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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 19, New Delhi, April 24, 2021

Ambedkar - A multi-faceted personality | Sharat Poornima

Friday 23 April 2021

by Sharat Poornima *

“We are Indians, firstly and lastly” - Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Dr. Ambedkar was a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional personality. Popularly known as Babasaheb, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was an eminent educationist, a great economist, an able administrator and a radical social and political thinker of his time. He was a versatile personality who wrote on such diverse subjects as anthropology, sociology, economics, philosophy, religion, law, history and politics. He is also known as the Father of the Indian Constitution. Bhimrao Ambedkar was born in the community of Mahars, in the present Madhya Pradesh state. Throughout his childhood, Ambedkar faced the stigma of caste discrimination. Hailing from the Hindu Mahar caste, his family was viewed as “untouchable” by the upper classes. The discrimination and humiliation haunted Ambedkar at the Army School. Fearing social outcry, the teachers would segregate the students of the lower class from that of Brahmins and other upper classes.

The untouchable students were often asked by the teacher to sit outside the class. Discrimination followed wherever he went. After coming back from USA, Ambedkar was appointed as the Defence Secretary to the King of Baroda but there also he had to face the humiliation for being an ‘untouchable’. According to Ambedkar, Indian social and political history is nothing but a ‘glorification of upper castes and degradation of lower castes and the lower strata of society’.

He fought against the two principal inhuman social evils prevalent in Hindu society: Untouchability and Casteism. Dr Ambedkar’s social thinking was the outcome of the total dissatisfaction with the humiliating treatment meted out to the members of his community by the so-called higher castes Hindus. Therefore, his philosophy enshrined the principles of attainment of social amelioration, political enlightenment, and spiritual awakening for his community. He asserted that political democracy cannot be assured unless social democracy lies at its base. This implies a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life forming a union of trinity. Ambedkar sought to eliminate the contradictions resulting from equality in politics and inequality in social and economic life.

Ambedkar started newspapers such as the Mooknayak, Bahishkrit Bharat and Samata which acted as the authentic voices of the Depressed Classes. Institutions set up by him became vehicles of change such as Hitakarini Sabha and the Independent Labour Party of India. He emphasized upon constitutional methods to achieve social objectives. He described the methods of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha as the “grammar of anarchy”. He opposed the adoption of the path of violence to solve any problem. Instead, he took recourse to the path of peace and non-violence. He had absolute faith in the efficacy of law and constitution to preserve society. His plea for adoption of non-violent means is an important component of not only his political philosophy but his ethical view. The attainment of political independence was not a sufficient condition for the regeneration of the society. He asserted the need for the economic emancipation of the underprivileged people. He floated the Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha (Council for the Welfare of the Outcastes) in July 1924. He became the founder of Samaj Samta Sangh which was based on the principle of social equality.

Dr Ambedkar laid the foundation stone of two political organizations, namely the Independent Labour Party of India, 1936 and the Scheduled Castes Federation, 1942 which became the Republican Party of India. While drafting the Constitution, he incorporated the principles of socio-economic justice along with political and civil rights. He sought to make the Indian Constitution as an effective means of social change. He gave immense importance to the fundamental rights for ensuring justice. To make the fundamental rights effective, it was essential that every citizen be in a position to claim those rights. He wanted the fundamental rights to be binding on every authority created by the law. He considered fundamental rights to be of paramount importance for the development of an individual’s personality. He argued that these rights, though fundamental in nature, cannot be absolute. Therefore, they are attended by corresponding duties and reasonable restrictions.

Ambedkar was appointed as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. As a social revolutionary, Babasaheb Ambedkar championed the cause of ‘untouchables’ who were oppressed for centuries. He noted that untouchability has been perpetuated throughout the centuries through Sanskritisation whereby persons belonging to other castes followed the rituals observed by Brahmins to get a respectable place in society. Dr Ambedkar sought to create a new social order in which no person should be discriminated against on the grounds of caste, religion, creed, etc. The castes, for Ambedkar, were anti-national because they brought about separation in social life. Further, they generated antipathy and jealously between caste and caste. He believed that the only way of securing equality for the so-called lower castes would be to discard the orthodox Hindu religion and embrace Buddhism which was rational and treated all human beings on an equal level.

He laid the foundation stone of the All India Depressed Classes Federation. He encouraged the oppressed ‘untouchables’ to shed their differences and asked them to “Organize, Educate, and Agitate”. Dr. Ambedkar believed that unless political power is not secured in the hands of socially oppressed sections of the Indian society, it was not possible to completely wipe out all social, legal and cultural disabilities, from which the oppressed sections were suffering. Education, radical reforms in the land system and the acquisition of political power by the Scheduled Castes were seen by him as the methods of bringing about the required social change in India. Dr Ambedkar was of the firm belief that Hinduism can be saved only by annihilating the caste system. That is why in our Constitution, there is a special provision against untouchability. Several safeguards introduced in the Constitution by Dr. Ambedkar were instrumental in the all-round development of the weaker sections of society.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution prescribes equality before, and equal protection of the laws; article 15 prohibits against discrimination on the ground of caste; article 16 prohibits discrimination on the ground of caste in public employment. Article 17 abolishes untouchability itself. Article 46 provides for special facilities for promotion of education of the Scheduled Castes. Reservation of seats in Parliament, State Legislatures and in public appointments for them has been secured through articles 330, 332 and 335. Dr. Ambedkar gave highest priority to education in his struggle for the liberation of the dalits from the oppressive caste-ridden Indian society. He believed that it is only education through which various kinds of disabilities afflicting dalits could be overcome. Education provides valor and opportunity to fight poverty, disease and backwardness.

Dhananjay Keer opines that the contribution of Ambedkar towards the upliftment of the downtrodden sections has been over and above Mahatma Gandhi. For his personal gains, he never sacrificed the interests of his nation. The British Government in pursuance of their policy of Divide and Rule wanted to introduce separate electorates for several minorities and Depressed Classes which would have paved the way for another nation like Pakistan. As a protest against the Ramsay McDonald Communal Award, Gandhiji went on “fast unto death” on 20 September, 1932. Ambedkar had differences with Gandhiji on many matters, but he saved his life by agreeing to the Poona Pact on 24 September, 1932 when he finally accepted Gandhiji’s suggestion and gave up his firm stand on separate electorate for ‘untouchables’ in the larger interest of the nation.

This fast created a nation-wide sensation, and eminent persons of India and leaders of various castes and classes met and signed an agreement which came to known as Poona Pact. According to the Pact, the separate electorate demand was replaced with special concessions like reserved seats in the regional legislative assemblies and Central Council of States. Eleanor Zelliot remarks that “the demands of the Untouchables for equal rights in religious matters, political power, and full participation in social and economic life were not met”. This Pact could not have been signed but for the cooperation of Dr. Ambedkar. This was one of the greatest sacrifices of Dr. Ambedkar for the freedom of the country and the people.

Gandhi used the word “Harijan” to bring the untouchables closer to God, and thereby to those who believed in God, which was the rest of Hindu society. Gandhi is also known to have said that the use of the term “Depressed Classes” reminded people of slavery and was offensive to them, so he preferred the more benign term, “Harijans”. Ambedkar objected to this stating that it was condescending and obscurantist in nature. He stated that it was an attempt to side-step the real issue. His approach to the caste problem in India was most radical. It was forcefully and rationally expressed in his monumental work, ‘Annihilation of Caste’. Further, he wanted to make it a politico-legal agenda and use the legal instrument for it. Gandhi, on the contrary, supported the caste system not as a vertical system of hierarchy of castes but as horizontal system of equality of castes.

He only wanted to end the untouchability, not the caste system. Moreover, he never used political means to achieve his aim. He relied on the “good” in human nature and appealed to everyone’s conscience to eradicate inhuman practice of untouchability. This difference of idea of social justice has been beautifully summarized by Arundhati Roy as ‘one was upper caste Hindu’s struggle for purification of religion (Gandhi) and other was outcaste’s struggle for self-respect by any means (Ambedkar).

The measures suggested by Dr. Ambedkar for uprooting the practice of untouchability can be divided into social, political and constitutional categories. These social measures included: abolition of caste system, encouraging inter-castes marriages and inter-dining, creating social awareness among the people about the irrationality of the caste system, etc. The political measures included creating opportunities for the Depressed Classes for an effective participation in the political process and granting them a fair share in the political power of the country through reservation of seats, separate electorate and protective discrimination. He maintained that there cannot be an economic and political revolution unless the caste system was totally abolished.

Dr. Ambedkar’s social philosophy may be said to have two aspects: the negative and the positive. In its negative aspect, he wanted to destroy the existing unjust social order by denouncing the irrational division of society into four varnas or classes, namely the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The positive aspect to Ambedkar’s social philosophy was his concern for justice to the ‘untouchables’ in particular, and to all the people of India in general. Dr. Ambedkar’s main concern was the secularization and democratization of the Indian society and polity. Self-help, self-elevation and self-respect were the trident with which he aroused people to action. A historic and momentous event in the life of B R. Ambedkar was when he led a march to the Mahad Tank in 1927 to preach to his people the universal law that liberty was never received as a gift, but had to be fought for. At the same time, Ambedkar never wanted his people to indulge in hero-worship.

Dr. Ambedkar was a strong believer in the concept of equality in general and between man and woman in particular. He took a leading part in introducing the Hindu Code Bill which included equality in marriage rights and property rights for women. But he could not succeed as the traditionalists got the upper hand and the bill was practically truncated. He asserted that the progress of a society can be measured by the degree of progress which women have achieved. He introduced the Hindu Code Bill in the Parliament and highlighted the issues about women’s property rights. Ambedkar created awareness among poor, illiterate women and inspired them to fight against the unjust social practices such as child marriage and devdasi system. He quoted the famous thought of an Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connell as, “No man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity, and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.”

As an educationist, he realized the importance of education in alleviating the sufferings of the poor and the deprived. He was against the commercialization of education. He did not visualize education merely as a means of livelihood but as a powerful weapon to liberate the dalits from ignorance and to strengthen their fight against injustice. He considered education as a pre-requisite for any kind of organization and movement of dalits. He believed that no democratic process could be complete unless the masses were properly educated. He was of the firm view that “education is something which ought to be brought within the reach of everyone”. For him, the surest way for the salvation of the oppressed and ‘untouchables’ lies in higher education, higher employment, and better ways of earning a living.

Dr. Ambedkar did not visualize education simply as the means of personality development and a source of earning livelihood. He considered education as the most powerful agent for bringing about desired changes in the society and a prerequisite for organized effort for launching any social movement. Education, for him was an instrument to liberate the dalits from illiteracy, ignorance and superstitions and thus enable them to fight against all forms of injustice, exploitation and oppression.
Ambedkar considered education to be essential for both men and women irrespective of their social and economic status. Dr. Ambedkar founded People’s Education Society on 8 July, 1945 with a view to advancing the educational interest of the downtrodden sections of the Indian society in general and the Scheduled Castes in particular. Under the auspices of the People’s Education Society, he started Siddharth College, Bombay on 20 June, 1946. The College was named after Buddha, who was the liberator of the masses from the serfdom of the Shastras and a symbol of equality.

Dr. Ambedkar had an intense love for learning. Through his hard work and diligence, he was able to achieve such higher academic distinctions as M.A., M.Sc, Ph.D, D.Sc, and Barrister-at-Law from prestigious universities of USA and UK. He completed his Master’s degree in June 1915 after successfully completing his thesis titled ‘Ancient Indian Commerce’. In May 1916, he presented a paper on “The Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, at the Anthropology Seminar sponsored by Dr. Goldenweiser. In June 1916, he submitted his Ph.D. thesis entitled “National Dividend for India: A Historic and Analytical Study”, which was published eight years later under the title: The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India. In 1916, he enrolled in the London School of Economics and started working on his doctoral thesis titled “The problem of the rupee: Its origin and its solution”. Ambedkar also spent a few months at the University of Bonn, Germany where he wrote The History of Indian Currency and Banking. He received his PhD degree in Economics in 1927. On 8 June, 1927, he was awarded a Doctorate by the University of Columbia.

Dr. Ambedkar’s social and political philosophy is very much influenced by the philosophy of his inspiring teacher Professor John Dewey of the Columbia University, the American Constitution, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment, the English Economists like J. M. Keynes, R. A. Selghman, and the great English Parliamentarian Edmund Burke. Ambedkar was a liberal democrat and a great parliamentarian. The influence of Western Liberalism has been evident in his thinking. These influences on him helped to build up a philosophy based on a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism, idealism and realism, naturalism and humanism, materialism and spiritualism, individualism and socialism, and nationalism and internationalism. His philosophy was guided by a kind of social dynamism. To Ambedkar, politics was a mission rather than a leadership game for personal gain and aggrandizement. He argued that traditionalism and parochialism are the major obstacles to democracy. Democracy was a more comprehensive system encompassing the social, political and economic organization of the society.

Ambedkar has derived much of his intellectual influence from John Dewey who argued that “society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, values are transmitted and made common”. He concurs with John Locke when he says that the purpose of government is to protect the life, liberty and property, i.e., the natural rights and a government that fails to do it forfeits its claim to legitimate authority. These natural rights have to be recognized by the fundamental law of the land and upheld and protected by it. It is not only the responsibility of the state but also that of the individuals to uphold these rights through a sense of constitutional morality. He strongly suggested democracy as the ‘governing principle of human relationship’. He stressed that principles of equality, liberty and fraternity which are the foundations of democracy should not be interpreted narrowly in terms of the political rights alone. He gave an expression to the objective of economic democracy by incorporating the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Indian Constitution. These were: rights relating to provision for adequate means of livelihood to all citizens, proper distribution of the material resources of the community for the common good, prevention of concentration of wealth to the common detriment, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, right to work, right to education, uniform civil code, etc. These rights related to the social and economic transformation of our society

The political philosophy of Ambedkar may help in renegotiating the predicament of western political theory in particular and leading the fights of the masses in general. Ambedkar’s ideology can be associated with liberal, radical or conservative thoughts. At the same time, he distinguishes himself from these dominant political traditions.

Ambedkar’s philosophy is primarily ethical and religious. According to him, the social precedes the political. Social morality is central to his political philosophy. His idea of democracy internalizes the principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity in their true spirit. The core of political thinking of Ambedkar is contained in two of his statements- that rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of society, and a democratic form of government presupposes a democratic form of society.

His political thought has emerged from three grand traditions of political thought, i.e., liberal, conservative and radical. The unique feature about him is that he has transcended all these traditions. He developed political concepts like democracy, justice, state and rights from his understanding of Indian society and the functioning of its institutions on moral grounds. He endorsed parliamentary system but was apprehensive about parliamentary system in India. India, according to him was dominated by communal majority instead of political majority. He was a defender of democratic socialism. He believed that political democracy without social and economic democracy is a paradox. Ambedkar has been criticized for imitating the good elements of the Constitutions of other countries. But Ambedkar did not merely copy those provisions and incorporated them into the Constitution but adopted them after making suitable modifications so that they might suit the Indian conditions. The Indian Constitution, according to him, would stand the test of time.

Ramchandra Guha considers Ambedkar as a unique example of success and inspiration. His journey from being an “untouchable” to India’s first law minister was no mean achievement. Dr. Ambedkar was an ardent nationalist who exhorted that “we must be determined to defend our independence to the last drop of our blood”. Ambedkar’s birth in an untouchable community and in a system based on graded inequality was responsible for giving a purpose and mission to his life. Ambedkar truly personifies his view, “Life should be great rather than long.” Gail Omvedt rightly calls ‘Ambedkarism’ as a living force in India. He would be long remembered as a militant reformer, a compassionate social rebel and as a liberator of the downtrodden masses.

(* Sharat Poornima is pursuing an MPhil in Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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