Dr. K. R. Narayanan
Dr. Ambedkar was one of the giants of our time, one of the great personalities of the Indian national movement and of the Indian renaissance. He was a many- splendored personality, a great scholar, an original thinker, writer, orator, debater, a great jurist and constitutionalist, and above all a restless agitator and revolutionary working for social changes in our country.
I recall the brief meeting I had with Ambedkar in New Delhi in 1943 when he was a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. After taking my first degree from Travancore, I had gone to the north in search of a job. I had a letter of introduction to Ambedkar from one who had known him in Travancore. I took a room in a cheap hotel in Delhi, put my luggage there and then went to Ambedkar’s residence at Prithvi Road with the introduction letter. He read the letter and asked me “Where are your ‘Samaans’, your luggage?” Obviously, he was thinking of putting me up at his residence. That was the kind of a human being he was. Though I was a stranger coming from a remote corner of Kerala, he wanted to put me up in his house.
India was fortunate to have a crop of great leaders during this century. I would put Ambedkar on the same level with them, with Gandhi, Nehru, and others. As you know there are many differences and great debates among these leaders, but all of them were united on two things – freedom for India and the Unity of India.
Hatred for Untouchability
Ambedkar hated the caste system, “Untouchability” and the inequalities of old Indian society with a glowing incandescent hatred. He fought those social ills and injustices ruthlessly and with unmatched political skill. But that did not prevent him from remaining a staunch Indian nationalist. What he was trying was to bargain, and he was a tough bargainer, with the British and other Indian nationalist Leaders for the maximum that he could get for his community in terms of political safeguards. That was his intention and not to compromise on Indian independence. As a shrewd politician, he used the opportunity offered by the period of transition from foreign rule to independence for getting maximum benefits and safeguards for his community viz, the Scheduled Castes, or the Harijans as Mahatma Gandhi called them. We all know how Gandhiji was dedicated to the abolition of “Untouchability”, how he tried to arouse among Hindus a sense of shame in regard to this social evil and urged them into social action to remove it.
The Scheduled Castes are still the lowest, the most deprived, the most dispossessed and the least educated section of Indian society. They were shaken up as were the rest of the Indian masses by the nationalist movement. If Mahatma Gandhi introduced a moral purpose, shall one say a moral soul, as well as a mass dimension to the Indian nationalist movement, and if Jawaharlal Nehru introduced a social and economic dimension and a world vision, Dr. Ambedkar brought to it a profound social content and passionate protest against social inequalities and oppression. If Gandhiji aroused the masses of India as a whole, Ambedkar aroused and organized social and political consciousness among the lowest strata of Indian society. Our democracy is functioning properly in India because the masses, the average voter is able to cast his vote with a degree of intelligence and political consciousness. Today the voter from these lowest strata of society is able to exercise his right to vote properly partly due to the work done by Dr. Ambedkar in arousing their consciousness.
There were some people who questioned the nationalism of Dr. Ambedkar. I happened to have read Ambedkar somewhat carefully. As early as in the 1930s Ambedkar had said “You say this country is divided by castes and creeds and that it cannot be one united self-governing community unless adequate safeguards for protection of minorities are made as part the constitution, is a position to which there can be no objection; but the minorities must bear in mind that we have risen by and atomized by caste, our ideal 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 realization of this great ideal.”
That was a statement Ambedkar made in the impassioned days of bitter political debates with Gandhiji. There could be no doubt that he stood for a free India, for a united India. Again in 1949, delivering his great speech during the third reading of free India’s Constitution, he put forward the same position on freedom and unity. There was an admirable consistency about the man. He warned the Constituent Assembly: “What perturbs me greatly is the fact that India has not only once before lost her Independence but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of its own people.” He then exhorted every party not to place its particular beliefs above the interests of the nation, and said: “We must be determined to defend our independence till the last drop of our blood.” Could there be any more passionate declaration of nationalism and patriotism than this?
A Palace On Cowdung
Dr. Ambedkar was, of course, a great democrat. His contribution to Indian democracy was not limited to his high position as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution and to his skillful role in piloting the draft of the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly. He had during his political career put forward a variety of political and social ideas that fertilized Indian thinking and contributed to our decision to adopt the parliamentary form of democracy for India. In the speech which was the last one he made on the Constitution before it was passed, he gave a warning: “On January 26, 1950, we will have equality in politics and inequality in social and economic life. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.” In that speech, he used a colourful phrase. He said that political democracy erected on the divisions, inequalities, and injustices of traditional Indian society, would be like “a palace built on cow dung” may be sacred and useful, but very fragile. I should like to add here that democracy has survived in India because the leadership of new India managed to produce a meaningful social and economic content into our system of political democracy.
A lot has been written in books on what the British did during the Raj to improve the lot of “the untouchables”. They did something no doubt, they were a long time in India. But the basic attitude of the British rulers of India was one of neutrality on fundamental religious and social questions. They adopted this neutrality because they did not wish to offend and antagonize powerful sections of Indian society constituting the wealthier classes and the upper castes; their main interest was to maintain their rule undisturbed by the social or political opposition. Dr. Ambedkar had something telling to say about the policy of social neutrality. He remarked that the British attitude was that of a Chinese tailor (not a tailor from today’s People’s Republic of China), who when given cloth to make a suit together with an old suit as a model, made the new suit so faithfully according to the old model with all its stains, tears and patches. That was, Ambedkar said, what the British did to the old Indian social system; they preserved almost everything they inherited. Of course, some minor social reforms were introduced and forces of change were also at work in Indian society following the introduction of modern industry. There was, however, no policy of social change or any attempt to tamper with the social system.
This article was written by former Indian President Dr. K. R. Narayanan; it was first published in the newspaper “Implanter” from Shillong, on May 18, 1985.
It has been transcribed by Vinay Shende, who is an Ambedkarite working in the Corporate Sector in India.