From Servitude to Assertion:
Ambedkar’s Subaltern Approach to Nationalism And Dalits Liberation
Ambedkar and Dalitisation of Untouchables:
Dr. Ronki Ram
Traditionally, according to the Hindu code of conduct, the untouchables were placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and were known by different names in different parts of the country. They were called Shudras, Atishudras, Chandalas, Antyajas, Pariahs, Dheds, Panchamas, Avarnas, Namashudras, Asprusthas, etc. etc.
The hierarchical and in egalitarian structure of Indian society came into existence during the period of manusmriti. The manusmriti set the tenor of social discrimination based on birth. This, in turn led to economic degradation and political isolation of the untouchables now popularly known as Dalits. Dalits are the poor, neglected and downtrodden lot. Their social disabilities were specific, severe and numerous. Their touch, shadow or even voices were considered by the caste Hindus to be polluting. They were not allowed to keep certain domestic animals, use certain metals for ornaments, eat a particular type of food, use a particular type of footwear, wear a particular type of dress and were forced to live in the outskirts of the villages towards which the wind blew and dirt flowed. Their houses were dirty, dingy and unhygienic where poverty and squalor loomed large. They were denied the use of public wells. The doors of the Hindu temples were closed for them and their children were not allowed into the schools attended by the children of caste Hindu. Barbers and washer men refused their services to them. Public services were closed to them. They followed menial hereditary occupations such as those of street sweepers, scavengers, shoe makers and carcasses removers.
Generally the term dalit includes those who are designated in administrative parlance as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes. However, in common political discourse, the term dalit is so far mainly referred to Scheduled Castes. The term Scheduled Caste was used for the first time by the British officials in Government of India Act, 1935. Prior to this, the untouchable castes were known as depressed classes. Mahatma Gandhi gave them the name Harijans meaning children of God. Gandhi himself did not coin the name. He borrowed the name from a Bhakti movement saint of the 17th century Narsinh Mehta. The name Harijan became popular during 1931 amid conflicts between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the issue of guarantying communal political representation to the dalits. Gandhi took this move as a step towards the disintegration of Hindu society. By terming the untouchables as Harijans, Gandhi tried to persuade caste Hindus to shed their prejudices against the achchutas i.e. untouchables. The purpose to adopt this new nomenclature of Harijan for the untouchables was to induce change in the heart and behaviour of the Hindus towards untouchables. At the same time, it was hoped that this new name would be accepted by the untouchables who would too try to cultivate the virtues which it connotes. To quote Gandhi “…probably, Antyaja brethren would lovingly accept that name and try to cultivate the virtues which it connotes… may the Antyaja become Harijan both in name and nature” (Gandhi 1971: 244-5). The term Harijan got further recognition as an emancipatory nomenclature in the formation of Harijan Sewak Sangh, an organisation established for the purpose of upliftment of the dalits under the aegis of the Congress. A weekly ‘Harijan’ was also started by Gandhi to provide voice for the cause of the downtrodden. However, Ambedkar did not find any substance in the change of name for the redressal of the structural hindrances that stood menacingly in the way of the their all around amelioration. To him it did not make any difference whether the downtrodden were called achchuta or Harijan, ‘as the new nomenclature did not change their status in the social order’ [Shah 2001a: 21].
The term dalit was used by no less a person than Ambedkar in his fortnightly called Bahishkrit Bharat (Guru 2001: 100). Though Ambedkar did not popularise the word dalit for untouchables, his thoughts and actions have contributed to its growth and popularity. The word dalit is a common usage in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and many other Indian languages, denoting the poor and oppressed persons. It also refers to those who have been broken, ground down by those above them in a deliberate way (Shah 2001b: 195-196). “It includes all the oppressed and exploited sections of society. It does not confine itself merely to economic exploitation in terms of appropriation of surplus. It also relates to suppression of culture – way of life and value system – and, more importantly, the denial of dignity. It has essentially emerged as a political category. For some, it connotes an ideology for fundamental change in the social structure and relationships” (Shah 2001a: 22). The word dalit indicates struggle for an egalitarian order (Zelliot 2001a: 232) and provides the concept of pride to the politically active dalits (Zelliot 2001 b: 130). The word dalit gained currency through the writings of Marathi writers in the early 1970s. “Dalit writers who have popularised the word have expressed their notion of dalit identity in their essays, poems, dramas, autobiographies, novels and short stories. They have reconstructed their past and their view of the present. They have expressed their anger, protest and aspiration” (Shah 2001a: 22).
“Dalit” is a by-product of the Ambedkar movement and indicates a political and social awareness. Ambedkar adopted a different approach and philosophy for the emancipation of Scheduled Castes. He wanted to liberate the dalits by building an egalitarian social order which he believed was not possible within the fold of Hinduism whose very structure was hierarchical which relegated the dalits to the bottom. Initially, he tried to seek emancipation of the dalits by bringing transformation within the structure of Hinduism through his efforts for opening the temples for the dalits and multi-caste dinners. However, Ambedkar came to realise soon that such an approach would not bring the desired result for the amelioration of the inhuman condition of the dalits. He asserted that the dalits should come forward and fight for their own cause. He gave them the mantra – educate, organise and agitate. He did not have faith in the charitable spirit of the caste Hindus towards the untouchables as it failed to bring any change in the oppressive social order. Ambedkar did not have any faith in Mahatmas and Saints whose main emphasis was not on the equality between man and man. Their philosophy, according to him, was mainly concerned with the relation between man and God.
Baba Saheb Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, himself a dalit, made efforts to transform the hierarchical structures of Indian society for the restoration of equal rights and justice to the neglected lot by building up a critique from within the structure of Indian society. His was not a theoretical attempt but a practical approach to the problems of untouchability. He tried to seek the solution to this perennial problem of the Indian society not by making appeals to the conscience of the usurpers or bringing transformation in the outlook of the individual by begging but by seeking transformation in the socio-religious and politico-economic structures of the Indian society by continuous and relentless struggle against the exploitative system where he thought the roots of the untouchability lay. He thought that until and unless the authority of the Dharam Shastras is shaken which provided divine sanction to the system of discrimination based on the case hierarchy, the eradication of untouchability could not be realised. It was his subaltern perspective, a perspective from below which helped him to come to the conclusion that untouchability emanated neither from religious notions, nor from the much-popularised theory of Aryan conquest. He believed that it came into existence as a result of the struggle among the tribes at a stage when they were starting to settle down for a stable community living. In the process, the broken tribesmen were employed by the settled tribes as guards against the marauding bands. These broken tribesmen employed as guards became untouchables. However, Ambedkar could not provide answer to the problem as to why only these broken tribesmen were confined to the one part of the village in the setting towards which the wind blew and the dirt of the village flowed. Ambedkar’s tirade against untouchability was a tirade to make these people conscious of their rights, and to prepare them to agitate and win their rights.
Dalit Liberation: Subaltern Approach
With the entry of Ambedkar into the Indian political arena during 1920s, the issue of social reforms achieved a new dimension. He was of the opinion that until and unless the downtrodden themselves came forward to fight their own battle, no one else could alleviate their grievances. No one else could know better than them about their own state of affairs. Ambedkar impressed upon the people to understand their own affairs themselves. Self-awakening, he believed, could provide them necessary strength to fight against evils in society. “Ambedkar (started) exorcising the spirit of despair from the minds of dumb millions who had been forced to live the lives of sub-human beings. Here was a liberator preaching them the grand universal law that liberty is neither received as a gift; nor begged for a charity it has to be fought for. Self-elevation is not achieved by the blessing of others but only by one’s own struggle and deed. Those inert, dormant masses lacked courage and needed a vision and a mission. Ambedkar was now inspiring them to do battle for their human rights. He was driving them to action by acting himself Ambedkar was displaying energy by his own action; arousing their faith by showing faith” (Keer 1971: 73-74). Although low-caste protest movement which started with Jyotirao Phule in the 19th century continued in western India with leaders like Vithalji Ramji Shinde, Shivram Janba Kamble, Gangaram Kishnajee and others, they could not pull out the victims of the Brahmanical system of social gradation from their forced ghettos to fight for themselves. However, the movement started by Jyotirao Phule was more nearer to the real goal of dalit liberation than that of the movements led by the Brahmin liberal reformers like Ranade, Gokhale and Karve who concentrated more on inducing reforms in the different settings of Hindu dominated society rather than its total transformation. It was Dr. Ambedkar who provided for the first time to the dalits a system of struggle which they could consider as their own. Although Phule had done the same before him in the 19th century, yet Phule like him did not belong to the untouchable caste. Phule was born in Mali-Kunbi caste broadly considered Shudra but not ‘untouchable’, while Ambedkar was born in the Mahar community which is an untouchable caste. Another factor which distinguished Ambedkar from Phule was that the latter studied at local mission school but had no opportunity available to study abroad. Ambedkar’s stays abroad during his higher education exposed him to English political institutions, liberal democracy and the system of rule of law, which cultivated in him a faith in parliamentary democracy as the best means for achieving the socio-economic liberation of the under- privileged sections of the Indian society. He was equally concerned with the cause of the freedom of India from the colonial rule. Ambedkar said “I will demand what is right full for my people, and I will certainly uphold the demand for swaraj” (Ibid. 145). However, Ambedkar was always concerned to highlight the cause of the downtrodden and ever ready to redeem the same. At the first Round Table Conference, he said that “One fifth of the total population of British India was reduced to a position of worse than that of a serf or a slave. He then declared to the surprise of all that the untouchables in India were also for replacing the existing government by a government of the people, for the people and by the people. He said that this change in the attitudes of the untouchables to British Rule in India was surprising and a momentous phenomenon. And justifying his stand, he observed with a rise in his voice and a glow in his eyes: ‘when we compare our present position with the one which it was our lot to bear in Indian society of pre-British days, we find that, instead of marching on, we are marking time. Before the British, we were in the loathsome condition due to our untouchability. Has the British government done anything to remove it? Before the British, we could not draw water from the village well. Has the British government secured up the right to the well? Before the British, we could not enter the temple. Can we enter now? Before the British, we were denied entry into the police force. Does the British government admit us into the force? Before the British, we were not allowed to serve in military. Is that career now open to us? To none of these questions can be given an affirmative answer. Our wrongs have remained as open sores and they have not been righted, although 150 years of British rule have rolled away’ ” (Ibid. 149-150). He continued “of what good is such a government to anybody. We must have a government in which the men in power will give their undivided allegiance to the best interests to the country. We must have a government in which men in power, where obedience will end and resistance will begin, will not be afraid to amend the social and economic code of life which the dictates of justice and expediency so urgently call for” (quoted in ibid.: 150). So from the above it is clear that for Dr. Ambedkar, political freedom was as important as the social transformation of Indian society.
In his speech delivered at Bombay on 12 June 1951, Ambedkar said that the Scheduled Castes should come forward to cooperate with other communities in strengthening the newly won freedom. But at the same time he cautioned his fellow beings to keep in view the interest of their community. He was sure that the Scheduled Castes could not capture political power by joining the Congress. To win, guard and promote the interests of the untouchables, he emphasized that they should consolidate themselves under their own political party (Bakshi 1992: 60). Ambedkar was of the firm belief that “howsoever, the caste Hindus worked hard for the welfare of the untouchables they did not know their mind. That was why he was fundamentally opposed to any organisation started by the caste Hindus for the upliftment of the Depressed Classes” (Keer 1971: 43). His principal objective was to achieve a respectable place of existence for the downtrodden sections of the society to which he himself belonged. But at the same time he was also not ready to compromise with the cause of the Indian Freedom. He too wanted swaraj but the contents of his conception of swaraj were more versatile than that of the Savarna leaders of the Indian Freedom movement. He accepted the responsibility of framing a constitution for independent India. He said, “I feel now that it was the golden opportunity for me and my community. By framing the constitution, I convinced the Hindus, who were abusing me and my party for the last twenty years as anti-nationalist, that they were entirely wrong. We are as staunch a nationalist organisation as any other” (quoted in Bakshi: 1992: 60). However, Ambedkar’s joining of the Congress government created a great amount of confusion among the Scheduled Castes. In clarification of his joining the government he said, “I have joined the central government but have not become a member of the Congress and have no intention to do so. I was invited by the Congress to join the central government and I had joined it unconditionally. I shall come out any time. I think it is useless to stay there. Our condition is such that it is necessary that our men should be in the administrative machinery. There is no fear of just legislation, but even good laws may be badly administered and if the government is composed of persons who are by tradition against the interests of the Scheduled Castes, then there can be no hope for us” (quoted in ibid.: 62). It was his subaltern perspective which made him to think practically that the administration was unsympathetic to the Scheduled Castes because it was completely run by the officers who were relatives of the oppressors or were known to them. Had these officers belonged to the Scheduled Castes they would have given proper protection to their brethren. He was of the opinion that the high caste tyranny and oppression could be averted only if more of the Scheduled Castes could find places in the administration. This could be achieved by being inside the government rather than by sitting outside. Ambedkar, a firm believer in the parliamentary form of government, impressed upon the Scheduled Castes and Backward Castes, who together formed majority of the population of the country, to come forward to capture political power in the system of adult franchise. He said, “People do not seem to buck up courage because they are overwhelmed by the belief that the Congress government is there for ever. I said, this is a wrong impression. In a popular democracy, no government is permanent and not even the government established by the two of the tallest congressmen, Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel. If you organise, you can even capture that government” (quoted in ibid. 66). Ambedkar was not only a visionary; he tried his level best to translate his vision into a practical reality. With the purpose of breaking the ‘ladderless multi storied tower of Hindu society’ he formed the Independent Labour Party in 1936 so as to have a broad alliance of peasants, workers and Scheduled Castes. In 1942, he formed another political party for defending the interests of the Scheduled Castes. That party was known as Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). Although the SCF could not make a significant mark in the electoral politics, it provided an alternative to the dalits to think about capturing the political power by organising themselves into a political organisation. After the death of Ambedkar, his close associates formed the Republican Party of India (RPI) in deference to the wishes of their mentor and saviour. Ambedkar hoped that “the Republican Party would be a vehicle for all who sought to achieve the great goals surpassing the narrow confines of the Scheduled Caste Federation” (Omvedt 2001: 150). It shows that Ambedkar wanted to consolidate the downtrodden into a significant political force to guide them to achieve a dignified place in the Indian society. During his long journey of political struggle, he had come to realise that the issue of dalit liberation and empowerment could never be genuinely taken up by the caste Hindus.
The dalits themselves have to come forward to take up the herculean task of their emancipation and empowerment. He had no hopes from the caste Hindus to get any help in such a project. He was greatly disillusioned after his experiences of Mahad agitation in 1927 where inspite of the resolution of Bombay State Assembly to declare all public places open to untouchables, the high caste Hindus violently resisted the untouchables’ attempt to drink water at the public pond. Yet, in another struggle to seek special rights for the Scheduled Castes during the Round Table Conferences, in the form of special electorate, Ambedkar was opposed tooth and nail by Mahatma Gandhi. Although Ambedkar succeeded in getting communal award for the benefits of Scheduled Castes, yet finally he had to compromise under moral duress due to Mahatma Gandhi’s fast-unto-death. “The clash with Gandhi not only shook Ambedkar’s faith in the legal method of redressing grievances, but also convinced him of the futility of striving for equality by remaining within Hinduism. Ambedkar now opened that Hinduism was incapable of reform on its own and that the untouchables must ready themselves to fight their battle for equality alone” (Doctor 1997: 125). Moreover, even during his earlier attempts – three temple satyagrahas – to seek equality within Hinduism, Ambedkar failed to get any support from Gandhi or the Indian National Congress. As said earlier his efforts to join the popular Ganapati festivals in Bombay also proved futile. So, were his attempts to arrange inter-caste dinners and to organise a public ceremony for making the low-caste put on the sacred thread (Zelliot 1986: 163). The failures of all these attempts to bring reforms in the system of Hindu religion demonstrated to Ambedkar, “that the untouchables were not really a part of Hindu society and would never be accepted as equals by the Hindus within that framework (Verma 1999: 2806). In other words, the project of dalit liberation through reforms in Hindu religion failed to yield any result. In the face of such failure, Ambedkar was forced to leave the Hindu religion. At the Yeola Conference, in Nasik district, on October 13, 1935 Ambedkar said that unfortunately he was born a Hindu untouchable and it was beyond his power to prevent that. But he declared that it was within his power to severe ties with that religion. He thundered, “I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu” (Keer 1971: 253). Twenty years after, in October 1956 he converted to Buddhism. With this declaration of Ambedkar, the struggle of dalit liberation entered into a new phase: fighting against the oppressive structures of Hinduism from outside. This new form of dalit struggle which distinguished itself from the pre-1935 struggle of Ambedkar for transformation of the Hindu religion from within, shocked the Hindu community out of complacency and at the same time provided an opportunity to the untouchables to “grasp their own future” (Zelliot 1986: 165).
Dr. Ambedkar realised that caste and Brahminic Hinduism reinforce each other and discriminate against the downtrodden sections of the society. He said in 1946, “To the untouchables, Hinduism is veritable chamber of horrors” (Lobo 2001: 243). He traced the genesis of the oppressive nature of the caste dominated Indian society to the ‘sacred’ shastras of the Hindus who guarded them so closely that if any one except them read or heard them he would commit an act of sacrilege. Manusmriti sanctioned severest punishment for such a sacrilegious act. Ambedkar quotes from Manusmriti, “If the shudra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda, then his ears should be filled with (molten) lead and if he utters the Veda, then his tongue should be cut-off; if he has mastered the Veda his body should be cut to pieces” (Thorat and Deshpande 2001: 73). According to Ambedkar the Vedas, smritis and shastras were all instruments of torture used by Hinduism against the untouchables (Lobo 2001: 243).
In fact it was Ambedkar’s subaltern perspective which pierced through the shastras to reveal their true face. He emphasized in his “Annihilation of Caste” that the smritis and shastras were not the embodiment of religion but a system of rules to deprive the untouchables even of their basic needs and deny them equal status in the society. Ambedkar distinguished between rules and principles. Rules are practical and based on prescription. But principles are intellectual and are useful methods of judging things. Rules seek to tell an agent just what course of action to pursue. Principles do not prescribe a specific course of action. Rules are commands and tell what to do and how to do it, whereas principles provide man a reference point to his conscience to guide his course of action. This difference between rules and principles, according to Ambedkar, make the act done in pursuit of them different in quality and in content. Performing an act under the command of a rule and in the light of a principle, as a guide of conscience, are two different things. The principle may be wrong but the act is conscious and responsible by virtue of the fact that such an act has been performed by an individual by making use of his critical abilities. The rule may be right but the act performed thereof is mechanical. A religious act may not be a correct act but according to Ambedkar must at least be a responsible act. “To permit of this responsibility, religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It can not be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules it ceases to be religion, as it kills responsibility which is the essence of a truly religious act” (Ambedkar 1995: 88). On the basis of a discussion around the distinction between rules and principles in reference to religion, Ambedkar comes to conclusion that what is called Religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitudes of commands and prohibition. He said, the Hindu religion, as contained in the Vedas and smritis, is nothing but a mass of sacrificial, social, political and sanitary rules and regulations, all mixed up. Therefore, he said that there should be no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed and there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion that discriminates against its own people whom it bracketed as untouchables.
The most notorious aspect of these bunch of rules and codes of ordinances, masquerading as religion, is that they are made immutable – same for all generations, iniquitous – not the same for one class as for another, and were invested with the character of finality and fixity. Religion, in the sense of spiritual principles is conspicuous by its absence in them. In other words, what the Hindu call religion is, in fact, not a religion in a true sense of the term. It is “really Law or at best legalised class ethics” (ibid. 89). Ambedkar exhorted the untouchables to tear the mask and find in it the hidden conspiracy against them which projected the code of conduct as a religion. He opined that once the people come to know that what Hindus called religion is not a religion but a law, they could urge for its amendment or abolition because law can be changed but not religion. One can leave religion but cannot change it because, said Ambedkar, “the idea of Religion is generally speaking not associated with the idea of change” (ibid. 90). It is in this context that Ambedkar’s decision to leave Hinduism and his conversion to Buddhism becomes self-explanatory as a step for dalit liberation.
The above discussion shows that what Ambedkar was against was a religion of rules not religion in itself. Had he been against religion he could not have had embraced Buddhism. Ambedkar said “…I agree with Burke when he says that ‘True religion is the foundation of society, the basis on which all true civil governments rest, and both their sanction’, Consequently, when I argue that these ancient rules of life be annulled, I am anxious that its place shall be taken by a religion of principles, which alone can lay claim to being a true religion” (ibid.: 90). Ambedkar wanted to raise religion in consonance with liberty, equality and fraternity. In short, his religion could not be against the principles of democracy. He said, “I am no authority on the subject. But I am told that for such religious principles, as will be in consonance with liberty, equality and fraternity is, may not be necessary for you to borrow from foreign sources and that you could draw for such principles on the Upanishads” (ibid.: 92).
An other aspect of Dr. Ambedkar’s subaltern approach for the emancipation of dalits and their empowerment was his distinct formulation of Indian nationalism in opposition to the dominant discourse of Hindu nationalism as represented by Raja Rammohan Roy, B.G. Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Golvalkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on the one hand and Communist secular socialist nationalism represented by M.N. Roy, R. P. Duta, T. Nagi Reddy and E.M.S. Namboodripad on the other. Although the protagonists of Hindu nationalism differed in many ways from each other, in essence they strengthen the Brahamanical hegemony in modern India. The communist secular social nationalism though based on abolition of class, its ideologues like that of the Hindu nationalism belonged to the upper-caste and upper-class background. Kancha Ilaiah put these two streams of Indian nationalism on a single platform by emphasizing that though they “appear to be antagonistic in their discourses of transformation; the social forces that were engaged in this discourse did not differ in their roots of existence and formation. In caste/class term, they belong to the Brahamanical upper and middle class. Though their consciousness appeared to be antagonistic to each other, their being and self remained Hindu. This was one of the main reasons why the Marxists and socialists schools failed to problematic and critique Hinduism and Brahmanism” (Ilaiah 2001: 109).
Dr. Ambedkar’s conception of nationalism articulated and synthesized the national perceptions and aspirations of the downtrodden. Ambedkar’s alternative form of nationalism, popularly known as ‘dalit-Bahujan-nationalism’ also incorporated the subaltern philosophy of Jyotirao Phule and Periyar E.V. Ramaswami Naicker. It constructed an anti-Hindu and anti-Brahamanical discourse of Indian nationalism. It aimed at establishing a casteless and classless society where no one would be discriminated on the basis of birth and occupation. Within the dalit-Bahuhjan framework of Indian nationalism, Ambedkar built up a critique of pre-colonial Brahmanism and its inegalitarian social set up based on low and high dichotomy of graded caste system. This system of in egalitarianism led to the process of exploitation by the unproductive Brahamanical castes of the various productive castes.
Ambedkar understands of the question of the identity and existence of the nation was based on his incisive analysis of the oppressive character of the Hindu community. “By arguing for the rights and basic needs of the dalits, he challenges the assumptions of both nationalist politics and indigenous communitarian politics” (Verma 1999: 2804). Since the dominant Hindu discourse of Indian nationalism remained indifferent towards removal of the caste system; and the economic analysis of the communist secular socialist school also failed to highlight the issue of caste in its mechanical interpretation of class, Ambedkar – himself an untouchable and victim of untouchability – formulated his own framework from the perspective of the untouchables for the understanding of the system of caste and untouchability. The foundation of dalit-Bahujan nationalism lies in this framework developed by Ambedkar. It aimed at restructuring the Indian society into a casteless and classless and egalitarian Sangha (Ilaiah 2001: 109). Annihilation of caste was its central theme. Caste for Ambedkar was nothing but Brahmanism incarnate. “Brahmanism is the poison which has spoiled Hinduism” (Ambedkar 1995: 92). Ambedkar realised that any form of nationalism whose roots were steeped into Hinduism could not be a solution to the problem of dalits. Any discourse of nationalism bereft of annihilation of caste was just not acceptable to him. The agenda of annihilation of caste was so important to him that it became a central point of his struggle against colonial rule. In the first Round Table Conference, he minced no words in criticizing the British government for its failure to undo untouchability. Swaraj without extinction of caste had no meaning for Ambedkar. In his undelivered speech to the Jat Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore, he said, “In the fight for swaraj you fight with the whole nation on your side. In this, you have to fight against the whole nation and that too your own. But it is more important than swaraj. There is no use having swaraj, if you cannot defend it. More important than the question of defending swaraj is the question of defending Hindus under the swaraj. In my opinion, only when the Hindu society becomes a casteless society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend it. Without such internal strength, swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery” (ibid. 97). Thus, it was Ambedkar’s subaltern perspective which distinguished his conception of swaraj from that of the protagonists of the various shades of the national freedom movement. In his editorial in the Bahishkrit Bharat a fortnightly, on 29 July 1927, Ambedkar wrote, “If Tilak had been born among the untouchables, he would not have raised the slogan ‘Swaraj is my birthright’, but he would have risen the slogan ‘Annihilation of untouchability is my birthright’”.
Dr. Ambedkar was an iconoclastic social reformer who at the very formative years of his career realised what it meant to be an untouchable and how struggle against untouchability could be launched. The social reform movement of the caste Hindus could not win him to its side because of his existential understanding of the pangs of untouchability. The issue of untouchability, for social reformers, was a mere problem. This problem was exterior to them in the sense that it affects only the untouchables. They themselves had never experienced the sinister us blows of untouchability. Moreover, though they were sympathetic to the cause of dalits but nevertheless, according to the social framework of the Indian society, they belonged to the opposite camp which practiced this inhuman system of social segregation based on sheer birth.
Although Ambedkar dedicated his book “Who Were Shudras” to Phule, the precursor of non-Brahmin anti-caste movement, he did not approve the movement as a harbinger of dalit liberation. In a message given to the Satyashodak magazine, on the 16th Satyashodak Social Conference, Ambedkar said, “The non-Brahmins have effaced the memory of Jyotiba Phooley completely. Not only that but that class has shamelessly betrayed his philosophy” (quoted in Kuber 1987: 119). According to Ambedkar the non-Brahmin leaders failed to germicide the virus of caste among themselves. He criticized that many of them tried to emulate Brahmins and failed to abandon Brahmanical practices. They did not cease to employ the card of caste in politics. “Marathas began to preach their superiority and the distinction between Marathas and non-Marathas became clear in all the party programs. Even in educational conferences of the non-Brahmins, the untouchables were seated away from others for fear of being polluted” (ibid. 119). There was no hope for untouchables in such a movement.
It was against this background of total despair and in the absence of untouchable’s own political philosophy and independent platform that Ambedkar entered into social and political space of the colonial India as a true representative of the dalits. His analysis of the origins of the untouchability and his action plans for its eradication were different from the approach and practice of both the caste Hindu social reformers and the non-Brahman anti-caste movements. Reflecting on the original contribution of Ambedkar in the rise of the dalit movement in India, Omvedt writes, “It is impossible to conceptualize the dalit movement in India in the absence of Ambedkar, it is equally difficult to imagine, sociologically, Ambedkar coming of any other region than the Marathi-speaking areas of British presidency” (Omvedt 1984: 139). If Omvedt considered the tradition of anti-caste movement in Maharashtra as a catalyst for the organisation of dalit movement by Ambedkar, Zelliot underlined the untouchable status of Ambedkar as the main factor for his meteoric rise as the leader of untouchables (Elliot 1996: 160). Of the two, the tradition of anti-caste movement in Maharashtra; and his untouchable status, it seems the latter played a more prominent role in the evolution of Ambedkar’s subaltern approach for the emancipation of dalits and their empowerment.
What distinguished his subaltern approach was that it looked at the problems of the dalits from below, from a vantage point of the deprived and oppressed. This perspective led him to think differently from the dominant stream of social and political thought of his time. His, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, Annihilation of Caste, Who Were the Shudras? and The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? are a testimony to his independent and original thinking. In these seminal works Ambedkar smashed the mythological basis of untouchability and laid bare its economic roots. He built a strong case against the ‘Janam’ (birth) thesis of the untouchability which foreclosed all the ways for dalit emancipation. He exhorted its victims to oppose it tooth and nail. He said, “It is disgraceful to live at the cost of one’s self respect. Self respect is most vital factor in life. Without it, man is a mere cipher. To live worthily with self-respect one has to overcome difficulties. It is out of hard and ceaseless struggle alone that one derives strength, confidence and recognition” (quoted in Jatava 1965: 15). He drew a distinction between merely living and living worthily. For living a worthy life, Ambedkar said, society must be based on liberty, equality and fraternity. “In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contacts with other modes of association. In other words, there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen” (Ambedkar 1995: 57). For Ambedkar, social tyranny is more oppressive than the political tyranny and “a reformer who defies society, is a much more courageous man than a politician, who defies government” (ibid: 75).
Ambedkar was one who defied society. In the beginning of his social reform crusade, he tried to get respect and equality for the dalits by bringing reforms within the social set up of Hinduism. He continued his struggle for empowerment of the dalits by seeking changes within the fold of Hinduism till 1935. When he realised that the salvation of dalits was not possible while living within the fold of Hinduism, he started his scathing criticism and tirade against Hinduism and ultimately sought the emancipation of dalits and its empowerment from outside the Hindu religion. Hence his conversion to Buddhism for Ambedkar the issue of dalit liberation was the foremost issue and he emphasised that dalits themselves have to come forward for its realisation. Thus, Ambedkar provided a subaltern perspective to see clearly the chameleon of Indian caste-ridden social set-up deceptively appearing in crimson colors and the ways to guard the interests of the dalits.
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I am grateful to Mr. K. C. Sulekh for his scholarly comments and to the anonymous referee for his seminal suggestions.
DR. RONKI RAM
Department of Political Science
Panjab University, Chandigarh-( india ) pIN-160014.
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