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Dr Ambedkar and the freedom struggle of Dalits

Gail Omvedt

(An excerpt from her book ‘Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India’)


Less than two months after the huge conversion ceremony, Bhimrao Ambedkar was dead, found on the morning of 6 December, slumped over the papers he had been working on late at night. His death was followed by outpouring of grief as great as the mobilisation of hope that had appeared with the dhammadiksha. Dalits throughout India but especially Maharashtra wept as if it were their own father who had died, and people from all over the world sent their tributes.

Ambedkar left behind him a massive collection of notes and books on a variety of themes. His project of writing on the Bhakti Sants of Maharashtra was never ever begun, but his unfinished manuscripts, including ‘Revolution and Counter Revolution in ancient India’ and ‘Untouchables: The Children of India’s Ghetto’, were extremely significant. In his last studies he was projecting an alternative sociocultural history of India. As in a Marxist interpretation, his would emphasize conflict and contradiction; but in contrast to Marxism, this would be seen in primarily ideological-religious terms, the mortal conflict between Brahmanism and Buddhism.

Ambedkar’s life had spanned the first part of the twentieth century and all the decisive phase of India’s freedom struggle. However, he had fought for a correlated but different freedom struggle, one for the liberation of the most oppressed sections of Indian society. This was a liberation movement wider and deeper than that of fighting colonialism, focusing on the kind of new nation that was to be built.

This struggle did not emerge in a vacuum; it was the zenith of protracted and widespread movements of those classified as ‘Shudras’ and ‘Untouchables’ in the traditional hierarchy. Many ‘organic intellectuals’ rose from among the Dalit-Bahujan masses to give voice to his struggle and to theorize it – men like Jotirao Phule, Iyothee Thass, Periyar, Mangoo Ram and Acchutanand. More than the well-known upper-caste intellectuals of colonial India, these were the true modernizers, the heralds of a new Enlightenment.

It was understandable that Ambedkar, emerging from the lowest section of India’s caste-oppressed to gain an education that few could equal, would take a stand not as a proponent of a revitalized, Vedic and Vedantic-centred tradition but of revolution, the revolution of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ proclaimed first in the French Revolution and gradually sweeping the world. It was even more striking that he could find the roots of this in India itself, in the message of the Buddha proclaimed thousands of years before.

His freedom fight, the freedom of Dalits had many aspects. It began with the simple demand to drink water from a public well, just as Dalits earlier had fought for simple rights of using public roads, transport and schools. Legislatures and municipalities had been passing resolutions for some years making the facilities open to all, but these had been ignored.

Ambedkar’s movement to implement the claim to the source of all of life’s nourishment, which was also a movement to constitute public space as truly public, met with resistance from the orthodox and was transformed into a cultural challenge when Dalits and caste Hindus under his leadership burned the Manusmriti, the ancient Brahmanic code that was the cultural-legal symbol of caste slavery.

And this challenge to Brahmanic tradition led Ambedkar, in spite of his own nationalism, in spite of his own initial hopes in the new leader, into an overall confrontation with the most famous name in India’s national movement: Mahatma Gandhi. From the time of the Round Table Conference to Ambedkar’s proclamation in 1935 that ‘I will not die a Hindu’, the politics of this confrontation resounded throughout India.

The confrontation was not with an openly traditionalist leader of the Congress, but with someone who had the image of a reformist, someone who sought to identify with India’s poor and to overcome the division between social reform and political reform that had existed up to then.

Yet, as it turned out, Gandhi’s reformism did not satisfy Dalit aspirations precisely because it was rooted in the framework of a Hinduism that did not challenge the roots of varnashrama dharma. Gandhi gained inspiration from the Vaishnavite Bhakti movement, but without the true burning for equality that had characterized the most radical bhakti saints, people like Kabir, Ravidas and Tukaram, who had rejected priestly rituals and hierarchy as well as Muslim orthodoxy.

Gandhi’s Vaishnavism was rather the milder, orthodox form found in the Gujarati Vallabhaite movement. It meant that never until the end of his life did he denounce even the most extreme expressions of caste inequality found in the Brahmanic scriptures. He proclaimed his faith in a superficially modernized varnashrama dharma that included the affirmation of ‘swadharma’, the idea that children should follow the professions of their fathers. This he sought to qualify with the values that all occupations should be equally respected. This was in turn linked to hisanti-industrialisation and his romanticization of traditional village society and its social system as one of harmony and stability. The idea of Ram Raj symbolised this in terms that the most illiterate Indian could understand.

For Dalits, though, Ram Raj meant a regime that had persecuted untouchables like Shambuk who had tried to step out of their place. Dalits of the modern world, following Ambedkar, were determined to leave their place, even to destroy it.

This confrontation would not have been so important if Gandhi had only been acting as a leader of Hindu society, but he claimed the leadership of the nationalist movement, and with all of his concern for Hindu-Muslim unity, he projected his religious identifications on that movement.

Gandhi, as many Congressmen, could not separate his Hinduism from his nationalism. India’s nationalist movement was thus taking shape under the shadow of what is today called the ‘Hindutva’ ideology, a more or less conscious Hindu nation. It was forerunners like Savarkar who proclaimed Hinduism as the national religion of the Indian subcontinent, but Gandhi himself did not take so different a position when he fervently argued that untouchables should not convert to an ‘alien’ religion. His way of establishing unity with Muslims was through affirming the religious needs of each, and in doing so continuing the assumption that India was made up of religious communities.

The confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar was thus not simply a confrontation of two idiosyncratic leaders but of two deeply divergent conceptions of the Indian nation itself. It was this perspective that Ambedkar was seeking to develop, which his unpublished manuscripts and a few completed books such as ‘Who were the Shudras?’ were becoming to outline.

Ambedkar’s organizing began with economic radicalism. He took up the issues of tenant farmers and workers, allying with Communists in major strikes and in fighting landlordism in the Konkan. The flag of his first party, the ILP, was red like theirs. He took his left phase quite far, to the point of looking for inspiration to Marxism for his economic policy, which he described for some time as ‘state socialism’.

Yet in the end he found Marxism inadequate, not only because of its neglect of ideological and cultural issues and most importantly its total blindness to caste in the Indian context but also because it was not sufficiently democratic. Towards the end of his life he was moving towards an economics of a liberal social welfare state, with planning, with a focus on industrialization, but with a strong emphasis on pragmatism, using competition to fuel the growth of the economy and of the state to ensure social justice.

Though he proclaimed clearly his differences with Marxism, its stamp remained on him all his life, even on the way he interpreted Buddhism. His similarities with a more orthodox Marxism continued to be a profound concern for economic development and industrialisation as the way out of poverty. This remains the most crucial dividing line from the Gandhian vision whose romanticism attracts so many in today’s world.

With his breadth of economic and cultural analysis, Ambedkar should have stood in the forefront of the men whose ideas shaped India. Yet he is barely admitted into their ranks. With the failure of a broad political alliance, in spite of his many writings and policies on the crucial issues of the time, from the question of Pakistan to that of the economic structuring of the independent India, Ambedkar has retained a place in the collective memory of India primarily as the leaders of India’s untouchables.

With his movement no longer a political threat to Congress dominance, his leadership qualities could be recognized and used when he was made chair of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution, and then law minister in the first cabinet of independent India. But this was a failure of the broader transformative project that Dalits and non-Brahmans had sought to project for the new nation, a failure which in the end laid the way open for a renewed and often ugly and brutal growth of militant Hindutva forces in independent India.

Ambedkar’s words, when he resigned after the failure to pass a reformed law for marriage and inheritance, the Hindu Code Bill, eloquently capture what has characterised much of the growth of Independent India: ‘building a castle on a dung heap’. What he considered the dung heap was of course the cultural and social inheritance of varnashrama dharma against which he posed the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity. The fight remains.

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