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Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Vision of Dalit Emancipation through Social Justice

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By Muhammad Ashraf

“Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform; you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster” – Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar [1]

Introduction

Caste is the synecdoche of the Indian society. For millennia, it has obfuscated the human conditions of millions. It thrived on its dogmatic adherence to the Brahminical notions of purity and pollution. In the course of time, a number of dynamic leaders emerged, who fought to eradicate the caste system. EV Ram Swami Naicker, Jyotibha Phule, Guruchand Thakur, Sri Narayana Guru and Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj are some of the luminous names who struggled against intolerable subjugation in the name of chathurvarna dharma. With these reformers and their movements, the very conceptual pillars that constituted the deep-rooted Hindu culture were shaken. Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an astute reformer who came from the Mahar community, an untouchable caste, led the most persistent and successful movement against caste oppressions.

In what follows, this essay explores his vision for social justice and equality that he pitted astutely against the topography of Brahminical orthodoxy among Hindus. In reading him from contemporary times, this article finds his mode of agitation and the dimension of constitutionalism in his vision as peculiarly significant for Dalit emancipation in particular, and human emancipation in general, even today.

Ambedkar: A short life-sketch

Ambekar was from the Mahar community, an untouchable caste in Maharashtra, whose profession was to clean under the command of the scriptural injunctions. From his childhood itself, he witnessed suffering in his community at the hands of the caste oppressors   and it always disturbed him.  He contemplated and introspected on the state of his community. Later, these contemplations urged him to assume leadership of all Dalit communities. When he decided to marry the daughter of a porter, the social system prevalent at that time ordained the marriage pandal to be erected in a fish market of Bombay. He had to struggle against such acts of discrimination all his life. Even after he graduated from a prestigious Ivy League university – Columbia University – and took up a middle class job in the bureaucracy, he realized that the specters of caste would not leave him. Awakened by an inescapable necessity, he took a vow to fight for the cause of equality, fraternity and liberty and for the emancipation of the subjugated communities of the country from the domination of Brahmanism.

Even though the caste system was a religious relic, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was insistent on the fact that religion was an integral part of human life: “Religion instills hope in man and drives him to activity.” However, he gave priority to individual human personality over religious texts and precepts.  Once he said, “The religion which does not recognize the individuality of man is not acceptable to me.” He claimed that Hinduism had forgotten the human values of equality, freedom and fraternity. Through his focused reading of the caste system, he attributed the ideology of caste system to Hindu religion and convinced his community to fight against it. For him, caste operated as a principle for the destruction of ethics and morality. He writes, “The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound.”[2]

Questioning the conventional edifices of Manuvadi Brahmanism that denied lower castes their human dignity, he dared to fight against the inequality deeply rooted in Indian cultural forms. Through his Mahad-Talab movement in 1927, Dr. Ambedkar forcefully “reclaimed “human personality” for the untouchables and the Sudras.”[3] In this regard, his difference of opinion with Mahatma Gandhi is well-known. Since Gandhi didn’t oppose the chathurvarna system because of his prevailing belief despite its inherent discriminatory practices, such a stance from Ambedkar was inevitable. Throughout his life, Ambedkar battled against mainstream political parties, which supported the caste system. He fought against the political nexus between soft and hard Brahmanism, which tried to reinforce scriptural and political tyranny of Manu Dharma. Reiterating Ambedkar’s message, the noted Dalit politician, Manyawar Kanshiram, had said once that “the victims of a system only rebel against the system. Why the beneficiaries of system should stand against the system to destroy the privileges?” Ambedkar never joined hands with any Brahminical leader or Brahminical political party as they constituted of the oppressors of the untouchables.

Agitation as a tool

In his quest for human equality in India, Ambedkar mainly used agitation as a modus operandi. His first ever agitation was to open a water tank for public, which was reserved only for the upper castes. He edited and deployed newspapers as a medium of communication with his followers. Through newspapers such as MookNayak and Bahishkrit Bharath, he managed to reach a substantial number of audiences and garner their support. He used his education and skill to reclaim the rights of the oppressed. One of his notable achievements was to carve out a separate electorate for the untouchables in a predominantly upper-caste political landscape.

Against shastric injunctions

He attempted to evaluate the existence of caste and it led him to observe that “the purusasukta is a late production, which was composed long after the age of the Rigvedas was over. The Vedas do not say anything about the origin of Sudras, only the purusasukta dilates on them” and he termed it “an ‘interpolation’ as in the opinion of many scholars.”[4] According to him, “making the individual a sharer or partner in the associated activity so that he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure is the real thing that binds men and makes a society of them. The Caste System prevents common activity and by preventing common activity it has prevented the Hindus from becoming a society with a unified life and a consciousness of its own being.”[5] He understood that the Brahmin authoritarianism couldn’t build a respectable civilized society because it has no agenda for human equality within its vision of Hindu society.

Estimating the depth and width of this dreadful system of exploitation, he had to rebel against the three folds of denial. First, he had to retrieve human identity for the people whose socializing process was arrested by Brahminical social order. Second, he had to regain their political equality and, third, he had to ensure their economic rights after their human status had been secured.

Towards social justice

In response to the highly discriminatory caste-ridden social system that utterly devalued human dignity of Sudras and untouchables, Ambedkar stood determined to eradicate social, educational, and cultural disparities of the lower castes. He was of the view that as long as there was a caste system, there would be outcastes too. He mobilized them with the motto: “educate, agitate and unite.” He inculcated in their minds the values of self-respect, dignity, and an urge to fight for their rights. Hinduism, the predominant religion in India, never taught the virtues of liberty, equality and fraternity and, consequently, it could never unite the entire Hindu society.

Ambedkar’s first ever public struggle led him to drink water from a public tank named, Choudar-Talab, which was out of bounds for the untouchables. This was an effective agitation because it helped to disrupt the brutal everyday inequality that the untouchables had to suffer as they were not allowed to drink water even from a public tank reserved for the upper castes.

To restore human dignity of the untouchables in society, he sought them a religion that could free the depressed classes from the bondage of caste hierarchy. As he sought to unleash individual human potential, he had to search for a religion that taught the value of liberation. For him, a true religion was one that enabled the upliftment of the individual irrespective of caste, creed, sex, etc. But the Hindu religion, instead of according equality to all, treated people, especially the untouchables, unjustly. It did not safeguard their interests. Hence this religion did not appeal to Ambedkar.  As W.N. Kuber writes, “On 13 October 1935, a provincial conference of the depressed classes was held at Yeola in Nasik district. In his presidential address he announced his decision to leave Hinduism and said, “I was born in Hinduism but I will not die as a Hindu”.”[6]After analyzing the Varna mode of Hindu social system, he put forward an appropriate alternative by which the untouchables in Indian society could attain socio-political strength. He proposed Buddhism as the best option which, in his opinion, could shoulder the responsibility of the depressed classes: “Buddhism teaches prajna (understanding) as against superstition and supernaturalism, karuna (love) and samata (equality)…neither God nor soul can save the society…it’s a revolt against “parasitic luxury”.”[7]

He aimed at restoring the untouchables to their rightful status. For that, he rigorously criticized the social negligence of the depressed classes and blamed the British for political and economic backwardness of his community. He was of the view that before considering their political empowerment, it was necessary to extricate them from the bondage of caste system. In the beginning of his fourteen year long struggle against Brahminism, he was deliberately pro-British, as he argued that oppressions within the society should be first eradicated before entering into a freedom struggle. He felt a fight against the foreigners would be shallow if inequality within the society couldn’t be eliminated. For national integration, he rightly pointed out “the urgent need of fulfilling the social aspiration of these people for maintaining the unity of India, which can be preserved only through recognizing its diversity.”[8] He was the first to recognize this and incorporate it into the Constitution of India. S.R. Bakshi further elaborates: As Babasaheb Ambedkar was well conversant with the socio-economic condition of the backward community of the subcontinent, he wished enthusiastically to do something substantial for them through legislation and social pressure. The way he acted showed his dedication to the common man who had only an insignificant social position. By his incessant hard work, he took up their cause, gave a severe jolt to the social structure and achieved success in the existing circumstances.”[9]

The attitudes and approaches of different leaders were extensively divergent and dissimilar in this regard.  Gandhi once stated vigorously that “to destroy caste system and adopt Western European social system means that Hindu must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which is the soul of Caste system” (In Gujarati journal, Navajivan, 1921). Although Gandhi himself challenged existing caste system in his own way – for example, by asking the members of his ashram to clean toilets – Ambedkar’s analysis of caste system and struggle against it was much more radical.

Towards political equality

According to Ambedkar, political power is the key to all social progress and the backward castes can achieve their salvation if they capture this power by organizing themselves into a political party and holding the balance of power between the rival political parties. Taking a considered stance on this, he led relentless political struggles for the elimination of injustice spread all over the country. He built his theory of social and political organization around his central concept of the individual and his rights. Ambedkar says that “no government should violate the fundamental rights of people. For some rights are so fundamental that no human society can be prosperous without them.”[10] This recognition for political equality led him to take up the mantle of a political leader for the depressed classes. Dreaming to build an organization for the victims of Brahmanic ideology, he advocated, “I want to put the depressed classes on terms of equality with other communities in India. I don’t want to remain servile to other communities, but I want to place the reins of Government in your hands.”[11]

In the post-independence period, Ambedkar strongly emphasized that there was an urgent need to strengthen the Scheduled Castes Federation, which he founded in 1942. To share political power, the Scheduled castes had to be organized as one solid unit before fighting for their rights in the future governances of the country. He remarked: “The days of domination of one community over another were certainly over and I want to make it known that the Scheduled Castes are determined to fight for their rights and claim their due share in the administration of the country.”[12]

In fact, the political movements involving the deprived classes in India has largely relied on his concepts of social justice. He served as the law minister and as the chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. During this historic period, he did his best to accelerate the process of establishing democratic provisions and empowerment for the depressed classes in the governance of the country. Ambedkar had further realized that a mere political awakening would not ensure equal status for the untouchables in Indian society. He advocated that a political awakening must be complemented with a conversion to Buddhism, in order to safeguard the political rights.

Against the structures of economic injustice

The traditional caste-based economic structure of Indian society contained no provision for investing money to earn more value based on the means of production available. Hereditary division of labour – on which Indian castiesm rests – proved to be an impediment to economic justice for the depressed sections of society. Such a social order created a stagnant economic state devoid of any mobility, either horizontal or vertical. For Ambedkar, economic equality must be sought in tandem with social equality and this could be achieved only with constitutional safeguard. A transition from a feudal and semi-capitalist economy to an equitable economy is possible only through state socialism complemented by parliamentary democracy. In his speech at the Constituent Assembly on 25th November 1949, he expressed some of these concerns:  “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which is Assembly has to laboriously built up.”[13]

Why Ambedkarite vision is so unique

Even though his early campaigns for access to public drinking water and Hindu temples met only with partial success, Ambedkar’s activism caused a great social transformation from a Brahminical a social system to a human centered one. In spirit, it was similar to the European Renaissance which reimagined human potential and extricated it from the ecclesiastical order. It is undeniable that Ambedkar’s framework for reconceptualizing Indian society has yielded certain results that no other frame could achieve.

His drafting of the Indian constitution as a politically and legally liberating document for the Indian society was a remarkable project for envisioning a just social order. His projects touched different dimensions of human life and transformed them politically, socially, economically, and spiritually. Ambedkar’s view on democracy reflects his basic emphasis on human equality: “A Democracy is a mode of associated living. The roots of Democracy are to be searched in social relationships, in terms of the associated life between the people, who form the society.”

He has provided clear road maps for implementing social justice. By making the constitution a revolutionary document, he gave the Sudras and untouchables socio-political and economic rights that were denied by the social system formulated in accordance with the codes of Manu. Also, he emphasized the need for education in his community. Education and agitation against an unjust social order were the key ideas which he introduced. His revolutionary ideas have come to be known as ‘Ambedkarism’, which inspired future dalit leaders and social activists to continue a persistent battle against social injustice. ‘Ambedkarism’ could simply be described as an  “ideological expression on the basis of historical analysis of the Indian society for making servile classes of India as a ruling class, in a classless society by liberating them through and  the subjugated into the visions of a casteless society.”[14]

In his vision, opposition to all kinds of discrimination based on race, creed and social status is inevitable. He advocated that some kind of governance is essential for peace and prosperity among people, particularly when people fail to abide by law and order. Such acts are the mission of a good government. And, in fact, without such quality, a true democratic society cannot be established.[15] Indian leaders, who held differing opinions, too, co-operated with his vision of justice. Of late, Ambedkar has been appropriated as a political pioneer by the BSP and even the Congress party, which celebrated Kranti Diwas on his birthday. The BJP and its National Council went ahead and equated him with one of their founding fathers, K.B. Hedgewar. His final act of influence was when he inspired over a million people to convert to Buddhism.

Conclusion

For Ambedkar, the vision of emancipating untouchables was clearly anchored in the principles of justice, equality, fraternity, and liberty. What this essay has tried to do is to frame his wide-ranging and astute vision in and through the recurrent struggles of his life. In doing so, the paper has relied on the mode of agitation and the faith in constitutionalism as two important modus operandi of his entire schema of social reform. For the oppressed of India, even decades after his vision was spelt out, it embodies the emancipating potential that no other ideology could offer them. This latter strength of Ambedkarite vision arises from the peculiar fact that Ambedkar’s life itself was the greatest embodiment of emancipation. In an important sense, he was translating his own life into a vision. Everyday experiences as we have seen above formed his capital for social reform. He took those experiences into a productive terrain of life, where, along with his community, he founded his vision that even today disrupts the socio-political, economic and religious structures of Indian society – one that is still deeply rooted in the chathurvarnya dharama of purity and pollution. In the process of this disruption, it subverts, “annihilates”, and reconfigures the Indian social patterns in extremely unpredictable and absolutely unprecedented ways.

References

[1] Ambedkar, B. R. (1979). Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, compiled Vasant Moon, 1.

[2]Ambedkar, B. R., & Moon, V. (1994). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches (Vol. 13). Education Department, Government of Maharashtra.

[3]Ambedkar, B. R. (1979). Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, compiled Vasant Moon1.

[4] Jatava D.R. (2000). B.R Ambekar: A vision of man and morals. Abd Publisher

[5]Ambedkar, B. R. (1979). Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, compiled Vasant Moon1.

[6]Kuber, W. N. (1967). A Critical Study of the Social and Political Thought of Dr. BR Ambedkar (Doctoral dissertation, Sir Parashuramabhau College, Poona.).

[7] Ibid

[8]Ambedkar, B. R. (1979). Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, compiled Vasant Moon.

[9]Bakshi, S. R. (2009). Dr. BR Ambedkar Socio-Economic and Political Ideology. Pinnacle Technology.

[10] Jatava D.R. Op. Cit.

[11]Ambedkar, B. R., & Moon, V. (1994). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches (Vol. 17). Education Department, Government of Maharashtra.

[12]Bakshi. Op. cit.

[13]Dr. Ambedkar’s last speech in the constituent assembly on 25 Nov, 1949,CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY OF INDIA DEBATES (PROCEEDINGS), VOLUME 11 (http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol11p11.htm)

[14]Biswas, S. K. (2008). Nine Decades of Marxism in the Land of Brahminism. Other Books. P. 124

[15] Jatava D.R. op.cit.

Author:

Muhammad Ashraf Thachara Padikkal is completing his graduation from Madeenathunnor, Calicut, Kerala. He is an interviewer, writer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Sufism, Islamic studies and cultural anthropology. He is also interested in tradition, philology and subaltern literature.

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3 Responses to “Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Vision of Dalit Emancipation through Social Justice”

  1. muhammed sayeed

    Muhammed Ashraf’s essay really looks fantastic. Essay is informative and creating a silent revelution against caste systems.

    Reply
  2. N.S. Abdul Hameed

    Ambedkar’s ways of emancipating the humanity itself from rigid and polluted barbaric beliefs of Savarna is always discussable. Ashraf has done it well.

    Reply
  3. farid

    Mr Ashraf covered almost every aspect of Ambedkar’s vision and addressed his struggles and sufferings enlightening us. mashallah
    . ………HATS OFF

    Reply

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