Champion of Democracy, Secularism & Justice
DR Babasaheb Ambedkar was without doubt one of the most towering personalities of modern India. Drawing inspiration from his three gurus – Buddha, Kabir and Phule – Ambedkar attained iconic status as a champion of socio-economic justice and an inveterate opponent of the hateful varna and caste system that was an inseparable part of Hindu religion. As chairman of the drafting committee of India’s Constitution, he was the main architect of its democratic, secular and federal tenets and its provisions for affirmative action in favour of the socially oppressed. His writings and speeches on a wide range of issues, but especially on caste, untouchability and socio-economic-religious aspects, were both phenomenal and penetrating. His conversion to Buddhism along with lakhs of dalits towards the end of his life set the final seal on his break with the hidebound hierarchy of Hinduism. We salute his memory on his 125th birth anniversary on April 14, 2016.
Ambedkar’s leadership was established through path-breaking movements against untouchability and in defence of peasants and workers in Maharashtra in the 1920s and 1930s. The most prominent among them were: the Chowdar Lake satyagraha at Mahad in Raigad district on March 20, 1927 where dalits asserted their right to draw water from the tank; the public burning of the hated 2,000 year-old text Manusmriti that heaped inhuman injustice on shudras and women, again at Mahad on December 25, 1927; the dalit temple entry satyagraha at the Kalaram Mandir at Nashik which began on March 2, 1930 and continued for five years; the huge peasant demonstration in Mumbai in early 1938 against the Khoti system of landlordism and the Bill for the abolition of the Khoti system and against the Mahar Vatan moved by him in the Bombay legislative assembly on September 17, 1937; and the massive strike of the working class in Mumbai on November 7, 1938 jointly organised by the Communist Party of India and the Independent Labour Party led by him, against the Industrial Trade Dispute Bill (Black Act) introduced by the Congress government.
It may be mentioned that two prominent associates of Ambedkar in these struggles – R B More in the Mahad struggle and Shamrao Parulekar in the Khoti struggle – later joined and became leaders of the Communist Party – R B More as state committee member of the CPI(M) and who founded the Party weekly Jeewan Marg on April 14, 1965, and Shamrao Parulekar as Central Committee member of the CPI(M) and who founded the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha along with Godavari Parulekar on January 11-12, 1945.
Writing about his selection Ambedkar wrote, “I came into the Constituent Assembly with no greater aspiration than to safeguard the interests of the Scheduled Castes. I had not the remotest idea that I would be called upon to undertake more responsible functions. I was, therefore, surprised when the Assembly elected me to the Drafting Committee. I was more than surprised when the Drafting Committee elected me to be its chairman.” By the glowing accounts of all his contemporaries, he did an excellent job as architect of the Constitution.
The Constitution of India was basically a product of the Indian freedom struggle against British colonialism. It also reflected the ideology of the class forces that led this struggle. It was not surprising that 82 percent of the Constituent Assembly members belonged to the Congress Party. The four main leaders of the Congress in the assembly were Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Azad. Nehru and Azad were left of centre and Patel and Prasad were right of centre. Ambedkar was certainly left of centre.
The concepts of parliamentary democracy, adult suffrage, secularism, federalism, separation of powers and fundamental rights that are enshrined in the Constitution flowed from the century-old freedom struggle, the communal holocaust during partition, the syncretic culture of the country and also from the norms of the Western democracies. The section on directive principles of State policy was a new addition and it flowed from the growing influence of the socialist stream in the country and from the Irish Constitution which alone had a similar section. In the collective drafting of all the above sections Ambedkar’s role was, of course, crucial. But nowhere was it more decisive than in the section on affirmative action to correct the historical injustice heaped on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The law abolishing untouchability, laws against discrimination and the reservations policy in education, jobs and political bodies were the welcome results of this affirmative action.
Ambedkar’s social radicalism is a universally acknowledged and appreciated fact. His seminal work The Annihilation of Caste and other valuable writings, apart from the struggles that he led, are a testimony to his life and work. But what is conveniently swept aside not only by vested interests, but also by his followers, is his economic radicalism. There appears to be a conspiracy of silence on this vital aspect.
When Jawaharlal Nehru placed the famous Objectives Resolution before the very first session of the Constituent Assembly on December 9, 1946, Ambedkar responded in his speech, “There are here certain provisions which speak of justice, economic, social and political. If this Resolution has a reality behind it and a sincerity, of which I have not the least doubt, coming as it does from the Mover of the Resolution, I should have expected some provision whereby it would have been possible for the State to make economic, social and political justice a reality and I should have from that point of view expected the Resolution to state in most explicit terms that in order that there may be social and economic justice in the country, that there would be nationalisation of industry and nationalisation of land. I do not understand how it could be possible for any future Government which believes in doing justice socially, economically and politically, unless its economy is a socialistic economy.”
On March 15, 1947, before Ambedkar was elected chairman of the Drafting Committee, he submitted a historic memorandum to the Constituent Assembly on the safeguards for the Scheduled Castes which was called States and Minorities. It was a seminal document and included valuable sections like judicial protection and protection against unequal treatment, discrimination, communal executive, social and official tyranny, social boycott and so on. It also included important sections on higher education and right to SC representation in the legislature, local bodies, executive and services. There is another crucial section on the authority and obligation of union and state governments to spend money for public purposes including purposes beneficial to minorities. On all these aspects, the book B R Ambedkar: Perspectives on Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies edited by Sukhadeo Thorat and Narender Kumar provides an insightful analysis.
CALL FOR NATIONALISATION
OF INDUSTRY AND LAND
One of the most radical parts of States and Minorities was the section on protection against economic exploitation. This vital section was given short shrift by the Constituent Assembly. This was hardly surprising, considering its class composition. Ambedkar writes therein:
“The United States of India shall declare as a part of the law of the Constitution –
“1. That industries which are key industries or which may be declared to be key industries shall be owned and run by the State.
“2. That industries which are not key industries but which are basic industries shall be owned by the State and shall be run by the State or by Corporations established by the State.
“3. That Insurance shall be a monopoly of the State. . .
“4. That agriculture shall be State industry.
“5. That State shall acquire the subsisting rights in such industries, insurance and agricultural land held by private individuals. . .
“9. Agricultural industry shall be organised on the following basis:
“(i)The State shall divide the land acquired into farms of standard size and let out the farms for cultivation to residents of the village as tenants (made up of group of families) to cultivate on the following conditions: (a) The farm shall be cultivated as collective farm, (b) The farm shall be cultivated in accordance with rules and directions issued by Government, (c) The tenants shall share among themselves in the manner prescribed the produce of the farm left after the payment of charges properly leviable on the farm.
“(ii) The land shall be let out to villagers without distinction of caste or creed and in such manner there will be no landlord, no tenant and no landless labourer.
“(iii) It shall be the obligation of the State to finance the cultivation of the collective farms by the supply of water, draft animals, implements, manure, seeds etc.
“10. The scheme shall be brought into operation as early as possible but in no case shall the period extend beyond the tenth year from the date of the Constitution coming into operation.”
In the explanatory notes that are appended to the same document, Ambedkar is even more forthright. He writes, “The plan set out in the clause proposes State ownership in agriculture with a collectivised method of cultivation and a modified form of State Socialism in the field of industry. It places squarely on the shoulders of the State the obligation to supply capital for agriculture as well as industry. Without the supply of capital by the State neither land nor industry can be made to yield better results. . . State Socialism is essential for the rapid industrialisation of India. Private enterprise cannot do it and if it did it would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe and which should be a warning to Indians. . .
“The plan has two special features. One is that it proposes State Socialism in important fields of economic life. The second special feature of the plan is that it does not leave the establishment of State Socialism to the will of the legislature. It establishes State Socialism by the Law of the Constitution and thus makes it unalterable by any act of the legislature and the executive.”
As stated above, none of these radical economic ideas of Ambedkar found acceptance in the Constituent Assembly. In an interview that Ambedkar gave to the noted writer Mulk Raj Anand in the 1950s and which was published by the Illustrated Weekly of India, Ambedkar said that the Constitution was not what he had dreamt of. Specifically, he said that he had opposed the Right to Property being made a fundamental right and had instead insisted that the Right to Work, Right to Education and Right to Health be included in the fundamental rights. With passing years, Ambedkar became disillusioned enough with the situation in the country to say that he would be the first to burn down this Constitution.
B T Ranadive wrote in Caste, Class and Property Relations, “No one directed more concentrated fire against the Congress leaders and their hypocrisy than Ambedkar. And yet he was one of the main architects of the Indian Constitution hailed by the Congress till recently as the last word on democracy, and under which the untouchables’ houses are burnt, their houses are pillaged, their wives raped and they are murdered. No wonder Ambedkar felt himself cheated.”
Considering his deep antipathy to, and rebellion against, the caste system inherent in Hinduism and his staunch advocacy of democracy, Ambedkar was naturally opposed to communalism of all hues, and especially of the Hindutva variety. His writings are permeated with his opposition to communalism and his championing of secularism. Ambedkar was throughout a sworn opponent of both the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. For lack of space we shall confine ourselves to just one of his many forthright quotations.
Ambedkar writes, “Hindutva is a political ideology of the same character as the fascist and/or Nazi ideology and thoroughly anti-democratic. If Hindutva is let loose it will prove a menace to the growth of others who are outside Hinduism and are opposed to Hinduism. This is not the point of view of Muslims alone. It is also the point of view of the Depressed Classes and also of the Non-Brahmins.” (Source Material on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Movement of Untouchables, Volume 1, P. 241).
A major struggle waged by Ambedkar as India’s first union law minister against Hindu orthodoxy was on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill. It was also a struggle for the rights of women. When the Bill was stalled, Ambedkar resigned from the union cabinet in 1951.
OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY
Since Ambedkar was the architect of the Constitution, it is often assumed that he was a votary of parliamentary democracy. Actually, his analysis of democracy went far deeper. He was keenly aware that parliamentary (bourgeois) democracy, while certainly preferable to dictatorship, would become a tool in the hands of the rich and powerful. He outlined the concepts of workers’ democracy and social democracy. A valuable book in Marathi written by Dr Adinath Ingole and titled Babasaheb’s Philosophy of Democratic Revolution will be published by Janashakti Prakashan next week and it analyses both these concepts in detail.
Ambedkar’s renowned last address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, makes his ideas crystal clear. “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union or trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.”
And then comes the historic exhortation by Ambedkar, “On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. 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 recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by 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 this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
Finally, we come to the relationship between Ambedkar and Marxism. Ambedkar had made a deep study of Marx. In his essay “Buddha or Karl Marx” he writes, “Having read both and being interested in the ideology of both, a comparison between them just forces itself on me.” Ambedkar’s dictum that “Caste is enclosed class”, and his famous speech before the railway workers at Manmad in February 1938, where he says that “Brahminism and Capitalism are the two real enemies of the workers,” are an indication of his class approach. A renowned intellectual of Maharashtra Dr Raosaheb Kasbe, wrote an influential book in Marathi titled Ambedkar and Marx three decades ago.
One of Ambedkar’s criticisms against Communists in India at the time was that they did not take the issue of caste oppression seriously enough. One must concede that there was some substance in his criticism. More efforts should certainly have been made in the pre-independence era from both sides to find common cause and unite the working class movement and the anti-caste movement. However, the Communist movement has made amends since then and has consistently been fighting on both economic issues of class exploitation and social issues of caste oppression. Both these aspects are inseparable parts of the class struggle in the Indian situation. Both these struggles, of course, need to be expanded and intensified much further.
Valerian Rodrigues, who edited the book “The Essential Writings of B R Ambedkar”, writes in its introduction, “Ambedkar showed an extraordinary interest in Marxism particularly in the 1950s. All his major writings during this period – Buddha and the Future of his Religion, The Buddha and his Dhamma and Buddha and Karl Marx – refer to Marx as the central figure. Besides, in the 1950s, Ambedkar started working on a book entitled India and Communism which, however, did not progress much. He identified certain crucial areas on which he agreed with Karl Marx: The task of philosophy is to transform the world; there is conflict between class and class; private ownership of property begets sorrow and exploitation and good society requires that private property be collectivised. He found that on all these four issues Buddha is in agreement with Marx. He however rejected the inevitability of socialism; the economic interpretation of history; the thesis on the pauperisation of the proletariat; withering away of the State; and the strategy of violence as a means to seize power. He felt that Buddhism, which called for self-control and a moral foundation for society, could provide the missing dimensions for a socialist project and for the purpose, called for a dialogue between Marxism and Buddhism. Therefore, while liberal and modernist alliances of Buddhism were taking place elsewhere, Ambedkar wanted to relocate Buddhism in the trajectory of Marxism and vice versa.”
One important but little-known fact was brought out by Govind Pansare in his book in Marathi titled Religion, Caste, Class and Directions for Transformation. Pansare writes, “One more event needs to be noted. It pertains to the year 1952, four years before Ambedkar’s demise. Haribhau Pagare has noted it in his biography of Karmaveer Dadasaheb Gaikwad (one of the closest associates of Ambedkar). In a somewhat disappointed mood after the 1952 general elections he (Ambedkar) wrote (to Gaikwad), ‘I feel like leaving the (Scheduled Caste) Federation. Not only that, I feel like completely retiring from politics altogether. I know that it is not so easy. Even so, I do not think that my political philosophy will immediately lead to the welfare of our people. No one except me knows the misery of our people. How long should they, too, wait to achieve their welfare? I am coming to the opinion that I should join the Communist Party.’ “
Pansare then writes, “The minimum meaning that can certainly be deduced from this is that Dr Ambedkar, after his own political philosophy, believed in Communist philosophy. He was certainly not against it.”
We shall end this piece with the perceptive observations of B T Ranadive who wrote Caste, Class and Property Relations in 1982, “The monstrous atrocities against the dalits under the present and the previous regimes reveal how the old tyrannies and injustices operated after three decades of freedom. In the earlier years Ambedkar, the most outstanding and tireless fighter on behalf of the untouchables exposed the upper caste hypocrisies, lambasted the Congress and later on demanded land and separate colonies for the dalits. This of course could not have been achieved without an agrarian revolution. But the idea of land distribution to all the dalits to escape serf dependence on other castes was a very correct idea. It at the same time could have been achieved only through the common struggle of all the landless.
“Later on Ambedkar asked his followers to embrace Buddhism to escape the injustices of the Hindu society. But the grim social reality based on iniquitous land relations did not change because of change over to Buddhism. The quest for love and samata has not succeeded as recent atrocities have shown.
“The tragedy of the situation has been that the intelligentsia springing from the most oppressed communities also could not ideologically look beyond formal declarations of equality, more jobs, reservation of seats, education facilities etc. Smashing the present socio-economic system was not part of its consciousness. The fight against land relations which also meant common fight along with others, escaped them. The intelligentsia from these communities sooner or later accepted the framework of bourgeois democracy and satisfied itself with a general declaration of democratic rights without touching the present property relations in land and industry.”
Today, with imperialism exerting ever greater influence in all spheres of our country; with the neo-liberal policies of the ruling classes taking an ever greater toll of all sections of economically exploited and socially oppressed people; and with the communal-fascistic regime of the RSS-BJP-led Hindutva-Brahminical forces in power going berserk; the need was never greater for Marxists, Ambedkarites and true Gandhians to understand, appreciate, and co-operate with each other in united struggles on social, economic, cultural and political issues, in the direction of a radical transformation.
If that can be achieved, it would be a fitting tribute on his 125th birth anniversary to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the champion of all the oppressed and a patriot par excellence.