By Tushar Singh
For many decades Dr BR Ambedkar has been ‘owned’ and ‘disowned’ by different political parties according to what suited their narrow political interests. Indian politicians have conveniently tried to both diminish and enlarge on the legacy of BR Ambedkar ever since his death on 6 December 1956. Today, we see his name being evoked in most election campaigns—most recently in Gujarat—by every political party that wants to win the votes of the ‘depressed classes’, as they were called during much of Ambedkar’s life.
On one hand, Ambedkar is celebrated by those who feel that he brought dignity and equality into their lives, while on the other hand, he is blamed by those who had to give up their privileges. Regardless of whether or not the concept of caste-based reservation, as put forward by Ambedkar, is still relevant, one cannot deny that BR Ambedkar made a permanent mark on India’s thousand-year-old political, social and religious culture.
The originator of many relevant admonitions
Mostly renowned for the role he played in the fight for Dalit rights and writing the Indian Constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s legacy encompasses more than just those two accomplishments. Indeed, many of Ambedkar’s sayings have increased in relevance through India’s post-independence journey and have great significance for today’s generation:
- “If I find the Constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it.” Ambedkar’s warning against the misuse of the Constitution came after he led many thousands of Dalits in a formal burning of the Hindu holy book the Manusmriti which, according to Ambedkar, sanctioned the practice of untouchability and caste discrimination. When asked, while presenting the newly drafted constitution, if he was happy with his work, his reply was that that would depend on how the future leaders used it. One wonders what Ambedkar’s reaction would have been in 1975 when Indira Gandhi used the constitution to suspend India’s democracy and imposed emergency government for 21 months.
- “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” BR Ambedkar famously said that, even though he was born a Hindu, he will not die as one. He converted to Buddhism citing the tyrannical attitudes that he believed Hinduism had promoted towards the Dalits. Today he is considered a Bodhisattva by many Dalits who themselves converted to Buddhism, following his example. Today, while anger among the upper caste against the reservation rate of 49% continues to grow, we need to ask ourselves whether we have really resolved the issue of intolerance after 70 years. Constant reports of Dalits being lynched are a reminder that Hinduism, no matter how beautiful and insightful it is, can bring with it certain prejudices which betray the values of liberty and equality that Ambedkar believed in. The rise of extremism in all religions should serve as a demonstration that the world will only be peaceful if humans accept that religion is about peace and equality, and never about domination or superiority.
- “I measure the progress of women by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” BR Ambedkar sought to give Hindu women property rights and an equal status in marriage by introducing the Hindu Code Bill when he was the Minister of Law. His dream was to ensure that the patriarchal hierarchy in our religious society is broken by means of legislation and social uplifting. However, one of his biggest failures is that he failed to introduce a uniform civil code which removed legal gender-based discrimination. Even though he did say, “the relationship between husband and wife should be one of closest friends”, the fact that it is only recently that the Triple Talaq has been abolished and polygamy is still practised by some Muslims is a testimony to his failure.
- ”In India, ‘Bhakti’ or what is maybe called the path of devotion or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.” Ambedkar’s fear of demagoguery was prescient, as Indian democracy has often been haunted by demagogic politics since his time. He warned that if leaders are worshipped then any criticism of them will be met with hostility which will inevitably weaken the freedom of speech. In 2017, it is perhaps a good time to ask how relevant Ambedkar sounds when we compare his warnings against the rise of two of the strongest Prime Ministers in our history, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi? However, it is ironic that the very person who was opposed to demagoguery has now become the poster figure of all caste-based agitations.
The hopes and fears of BR Ambedkar
It is quite sad that the very person who promoted the idea that “We are Indians, firstly and lastly”, was almost forgotten for many years. It was only in 1990 that BR Ambedkar was given the Bharat Ratna. However, since the Mandal Commission’s report on uplifting the lower castes Ambedkar’s relevance been increasing day by day. From bringing in labour reforms to proposing the creation of the Reserve Bank of India, Ambedkar’s thinking has become an important part of political rhetoric in modern India.
Ambedkar’s thought was not only relevant to issues of caste, he was equally concerned with modernity, but modernity with an Indian spirit. As previously mentioned, Ambedkar’s greatest fear was of India losing her independence again. He did everything he could, for almost all sections of the society, to ensure that everyone enjoyed freedom within a free India. He expressed his hopes and fears for the future of the country at the time of its independence:
“On 26th January 1950, India will be an independent country. What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain or will she lose it again? What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by treachery of some of her own people…”
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