Why Dr Ambedkar appeals to the young & aspirational Indian

Narendra Modi keeps evoking the name of Dr B.R. Ambedkar because of Babasaheb’s growing appeal to the aspirational Indian and the young. The 21st Century in India is all set to be his.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sujata Anandan

The Preamble to the Indian Constitution which embodies the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity has been described by many as among the finest documents in the world. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar is largely credited with writing those values into the nation's Holy Book as a safeguard against everything that was unequal, inhibitive or restrictive and antagonistic, rancorous or hostile to the interests of sections of fellow Indians.

It is generally believed that Dr Ambedkar was influenced by the French Revolution in enshrining those values in the Constitution. But as he himself set out in a testimonial on his social philosophy, his belief in liberty, equality and fraternity had roots in religion and not in political science.

Over the years of discrimination and humiliation by a plethora of upper castes who came across him – a Brahmin peon in the office of Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, the Maharaja of Baroda, where Ambedkar worked as a law officer, would fling papers at him from the door and had set out a separate pot and tumbler for drinking water which he had to serve to himself – Ambedkar knew Hinduism was never designed for liberty, equality and fraternity.

But liberty and equality had a place in the philosophy of Buddha, who he considered his master. But the Buddha also said unlimited liberty could destroy equality and absolute equality left no room for liberty.

The law could be a safeguard against breaches of liberty and equality but that very law could not automatically guarantee liberty and equality. The only guarantor of these two principles was brotherhood – or fraternity – and, as Ambedkar put it, brotherhood came from humanity which had to be the basic tenet of any religion.

Dr Ambedkar clearly believed that law was a secular tenet that could easily be broken, religion was sacred and hence insisted on brotherhood being interpreted as religion. Writing in various newspapers and journals in the 1950s, as he stood on the threshold of Buddhism (“I have been born a Hindu but will not die a Hindu,”) he said categorically at the time that India – and particularly Hindus – were governed by two ideologies. Their political ideology was rooted in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution and its three values but their social ideology was quite the opposite and anti-thesis of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Reading Ambedkar from the 1950s today gives one a feeling of dèja vù. The nation was new and in its infancy, still fired by the spirit of freedom and nationalism and yet was racked by all the divisive elements that have come to the fore today- though they were then suppressed by the law which, as he said, could always be – and indeed was – broken on many occasions.

Writing about an ideal society – towards which he was working in the 1950s, he thought an ideal society had to be mobile, all channels of change and communication of that change to every other part of society should be open *which has been achieved by social media today).“ There should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact... in other words there should be social endosmosis.”

Endosmosis? That is a biological term, like osmosis, defined in physical chemistry as the flow of a substance from an area of lesser concentration to one of greater concentration. In sociological terms it would be the free mixing of people, perhaps from lesser backgrounds towards the more privileged ones. In Ambedkar’s view this was brotherhood, which was just another name for democracy. But he warned that democracy was not merely a form of government. “It is primarily a mode of associated living...essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.” In other words, brotherhood or fraternity again!

A simple message to the nation

Despite his high-flying words, Dr Ambedkar, who was far ahead of his times in suing for equality and basic freedoms to all people, had a very simple message for the nation. When he died on December 6, 1956, months after he converted lakhs of his followers to the more egalitarian Buddhism, but with much of his ideals still unachieved, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Dr Ambedkar stood against the oppressive elements in Hindu society and, indeed, against oppression everywhere.”

Perhaps Nehru was thinking of the bitter fight Ambedkar had put up against Pakistan who refused to let refugees from the scheduled castes migrate to India, simply because they wanted to enslave them for the menial tasks that needed to be performed for their newly set up feudal society!

But today, with India fast heading towards becoming a Hindu Pakistan, the oppression within Hindu society has multiplied manifold and is clearly visible in incidents of cow vigilantism and other forms of discrimination against Dalits and other sections of society.

The laws get broken often and are no longer the guarantors of freedom and egalitarianism that the Constitution had envisioned. But more than Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, who did their best to equalise Indian polity and society, it is Ambedkar who continues to remain relevant to large sections of aspirational Indians because he clearly attempted to take on the barbaric, medieval and socially backward thinkers in Indian society – one must not forget the bitter opposition to his drafting of the Hindu code bill by upper caste Hindus in the Congress, including India's first president, Dr Rajendra Prasad  - and shake it to the foundations in his quest for 'atma samman'.

That he had to adopt Buddhism after he realised that it would take more than a few writings and speeches to change Hindu society is quite another matter.

But his social and political philosophies resonate with young Indians from the deprived sections of society today essentially because the modern means of communication, including social media, has largely succeeded in bringing about the endosmosis he spoke of more than half a century ago. They read, they communicate, they find fellow travellers through every channel open to them and they no longer need any organised leadership to realise their goals. The admirers of Ambedkar today are not limited to his community of Mahars or even just Dalits of other hues across the country.

The idea of liberty, equality and fraternity as democracy to be taken as a religion might have seemed weird and out of place to his contemporaries, like Nehru and Sardar Patel, who had compartmentalised religion and democracy and would never mix one with the other.  But, to borrow from Karl Marx, Ambedkar's version of democracy has somehow become the opium of the masses.

Try hard as they might, oppressive governments will find it difficult to return the deprived sections of society to their former state of subservience and social slavery. Ambedkar has brought to them the message of self-esteem and self-respect. They are unlikely to take oppression lying down any more. The message seems to have gone out loud and clear even to the current dispensation.

Why else does Narendra Modi keep evoking Ambedkar's name at every turn and corner?

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