Ambedkar Moved India Towards Modernity
132nd birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar April 14
Throughout the struggle against British rule in India, the idea of an ideal India rested on Mahatma Gandhi’s notions about an ideal Indian State, its society and economy. But when the time came to decide on the direction to be taken, in the period immediately before and after Independence, the leaders of the day chose a model that was entirely Western, a far cry from the vision of Gandhi.
The Indian Constitution, finalised in 1949 and adopted in 1950, reflected the views of modernists like Jawaharlal Nehru, and the chairman of the drafting committee, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and not those of Gandhi. This made a leading Gandhian from South India remark that there was nothing “Indian” in the draft Constitution. “I am hearing the music of a Western band, not the stains of the veena,” he said.
Gandhi and his followers wanted India to be village-oriented, its economy to be village-based, and its political structure built on village-level institutions. “India lives in its villages” Gandhi would say. He abhorred urbanisation and industrialization, considering modern cities an “excrescence that served the evil purpose of draining the life-blood of the villages.”
But Ambedkar, like Nehru, argued that industrialisation was the “soundest remedy” for the problems of Indian agriculture. It would wean away surplus labour from the villages and give them meaningful employment while also reducing the fragmentation of land holdings.
In Ambedkar’s view, Gandhi’s vision of the idyllic Indian village was not grounded in reality, which was that the upper/dominant castes oppressed the lower castes, particularly the Dalits who were “outside the Hindu fold.” To Ambedkar, Gandhi’s “ideal” village was “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism.”
Unlike Gandhi, and like Nehru, Ambedkar wanted Indians to look to the future and not seek a return to an imagined “glorious” past including an imagined idyllic village of the past. While Nehru said that harking back to the past in an ever-changing world was a futile exercise, Ambedkar stressed the need to move away from the past to liberate his people, the Untouchable Dalits, from the shackles and indignities imposed on them for 6000 years.
Gandhi believed in decentralisation based on the belief that the State is essentially a centralised institution that is necessarily based on violence. He wanted as little of government as possible. But Ambedkar and Nehru, saw the State, a centralised State, as a necessary instrument for bringing about social and economic change.
Ambedkar, a firm believer in Constitutionalism and the law, saw the State as an agent of enlightenment in a social milieu which was “regressive and backward” as Shashi Tharoor says in his “Ambedkar: A Life”.
This is the reason why the Indian Constitution made India a “centralised federation” with the Center holding overriding powers over the States.
True, the Constitution makers preferred a strong Centre to check fissiparous tendencies which were rampant at the time, but a pressing need to bring about socio-economic changes with a top-down approach was also in their mind. In pursuing the latter objective, Ambedkar was the keenest.
In fact, Ambedkar went to the extreme and said that untouchability could be rooted out only by a Kamal Ataturk-like change agent. He strongly felt that Hindu theology and practice have to be thoroughly and forcibly changed. But this was not acceptable to the bulk of his compatriots who were traditional.
Though Ambedkar vigorously propagated reservation in employment and education for the Dalits and tribals, and the Constitution did fix quotas for them, he resolutely opposed communalism, especially majoritarianism.
Shashi Tharoor quotes a speech made by Ambedkar in November 1948 in which he said: “To diehards who have developed a kind of fanaticism against minority protection, I would like to say two things: One is that minorities are an explosive force, which if it erupts, can blow up the whole fabric of the State. The history of Europe bears ample and appalling testimony to this fact.
“The other is that the minorities in India have agreed to place their existence in the hands of the majority. They have loyally accepted the rule of the majority, which is basically a communal majority and not a political majority. It is for the majority to realise its duty not discriminate against minorities.”
Tharoor finds the distinction Ambedkar made between a “communal majority” and a “political majority”. According to Ambedkar, communal majority is a majority based on an inherited or an ascriptive criterion like religion, while a political majority is based on a political belief. The latter may expand or contract based on changing issues or choice.
The concepts of communal and political majorities are important to understand contemporary India, Shashi Tharoor says. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making determined efforts to turn India’s communal majority into a political majority, thereby leaving no room for non-Hindus to be part of the political majority.
Tharoor points out that it was not only Ambedkar who sounded warnings about the dangers posed by communal politics. Sardar Patel, who the BJP claims was a Hindu nationalist, had also voiced fears about communalism.
Speaking in the Constituent Assembly on May 25, 1949, Patel said: “It is for us, who happen to be in a majority, to think about what the minorities feel, and how we in their position would feel if we are treated in the manner they are treated.”
Commenting on these statements, Tharoor says: “Given the Modi government’s oft-repeated admiration for the likes of Ambedkar and Sardar Patel, it is disappointing that their current approach reduces individuals to their religious affiliations and denies them their agency as free citizens of our democratic republic.
“The suggestion that only a Hindu, and only a certain kind of Hindu, can be an authentic Indian is, as Ambedkar understood, an affront to the very premise of Indian nationalism.”
Ambedkar decried the tendency to tie nationalism to the past. In 1943 he said that his party (Labour party) would not make a “fetish” of nationalism.
“If nationalism means the worship of the ancient past – the discarding of everything that is not local in origin and colour – then we cannot accept nationalism as our creed. Labour will not allow the ever-expanding spirit of man to be strangled by the hand of the past which has no meaning for the present and no hope for the future,” he said.
Ambedkar would definitely oppose the tendency under the current BJP regime to change place names and even strike off references to a past that smacked of a foreign origin or influence.
Thanks to Ambedkar and Nehru, the Constitution made “citizenship” and not membership of particular communities the single most important criterion for membership of the Indian nation. Religion, language or culture, had no place in determining nationalism and citizenship. Ambedkar said: “ I want all people to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing else but Indians.”
For Ambedkar nationalism was not just an emotional concept, or a matter of blind faith. Nationalism is not an end in itself, but a means to serve a purpose – “the fulfilment of essential principles,” he said.
“A nation is not a primordial entity but a political project, not given by nature but a collective creation of the moral imagination of its members, and has claims on them only to the extent that it includes them fully in its self-understanding,” he said.
In other words, nationalism could not be forced. It has to meet the felt needs of each of the country’s constituents. Otherwise, it will come unstuck.