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‘A Rebel and a Revolutionary’


(The following is the text of a speech on Babasaheb Ambedkar delivered by the former President K.R. Narayanan at the Babasaheb Ambedkar Institute of Research and Training, Bombay in 1979)

president_krnI am happy and honoured to be here on the auspicious occasion of the birthday of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Babasaheb Ambedkar was one of the great Sons of India, a giant among the great men produced by the Indian nationalist movement if I may use the term in its broadest sense.

If Mahatma Gandhi gave to the nationalist movement a mass dimension and a moral purpose and Jawahar Lal Nehru an economic and socialist dimension, Dr B.R. Ambedkar gave it a profound social content and a challenging social-democratic goal. His whole life was a ceaseless struggle for the attainment of this social objective, the scope of which was not confined to the Scheduled Castes but encompassed the urges and aspirations of the vast millions of the underprivileged in our country. Future generations in India, which, I hope, will be free from the curse of the caste system and the refined as well as crude remnants of untouchability, will be grateful to Dr Ambedkar for having launched a movement of social revolution, the success of which is indispensable for cleansing Indian society, for unifying the Indian nation and for building a genuine and enduring democratic system in our country.

While Dr Ambedkar will be remembered in history for his many-splendored personality and his many-sided contributions, as a jurist and Constitution-maker, as a thinker, writer and debater, as a great political organiser and a charismatic leader, he will be remembered most of all as a great and compassionate social rebel, a militant reformer and a liberator of the downtrodden masses of the subcontinent.

It should be a great honour for any institution, particularly for an educational institution; to be named after him because Ambedkar was one of the most educated Indians of our time. To name an educational institution after Dr Ambedkar is an honour done not so much to Ambedkar but to the institution. Any educational institution would be the richer with his name and the poorer without ‘it, for Ambedkar was one of the most brilliant intellectuals not only of Maharashtra but of India and the world. I must, therefore, congratulate those who have decided to establish this Institute of Research and Training in the memory of Dr Ambedkar.

SINCE the glorious days of Gautama, the Buddha, India has seen the emergence of many great men and many religious and social movements dedicated to the reform of Hindu religion and society. ‘But it was Dr Ambedkar, following the Protestantism of the Buddha, who presented a systematic and fundamental challenge to the fundamental basis of the Hindu social structure, the caste system.

The evil of untouchability has been under constant attack by Hindu reformers throughout the dark centuries of Indian social history. But very few had understood the fact that untouchability was the ultimate social projection of the caste system, a dark and hideous shadow cast by it on the social order as a whole, and not just an ugly excrescence on Hindu society which could be cut off while preserving the Varna system intact. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who was the greatest champion of the untouchables and who once declared with passionate sincerity that “untouchability must die if Hinduism is to live, and if untouchability is to live Hinduism has to die”, had not grasped the integral connection between caste and untouchability. If Plato’s Republic was founded on the murky basis of slavery, the Hindu society was erected on the foundation of untouchability which was, for all practical purposes, slavery plus religious degradation.

Jawahar Lal Nehru with his socialist ideals and tools of Marxist analysis had realised that caste in India stood in the way of modernization, socialism and democracy and had ceaselessly attacked casteism and tribalism, which prevailed in Indian society. But he could not fully appreciate the social chemistry of the caste system and the massiveness and tenaciousness of the barriers erected by it against the realisation of the social, political and economic ideals for which he was striving. Pleading for the eradication of poverty and the building of socialism in India, Nehru once remarked that “in a poor country all you can get is a poverty-stricken socialism”. That was the pungent statement of an economic truth. I should like to add a social truth to it and say that in a caste-ridden society all you can get is a caste-ridden democracy or a caste-ridden socialism or a caste-ridden communism. I wonder if even our Marxist ‘revolutionaries have succeeded in understanding and integrating the overriding fact of caste in Indian life into their social and political theories and practices.

It is well-nigh impossible to’ ensure the unity and stability and progress of our great and complex country unless we grapple with and solve the immense and tenacious problem of caste with its innumerable brood of sub-castes and its common pool of exploitation in the form of the depressed classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Whatever be the name—Harijans or Dalits—the reality is the same for all and reeks of the foul smell of oppression and exploitation.

Dr Ambedkar, in one of his speeches in the Constituent Assembly, referred to the contradiction between the democracy enshrined in the Constitution and the social and economic inequalities prevailing in our society, and said with characteristic asperity that unless these contradictions were resolved democracy in India will be like a palace built on cow-dung. The foundation may be sacred but feeble and shaky. I would assert that to try to establish democracy or socialism in our country in the real sense without attacking the caste system is to pursue a chimera.

IT is necessary to delve a little more deeply into the caste system in order to understand the current social tensions. I should call it the current crisis, in our country. Dr Ambedkar described the caste system as “an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt”. What the social strategists of the Hindu religion did was not merely to divide society into four castes but put them one below the other with proliferating sub-castes and a vast common pool of untouchables at the very bottom. The metaphysical concept of the caste as an interdependent social organism with equality for all its components had never corresponded to any sort of reality. Indeed what the Hindu social strategists did was to arrange them one below the other in some sort of intricate balance and counterpoise, every caste owing loyalties and services to the caste above it, and commanding loyalties and services from the castes below it, and with a vast pool of untouchables for common exploitation by all.

What is remarkable about this descending stratification is that every caste, even the intermediate, the lower and the untouchable caste, was and is still provided with a sphere as it were of domination and exploitation of its own, however small the sphere might be. Almost every group had and has someone below it to lord it over and look down upon, thereby deriving some psychological as well as economic benefits to compensate for the kicks imparted to it from above. Metaphysically, justification for the miserable lot of the untouchables was given by the theory of karma and reincarnation, while the same fascinating theory gave them a flickering hope for the distant and unknown future in the cycle of births and deaths. Even the untouchables have divisions and gradations among them. But for this intricate balancing of privileges and satisfactions it is doubtful whether the caste system would have survived so long.

It is the same balance and counterpoise in the Hindu social order that has prevented the emergence of social and political movements directed against the glaring inequalities and injustices of the system on all-India scale and strength. Added to this are the regional and linguistic differences existing in our country if inequalities and injustices are the cause of protest and reform movements, we have had enough of it in India. And if poverty is the food of revolution, we have had an excess of it. Therefore, lithe people, political parties and the government are interested in the progress of our country, they should direct attention to the massive and complex web of the caste system which is splitting and containing in its meshes all reformist and revolutionary forces and paralyzing all constructive policies and actions for the uplifting of the people ‘and the restructuring of society. It is possible that in the past the caste system helped Hindu society to survive the onslaught of outside forces, but today and tomorrow it is going to be a disintegrating and destructive force in our society.

While caste is the fundamental framework and the root cause of the condition of the Dalits, as they are called today, the major fact is that it is not a separate problem but an important aspect of the general and gigantic problem of the broad masses of India. In cold reality, the Scheduled Castes are the tillers and the toilers of the land, a substantial part of our rural and urban proletariat and the most exploited and oppressed section of a larger community of the underprivileged. The task of the Scheduled Caste leadership and the leadership of the various political parties in India is to bring them into the mainstream of our social organisational and political parties and not to treat them in separate and self-contained organisations except in regard to those questions which are peculiar, specific and geographically local for them. There could be local and provincial organisations. There could be organisations and unions based on agricultural workers, sweepers, scavengers, barbers, washer-men, blacksmiths, etc., which could then form a federation of professional, labour or craft unions on an all-India level.

We will have to pursue our distinctive objectives within the general all-India organisations. This pattern could be extended on the political level to a united front type of organisation. We should be prepared to align ourselves intelligently and discriminatingly with political groups and parties whose policies will promote the aims and objectives the Scheduled Castes have in mind. Advancement in education, reservation of positions in government service, representation in Parliament, legislatures and in professions and industries are the major concerns of the advanced section of the Scheduled Castes. What Dr Ambedkar called control of the supreme executive and legislative power in the state is most important.

THIRTY years after independence, upliftment of the general condition of the people and the restructuring of the social order has become an urgent necessity. Our economic bargaining power has to be organised and strengthened. Our voting power, which is considerable and decisive in the multiparty coalition phase of India’s present political set-up, will have to be organised and coordinated purposefully in order to enable the Scheduled Castes, along with the underprivileged majority in this country, to make an impact on the power structure as a whole.

We have seen that organised demands and agitations for the elementary rights of the Scheduled Castes have resulted in violent reactions from the upper castes. There are growing tensions between the Harijans or Dalits and the newly rising ‘backward’ land-owning castes as in Bihar, Marathawada, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and in several other isolated parts of this country. These tensions are often not with the higher castes but with the backward castes, precisely because it is the kulak and the petty bourgeois interests of the intermediate and lower castes which have come into clash with the emerging demands and expectations of the Scheduled Castes.

What is disturbing about this new phenomenon is that the upper castes and upcoming backward castes are resorting to leonine violence in order to terrorise the Harijans and to prevent them from asserting their rights granted by the Constitution and by the laws of the land. It is a kind of pre-emptive violence or counter-revolutionary terror. The government and the people as a whole have not yet found a way of protecting the Scheduled Castes and safeguarding their lives, homes and interests in such situations. One thing is certain: unless an effective method is devised to deal with such situations, Indian society and nation will move into a dangerous phase of revolutionary action and violence, much against the will and policies of everyone concerned.

The caste Hindus should examine carefully what is happening today in South Africa where the policy of apartheid sustained by the state and for long openly supported by the great powers is threatening to blow up in the face of the ruling minority. Only a policy of immediate and positive protection of the victims of such violence by the state and by the enlightened sections of caste Hindus can prevent a major crisis. Of course the Scheduled Castes will have to organise themselves in the areas affected and in adjacent and other areas of the country as a whole and provide organised support and assistance to meet this growing menace. What is surprising is that the conscience of our society and our nation has not yet been aroused by this new phenomenon of caste terror.

Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru—all had believed that India’s social and economic problems, including those of the Scheduled Castes, could be solved through peaceful and democratic means. Gandhiji had launched a massive social movement to bring about reform through moral conversion. He made caste Hindus feel ashamed of untouchability and of the social and economic exploitation of the Harijans. While this movement did not attack the root causes or solve the problems, it created a new temper and climate of social opinion which helped in the alleviation of the ills and paved the way for important legislations and executive actions by the government. Jawahar Lal Nehru helped by this atmosphere and by the movement of Dr Ambedkar, ushered in an era of the legislative state for the first time in India. Hitherto, India has had mainly social reform movements to tackle social problems. By the establishment of the legislative state, a new and powerful instrument has been created for changing and restructuring Indian society. However, India’s new legislative state has not yet found it possible to inaugurate land reform measures radical enough to affect even marginally the Problems of the every small land holders and the landless labourers who mostly belong to the Scheduled Castes.

As regards executive and administrative action, it lags far behind legislation. For example, a recent study called “Dalits” by Govind Gare and Shiribha Limaye of 206 villages in Maharashtra showed that 90 per cent of Dalits lived outside their respective villages, only in 47 villages were they allowed to draw water from public wells, only in 52 villages were they allowed to enter temples, only in 72 villages would the barbers shave them, only in 75 gram panchayats and in 71 cooperatives were they represented. This is indeed a most depressing state of affairs. Unless the administrative personnel are re-educated in their social outlook and unless a substantial number of Dalits are inducted into various levels of administration, including the police and the army, laws will remain dead laws and protection to the Dalits will be denied in practice. Thus we come back to the relevance of Ambedkar’s stand on reservation in public services as an essential factor in promoting the interests and protecting the rights of the Scheduled Castes, though by itself it will not be effective enough.

I believe that the problems we are facing today are so great in their magnitude and so explosive in their nature that it is necessary to combine all the three approaches of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar in order to tackle them successfully. The Central and State Governments must boldly launch reforms covering landownership, consolidation of holdings, cooperative agriculture, rights of the tiller, minimum wages for landless labourers, etc., plugging the innumerable holes in existing laws, accompanied by administrative reorganisation and induction of appropriate personnel for the implementation of reform and the protection of the Scheduled Castes in the villages of India.

At the same time there must arise mass social movements among the caste Hindus and self-help movements among the Scheduled Castes. The crucial thing will be social, economic and political organisation and action by the Scheduled Castes themselves in order to energise all the rest. A method will have to be found for all India organisations embracing all or the majority of the underprivileged whether they have been victims of untouchability or not. Only through an all-India level organisation could the voting power of the 130 odd millions of Scheduled Castes be utilised effectively to determine the fate of the governments in the States and the Centre.

I said earlier that Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru were in favour of peaceful methods in solving the problems of the Harijans. It is interesting that Ambedkar once explained that unlike Karl Marx, the Buddha advocated persuasion, moral teaching and love for realising economic and social goals, and he asserted that the Buddha’s method was “the safest and the soundest”. Here he is nearer to Gandhi and to Nehru, notwithstanding his well-known differences with them. But ultimately, whatever be one’s belief and wishes, whether violence will be resorted to or not will depend on actual conditions in society and the channels of peaceful change available in society to problems that have piled up from the past and cannot wait for solutions indefinitely. Above all, it will depend on whether there will be pre-emptive or counter-revolutionary violence on the part of the haves and the privileged against the have-nots.

Mao Zedong once said: “Proper limits have to be exceeded to right a wrong, or else the wrong cannot be righted”. To prove this thesis he explained that to straighten a bent bamboo stick “you must have to bend it too far to the other side several times”. In India, where we have the heritage of the Buddha, Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Ambedkar and many other great men, it might not be unavoidable to bend the bamboo stick too far or to break it in order to right the wrongs of our society. But that can be achieved only if the upper castes, the Scheduled Castes and the government, indeed the entire organised will and force of society, is brought to bear upon the problem at the right time in coordinated action. Dr Ambedkar would have probably agreed that it was possible even though he had utter distrust and incandescent hatred of those who devised the caste system and untouchability.

One cannot forget the fact that behind his role as a rebel and a revolutionary against the social system of the Hindus there was in Dr Ambedkar the throbbing heart of an Indian nationalist dedicated to freedom, democracy and unity of the country. As early as 1930, Ambedkar had said:

To say that this country is divided by castes end creeds, and that it cannot be one united self-governing community unless adequate safeguards for protection of minorities are made a part of the Constitution, is a position to which there can be no objection. But the minorities must bear in mind that although we are today riven by sects and atomized by caste, our idea is a united India. That being so, it follows that every minority in formulating the safeguards it needs must take care that they will not be incompatible with the realisation of that ideal.

That was the vision of a noble mind, which, even in the heat of hatred and struggle against oppression by the majority community, could respond to the beckoning call of Indian unity. The question is whether the majority community has even today the same breadth of vision, generosity and practical wisdom to realise that the unity, stability and progress of India is contingent upon a radical and urgent solution to the problems of the deprived masses of India, especially of the 130 million who are called the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.


[Courtesy: Mainstream Weekly, August 8, 1992]

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