Many Lives in a Life: Ambedkar and legacy of ideas

People and their ideas take on different meanings as time passes. This process (of changing meanings) has struck me as crucial to understanding ideas and individuals. A person’s work and intellectual legacy takes on a new journey when they are no more and when the work is continued by others. There onward begins interpretation and re-contextualization by those who follow.

Perhaps, the same has been the fate of religions and their texts. Maybe, Buddhism of today is much different from the ideas that first occurred to Buddha when he was alive. Maybe, Prophet Muhammad thought differently on key ideas of the Islamic faith than the contemporary interpretations. In all likelihood, the numerous branches of Hinduism along with their philosophy went through several passes in their journey to these times when the faith seems hard to articulate or define to a broad consensus. 

On the 130th birth anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar, his ideas seem to have undergone a similar transformation – through repeated contextualization attempts and strategic political use. I sat through a conversation on Ambedkar’s ideas in a discussion with Arvind Narain who was invited to speak by Dhwani Legal Trust. Arvind introduced Prof Upendra Baxi’s articulation of ‘many Ambedkars’. This was an interesting framing because it unravels many facets of a man who lived a prolific and high intensity life, while making foundational contributions to a new born country. 

Arvind noted that Ambedkar stands intellectually marginalised and ritually celebrated in India today. This is the process that I think is necessary to know in order as far as Ambedkar and contemporary Dalit thought is concerned. The following are some notes from his lecture and discussion that followed.

The first Ambedkar one sees is one of authentic type. Ambedkar’s work begins from a level of personal experience. It is situated in a deep understanding of the suffering of dalit community. The embodied knowledge from these experiences came to determine a significant aspect of his work for the dalit cause. 

Second Ambedkar is a voracious reader. The references in his collected works  range from Jefferson to Dewey to Buddhist thought. This is the scholar in Ambedkar which is exploring many worlds of knowledge, thoughts and ideas. 

As a deep thinker his analyses of several  economic and social issues were highly layered and based on extensive research. For instance, on the question of small holdings in agriculture in India. On the question of the necessity of minimum educational qualifications for leaders who contest in panchayat-level elections he suggests – on the matter of the condition of people, no one can place it better than the leaders from the same community. But if you take it a level further, the leader will be capable of taking better decisions if he is educated.

The third Ambedkar is an activist journalist. And the fourth one is an activist again, but as Baxi qualifies it – a pre-Gandhian activist. 

The fifth one is in a ‘mortal combat with the Mahatma’. This part of Ambedkar is perhaps better known. And I write about this in further detail only to argue that this version of Ambedkar seems to have been lost on his followers who have used his ideas to much effect. Identity politics in India have gained much from Ambedkar. And yet, it lacks the sharpness, reason and precision of Ambedkar.

The relationship between Ambedkar and Gandhi has had much attention from people over the decades. So much that it has often been a hotbed of contestation between two sets of ideologies – of Gandian ideas and the other of Ambedkar’s. 

A meeting between Gandhi and Ambedkar in Bombay on 14 August 1931 reveals the nature of tensions and the intensity of it. Source 

Ambedkar is scathing in his critique of Gandhi’s leadership and his image as a ‘mahatma’ which comes as a response to Congress’ dealing with the cause of untouchability  – 

We believe in self-help and self-respect. We are not prepared to have faith in great leaders and Mahatmas. Let me be brutally frank about it. History tells that Mahatmas, like fleeting phantoms, raise dust, but raise no level.

The above response came after Ambedkar pointed out Congress’ approach to Untouchables. The complaint is sharp in its articulation and precise in its analysis – 

But let me tell you frankly that Congress did nothing beyond giving formal recognition to this problem. You say the Congress spent more than rupees twenty lakhs on the uplift of the Untouchables. I say it was all waste. With such a backing I could have effected an astounding change in the outlook and economic conditions of my people. And in that event it would have been imperative for you to see me long before. But I tell you that the Congress is not sincere about its professions. Had it been sincere, it would have surely made the removal of untouchability a condition, like the wearing of khaddar, for becoming a member of the Congress. No person who did not employ untouchable women or men in his house, or rear up an untouchable student, or take food at home with an untouchable student at least once a week, should have been allowed to be a member of the Congress. Had there been such a condition, you could have avoided the ridiculous sight where the President of the District Congress Committee was seen opposing the temple entry of the Untouchables!

The conversation ends with Gandhi’s firm response – ‘I am against the political separation of the Untouchables from the Hindus. That would be absolutely suicidal.’ Ambedkar thanks Gandhi for ‘frank opinion’ and takes leave of him.  This is not the only combat between these leaders of Indian independence movement. 

The sixth Ambedkar is a ‘Constitutionalist’. This  aspect of the man continues to run as an undercurrent in independent India’s everyday life. Ambedkar has the foresight to remove the qualification of ‘law and morality’ from the articulation of fundamental rights in the Indian constitution. Another important contribution was made by the way of Article 17. Prior to this there was nonormative framework to challenge practices of caste discrimination. The Constitution bears several marks of Ambedkar’s insight and near prophetic vision about the fate of the underprivileged and socially marginalised groups in independent India. Inclusion of the word ‘fraternity’ in the language of the constitution happens because Ambedkar insisted on it as a value to be pursued. 

Ambedkar’s responses as recorded in the Constitutional Assembly Debates unravels the deep thinking that he applied to matters that look simple on the face of it. In one place, he reasons that ‘if you want to protect the unity of the nation, you have to guarantee dignity of the individual. 

The buildup to this thought can be seen in the previously quoted conversation with Gandhi in 1931. He responds to Gandhi with these words – 

No self-respecting Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land. The injustice and sufferings inflicted upon us by this land are so enormous that if knowingly or unknowingly we fall a prey to disloyalty to this country, the responsibility for that act would be solely hers. 

Finally, here’s the original articulation of many Ambedkars that Baxi articulated. (Source: Arup Kumar Sen’s Mainstream Weekly piece.)

The first Ambedkar is an authentic Dalit who bore the full brunt the practices of untouchability. The second Ambedkar is an exemplar of scholarship. The third Ambedkar is an activist journalist. The fourth Ambedkar is a pre-Gandhian activist. The fifth Ambedkar is in a mortal combat with the Mahatma (Gandhi) on the issue of legislative reservations for the Depressed Classes. The sixth Ambedkar is the Constitutionalist involved in the discourse on transfer of power and the processes of Constitution-making. The seventh Ambedkar is a renegade Hindu, not just in the sense of the man who set aflame the Manusmriti in Mahad in 1927 but in his symbolic statement on conversion in 1935 and his actual conversion to Buddhism in late 1954.

A couple of questions (from other participants) that followed the discussion which I continue to explore are as follows.

  1. How and why has this huge body of work of Ambedkar’s not been a part of mainstream political & social discourse (exceptions being conversations about the oppressed & constitution)? It hasn’t received the same treatment as that of the works of Gandhi. Is by design or just an occurrence by chance?
  2. Is there a renunciation of the constitutional Ambedkar, a movement perhaps towards Gandhi, when he denounces Hinduism?

It is hard to conclude a piece on Ambedkar and his body of work because the totality of it is enormous by the standard of a typical life. But there’s one excerpt that I circle back to. It is extraordinary in its diagnosis of life in India and in foresight. It has a near timeless quality to it, because India has had the misfortune of continuing that same ‘life of contradictions’ as he saw. 

On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.

In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value.

In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.

How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?

If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

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