For Ambedkar, nation-building had to begin from below and the process had to accommodate an understanding of the caste.
The tension of ‘liberal vs communal’ in India is one that confronts us in our daily lives and the one which Dr B R Ambedkar too faced during the crucial years of the nation formation.
It is at times argued that the Constitution of India, though very liberal and secular, turned ‘communal’ due to its emphasis on caste. Ambedkar, despite attaining highest liberal scholarship in economics, political science and law from Columbia University and London School of Economics, insisted on recognising caste and associated inequalities in the Constitution.
One can notice a consistency in Ambedkar’s efforts for carving out a separate political identity for the Scheduled Castes (Depressed Classes, a term used then) since the very beginning of his political innings. One such effort had led to a face-off between Gandhi and Ambedkar. It was when the Simon commission was constituted to carry out further political reforms in 1927.
Ambedkar pursued his stance of demanding political rights of ex-untouchable groups through political representation. He was keen that separate electorates with reserved seats be given to the Scheduled Castes if ‘universal’ franchise is not to be granted. This brought him in direct conflict with the Congress and more specifically Gandhi. It is worth noting here that the Congress had boycotted Simon Commission and had asserted its interest in Purna Swaraj.
Gandhi’s reaction to Ambedkar was also in one way communal as he viewed Ambedkar’s demand as a ploy to divide the untouchables from the Hindus. This political battle was thus partially turned into a religious one – Untouchables vs Hindus due to Gandhi’s intervention. Gandhi went on fast unto death to prevent this division and also claimed that he was the only representative of Scheduled Castes whom he preferred to call ‘harijans’.
Ambedkar dissented such homogenisation of Hindus as this may have lead to non-recognition of untouchablity and the existence of Scheduled Castes as an excluded minority. A compromise was reached between Gandhi and Ambedkar with the signing of Poona Pact in 1932. The compromise being, double number of reserved seats and doing away with the idea of separate electorates.
Ambedkar’s understanding of caste was dubbed as anti-nationalist on various occasions by his elite-caste contemporaries. As Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee too, he did not change his position and introduced reservations as constitutional safeguards for SCs/STs and OBCs. For Ambedkar nation-building had to begin from below and the process had to accommodate a critical understanding of the caste. This was particularly so as Ambedkar recognised the dynamic nature of caste which had the inherent potential to divide and create hierarchies leaving India a country of fractured minorities.
For Ambedkar, a ‘political’ majority was more important than a ‘communal’ majority as he observed, “A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed.” Ambedkar was thus striving to develop a liberal understanding of caste through recognition of caste in the Constitution.
Nation building was seen here as a process based on recognition of caste for social transformation. Unfortunately such recognition had to be forced upon the citizens through the Constitution. Ambedkar had advocated legislative reservations (Article 330 and Article 332) only for ten years. He however recognised that ten years was no good time to undo exclusionary practices of caste that might affect political mobilisations.
In current times, when all the major political parties use caste innovatively to suit their conservative interests, one wonders how a political majority of Ambedkar’s vision that is not sectarian be formed? Gandhi’s emphasis on ‘spiritual self’ seems to provide some answers here.
Though Gandhi was a strong supporter of ‘varna’ system initially and opposed inter-caste marriages he gradually became ‘a social revolutionist,’ advocating inter-marriages between Brahmins and Scheduled Castes in order to dismantle the entire caste system.
While Ambedkar started his political career with emphasis on politics (representation) and closed it with a spiritual turn by converting to Buddhism, Gandhi began with spiritual (and religious) admixtures and emphasised practice of radical politics towards the end.
Now there seems a need to evolve a liberal understanding of caste in our daily lives for challenging material and non-material inequalities of caste. Non-recognition of caste or caste identities is no good as being caste blind may also mean having blindness of insight.
Consciousness of caste is not synonymous to being casteist, it is rather necessary for reforming caste. This also seems to be a crucial difference between the way race is dealt with in the West and caste is handled in our context. It is to be noted that Black heroes in reel and real life are celebrated in the US, but surprisingly even a critical nationalist like Ambedkar is still despised in India.
(The writer is an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai)