Towards Liberty, Equality and Fraternity
Gouri Sankar Nag, Rajkumar Modak
After 65 years of his demise, the point is how should we look at the life and ideas of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar(1891-1956)? How are we remembering Dr. Ambedkar? We usually uphold his thought in the making of the Indian Constitution. The familiar depiction of his image dressed in a western suit with his right hand raised and his left hand holding a copy of the Indian Constitution typically speaks of his profound scholarship and his authorship of the text of the Indian Constitution which he so meticulously drafted as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India.
This conventional description of his image seems to evoke the intimate relationship Dr. Ambedkar had with the process of drawing up the Indian Constitution by culling the best features from different other constitutions around the world including the British colonial acts. But the point remains; can his mission be reduced to such a single profession as a jurist or expert of jurisprudence? This point already raised by Anand Teltumbde seems very crucial in today’s context.
Today we need a far broader canvas to portray the vision and mission of this stalwart which is synonymous with service to humanity. That’s why, if we have to understand his thought, there is no other epithet than the expression “rebel” which better portrays or captures the sense of his multifaceted ideas as a relentless crusader against social conservatism, entrenched caste oppression in Indian society in which the Dalits are awaiting for emancipation from many prejudices even though growing awareness is steadily emerging to compel the state to take social uplift measures and legislations like the prohibition of employment of as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation act, 2013.
Even the cover story of the Frontline published on May 15, 2015, is a testimony of the horrible ground reality that precisely indicates “Despite Central laws and resistance movements, social equality remains a distant dream for Dalits. Oppression and exclusion mark their lives, be they the manual scavengers of Uttar Pradesh or the untouchables of the untouchables in Karnataka.”(p20). It is therefore conspicuous that the tradition of apathy to reform the system continues unabated. This precisely is the reason why we cannot exclusively focus on the liberal democratic tilt in Ambedkar’s thought that his constitutional ideas sought to champion.
Broadly speaking, his life was a life of continuous struggle from one level to another, from one to another sphere for the creation of an ethically higher space in which there would be a vibrant level playing field, with equity, fraternity, and justice as enshrined features of the constitutional order and morality to back up the quest for knowledge and dignity. The pathway was not a cakewalk because without education and change in property rights true liberation or upward mobility would still have been difficult to achieve.
Even today, the questions Dr. Ambedkar had raised about the anomalies of Indian society, especially discrimination based on the caste system remain largely unaddressed. Through the application of constitutional power, Dr. Ambedkar thought about the upliftment of destitute people, in the post-independent scenario since 26th January 1950.
India today needs to think about equality away from the reservation system alone. In addition to this, a tendency toward downward movement by the higher caste i.e. for the inclusion as a reserve caste through constitution has become a contradictory reflection of Dr. Ambedkar’s idea of development. The rights of a citizen in a country can be protected by the constitution only when the citizens are conscious about their dignity, duty as well as diligence. It is the enlightenment through which a nation achieves its top position and helps others how to navigate towards development. By enlightenment we mean nothing but self-dependence or in Tagore’s parlance, it is ATMASHAKTI which springs from knowledge, introspection, and enterprising zeal.
The point to be noted is that in the celebrated book Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, the author Granville Austin raised two points in the initial portion of his discussion which he considered as the main strategic task of post-colonial India: one is a social revolution and another is a political revolution. The task of democratization, therefore, couldn’t be completed simply by providing universal franchise to the masses. The greater task was how to accomplish the far uphill task of ushering in social democracy.
Dr. Ambedkar’s was a cogent voice underpinning “a case against the sufficiency of political democracy” (Khosla, 2020). Dr. Ambedkar was passionately engaged or rather dedicated and committed to this mission, and his conversion to Buddhism was of the symbolic value of a protest in this sense. Today, when we find the reductionist interpretation of his life and career we have to keep in mind that he was a fearless crusader who personified the virtues of justice, democracy, and republican ideas of dialogue and participation.
India is a unique type of country as its social hierarchy is deeply and inextricably rooted in religion. Bringing change in the social hierarchy in India was not impossible, but it was a rare task and this task has been successfully performed by some Indian saints such as Shri Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Shri Shri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, so on and so forth, and by some social reformers also such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy. In the Fifteenth Century, when Hussain Shah was the Nawab of Bengal, Brahmanism had a terrific bad effect on the Hindu society and culture, especially in terms of caste and racial discrimination.
It was such a rigid structure that a Hindu person was not permitted to join an administrative service as the Nawab belonged to a different community. As a result, many of the Hindus, at that time, used to be converted to the other community. But, incarnations like Shri Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu reframed the traditional society in such a way that the Goswami would be the top in the society, and anyone irrespective of his caste position or even the Muslim or from the converted apostates could be the Goswami through the enlightenment of the devotional power of Love. Daraabira Khasa, Sakara Mallika, and Jaban Haridas became the Goswami.
But the Ambedkarite perspective of bringing change in social hierarchy was different. His path was not like that of the social reformers like Raja Rammuhon Roy or Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. Rather as Dr. Ambedkar favored Neo-Buddhism or shifted from constitutional line to a new cultural vocabulary, again it was not tantamount to the way of Shri Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu or Shri Shri Ramakrishna which was more intelligible and comprehensible.
Nevertheless, he deserves the credit for his fight against subjecting the lower castes to the position of servitude and who founded the Constitution but never hesitated to publicly disown the document when he found it inadequate in the fight against the unjust system. So, we cannot close our assessment to the traditional portrayal of Dr. Ambedkar from the perspective of the barren and aggressive nationalism that seeks to “coopt him into its pantheon”.
Dr. Ambedkar was truly an ‘Iconoclast’. It cannot be an acceptable proposition that at one point we should incorporate him as the Father of the Indian Constitution and thereafter at another moment of discord, we should discard him when we cannot reconcile with his sharply edged ideas. So, he needs to be studied not only as a messiah of the scheduled castes but also as an apostle of modern progressive India which he deprecated at the same time for inherent religious oppression.
He was not a Tilak, not even Nietzsche who would go by the theory of Aryan supremacy. But certainly, he was a superman who believed in Tagore’s rendering of his classic poem in which the world poet asked to hold the head high. Yet the irony remains that the Constitution is a social compact but it could not live up to its dream due to the trust deficit that continues to bedevil the equation of “India’s largely upper-caste nationalist elites” and the backward and the downtrodden populace including the minorities. Consequently without trust and fraternity, to quote from Sunil Khilnani (2016), “Dr. Ambedkar reminded his fellow Indians, ‘equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint’.
From this critical perspective, far from projecting Dr. Ambedkar as as a mere jurist or a protagonist of India’s founding moment, we need to bring out his revolutionary and eclectic ideas which were socially forward-looking, uncompromising, and replete with humanistic elements. To overcome the existing social, economic, and education inequalities there is a need to take a cue from Dr. Ambedkar himself. By exploring other levels of affirmative action policies there can be a true move towards Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
About the Author
Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag, Professor in Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University.
Dr. Rajkumar Modak, Professor in Philosophy at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University.