Can we turn to the author of India’s first republic to design its second republic? Those who take him or India’s future seriously must ask this tough question on Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar’s birthday.
The week leading up to Ambedkar Jayanti was a reminder that India’s first republic has been all but bulldozed. Recalling the Preamble to the Constitution – shall we say, the first Constitution? – might be a cruel joke during this week when the citizens who enjoyed constitutional protection of Fundamental Rights were intimidated, their mosques desecrated and their houses demolished, all under constitutionally mandated governance.
Recalling Ambedkar at this moment cannot be a routine act of remembrance. We cannot afford to play old, partisan games of ideological one-upmanship. We must not allow rituals of political appropriation to overshadow Ambedkar’s message. We must display the courage to extract the Ambedkar relevant for our times, reading him against the grain of his own writings. We must allow Ambedkar’s method to lead us to questioning some of his own beliefs. Because we need Babasaheb to re-vision India.
Beyond three reductions
For this, we need to rescue Ambedkar’s legacy from multiple reductions that his admirers and critics have subjected him to. A combination of popular idolatry, political myopia and intellectual sloth is reducing Ambedkar into an icon who can be appropriated by anyone, including those dismantling his republic.
First of all, Ambedkar has been reduced to his social location, that of being a Dalit. He has been put in his place, as it were, as a representative of Dalits, as a voice against caste system. I have written about how Ambedkar must be seen as the only theorist of democracy that India had in the twentieth century. His reflections on caste provide us with a template to make sense of any entrenched system of social hierarchy. His search for a suitable religion guides on how to relate to our civilisational heritage. Yet we overlook all this and reduce him to a critic of the caste system. The unstated assumption is that a Dalit can speak about himself and his people, not about the nation.
Second, Ambedkar has been reduced to his own time, his biographical context. In the course of his political journey, an engaged practitioner like Ambedkar had to get involved in partisan disputes, take controversial positions and make many adversaries. Sadly, much of our memory about Ambedkar is about partisanship, not about the principles involved in these disputes. There is an agenda in tarnishing him for his refusal to disengage with the British colonial power. There are vested interests at work in keeping many of these disputes alive, especially his dispute with Gandhi around the 1932 Poona Pact. There are sinister designs in selective use of what he said about the Muslims in the context of Partition. The cumulative impact of these designs is to portray him as no more than a partisan political player.
Finally, Ambedkar has been reduced to his outburst, his more extreme formulations. We remember him as an angry old man, who indicted the Hindu social order and fulfilled his vow not to die in this religion. We study his Annihilation of Caste, and nothing else. We do not engage with the writer of States and Minorities or The Buddha and His Dhamma. We permit an oppressed voice to be acerbic; we do not expect or allow it to occupy the sacred space of reason.
Once we overcome these three reductions, we come face to face with Ambedkar, the theorist of radical republicanism, someone who can guide our search for the foundations of a new republic. He becomes available to us not just as a unique individual, but also as a representative of a tradition of thought. This tradition of radicalism goes back to the Buddha, incorporates social and religious reformers through the ages and includes Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru and E.V.S. Periyar.
Republicanism is a much used and abused word. Political science textbooks have narrowed a republic to any form of government where the head of the state is not hereditary. But Ambedkar brings us deeper resources of republicanism, drawn both from the western and the Indian intellectual traditions. A republic, above all, is a political community based on shared goods and civic virtues. This political community presupposes active citizens who participate in decision-making. Like many modern Indian political thinkers, Ambedkar was inspired by the slogan of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. But he was the only thinker who put fraternity at the centre of this triad of political values. He traced the idea of fraternity to the Buddhist ideal of maitree.
For Ambedkar, a republic presupposes a political community that is not fractured, and not based on domination and oppression. His critique of the caste system was not just a condemnation of the oppression inherent in the practice of this system and what it did to the oppressed. Hiswas a call for elimination of any form of glaring inequalities. For Ambedkar, formal equality before law was not enough. For him a precondition of democracy was that every citizen should enjoy equal treatment in everyday administration and governance. This uncompromising insistence on annihilation, no less, of any form of inequality within a political community makes him a radical republican.
This was connected to the republicanist emphasis on civic virtues. Ambedkar saw that democratic order would not function unless it is backed by popular acceptance of constitutional morality. He identified widespread public conscience and the upholding of moral order in society as some of the pre-conditions of democracy.
These seemingly abstract formulations are directly related to the challenges that we face today. The dismantling of the Indian republic today is a result of our collective failure to realise what Ambedkar identified as the preconditions for democracy. What happened in the name of Ram Navami celebrations was a perfect example of the collapse of constitutional morality, among the public as well as the rulers. The current phase of our history is a reminder of Ambedkar’s warning against the tyranny of themajority that may pass off as democracy. We are looking at a collective failure to create a political community that forms a republic. Caste inequalities have persisted, as have caste-based discrimination and atrocities. The religious divide, especially the Hindu-Muslim divide, has deepened, actively promoted by the government of the day. And there is a quietly widening gap between the rich and the poor.
As India’s first republic gives way to its successor, it would be futile to hope for a revival of the republic founded in 1950. We can only hope that the second republic would not be an antithesis of all that India stood for. Babasaheb Ambedkar is among the few beacons available to us that hold out this hope.
This article is part of the ‘Re-vision’ series by Yogendra Yadav on the ‘isms’ of 20th-century India and their relevance today. Read all the articles here.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)