In his inaugural lecture on the occasion of Babasaheb Ambedkar Centenary Celebrations in 1991, legal scholar Upendra Baxi said: “Ambedkar remains a totally forgotten figure.” The academia and the mainstream institutions had marginalized Ambedkar for decades. The V.P.Singh-led non-Congress government at the Centre, which implemented the Mandal Commission, suddenly resurrected Ambedkar with the centenary celebrations, and bestowed him with ‘Bharat Ratna’. This belated recognition was prompted by the rise and consolidation of Dalit movement in the 1980s and 1990s. In the celebrations and conferences that followed, Ambedkar was reified as a leader of the Scheduled Castes and also a constitutionalist.
This representation of Ambedkar successfully buries the radical Ambedkar who advanced the idea of a democratic India. Ambedkar argued for both the reconstruction of Indian society as a whole and also for the protection of the rights of the Scheduled Castes precisely because he was a democrat and an imaginative thinker. To bring back the buried Ambedkar to life, we must return to two his seminal texts: Annihilation of Caste and Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah.
Annihilation of Caste was an undelivered presidential address for a conference of the caste Hindu social reformers. It was published in 1936 and translated into many Indian languages. This tract, for the first time, discards the limited reform of the Hindu family as social reform that upper caste nationalists were seeking, and inaugurates the language of social revolution with a call to annihilate caste. Ambedkar here outlines a programme of action for caste Hindus: the real method of breaking up the caste system is not to bring about inter-caste dinners and inter-caste marriages but to destroy the religious notions on which caste is founded. In other words, Ambedkar’s social reform would warrant reorganization and reconstruction of Hindu society.
Ambedkar launches a scathing attack on Hindu society to illustrate the centrality of caste in its construction. He argues that the idea of Hindu society is a myth and that it is merely “a collection of castes”. Each caste is an autonomous group and is assigned an occupation, not on the basis of original capabilities but on the basis of the caste identity of the parents. But the priestly class is not subjected to any law or morality and is allocated no duties but only rights and privileges. He theorises caste as a source of power, and that it empowers the brahmins and other upper castes. Ambedkar saw caste as an essentially undemocratic institution. It is anti-social in spirit, and instills inefficiency, immobility, and lack of unity. It enforces excommunication and persecution of subaltern caste groups for their violation of caste rules.
Ambedkar concludes: “Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible.” The call for annihilation of caste is linked to his larger concern to build a democratic society based on liberty, equality and fraternity. He believed that “democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living.” Therefore, Hindu society and democracy are incompatible. He further argued that social tyranny was worse than political tyranny; hence social reform, and the reconstruction of Hindu society, was more urgent than political reform.
In a public lecture entitled “Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah” delivered on the 101st birth anniversary of M.G. Ranade in 1943, Ambedkar reiterated his vision of democratic India. Ambedkar presents Ranade as an advocate of ‘real social democracy’ and explains how Ranade rejected the view that political reform must have primacy over social reform. Ambedkar argues that “rights are protected not by law but by the social and moral conscience of society” and “democracy was essentially a form of society.” Social reform must precede political reform and it is the key to democracy. He warned that the privileging of the political and legalizing the rights—through political independence—would merely reinforce existing social inequalities and protect vested interests.
Ambedkar did of course adopt the positions of a constitutionalist and of a representative of the Scheduled castes. In States and Minorities (1947), a document submitted to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation, he argues that “the Schedules Castes are more than a minority and that any protection given to the citizens and to the minorities will not be adequate for the Scheduled castes.” Here, he uses the language constitutional rights, deploys the category of social discrimination and designates the Scheduled Castes as a special minority.
This shift in Ambedkar’s strategy has to do with the changed context. With political independence in 1947, the possibility of a social revolution was lost and he had to at least ensure constitutional safeguards for the Scheduled Castes. Later, as chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, Ambedkar continued to hold on to the strategic position of a constitutionalist and a spokesperson of the untouchables.
Distinguishing the strategist and the radical in Ambedkar is important to recognize his political significance. Throughout his career he never gave up his larger vision for a democratic India; the emancipation of the untouchables was part of this vision. When claims are made today that Ambedkar belongs to all, the recovery of Ambedkar the radical democrat becomes paramount.
K. Satyanarayana teaches at EFL University, Hyderabad, and is co-editor of No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India.