08 December, 2005
Forty nine years back on 6 December 1956 Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar attained ‘Mahaparinirvan’. Born on 14th April 1891, in the military town Mhow, he was the fourteenth child of his parents. Parents from untouchable community viz. Mahar, his father was a retired army officer and headmaster in a military school, and his mother an illiterate woman.
Since he was born in an untouchable caste, he was made to sit separate from other students in a corner of the classroom. Despite all kinds of humiliations, he passed his high school in 1908 with flying colours. This was such an exceptional achievement for an untouchable, that he was felicitated in a public meeting.
Four years later he graduated in Political Science and Economics from Bombay University. After his graduation he went to the USA to study economics at the Columbia University with a scholarship form the Maharaja of Baroda. Bhimrao remained abroad from 1913 to 1917 and again from 1920 to 1923. In the meantime he had established himself as an eminent intellect. Columbia University had awarded him the PhD for his thesis, which was later published in a book form under the title “The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India”. But his first published article was “Castes in India – Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”. In 1920 he went to London where he got his Bar-at-Law at Gray’s Inn for Law. During his sojourn in London from 1920 to 1923, he also completed his thesis titled “The Problem of the Rupee” for which he was awarded the degree of DSc.
During the brief stay in India from 1917 to 1920 he first got a job as Military Secretary in Baroda Raja’s office. Here he was ill treated again by the upper caste employees. Even drinking water was not given to him and files were kept at a distance from him. He couldn’t continue in Baroda and later taught at Sydnom College in Bombay and also brought out Marathi weekly whose title was ‘Mook Nayak’ (meaning ‘Dumb Hero’). He had to face similar experience of untouchability and dishonour even in Bombay.
While coming back to India in 1923, Ambedkar again experienced humiliation. The upper caste lawyers would not even have tea at his desk. But his greatest consolation was his clients, whom he treated with liberal mind. His reputation and fame among the Depressed Classes began to grow. He visualised and struggled for a casteless and equal India.
By the time he returned to India, Bhimrao had equipped himself fully to wage war against the practice of untouchability. In 1924 he started the organisation ‘Bahiskrit Hitakarini Sabha’ (Outcastes Welfare Association), for the upliftment of the untouchables. Ambedkar adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, the eradication of illiteracy and economic uplift of the downtrodden and second, initiating non-violent struggle against visible symbols of casteism, like denial of entry into temples and drawing water from public wells and tanks.
The problems of the downtrodden were centuries old and difficult to overcome. Their entry into temples was forbidden. They could not draw water from public wells and ponds. Their admission in schools was prohibited. Ambedkar won two major victories when the High Court of Bombay gave a verdict in favour of the untouchables. On 25th December 1927, he led the Mahad March at the Chowdar Tank at Colaba, near Bombay, to ensure the untouchables right to draw water from the public tank. The marchers were met with the brutality of caste Hindus. He then burnt copies of the ‘Manusmriti’ publicly terming it a document of discrimination with a number of his supporters. It was an act of great courage to do so in the den of violent Chitpawan Brahmins in Maharastra. The two struggles shook the religious foundation on which the caste system is built. This marked the beginning of the anti-caste and ant-priest movement in Maharastra. The temple entry movement launched by Dr. Ambedkar in 1930 at Kalaram temple, Nasik is another landmark in the struggle for human rights and social justice.
He was fully convinced that nothing could emancipate the Dalits except through a complete destruction of the caste system. He continued his movement to attack the base of caste system in every possible way.
In the meantime, the Simon Commission visited India and Dr. Ambedkar met the commission in Pune in which Ambedkar presented his position on depressed classes. He then followed it up during the round table conference after which Ramsay McDonald announced ‘Communal Award’ as a result of which several communities including the ‘depressed classes’ were given the right to have separate electorates. Gandhiji wanted to defeat this design and went on a fast unto death to oppose it. On 24th September 1932, Ambedkar and Gandhiji reached an understanding, which became the famous Poona Pact. According to this Pact, in addition to the agreement on electoral constituencies, reservations were provided for untouchables in Government jobs and legislative assemblies. The Pact carved out a clear and definite position for the downtrodden on the political scene of the country. For the first time in Indian history it opened up opportunities of education and government service for them and also gave them a right to vote.
Dr. Ambedkar attended all the three Round Table Conferences in London and each time, forcefully projected his views in the interest of the ‘untouchable’. He exhorted the downtrodden sections to raise their living standards and to acquire as much political power as possible. He was of the view that there was no future for untouchables in the Hindu religion and they should change their religion if need be. In 1935, he publicly proclaimed,” I was born a Hindu because I had no control over this but I shall not die a Hindu”.
Ambedkar – The Socialist
It is also interesting to note and which not many Ambedarkites have ventured, that Dr Ambedkar was a socialist to the core of his heart. The disappointing relation with the communist movement stands as the single most unfortunate paradox of contemporary Indian history. It didn’t come out of much of ideological differences, which certainly existed in the form of certain unclear theoretical constructs in the mind of Ambedkar – as from the attitudes of the communist leaders towards the Dalit movement. These leaders in the Trade Unions of Bombay dogmatically regarded the caste question as an unimportant super-structural issue, which would automatically disappear when the revolution takes place. Their orthodox outlook regarding untouchability, caste disparity, discrimination was the basics on which Ambedkar’s entire thesis on Communism was formed. For historical reasons the leadership of this communist movement however came from the middle class educated youth who had to come from upper castes communities, the majority being the Brahmin itself.
Ambedkar’s writing on Marxism is heavily reflects his frustration with the Bombay-Communists. This legacy to identify Marxism with its self-appointed practitioners still appears to be followed by Dalits. They cite examples of the parliamentary communist parties to show the lacuna or inapplicability of Marxism. It is necessary for them to understand that Marxism intrinsically solicits criticism but it presupposes its careful study.
As Anand Teltumde puts it, although Ambedkar could not discuss the philosophy of communism in the manner it deserved, he was never antagonistically disposed towards it. Rather, he acknowledged the beauty of communist philosophy and said that it was closer to his own. Preoccupied with the mission of liberating the Dalits, he insisted, quite like Marx, that the test of the philosophy was in practice, and opined that if communists worked from that perspective, to win success in India would be far easier than in Russia (Janata, 15 January, 1938). He always regarded communism as the ultimate benchmark to assess his highest ideal – Buddhism. With unpleasant experience with communist dogma and vulgarity of his times, he did sound polemically against Communism and appeared at times even professing its doom but it all underscored his wrath against the dogma that occupied the communist practice.
Despite all these aspects of Ambedkar’s disagreements with Communism it is cannot be ruled out that Ambedkar was not a Socialist. He was a socialist of a different kind. One of his prime conflicts with Marx was ‘dictatorship of the proletariats’, which he condemned saying that dictatorship of any kind is unethical. His stood for greater democracy of, by, for and among the oppressed ones in every field. At one stage he was clearly of the opinion that the historical conflict is between the exploited and exploiters and that all.
It is with this idea that Dr. Ambedkar, formed the Independent Labour Party, participated in the provincial elections and was elected to the Bombay Legislative Assembly. During these days he stressed the need for abolition of the ‘Jagirdari’ system, pleaded for workers’ Fight to strike and addressed a large number of meetings and conferences in Bombay Presidency. In 1939, during the Second World War, he called upon Indians to join the Army in large numbers to defeat Nazism, which he said, was another name for Fascism.
He stood for the nationalisation of property like land, banks etc. Ambedkar was also an advocate of women’s rights. He struggled for women’s liberation from the caste-entrenched patriarchal system. At the conference of the Depressed Classes Women in Nagpur in 1942, he stated: ‘let every girl who marries stand by her husband, claim to be her husband’s friend and equal, and refuse to be his slave’. He resigned from the Nehru’s cabinet as Law Minister only when the cabinet refused to pass the Women’s Rights Bill. This strongly proves that his idea of Socialism was embedded in his core agenda of freedom for all from all forms of bondage.
Ambedkar and after
The post Ambedkar Dalit movement had witnessed several ups and downs. On one side a categorical awakening among the Dalits had grown beyond all levels of history and on the other it has somewhere stagnant after Ambedkar mainly due to ideological disposition of stagnation. It would be opportune to look at the post Ambedar Dalit movement and do a stock taking of the changes within the Dalit politics to understand the phenomenon. Subash Gatade says that the ups and downs through which the Dalit politics passed through after the death of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar can be broadly divided into three phases – Rise and Fall of the Republican Party, emergence of the Dalit Panthers and thirdly the growing assertion of Dalits for political power and their consequent refusal to remain satisfied merely with education and job opportunities arising out of the policy of reservation.
There is no need to underline the immense potentialities in the phenomenon of Dalit assertion in today’s caste ridden polity. There is no denying the fact that it is a step ahead in the real democratisation of the Indian society and the polity dominated by Brahminical values and traditions despite nearly six decade experiment in electoral democracy. The impressive intervention of BSP under Kanshiram in the national politics underlines this third stage. It is noteworthy that while in the earlier two stages in the post Ambedkar Dalit movement the unfolding Dalit politics in Maharashtra guided its orientation, its role has been increasingly marginalised in the third stage. The success achieved by BSP has certainly encouraged emergence of similar experiments in different parts of the country.
At this stage there is another factor that developed among Dalit castes too. These are organising themselves under the banners of their respective caste and sub-caste for achieving their rights. Consequently their guns are trained besides the Varna system also on the so-called rich Dalit castes or the creamy layer in them, which they feel, have monopolised a large part of the reserved posts. The Mahar/neo-Buddhists vs. Matang and Charmakar debate in Maharashtra, Mala vs. Madiga in Andhra Pradesh are symptomatic of this rising trend. This propensity is similar in most states where the marginalized Dalits are organising themselves into a movement for castewise categorisation of reserved seats in educational institutions and jobs etc, which could not avail of the quota for historical reasons, could avail of it.
It is indeed ironical that at a time when the issue of Dalit assertion has got acceptance even in the mainstream polity in the 90s a counter tendency has emerged which seem to fracture the new found identity. One could also perceive the whole process as an explosion of identities hitherto suppressed by the hegemonic caste and class structure. In the beginning of the 70s the term Dalit denoted a broad, homogenous fraternity. This is no more the case. If you just say Dalit you are making an incomplete statement. It would be necessary to also specify whether he is a Mala or a Madiga or a Matang or a Charmakar. This process has thrown up new ‘icons’ from among the different castes and the sub–castes as well. This clearly gives a broader picture of the fact that how much the individual caste identity had become more important than the collective one of the 70s.
Another aspect that the Dalit movement in the post-Ambedkar era failed to address is that of the direct challenges of communal fascism. Communal-fascism is exploring its way to elaborate its base, activities and action. It appears that building of philanthropic and religious institutions like Saraswati Sishu Mandir, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Sanghs, Deen Dayal Shodh Sansthan, Sanskriti Bihar, Vikas Bharit, Gayatri Pariwar, Brahmakumari Samaj, etc. are some of the strategies adopted to create inroads among the Dalits & Adivasis. Another strategy applied is the steady and systematic capturing of the community panchayats and organisations. The best example of this is Gujarat where the communal fascists have got their stranglehold and successfully executed the carnage against the Muslims by communalising Dalits and Adivasis.
Resultant is the perpetual assurance of control over these communities plus a bonus of sustaining casteism. Expansion of caste fascism has so far and is disintegrating the Dalit ideology, theology, and identity and intimidated their very existence. Apparently this ruptures the community, deteriorates the noble notions of sharing, caring and co-operation, expansion of patriarchy and battered the inkling of community ownership over resources. Let us not forget Ambedkar was the greatest fighter against religious fascism and historical caste fascism.
Thirdly Dalit movement neither understand the politics of imperialist globalisation not address it in any form. Rather than entering the debate in a critical way from the subaltern perspective, it remained passive to the process of globalisation, and many times joined the sustaining party. Globalisation in India marked through Economic Reforms launched in July 1991 in India were in nature of a crisis management response to the economic and political crises that erupted in early 90s. The blue print for the Reforms was provided by the combination of macro-economic stabilisation and structural adjustment programme of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank respectively, which had been adopted by many countries before in similar situations.
This had quantitative and qualitative adversities on food security, employment, inflation, poverty alleviation schemes as well as social security. For example reservation in the educational institutions and the financial assistance in the form of scholarships and freeships had gone out of context, with the advent of education as an industry. Without education, all constitutional safeguards including the reservation in services would be futile. The Reforms have already resulted in freezing the grants to many institutions and in stagnating, if not lowering, the expenditure on education. The free market ethos has entered the educational sphere in a big way. Commercialisation of education is no more a mere rhetoric; it is now the established fact. Commercial institutions offering specialised education signifying the essential input from utilitarian viewpoint have come up in a big way from cities to small towns.
It is the same way that the employment sector had its impact due to the thus called ‘economic reforms’. Howsoever, unsatisfactory the results of the implementation of reservation in employment may be, its importance from the Dalit viewpoint cannot be under emphasised. As could be evidenced by the organised private sector, where it would be difficult to find a Dalit employee (save of course in scavenging and lowliest jobs), without reservations Dalits would have been totally doomed. The importance of reservations thus could only be assessed in relation to situations where they do not exist. Whatever be their defects and deficiencies, they have given certain economic means of livelihood and some social prestige to the sons and daughters of over 1.5 million landless labourers. Whether they get real power or not, over 50,000 Dalits could enter the sphere of bureaucratic authority with the help of reservations. Besides these tangible benefits promised by the policy, it has instilled a hope in Dalit community. This hope predominantly manifests in the form of spread of education among them. Their emotional bond with the nation and its Constitution despite heaps of injustice and ignominy they bear every moment of their life may also be significantly attributable to the Reservation Policy.
The selling out the PSU, the disinvestments of PSUs, promotion of privatisation, the letting off of land to the corporates, etc. had crafted formulae of neo-colonisation. This is high time that Dalit leadership across the country enters this debate in a big way, which it had until now failed to do.
Coming back to Ambedkar, he was not dogmatic but pragmatic. He had rightly confronted the forces of fascism, communalism and capitalism. He believed that any system that promotes unequal human relationships should not thrive. Unfortunately, his socio-economical writings were kept aside while his writings on religion and caste system of 30s were used more by the representatives of the movement, thus clearly alienating a vast masses of the unorganised labour away from the mainstream Ambedkarite movement. That is why today, despite globalisation resulting in wars and multiple conflicts, yet we Dalits simply remain as silent spectators, just waiting for our turn of reservation. Dalits are confined to use the Dalit card for just reservation in education and employment, nothing else.
The forth barrier of the post Ambedkar Dalit movement is the emergence of a new sect of Dalit elite. This Dalit elite whom Baba Saheb had opposed tooth and nail in his lifetime had become the Sarkari Babu Sahab clan, who not only take the benefits of reservations but also conveniently forget the community once they get there. It is also observed that while this sect functions throughout with the brand ‘Dalit’, also engage in all the corrupt practices that was once the cornerstone of Brahministic culture and ethics. It is interesting that Ambedkar fought for the rights of Dalits and had a broader vision, which couldn’t be inculcated by post–Ambedkar Ambedkarites. He wanted to give his people an identity so that they get out of Varna System, but here what we see is the stimulation of the culture of varna and caste within the Dalit communities.
Despite the leaps and bounds, the Dalit movement made in Indian context, the failure of Ambedkarite movement to address the questions of fascism, communalism, globalisation, imperialism and the most importantly patriarchy in relation with casteism has altogether dragged the Dalit movement to the crossroad in the present context.
Any pragmatic and progressive movement cannot stand on the selective criticism of a few religious texts or political ideologies and conveniently keeping quiet on other questions. A movement cannot be built on superfluous philosophy of negativism. It has to provide its own alternative to the people. To quote V.B. Rawat, Dalits have their own distinct identity and culture and those claiming to provide them an alternative God really misquote Ambedkar and kill their revolutionary spirit as suggested by many Dalit activists.
Ambedkar’s popularity among the Dalits is not due to the corrupt Dalits who use all tactics to grab money and power but the poor Dalits who consider him as the liberator. There are many reasons for the same. Ambedkar is a uniting factor for Dalits. No doubt that he has become an icon of Dalits from North to South from Hindi heartland to the southern Tamilnadu. However he himself was against ‘hero worship’ of any time. He believed in the exploration of knowledge on historical and scientific basis. This has to be a regular, rather ongoing, process which is only possible by addressing the problems of the oppressed and exploited masses. The undeniable fact is the Ambedkar is mainly known among the working class Dalits. The only way to salute Bhimrao is by truly standing against oppressive structure, for equality and justice.
The writer is a Dalit activist and writer on Dalit–Adivasi issues in Chhattisgarh
Dalit Study Circle,