The relevance of an idea called Ambedkar
BR Ambedkar (Photo: Alamy)
WHEN THE EDITOR asked for an essay on Freedom in time for Independence Day, I thought immediately of the rich conceptual legacy of freedom bequeathed to us more than seven decades ago by a giant of the Independence era, BR Ambedkar, jurist, social reformer, and the principal architect of the Indian Constitution.
Ambedkar’s life and career threw him into the maelstrom of two simultaneous freedom struggles, against British colonial rule and against untouchability and caste oppression. His views on freedom were shaped by his experiences as a Dalit (known in his time as “untouchables”, “Harijans” or “Depressed Classes”, while he preferred to use the terms “mook”, the silent, or “bahishkrit”, the excluded), his deep understanding of social inequality, and his struggle against caste-based discrimination. He vehemently fought against the hierarchical caste system and believed that true freedom could only be achieved when it was, in his words, “annihilated”. He saw caste as a major source of social oppression and inequality and worked tirelessly to empower the marginalised and downtrodden sections of society.
At the same time, Ambedkar recognised the significance of political freedom and played a crucial role in India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule, while operating within its institutions. He fought for the rights and representation of Dalits, labourers and women in the political sphere and actively participated in the process of framing the Indian Constitution, which enshrined the principles of democracy, equality, and social justice. Ambedkar argued that political freedom alone was not sufficient to address the deep-rooted inequalities in society. He emphasised the need for social and economic freedom, which included access to education, land reforms, and economic opportunities for the marginalised communities, including through reservations for historically disadvantaged communities in educational institutions and government jobs, inaugurating the world’s largest and farthest-reaching affirmative action programme in the process. He saw this as a necessary measure to provide a level playing field and address historical injustices.
Intellectually devoted to individual freedom and human rights, he advocated the abolition of untouchability, equal rights for women, and the right to freedom of expression and religion. Ambedkar stressed the significance of education as a powerful tool for social transformation and individual empowerment. He believed that education could liberate individuals from the shackles of ignorance and help them assert their rights. In the third week of July 1913, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar arrived in New York to study at Columbia University. The US had long been seen as a beacon of freedom in the world, and Bhim was aware of the struggle of Black Americans for honour and dignity in their homeland, a struggle that in some ways mirrored that of India’s untouchables. He read voraciously and took more courses at Columbia than he needed to, imbibing the ideas of John Stuart Mill, whose insistence on freedom of thought, speech, and action became part of Ambedkar’s basic credo, and John Dewey, whose emphasis on individual rights within egalitarian societies made a profound impression on him.
Presiding over the first All-India Depressed Classes Conference in Nagpur in August 1930, Ambedkar delivered a searing indictment of British misrule and the colonial impoverishment of India: “In the first quarter of the 19th century when British Rule in India had become an established fact, there were five famines with an estimated loss of 1,000,000 lives. During the second quarter, there were six famines with a recorded loss of lives of 5,000,000. And during the last quarter of the century what do you find? Eighteen famines with an estimated mortality which reached the awful total between 15,000,000 and 26,000,000.” Chronic poverty, he averred, was a result of British rule; freedom was indispensable to create a prosperous and egalitarian society. While acknowledging that the British had brought law and order to India, he added: “But we cannot forget that people, including the Depressed Classes, do not live on law and order; what they live on is bread and butter.”
He called on the Bahishkrit, the Excluded, to fight for Swaraj, independence from British rule, and also for their rights to liberty, equality, and fraternity in a free India. “But I must take this opportunity to emphasize that political power cannot be a panacea for the ills of the Depressed Classes. Their salvation lies in their social elevation. …They must be educated. Mere knowledge of the three R’s is insufficient for the great height many of them must reach in order that the whole community may along with them rise in the general estimation. There is a great necessity to disturb their pathetic contentment and to instil into them that divine discontent which is the spring of all elevation.”
He was critical of the humiliations inflicted upon the Depressed Classes by the Hindu upper castes and strongly spoke for his people’s rights to be treated on a par with other Hindus, affirming that they remained an integral part of the Hindu faith. “The movements of social reform,” he averred, “will result in the emancipation of our people and the establishment of such a state of society in this country of ours in which one man will have one value in all domains of life, political, social and economic.”
According to Ambedkar, a fight, whether violent or non-violent, was just if the end sought was good and just. But the justness of an end did not change, he observed, with the means employed for its achievement; the justness of an end did not vary with the employment of different means, “as a verb changes with its subject”. In this he differed from Mahatma Gandhi, who taught that a just end cannot be pursued by unjust means; indeed, Gandhi insisted that the means used must always be worthy of the ends pursued. To Gandhi, a resort to violence vitiated the noble cause of freedom; to Ambedkar, the liberation of the Depressed Classes was such a transcendent goal in itself that any means could be used to achieve it.
Ambedkar spoke with passion in Nagpur: “It is a matter of joy to fight this battle. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or sordid in it. For our struggle is for our freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality which has been suppressed and mutilated by the Hindu social system and will continue to be suppressed and mutilated if in the political struggle, the Hindus win and we lose. My final words of advice to you are, ‘Educate, Organise and Agitate,’ have faith in yourselves and never lose hope. I shall always be with you as I know you will be with me.”
This was his vision of freedom: freedom from foreign rule but also freedom from domestic oppression. Even in his controversial decision not to support the Quit India movement, freedom was the principle that mattered; on All-India Radio he expressed his support for the war against the Nazis as a war for the rebirth of a new social order. The victory of Nazism, he declared, would sound the death-knell for the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity; it had to be defeated for the sake of freedom.
AMBEDKAR, AS ONE of the principal makers of modern India, and one of the leading icons for the oppressed and impoverished sections of society, played a seminal role in the development of political justice in our country through his emphasis on a constitutional ethos and rights in his role as an advocate for liberties and freedom during the British Raj, and later in his position as chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution.
The Constitution of India, the longest in the world, was a remarkable document. In his speech on November 4, 1948 to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar declared: “It is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in wartime. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is, that Man was vile.”
Ambedkar’s text was permeated throughout with his passionate commitment to freedom. It guaranteed constitutional protection for a large number of enumerated fundamental rights and freedoms for individual citizens, such as freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom of religion, including the freedom to propagate one’s religion. It reconfirmed the abolition of untouchability, and outlawed all forms of discrimination. It was Ambedkar who ensured that it provided for extensive economic and social rights for women. But the provision that bore his distinctive stamp was the introduction of what has gone down in history as the world’s oldest and farthest-reaching affirmative action programme, guaranteeing reservations of seats in educational institutions and legislature, and jobs in government institutions and the civil services, for members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. With the adoption of Articles 25, 26, 27, and 28 of the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practise, and propagate one’s religion, to manage one’s own religious affairs and to enjoy the freedom of religious worship, India wrote itself a secular Constitution.
According to Ambedkar, a fight, whether violent or non-violent, was just if the end sought was good and just. But the justness of an end did not change with the means employed
The struggle for Indian independence was, after all, not simply a struggle for freedom from alien rule. It was a shift away from an administration of law and order centred on imperial despotism. Thus was born the idea of ‘constitutional morality’, a term Ambedkar advocated in his address to the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, and which has been made fashionable of late by India’s Supreme Court. The term ‘constitutional morality’ was defined by the English historian George Grote, as “a paramount reverence for the forms of the constitution, enforcing obedience to authority and acting under and within these forms, yet combined with the habit of open speech, of action subject only to definite legal control, and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to all their public acts combined, too, with a perfect confidence in the bosom of every citizen amidst the bitterness of party contest that the forms of the constitution will not be less sacred in the eyes of his opponents than his own.” Ambedkar’s concern was to privilege and legalise ‘constitutional morality’ over the traditional religiously derived morality of Indian society, which embraced the caste system, and to replace it with a “commitment to constitutional means, to its processes and structures, alongside a commitment to free speech, scrutiny of public action [and] legal limitations on the exercise of power”. In his view, constitutional morality could only be realised through an administration which is in sync with the spirit of the Constitution, and through the cultivation of constitutional values among the masses, by defeating the forces of feudalism, casteism, bigotry, and parochialism.
This was how Ambedkar intended freedom to flourish in India. Of course, Ambedkar realised it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of the administration to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. Ambedkar argued that constitutional morality “is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”. He insisted that the Directive Principles—an unusual feature of the Indian Constitution not found elsewhere—were necessary because although the rules of democracy mandated that the people must elect those who will hold power, the principles confirmed that “whoever captures power will not be free to do what he likes with it”.
This point was key to the role of freedom in India’s constitutional arrangements: it was essential to ensure that Indians enjoyed rights that not even a political majority could abridge, let alone usurp. In the Constitution, Ambedkar, despite his public and private misgivings, took an optimistic view of the prospects of democracy in India by asking Indians to have a new understanding of authority. They would be liberated through submission to an impersonal force that saw them as equal agents, and that liberated spirit would make possible socio-economic transformation. Both were equally important.
India’s Independence Day was not meant to be just a ritual of song and dance, the hoisting of the flag and the singing of the anthem. The real significance of Independence lay in the freedom of the mind. Indians were meant to be able to recognise and overcome, in Tagore’s immortal phrase, a world that had been “been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”. In order to further the goals of the Constitution, India requires strong and credible institutions to maintain checks and balances, not power centralised around one figure. The strengthening of institutions is essential to prevent the creation of an authoritative regime, one which feeds off bhakti or hero worship, which Ambedkar strongly and presciently warned against in his last address to the Constituent Assembly—words that have a fresh resonance today, in an age of growing centralisation of power around a personality cult. Equally, adherence to the Constitution meant that revolutionary and extra-judicial methods need to be discarded, as they represent the ‘grammar of anarchy’.
Ambedkar’s distaste for bhakti in politics extended to his mistrust of any and all leaders: “Over regard for leaders saps self-confidence of the masses, leaving them helpless when left leaderless in the hour of trial or when led by unscrupulous leaders.” Equally it emerged from his understanding of Hindu religious practice: “One great reason for the downfall of the Hindu society and the perpetuation of its degraded position is the injunction of ‘Krishna’ that whenever in difficulties the people should look out for his ‘Avatar’ to redeem them from the slouch of despondency. That has made the Hindu community helpless in the face of calamity… I don’t want you to follow such a ruinous teaching. I don’t want you to be dependent on any single personality for your salvation. Your salvation must lie in your own hands through your own efforts.” As he once remarked, everywhere in India one sees statues of Great Men, and everywhere around those statues is great poverty and misery. Freedom for all Indians, in his view, could not co-exist with the political worship of Great Men.
SOME READERS ARE certain to point out that such ideas of freedom sit ill with Ambedkar’s co-operation with British colonialism, in whose institutions he served with pride and through which he sought influence for himself and his people. The former editor and BJP minister Arun Shourie’s mammoth critique of Ambedkar, Worshipping False Gods, indicts him savagely as a collaborator with the imperial oppressor. It is true that Ambedkar saw in the prolongation of British rule better opportunities for his own community to overcome the imposed handicaps of untouchability and caste discrimination; if foreign rule could be used to achieve that end, Ambedkar believed, it could be preserved until such emancipation had been achieved. This did not endear him to nationalists, who saw him as betraying their sacred passion for freedom from foreign oppression, but Ambedkar argued that for his community, freedom from domestic oppression was even more urgent and important.
Ambedkar’s was a deeply thought-through position and not the opportunism of a rent-seeker; from the perspective of an untouchable, he argued, “to support the Congress [against the British] is to let tyranny have freedom to enslave”. “The Swaraj wherein there were no fundamental rights guaranteed for the Depressed Classes,” he wrote, “would not be a Swaraj to them. It would be a new slavery for them.” Ambedkar’s is a rational position, even if one’s political views may disagree vehemently with it: “It is foolish to take solace in the fact that because the Congress is fighting for the freedom of India, it is, therefore, fighting for the freedom of the people of India and of the lowest of the low,” Ambedkar said. “The question whether the Congress is fighting for freedom has very little importance as compared to the question for whose freedom is the Congress fighting.” His conceptual contribution, one scholar has argued, was to make a distinction between ‘the freedom of the country’ and ‘the freedom of the people’. As a result of this perception, Shourie notes, Ambedkar had even compared the Sanatana or upper-caste Hindus with bloodthirsty Nazis, waiting to eliminate the Untouchables: “When Nazism is at its height and the West is engaged in a mighty war against it, Ambedkar takes great care to characterize the Indian social system as being nothing but another version of the Nazism of Hitler with which the West had perforce become familiar, and of characterizing those who were fighting for freedom from the British as those who were fighting for the perpetuation of this brand of Nazism at home.”
Not for Ambedkar the mealy-mouthed platitudes of the well-meaning: he was prepared to rage against the injustice of social discrimination, and to do so in every forum available to him. It was an attitude that Indian society was not prepared for, but at a time when Indians were fighting for their freedom from foreign rule, it was both appropriate and necessary that Indians should fight equally for freedom from domestic oppression.
In summary, Ambedkar’s views on freedom were rooted in his quest for social justice, equality, and the eradication of caste-based oppression. His vision included his fundamental critique of Hindu society and its practice of the caste system, or varnashrama dharma, whose ‘annihilation’ he called for in terms that alarmed those who wanted to overcome untouchability without disturbing the existing social order; his conversion to Buddhism in the last year of his life, and his exhortation to others to follow his example; his emphasis on ‘constitutional morality’ as a means of sinking liberal roots into an illiberal society; his revival of the idea of ‘fraternity’, not merely in its French Revolutionary sense but as an authentic Indian idea traceable to the Buddha and the early Buddhist sanghas; and his astonishing intellectual fecundity in taking on issues as diverse as provincial taxation in British India, the challenges and advantages of dividing India into linguistically organised states, and the case for Pakistan. Ambedkar believed that true freedom could only be achieved when all individuals were treated with dignity and had equal opportunities to grow and prosper, regardless of their social background. These are all ideas that should infuse our understanding of freedom on the 76th anniversary of our hard-won independence. But not just us Indians: his contributions to the idea of freedom continue to inspire movements for social equality and justice in India and beyond.