was not anti-Hindu as such, and found much to admire within it, and wished dalits, designated and called Untouchables or the Depressed Classes, to remain part of Hindu society. But he refused to accept the iron mould of caste distinctions, or the chaturvarna, which he decried as an abomination as it was based on birth and not on merit and from which there was no escape howsoever high a dalit might rise in society through his or her own endeavours.
Ambedkar faced discrimination from childhood. He was able to go abroad for higher education on a Baroda government scholarship but on returning found it difficult to rent a house as a public servant in that city as he was a dalit. This was the turning point that led Ambedkar to take up social reform, armed with formidable knowledge and using social education and political action as major instruments.
He often said he had been born a dalit but would not die as one. Hindu society must open its doors to all its children else he would convert to a more egalitarian and humanistic faith. He advocated mass conversion of dalits as an emancipatory move as early as 1936 and finally converted to Buddhism in 1956 with some lakhs of others just months before his death.
Though he accepted political office under the British it was to fight for dalit rights without abandoning the larger goal of Indian independence. But he insisted on dalit participation in the processes leading up to swaraj and represented the Depressed Classes at the Round Table Conference that led to the 1935 Act. His fight for reservation through separate electorates was strongly opposed by Gandhi who thought Ambedkar’s formulation would irrevocably divide Hindu society and that the solution to the dalit problem lay in pushing forward with abolition of untouchability through Hindu social reform.
The two clashed in the RTC over granting separate electorates to the Depressed Classes. Gandhi claimed to represent the majority of Untouchables who, he claimed, did not wish thus to divide Hindu society. The British government conceded separate electorates whereupon Gandhi sat on a fast unto death in Poona in 1932. Ambedkar finally yielded and under the Poona Pact, negotiated with Gandhi, accepted reserved seats within the Joint Electorate.
Gandhi never saw eye to eye with Ambedkar on the dalit issue and remained convinced that Hindu social reformers would, within a measureable span of time, end untouchability.
Reflecting on the debate decades later, it would seem Ambedkar had the better of the argument and that Gandhi was wrong. Caste has partly receded but remains cruelly entrenched in many parts of the country. Hindu reformers have been unable to make much headway. Legislation has been passed but is ignored or not stringently applied. The law against manual scavenging and the Protection against Atrocities Act are cases in point. The political parties pay lip service to the cause of but have not made the removal of caste discrimination a mission. Khaps exist and continue to issue and enforce medieval rulings. Bodies like the VHP and other Hindutva cadres are not friendly to Fraternity. Officially produced school text books in Gujarat in 2002 by the BJP blamed the Dalits for their sorry lot.
Caste is a major organising principle in elections and inevitably influences recruitment and administrative attitudes. The Commission for Scheduled Castes has traditionally been understaffed, relegated and not taken seriously. Its annual reports are seldom, if ever, debated. No political party has caste discrimination, alone Fraternity, on its agenda even as “secularism” is bandied about as a slogan.
The Ramakrishna Mission and some other Hindu bodies and groups may have been active; but where are the sants and sadhus, akharas or secular social reformers. One does not see or hear them. The media is not interested. Our educational curricula by-passes this uncomfortable issue. But when the matter was raised at the World Social Forum in Durban some years ago there was a howl of protest. Sadly, caste discrimination exists even within the Muslim and Christian folds though the bulk of converts to these faiths saw this as a means of escaping this form of social oppression.
Ambedkar was also for a uniform civil code that could be voluntarily adopted by citizens. Indeed, there is no compulsion to abrogate personal laws in case a UCC is legislated and this is beyond any constitutional doubt. Yet, all political parties and, strangely, women’s groups oppose a uniform code though the crux of the reform is property rights for women. Instead, the many religious codes we have, empower a basically conservative clergy to determine how believers conduct themselves in civil life. This absurdity has been tolerated on totally mistaken grounds in the name of upholding “secularism”.
It is time return to the forgotten wisdom of Ambedkar, no less than that of Gandhi who, despite certain fads, was a very great man and rightly revered as Father of the Nation.