Friday, 27 August 2010

Harish K. Puri

"Understanding B.R. Ambedkar" by Dr. Harish Puri provides certain parameters for fixing Ambedkar's role in India's unity and integrity. While working with M.K. Gandhi, and J.L. Nehru, Dr. Ambedkar recorded his experiences in his writings. Readers are invited to respond to the portrayal of Baba Sahib Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's personality and contribution by Dr. Harish Puri. A retired professor of Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar, (Punjab) Dr. Puri headed Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Chair in the Political Science Department. He has authored many books on India's freedom movement.

There is a widespread misunderstanding about B.R. Ambedkar’s ideas and role particularly with regard to the independence and unity of India. Reasons for that are well known. Ambedkar did not join the Indian National Congress-led struggle for independence. In fact he denounced the Congress and opposed the Quit India Movement. He became a member of Viceroy’s Executive Council and was, therefore, accused of loyalty to the British rulers and dubbed as a ‘traitor’. At the Round Table Conference, he pleaded for a separate electrorate and reservations of seats for the minority community of “untouchables”, as for several other minority communities. When that was conceded by the British government in the Communal Award 1932, Ambedkar was accused as an evil genius bent upon dividing the Hindus. Mahatma Gandhi’s fast unto death against the provision pitted the mainstream public opinion against him. He was held guilty of putting Gandhi’s life in danger. His support for Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan was no less galling to many Indian nationalists. The burning of a copy of the Manusmriti, his trenchant criticism of Hindu social system, rejection of Hindu religion and ultimately his conversion to Buddhism along with over a hundred thousand untouchables were regarded as affronts to the Hindu community. Many observers of the Indian political scene today believe that the policy of ‘reservation’ and special concessions to the Scheduled Castes which was later extended by the V.P. Singh government to include Other Backward Classes (OBCs), has been a cause of social divides and instability of the political system. Ambedkar was regarded as the original villain of piece. As a consequence, there has been a controversy regarding his contribution. Not many non-Dalits, cared to understand and appreciate his fundamental contributions to the enrichment of social and political thinking in India

Ambedkar’s distinct contribution to the unity of India lies in two domains. One related to the preparation and adoption of a constitutional framework which could provide for adequate safeguards for the territorial integrity and political unity of India. This was the work for which he was profusely lauded. The second related to a distinct conceptualization of good society and the “unity of the people” in this vast country of multiple diversities and entrenched inequities. Through that he laid the basis for a radical socio-economic change. This was a highly contested domain. He was not alone. He shared with Jawaharlal Nehru a new humane and just social order. But Ambedkar was more skeptical. Perhaps, no other leader was so acutely conscious of the strength and tenacity of the entrenched social forces which were ranged against the agenda of social transformation.

Ambedkar’s social location at the bottom of caste and class hierarchy provided a view of the social reality from below. Those at the higher and top levels, saw the world differently. Gandhi’s experience of social discrimination in South Africa and India shaped his anti racial anti-colonial discourse. The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in April led him to regard the British rule as ‘satanic’. Ambedkar’s life experience as an ‘untouchable’ determined the direction of his discourse and struggle against the structure and practice of caste oppression. End of caste inequalities and guarantee of just status for minorities were to him the essential conditions of human dignity and unity, more important then political freedom. Others thought differently. However, given the strength of the hegemonic force in the Constituent Assembly, the provision for social transformation was grudgingly and partially included in the constitution. Even the limited agenda was only partially implemented. The society and the polity are apparently more fractured today. But the social and political assertiveness of the earlier downtrodden has the potential for accelerating social change. Appreciation for Ambedkar’s constribution to India’s unity in this respect remains misunderstood and divided along caste-class lines.

Let us now look to his position and what did he actually do in the two domains.Despite his vigorous struggle for separate electorates for ‘untouchables’, he had made one thing very clear to the British at the Round Table Conference: “It is only in a Swaraj Constitution that we stand any chance of getting political power into our own hands, without which we cannot bring salvation to our people”. Mahatma Gandhi told him categorically, when Ambedkar met him for the first time on 14 August, 1931: that “from the reports that have reached me of your work at the Round Table Conference, I know that you are patriot of sterling worth”. Let there be no doubt about Ambedkar’s patriotism. But he was convinced that freedom of the country does not necessarily mean freedom of the people.

As mentioned before his social location made him the only prominent leader of his time to counter-pose a view of Indian reality from below to that of the mainstream political leaders. He was opposed to the Congress conception of nationalism. Professor M.S. Gore has discussed, for example, that there was a clear opposition between Nehru’s and Ambedkar’s points of view on Indian history. Nehru’s viewpoint, as clearly laid out in his Discovery of India, was that there was a definite undercurrent of synthesis and unity in the midst of great diversity. Ambedkar’s, on the other hand, was that India’s was a deeply divided and stratified society with conflicting cultural streams. Nehru’s view reflected the ideology of the mainstream and Ambedkar’s that of ‘minority’ groups. The logic of historical evolution of nationalism points to the fact that nationalism generally reflects the ideology of the emerging ruling class. Since it represents the ideas and interests of the most advanced segment of society, it is basically sectarian. Ambedkar was very clear that blind nationalism could turn out to be dangerously anti-people. It has to be resisted and given a strong social foundation of equality.
It is understandable that during their fight against the British rulers, the “nationalist” ideology emphasized on homogeneity of the people claiming for them a national identity. So they not only de-emphasized internal differences based on class, caste, religion, region, language etc., but also regarded reference to these differences as divisive and anti-national. Ambedkar denied the commonality of interest between Hindus of all castes or Indians of all communities. So he stressed upon legal constitutional safeguards for the untouchables and other minorities. But he knew that mere legal safeguards were not enough. He therefore also advocated that the untouchables must organize and relentlessly agitate for securing their rights of equality and justice.
Whereas to the mainstream nationalist leadership the primary struggle was for political freedom, Ambedkar saw in that kind of freedom the threat of a more arrogant and unhindered domination and ‘oppression’ of the upper caste and upper class, over the lower caste/class strata socially, economically and politically. Under that kind of rule by the hegemonic forces the possibility of social reform for reducing inequity would become even more remote. Therefore, he emphasized upon the urgency of social reform, before political freedom. He became convinced by the middle of 1930s, that even for Gandhi, the first choice was a struggle for freedom rather than for eradication of untouchability. Thus, he could not become a part of the mainstream national struggle.
In his distinctly different struggle, however, he was deeply concerned about strengthening the Indian polity. When the Simon Commission came to India in 1928 to prepare recommendations for new constitutional arrangement including provincial autonomy, the Congress launched a boycott of the Commission. Ambedkar, on the other hand, appeared before it, to present his memorandum and discuss important issues. One of the clear positions he took may be stated. He argued:
While I am anxious to see that there should be established complete provincial autonomy, I am opposed to any change which will in any way weaken the central government or which will impair its national character or obscure its existence in the eyes of the people… My view is that the national government should be so placed as not to appear to stand by virtue of the provincial government.
He thought a strong central government was necessary to safeguard political unity. He then presented very clear-cut recommendations.
That all residuary powers must be with central government;
That central government must have the specific power to coerce a recalcitrant or rebellious province acting in a manner prejudicial to the interest of the country;
That all powers given to a provincial government in case of its non-functioning shall return to the central government;
That the election to the central legislature shall be direct, (Writings and Speeches of Dr. Ambedkar, Vol. II, p.385).
When he was given the task of drafting the constitution, one of his major objectives was safeguarding the unity of India, besides ending of “untouchability” and providing safeguards for Scheduled Castes and minorities. India had been partitioned and about 550 princely states existed with sovereign or semi-sovereign status. Holding India together was a daunting task. The threat to unity was ominous. Ambedkar brought his exceptional legal, constitutional expertise to the building of a framework for unity and pleaded with skill and passion for adoption of his proposals by the Constituent Assembly.
Nine sub-committees had been constituted by the Drafting Committee for dealing with different subjects and preparing drafts. What may appear surprising, the draft constitution by these sub-committees had left Indian princely states as more or less independent entities, having the liberty to frame their own constitution, including provision for their own armies. Dr. Ambedkar was disturbed and angry. He told the Constituent Assembly, “ I regard this as a most retrograde and harmful provision which may lead to the break-up of the unity of India and overthrow of the central government.” He saw to it that there was uniformity between the provinces and the Indian princely states in their relationship to the Centre.
Unity of India, according to him, required both a strong central government and a federal system. He was personally more inclined towards a unitary government. As he told 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 her own people.” He cited several instances and then raised the question: “Will history repeat itself? Our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever. We must be determined to defend our independence till the last drop of our blood.” (Keer, op.cit)

The central government had to be “a powerful stimulus in the formative period.” Articles 355, 356 and 365 of the present constitution were in essence based on such an arrangement under the Government of India Act 1935. He preferred to use the word “Union” instead of federation. But he was not innocent about the dangers of a very strong central government. “We must resist the tendency to make it stronger”, he said. “It cannot chew more than it can digest. Its strength must be commensurate with its weight. It would be a folly to make it so strong that it may fall by its own weight.” The division of powers between the centre and the states was therefore, necessary. An important central feature of the constitution was that it was made flexible. The strong defence of the parliamentary government for its mechanism of ministerial accountability and of the nominal position of the president pointed to his concern for checks on power.

He was also deeply concerned about the social conditions for political stability in a country as large and diverse as India. Three principles appeared to him to be basic for such stability: associated life; common objectives and free social interaction. Caste system, in particular, was a major obstruction to associated life and free social interaction. It was, as he wrote in his Annihilation of Caste, against the sprit of nationalism. It killed public spirit. A caste society could have no public opinion.

Deprivation of a large section of society from property and education did not only make them servile to the upper strata of society, but also deprived the country of their loyalty and great potential contribution to social and economic development. As he emphasized in the Constituent Assembly, “India as a nation is still in infant stage. We have to go long way in cementing various social forces and binding them emotionally as a nation.” That required development of the social infrastructure of national unity. The provisions in the chapters on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy were aimed at that. These included abolition of untouchability, rights to liberty and equality for all without discrimination, special provisions of compensatory weightage through reservations of seats in the legislative bodies, for jobs, for education; for building an egalitarian economic system and protection of the rights of the minorities, etc. However, more serious work of radical socio-economic change was yet on the agenda. The obstacles were formidable. A day before the constitution was adopted; he gave a warning as follows: 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…. We must remove the contradiction at the earliest possible moment, or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy, which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.

But the social change programme outlined in the Directives to remove the contradiction did not proceed apace. Ambedkar was totally dejected when he saw that Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his tremendous stature and power, failed to ensure legislation of even a part of the Hindu Code Bill. He, therefore, resigned from the cabinet as a protest. But the continued the struggle till this death on 6 December, 1956.

In a private latter to Madhu Limaye, Ram Manohar Lohia stated: “Dr. Ambedkar was to me a great man in Indian politics, and apart from Gandhiji, as great as the greatest of caste Hindus.” His regret was that Ambedkar refused to become a leader of “non-Harijans” and that he was so “bitter and exclusive.” There is little doubt that Ambedkar remained essentially a leader of the Untouchables and his bitterness was nowhere reflected as prominently as in his attitude towards Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, paradoxically, one complemented the other. Both of them had an emanicipatory agenda.
Mahatma Gandhi was awakened to the cause of the removal of untouchability by Ambedkar’s sledge-hammer blow of claiming a minority status for the “Depressed Classes”. But to Gandhi, it was a question of social morality; of building a new moral order. He did not recognize the political nature of the caste divisions which Ambedkar underlined. His strategy was described as that of “molecular transformation and mobilisation”. Perhaps that is why he was instrumental in “tempering of articulate casteist opinion” and making it possible for Ambedkar to achieve what he did through the law of the Constitution in free India. It may be appropriate that instead of the oppositional positioning between the Dalits and Gandhi’s caste Hindu followers, they recognize the complementary contribution of the two and get down to the completion of the unfinished agenda of Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru.
* Edited version of Chapter III in G. S Bal (Ed.), Understanding Ambedkar, Ajanta Books International, Delhi, 2000.
** Retired Professor, Dr. B.R.Ambedkar Chair, Department of Political Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar
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