Syed Mustafa Ahmad
When the diverse land of ours is heading for a Hindu Rashtra, the moment is apt to study the thoughts of Dr BR Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a philosopher who not only interpreted the world but also tried to change it. He had a universal vision and towards it he steered struggles for social justice and human dignity. He rightly believed in the annihilation of caste and he rejected capitalism as a means of taking the world forward.
Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Indian Constitution, in his numerous writings reflected on nationalism and gave valuable insights. He argued passionately for adequate representation of the untouchables in the legislature, executive, and public service. He wrote that nationalism had become a tool in the hands of vested interests to create a fertile ground for communalism. It is the reality that we face today. The condition of Dalits is still as Ambedkar described it. The communal fascist forces in the garb of nationalism have been trying to use Dalits for their sinister design.
Ambedkar prophesied that whenever the exploited classes demand justice, fair and equal treatment, and affirmative action for representation, the so-called nationalists begin to sing the tune that nationalism is in danger. It is well-known that during the freedom struggle untouchables demanded separate electorates. Such a demand was described as anti national. Ambedkar rejected the description by stating that separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs and Christians didn’t make them anti-nationals. He commented, “Obviously, nationalism and anti nationalism have nothing to do with the electoral system. They are the results of extra-electoral forces.” In 21st century India, it is the extra-electoral forces engaged in changing history, culture, and society, that are defining the nation and nationhood.
In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar described caste as anti-national and the law as “the greatest disinfectant against inequality”. In his speech to the Constituent Assembly, while emphasizing that India is a compact body, he cautioned, “The sooner we realise that we are not yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us.” He stressed on justice not only political and economic but also social. He said, “The system of rank and gradation is simply another way of enunciating the principle of inequality, so it may be truly said that Hinduism doesn’t recognise equality.” Ambedkar found Buddhism closer to his understanding of social justice. His belief in the compassion of Buddhism would have been shaken were he to see the massacres of the Rohingyas in Myanmar today.
An economist of the highest order, the quest for social justice led Ambedkar to become a social democrat and study Karl Marx’s ideology. He compared the Buddha with Marx and said, “The ideology of Buddha and Karl Marx and a comparison between them just forces itself on me.”
Principles of an all-embracing nationalism included in their scope gender equality and women’s empowerment, which Ambedkar wanted to achieve in full measure through his epoch-making Hindu Code Bill. Democracy for Ambedkar was a way of living. He wrote, “Democracy is not a merely a form of government. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.” He strongly felt that a society based on liberty, equality and fraternity should be the only alternative to a caste society and that is why he attached greater importance to the principle of “one man, one vote; one man, one value”. He was very particular that democracy went beyond the formal expressions of it and became substantial. This form of democracy, he imagined, would ensure dignity for all.
Ambedkar’s political battles and his voracious capacity for intellectual work began affecting his health. His spirit continued undaunted even after a series of failures in the political life. In the 1930s , his first wife, Ramabai, who was dying , had asked him to take her to Pandharpur on a pilgrimage. The entry of untouchables was barred there. After her death, he declared at Yeola in 1935, “I was born a Hindu but I had no choice. I will not die a Hindu because I do have a choice.” In the twilight of his life, on October 14, 1956, he shunned Hinduism to become a Buddhist. His Brahmin second wife and six of his followers did the same.
As he lay down on the deathbed on the night of December 9, 1956, Ambedkar had by his side the preface to his latest book, The Buddha and his Dhamma. He wanted to work more on it but it was not to be. The book was published posthumously. Babasaheb left a lot unsaid. It is up to those who know his worth to continue his work. We have fallen very short of his expectations. We are politically immature. The nation and its minorities are in danger. The saffron cloud is slowly engulfing us.