Devotees of Ambedkar buy posters in Mumbai.
Devotees of Ambedkar buy posters in Mumbai. | Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Social justice political forces have kept the ideas of Ambedkar and Lohia as separate legacies. This imposes limitations on contemporary politics.

ThePrint is publishing articles on Dalit issues as part of Dalit History Month.

The manner in which the politics of social justice is pursued has to be based on the foundations of social justice itself. The electoral defeat of the political forces of social justice forces us to contemplate the limitations of contemporary social justice politics.

This takes us to a historical moment that never happened — a meeting between two great icons of social justice, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. The two contemporaries never communicated until the mid-1950s.

Yogendra Yadav has said that Ambedkar, who was senior to Lohia by 20 years, did not have “any compelling reasons to get to know Lohia, who was not much of a mass leader before the early 1950s”. It was only when Lohia began conceptualising his theory of seven revolutions in the context of creating a new world order — which included tackling discrimination and deprivations based upon caste, class, race, gender and nationality — and set up his own Socialist Party that he decided to engage with Ambedkar.

On 10 December 1955, he wrote a letter to Ambedkar, requesting him to write an article for his new journal Mankind, which he said intended to “reveal the caste problem in its entirety”. Lohia also mentioned the speeches he had made about Ambedkar in a parliamentary campaign in Madhya Pradesh.

Lohia was so keen on having a collaboration that he also invited Ambedkar to address a study camp, and attend the “foundation conference” of his Socialist Party as a ‘special invitee’. Lohia said he wanted Ambedkar to become “a leader not alone of the scheduled castes, but also of the Indian people”.

A few months later, Lohia’s colleagues met Ambedkar in Delhi, after which they told Lohia (in a letter dated 27 September 1956) that Ambedkar would meet him during his next visit. The letter also conveys that Ambedkar wanted a strong Opposition in a democracy and was in “favour of a new political party with strong roots”.

In a letter to his colleagues dated 1 October 1956, Lohia highlighted the importance of his proposed meeting with Ambedkar: “My meeting with Dr Ambedkar will be as much a tribute to the fact that the backward and the scheduled castes can produce an intellect like him as for its political consequences.” On the same date, Lohia also wrote to Ambedkar, asking him to take proper care of his health. On 5 October 1956, Ambedkar wrote to Lohia regarding the proposed timing of their meeting.

Before the meeting could take place, Ambedkar passed away, on 6t December 1956. The sudden demise of Ambedkar was a “personal loss” for Lohia.

In a letter dated 1 July 1957, Lohia wrote to his close associate, Madhu Limaye, about his grief: “You can well understand that my sorrow at Dr Ambedkar’s sudden death has been, and is, somewhat personal. It had always been my ambition to draw him into our fold, not only organisationally but also in full ideological sense, and that moment seemed to be approaching.” Lohia added: “Dr Ambedkar was to me, a great man in Indian politics, and apart from Gandhiji, as great as the greatest of caste Hindus. This fact had always given me solace and confidence that the caste system of Hinduism could one day be destroyed.”

Ambedkar, for him, was “learned, a man of integrity, courage and independence”, who could be shown to the outside world as a “symbol of upright India”.

Both leaders, firm in their ideals, had carved out certain features for social justice. Yogendra Yadav has suggested that Lohia be seen as the ideological successor of Ambedkar.

In his work on caste, Lohia conceptualised that “a great misreading of Indian history is” that the “tragic succession of foreign conquests, to which the Indian people have succumbed, is ascribed to internal quarrels and intrigues”. According to him, caste brought the nation to “utter imbecility”.

Like Ambedkar, in Lohia’s assessment, caste and nation are contradictory to each other.

Lohia identified that there exist three strategies to end caste discrimination: “One (is) wordy, the second low-level and mixed, and the third, real.” Wordy opposition, Lohia explained, leaves the existing social structure almost intact, while condemning the caste system as wholly evil; it would “equally condemn those who resort to active steps to destroy the system”. Elaborating on the second strategy, Lohia said the castes with numerical strength were most sought after in elections. This kind of politics is bound to fail, Lohia stated, as it tends to abandon the “myriad lower castes”, which are numerically weak, “but who together form the bulk of the population”.

Therefore, Lohia called for a “war on caste”, which must “necessarily mean an elevation of all, and not merely of any one large section”.

Lohia himself preferred the third method of “true struggle” against caste, which Ambedkar also advocated, in which “the five downgraded groups of society, women, Shudras, Harijans, Muslims and Adivasis” are brought into leadership positions… irrespective of their merit as it stands”.

The social justice political forces that followed have kept the ideas of Ambedkar and Lohia as separate legacies. While Ambedkar has often been declared a champion of Dalits, followers of Lohia have portrayed him as a leader of the backwards. However, both had desired a common struggle for social justice.

If the conversation between Lohia and Ambedkar had taken place, it wouldn’t have been a conversation between two great leaders or thinkers, but one between two major aspects of the social justice movement in India. Their legacies call for a larger alliance not only for the purpose of winning elections, but also for preserving their ideals.

Anurag Bhaskar is a law graduate of Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. He tweets at @anuragbhaskar_

Read more from ThePrint’s Dalit History Month archives.

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  1. Thank God that they did not meet. Otherwise Lohia would have brought forth even more reservations! Nothing whatsoever to do with “social justice”.

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