A non-Hindu Indian nationalism
In a luminous new biography of Ambedkar, Shashi Tharoor recalls the prescient warnings of the man who gave us more than just a Constitution to pay lip service to
Ambedkar remains the first and most important articulator of a non-Hindu conception of Indian nationalism, which makes current attempts by the Hindutva movement to appropriate him all the more hypocritical. Ambedkar deplored the religious sanctity accorded to caste discrimination, the lack of any record of shame or regret in Hindu literature over untouchability, the absence of any serious revolt against the practice by any major upper-caste figure and, by implication, Hindu society’s undemocratic nature as reflected in its internalisation of inequality and untouchability. ‘If Hindu Raj does become a fact,’ he bitterly exclaimed, ‘it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country.
No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.’ The greatest Hindu of the age, Mahatma Gandhi, nonetheless, had expressed ‘the highest regard’ for Ambedkar, remarking: ‘He has every right to be bitter. That he does not break our head is an act of self-restraint on his part.’ (Interestingly enough, Ambedkar would have found himself on the same side as the Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar on one issue today. Savarkar, as a rationalist reformer, would have had little patience for the cow vigilantism that those who swear by his doctrines have been practising in recent years, assaulting Muslims and Dalits for allegedly transporting or consuming the holy animal. Savarkar had urged Hindus to care for the cow because of its utility (upayuktavadi), rather than worship it. ‘Why are cow’s urine and dung purifying while even the shadow of a man like Ambedkar is defiling?’ Savarkar asked pointedly in terms that none of his admirers in the BJP would care to recall today.)
At the same time, Ambedkar, as a lawyer and constitutionalist, was perhaps more of a conformist than his radical reputation suggests. He wanted to reform the disabilities built into Indian society precisely because he foresaw the distinct possibility of a counter-revolution by the oppressed, in reaction to the paradox of political equality coexisting with social inequality and centralisation of economic power. ‘We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up,’ he ominously warned the Constituent Assembly.
Ambedkar constantly expressed fear that the democracy he had helped create in the Constitution could be undemocratically transformed: ‘It is quite possible for this new-born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there was a landslide of popular support, the danger of that possibility becoming an actuality is much greater.’ These words have a haunting resonance in an India that, under Hindutva rule, is increasingly being described today as an ‘electoral autocracy’.
As one who had first-hand experience of caste discrimination and who had suffered under its privations, Ambedkar knew how important it was to struggle for justice—but by education and temperament he wanted that struggle to be within the framework of the law and the Constitution. His work as a lawyer sought to establish a robust legal and constitutional framework—both for equality, with guaranteed rights for the dispossessed and marginalised, and also for the methods by which the dispossessed and marginalised could fight for their rights. As a constitutionalist, Ambedkar viewed the law as a source of strength and support for those fighting for equality and justice; their rights, and their right to struggle for these rights, would be constitutionally protected. This made him more of a conciliator than a revolutionary, but it was in keeping with the spirit of accommodation that had often marked his political choices, most notably over the Poona Pact.
Ambedkar’s surrender to Gandhi on the Poona Pact and the constitutional arrangement that reserves seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes but requires a Dalit candidate to be elected by all voters—in practice a non-Dalit majority—is now being questioned by Dalit activists. Dalit scholar Raja Sekhar Vundru, for instance, argues that the current electoral system has failed to advance the interests of the Dalits in a majoritarian polity. Gandhi placed Hindu unity above the Dalit interest in electing their own leaders. But the result is that since Dalits do not form a majority in any constituency, and in effect a majority of non-Dalits decides which Dalits will win, Dalit candidates and parties are forced to make compromises with non-Dalit interests, rather than articulating their own.
Though the Poona Pact and subsequently Ambedkar’s affirmative action provisions in the Constitution provided new opportunities for Dalits in education and employment, Vundru and others argue that it has diluted effective Dalit political representation by placing their true leaders at the mercy of non-Dalit parties and voters, including the upper castes. After all, there could no greater proof of their argument than the fact that Ambedkar himself was twice defeated in the Lok Sabha elections as the candidate of a Dalit party and had to be elected to the Rajya Sabha with Congress support. How could Dalit leaders whose survival in politics requires them to be beholden to ‘ruling-class parties’ effectively safeguard the interests of the most vulnerable? How could Dalits having to contest against candidates of non-Dalit parties with their immense financial resources and non-Dalit ‘votebanks’, hold their own?
Six decades after Ambedkar’s death, the more heinous aspects of the caste system have mellowed considerably, thanks to the doors he pushed open, the affirmative action he instituted, and the social changes he made possible. Dalits have recorded various ‘firsts’—the first Dalit president (and the second, now followed by the first from a Scheduled Tribe), the first Dalit deputy prime minister, the first Dalit chief justice, the first Dalit billionaire. And yet the condition of Dalits in India today has not improved nearly as much as Ambedkar might have hoped.
The debate over whether Mahatma Gandhi was right to put the unity of Indians against British imperialism above everything else or whether Ambedkar was justified in his insistence that rectifying the injustice of untouchability took precedence is academic today. The claim of Mahatma Gandhi to represent the Depressed Classes and Ambedkar’s demand for Dalit self-representation has been settled in favour of the latter. The Mahatma’s view of the indispensability of varnashrama dharma to Hindu society is vindicated by the survival of the caste system in Hindu social practice, but his other ideas have largely passed into obsolescence, honoured only through lip service, whereas it is Ambedkar’s legal vision that endures, codified in the Constitution of the republic.
And that vision is his finest legacy. In the perennial tension between communitarian privileges and individual rights, Ambedkar stood squarely on the side of the individual. In the battle between timeless traditions and modern conceptions of social justice, Ambedkar tilted the scales decisively towards the latter. In the contestation between the wielders of power and the drafters of law, Ambedkar carved a triumphant place for enabling change through democracy and legislation. In a fractured and divided Hindu society he gave the Dalits a sense of collective pride and individual self-respect. In so doing, he transformed the lives of millions yet unborn, heaving an ancient civilisation into the modern era through the force of his intellect and the power of his pen.