( Photo courtesy : The hoot)
(To be published in the special issue of ‘Janata’)
The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.
– Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru (1936), pp. 240–241.
If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.
– Ambedkar, ‘Pakistan or Partition of India’, p. 358.
India’s slow ushering into a majoritarian democracy is a matter of concern for every such individual who still believes in pluralism, democracy, equality and a clear separation of religion and politics. The way people are being hounded for raising dissenting opinions, for eating food of their choice or entering into relationships of their own liking or celebrating festivals according to their own faith is unprecedented. The situation has reached such extremes that one can even be publicly lynched for belonging to one of the minority religions or for engaging in an activity which is considered to be ‘suspicious’ by the majority community.
No doubt there is no direct harm to the basic structure of the Constitution, its formal structure remains intact, de jure India does remain a democracy as well as a republic, but de facto democracy has slowly metamorphosed into majoritarianism and the sine qua non of a republic—that its citizens are supreme—is being watered down fast. It does not need underlining that this process has received tremendous boost with the ascent of Hindutva supremacist forces at the centrestage of Indian politics.
The brazen manner in which a Union cabinet minister—who has taken oath to abide by the Constitution—declared in public that they have come to power to ‘çhange the constitution’ and the manner in which ruling party members preferred to remain silent about it can be seen as a sign of the crisis facing Indian society. Perhaps less said the better about the man who calls Constitution ‘the most sacred book’ and who loves to project himself as a disciple of Dr Ambedkar.
A sobering fact at this juncture is to remember that leading lights of the movement for political and social emancipation—which unfolded itself under British rule—definitely had a premonition of things to come and had rightly cautioned / underlined / warned the people of the bleak future which awaits them if they do not remain vigilant. As Patel’s biographer Rajmohan Gandhi points out:
Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Patel formed a crucial trimuvirate that agreed that independent India would not be a Hindu Rashtra but one that offered equal rights to all. After Gandhi’s departure and until Patel’s death, Patel and Nehru differend on several matters but not on some fundamentals. With the help of others including Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad and Rajaji, they entrenched secularism and equality in the Constitution.[i]
An inkling of the collective thinking among them is evident if one looks at the Objectives Resolution moved in the Constituent Assembly by Pandit Nehru on 13 December 1946 and adopted unanimously by the Constituent Assembly on 22 January 1947. It declared its firm resolve not only to make India an independent sovereign republic but also to guarantee and secure for all the people of India
social, economic and political justice; equality of status and opportunities and equality before law; and fundamental freedoms—of speech, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action—subject to law and public morality;
and also ensure that
adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes.
The key importance of the Objectives Resolution (which was then called / moved as ‘Resolution on the Aims and Objects of the Constitution’) can be gauged from the fact that according to the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, it was the basis of the ‘Preamble of the Constitution’. The Chairman of the Drafting Committee was Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who was appointed to this post at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi possibly due to his scholarship in legal and constitutional matters.
One can take a look at the way Gandhi’s last struggle—the way he undertook fast unto death to stop the communal riots in 1947—unfolded itself, or the way Jawaharlal Nehru cautioned people about the possibility of India turning into a ‘Hindu Pakistan’[ii] or the way he led the fight against danger of majoritarianism within the Congress itself. Describing communalism as an ‘Indian version of fascism’, Pandit Nehru said in 1947 that the tide of the fascism gripping the country was the direct consequence of the hate speeches given against non-Muslims by the Muslim League and its supporters.[iii]
On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary in 1951, Nehru said that if a person attacks another on the issue of religions, he will fight against that person till the end of his life both in his capacity of being the head of the government and as a true Indian. He advocated a ban on organizations based on religion and enpowered the government by getting the Constitution amended to exercise restraining power to suppress communal writings and communally provocative speeches.[iv]
One can look at his correspondence with chief ministers on various occasions or his instructions or his speeches in Parliament to know how he debunked ideas of special ‘protection for the majority’:
If I may venture to lay down a rule, it is the primary responsibility of the majority to satisfy the minority in every matter. The majority, by virtue of it being a majority, has the strength to have its way: it requires no protection.[v]
Patel, the ‘Iron Man of India’, had declared in the Jaipur Session of the party that the Congress was dedicated to upholding secularism at any cost: ‘India is a true secular country’. He described the talk of ‘Hindu Rajya as an act of insanity’ in 1949.[vi]
That day Delhi caught Punjab’s infection. ‘I will not tolerate Delhi becoming another Lahore’, Vallabhbhai declared in Nehru’s and Mountbatten’s presence. He publicly threatened partisan officials with punishment, and at his instructions orders to shoot rioters at sight were issued on September 7. Four Hindu rioters were shot dead at the railway station in Old Delhi.[vii]
In a speech in Madras (1949), he underlined how apart from other challenges before the nation the government was dealing with the ‘RSS movement’:
We in the government have been dealing with the RSS movement. They want that Hindu Rajya or Hindu culture should be imposed by force. No government can tolerate this. There are almost as many Muslims in this country as in the part that has been partitioned away. We are not going to drive them away. It would be an evil day if we started that game, in spite of partition and whatever happens. We must understand that they are going to stay here and it is our obligation and our responsibility to make them feel that this is their country.[viii]
Perhaps foreseeing that attempts would be made by interested quarters to drive a wedge between him and Nehru, he categorically stated in Indore on 2 October 1950, just three months before his death:
Our leader is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Bapu appointed him his heir and successor during his lifetime and even declared it. It is the duty of the soldiers of Bapu that they abide by his orders. One who does not accept this order by heart would prove a sinner before god. I am not a disloyal soldier. For me it is unimportant what my place is. I only know that I am at that very place where Bapu asked me to stand.[ix]
In the following writeup we do not intend to deal further with the role played by the likes of Nehru, Patel or other leaders in giving a shape to the emergent republic. Our focus is rather limited. We focus attention in this article on how Dr Ambedkar perceived of a future roadmap for India, his perception of the dangers of a ‘Hindu India’ or the possibility of a ‘majoritarian rule’ emerging here.
It is a rather neglected theme because under pressures of political exigency, discussion is usually restricted to one or the other aspect of Dr Ambedkar’s life and struggle, and his overall vision does not get the attention it deserves. The urgency of this intervention is because while the Hindutva Right is overenthusiastically appropriating Ambedkar for its cause, the response from the seculars as well as the left is less than expected.
A close look at the last decade of Ambedkar’s eventful life (1946-56) can help us discern various threads in his worldview or vision of a new India.
The making of the Constitution itself was marked by pressures and counterpressures—from believers of radical change to the status quoists—and what came out can at best be called a compromise document between various contending forces and ideas. Dr Ambedkar’s separation between the beginning of political democracy in India with the advent of the one-man-one-vote regime, and the long hiatus he saw before the ushering in of social democracy—the regime of one-man-one-value—while dedicating the Constitution to the nation was in fact a reminder of the fact that the struggle was still not over.
Without doubt he was the chief architect of the Constitution, and it was his interventions—of course with due support from Nehru and others—that led to the inclusion of important pro-people or pro-dispriviledged provisions into it, but we should not be under any illusion that ‘his vision’ ultimately triumphed and was inscribed in the Constitution.
Ambedkar in fact was very aware of the limitations of such a constitutional exercise in a backward society like ours:
Indians today are governed by two ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity, whereas their social ideal embedded in their religion denies it to them.[x]
His ‘vision’ about a future India can be discerned from his less discussed monograph, States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India which was basically a memorandum on the safeguards for the Scheduled Castes that was submitted to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation that he led. This monograph does not limit itself to ‘safeguards’ but also talks of the danger of majoritarianism, incompatibility of Hinduism with any change, and also proposes a model of economic development that he himself described as ‘state socialism’.
It is a monograph that would be quite enlightening for many of us. In it, he envisaged that the ‘state shall not recognise any religion as state religion’ and ‘guarantee to every citizen liberty of conscience’. Simultaneously, on the aspect of protection against economic exploitation, he not only declared that ‘key industries shall be owned and run by the state’, but also that non-key but basic industries shall also ‘be owned by the state and run by the state’. He was of the opinion that ‘agriculture shall be state industry’, where ‘the state shall divide the land acquired into farms of standard size’; the ‘farm shall be cultivated as a collective farm . . . in accordance with rules and directions issued by the government’; and the ‘tenants shall share among themselves in the manner prescribed the produce of the farm left after the payment of charges properly leviable on the farm’.
He further explains this clause in the following words:
The main purpose behind the clause is to put an obligation on the state to plan the economic life of the people on lines which would lead to highest point of productivity without closing every avenue to private enterprise, and also provide for the equitable distribution of wealth. The plan set out in the clause proposes state ownership in agriculture with a collectivised method of cultivation and a modified form of State Socialism in the field of industry. . . . State Socialism is essential for the rapid industrialisation of India. Private enterprise cannot do it and if it did it would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe and which should be a warning to Indians. Consolidation of Holdings and Tenancy legislation are worse than useless.[xi]
Interestingly, he does not propose that the idea of State Socialism should be left to legislatures and instead wants it to be implemented by Constitutional law:
The plan has two special features. One is that it proposes State Socialism in important fields of economic life. The second special feature of the plan is that it does not leave the establishment of State Socialism to the will of the Legislature. It establishes State Socialism by the Law of the Constitution and thus makes it unalterable by any act of the Legislature and the Executive.
In the same monograph he clearly differentiates between ‘Untouchables’ and ‘Hindus’.
Gone were the days when he felt that Hinduism would reform itself from within. More than a decade had passed since his famous declaration at the Yeola conference that ‘I was born as a Hindu but I will not die as a Hindu’.
He is unequivocal about the ‘Hindu population which is hostile to them (Untouchables)’ and emphasises that it is ‘not ashamed of committing any inequity or atrocity against them’. He is also not hopeful about their situation under Swaraj:
What can Swaraj mean to the Untouchables ? It can only mean one thing, namely, that while today it is only the administration that is in the hands of the Hindus, under Swaraj the Legislature and Executive will also be in the hands of the Hindus, it goes without saying that such a Swaraj would aggravate the sufferings of the Untouchables. For, in addition to an hostile administration, there will be an indifferent Legislature and a callous Executive. The result will be that the administration unbridled in venom and in harshness, uncontrolled by the Legislature and the Executive, may pursue its policy of inequity towards the Untouchables without any curb. To put it differently, under Swaraj the Untouchables will have no way of escape from the destiny of degradation which Hindus and Hinduism have fixed for them.[xii]
He was very much aware about the dangers of majoritarianism implicit in the way Indian nationalism had developed which according to him had
developed a new doctrine which may be called the Divine Right of the Majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority. Any claim for the sharing of power by the minority is called communalism while the monopolising of the whole power by the majority is called Nationalism.[xiii]
And so, to protect the rights of the minorities (remember that he does not restrict himself here to religious minorities but also includes the ‘scheduled castes’ in his definition) he proposes a form of Executive which could serve following purposes:
(i) To prevent the majority from forming a Government without giving any opportunity to the minorities to have a say in the matter.
(ii) To prevent the majority from having exclusive control over administration and thereby make the tyranny of the minority by the majority possible.
(iii) To prevent the inclusion by the Majority Party in the Executive representatives of the minorities who have no confidence of the minorities.
(iv) To provide a stable Executive necessary for good and efficient administration.
In fact, his fears vis-a-vis the majoriatarian impulses were evident in the political manifesto of the Scheduled Castes Federation itself—the political organisation that was set up by him in 1942 which rejected the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha as ‘reactionary’ organisations:
The Scheduled Castes Federation will not have any alliance with any reactionary party such as the Hindu Mahasabha or the RSS.[xiv]
Anyone who has studied the making of the Indian constitution would tell us why Ambedkar considered the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha as ‘reactionary’ parties. History is witness to the fact that they opposed its making and suggested in their organs that instead of a new Constitution, the newly independent nation should adopt Manusmriti. A laughable suggestion today, but the fact is it was then seriously raised by its proponents:
The worst (thing) about the new Constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it. . . . there is no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it. . . . no mention of the unique constitutional developments in ancient Bharat. Manu’s laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity (among Hindus in India). But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.[xv]
In his monograph ‘Pakistan or Partition of India’ he reiterates his fears vis-a-vis the possible majoritarian turn at the hands of those who vouched for ‘Hindu Raj’:
If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.[xvi]
Much on the lines of lack of debate / discussion around States and Minorities, another important intervention of Ambedkar during that period has also received little attention. It was related to the struggle for Hindu Code Bill and happened to be the first attempt in independent India to reform Hindu personal laws to give greater rights to Hindu women. Through this, his attempt was to put a stamp on monogamy, also ensure separation rights for women and also grant them rights in property. We know very well that it was a key reason for Ambedkar’s resignation from Nehru’s Cabinet because he felt that despite lot of attempts not much headway was being made in granting these rights. In his resignation letter he underlined the importance he attached to the bill
To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap. This is the significance I attached to the Hindu Code.[xvii]
How the Hindutva right and the conservative sections within the Congress coupled with the saffron-robed swamis and sadhus joined hands to oppose the enactment of Hindu Code Bill is well-known history. In fact, this motley combination of reactionary and status quoist forces did not limit themselves to issuing statements. They also opposed the bill on the streets and led large scale mobilisation at pan India level against the bill. There were occasions when they even tried to storm Dr Ambedkar’s residence in Delhi.
Their main argument against Ambedkar was that the bill was an attack on ‘Hindu Religion and Culture’. The enormous resistance to this bill becomes clear from this excerpt from Ramchandra Guha’s book:
The anti-Hindu code bill committee held hundreds of meetings throughout India, where sundry swamis denounced the proposed legislation. The participants in this movement presented themselves as religious warriors (dharmaveer) fighting a religious war (dharmayudh). The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh threw its weight behind the agitation. On the 11th of December, 1949, the RSS organised a public meeting at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, where speaker after speaker condemned the bill. One called it ‘an atom bomb on Hindu society’ . . . The next day a group of RSS workers marched on the assembly buildings, shouting ‘Down with Hindu code bill’ . . . The protesters burnt effigies of the prime minister and Dr Ambedkar, and then vandalised the car of Sheikh Abdullah.[xviii]
Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, declared that the Bill would ‘shatter the magnificent structure of Hindu culture’.[xix]
In his intervention in support of Ambedkar and the Hindu Code Bill during the debate in Parliament on this bill, Acharya Kriplani stated:
Much has been said about Hindu religion being in danger. I am afraid I cannot see the point. Hindu religion is not in danger when Hindus are thieves, rogues, fornicators, black-marketers or takers of bribes! Hindu religion is not endangered by these people but Hindu religion is endangered by people who want to reform a particular law! May be they are over-zealous but it is better to be over-zealous in things idealistic than be corrupt in material things.[xx]
In fact, like Mahatma Phule—whom he called the ‘Greatest Shudra’ and considered him his teacher along with Buddha and Kabir—the concern for women’s emancipation always existed in the movement led by Ambedkar.
How did he envisage the idea of democracy ?
Perhaps his speech on the ‘Voice of America’ radio (20 May 1956) which he gave few months before his death could best summarise his ideas around this concept.
The first point which he makes is that ‘Democracy is quite different from a Republic as well as from Parliamentary Government.’ According to him:
The roots of democracy lie not in the form of government, Parliamentary or otherwise. A democracy is more than a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living. The roots of democracy are to be searched in the social relationship, in the terms of associated life between the people who form a society.[xxi]
He then goes on to explain the meaning of the word ‘society’. He says:
When we speak of ‘Society,’ we conceive of it as one by its very nature. The qualities which accompany this unity are praiseworthy community of purpose and desire for welfare, loyalty to public ends and mutuality of sympathy and co-operation.
Examining Indian society, he questions whether ‘these ideals are found in Indian society?’ He says that Indian society is nothing but ‘an innumerable collection of castes which are exclusive in their life and have no common experience to share and have no bond of sympathy’, and concludes that:
The existence of the caste system is a standing denial of the existence of those ideals of society and therefore of democracy.[xxii]
He goes on to say that ‘Indian society is so embedded in the caste system that everything is organised on the basis of caste’. He shares examples of how the daily life of individuals revolves around the twin concepts of purity and pollution, then discusses how caste is prevalent in the social–political arena too, and wryly concludes that ‘there is no room for the downtrodden and the outcastes in politics, in industry, in commerce and in education.’
Further he discusses other special features of the caste system which ‘have their evil effects and which militate against democracy’. He particularly discusses the feature of ‘Graded Inequality’ wherein ‘castes are not equal in their status’ but rather ‘are standing one above another’ and form ‘an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt’ which has the most pernicious consequences as ‘it destroys willing and helpful co-operation.’
Deliberating about the difference between caste and class, he takes up the second evil effect in the caste system which is ‘complete isolation’ which is not there in the class system. This manifests itself in the fact that ‘the stimulus and response between two castes is only one-sided. The higher caste act in one recognised way and the lower caste must respond in one established way.’ Such influences ‘educate some into masters, educate others into slaves. . . . It results into a separation of society, into a privileged and a subject class. Such a separation prevents social endosmosis.’
The third characteristic of the caste system, that ‘cuts at the very roots of democracy’, is that ‘one caste is bound to one occupation.’ Ambedkar says ‘there is in a man an indefinite plurality of capacities and activities. A society to be democratic should open a way to use all the capacities of the individual.’ However, this binding of the individual to one occupation leads to stratification which stunts ‘the growth of the individual and deliberate stunting is a deliberate denial of democracy.’
In the concluding part of his speech, Ambedkar discusses obstacles in the way to end caste system. He says that the first obstacle is ‘the system of graded inequality which is the soul of the caste system.’ The second obstacle is that ‘Indian society is disabled by unity in action by not being able to know what is its common good. . . . Every where ‘the mind of the Indians is distracted and misled by false valuations and false perspectives.’ He ends his speech by emphasising that mere education cannot destroy the caste system: ‘If you give education to those strata of Indian Society which has a vested interest in maintaining the caste system for the advantages it gives them, then the caste system will be strengthened. On the other hand, if you give education to the lowest strata of Indian society which is interested in blowing up the caste system, the caste system will be blown up.’ And so he concludes: ‘To give education to those who want to keep up the caste system is not to improve the prospect of democracy in India but to put our democracy in India in greater jeopardy.’[xxiii]
As opposed to the conservative notions about democracy that consider it to be an instrument to stop bad people from seizing power, Ambedkar considered democracy to be related to social transformation and human progress. He defined democracy as “a form and a method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed.”[xxiv] The conditions for that are as follows:
(1) There should not be glaring inequalities in society, that is, privilege for one class; (2) The existence of an opposition; (3) Equality in law and administration; (4) Observance of constitutional morality; (5) No tyranny of the majority; (6) Moral order of society: and (7) Public conscience.”[xxv]
In his speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949 he expressed three cautions and believed that paying heed to them was critical to ensure that our democratic institutions did not get subverted:
(i) Constitutional methods; (ii) Not to lay liberties at the feet of a great man; (iii) Make a political democracy a social democracy.[xxvi]
For Ambedkar, democracy and secularism are inseparable. Looking at the fact that India happens to be a multi-denominational society where the common denominator could be secularism which is understood as one of the pillars on which the superstructure of our democracy rests and is a unifying force of our associated life, he emphasised :
The conception of a secular state is derived from the liberal democratic tradition of the West. No institution which is maintained wholly out of state funds shall be used for the purpose of religious instruction irrespective of the question whether the religious instruction is given by the state or by any other body.[xxvii]
In a debate in Parliament, he underlined:
It (secular state) does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that a secular state means is that this Parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon the rest of the people. This is the only limitation that the Constitution recognises.[xxviii]
At the same time, he emphatically states that it is the duty of the state to ensure that the minority does not become victim of the tyranny of the majority:
The State should guarantee to its citizens the liberty of conscience and the free exercise of his religion including the right to profess, to preach and to convert within limits compatible with public order and morality.[xxix]
In an insightful article, Prof Jean Dreze argues that ‘Ambedkar’s passion for democracy was closely related to his commitment to rationality and the scientific outlook.’ Jean Dreaze elaborates the connnection. Rationality is necessary for democratic government since public debate (an essential aspect of democratic practice) is impossible in the absence of a shared adherence to common sense, logical argument and critical enquiry. And, scientific spirit is inherently anti-authoritarian, as a person then does not believe in authority, but in coherence of the argument and quality of the evidence. Dreze goes on to argue that Ambedkar shared this belief. This is evident from one of Ambedkar’s last speeches, ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’, wherein he summarises the essential teachings of Buddha as follows:
Everyone has a right to learn. Learning is as necessary for man to live as food is. . . . Nothing is infallible. Nothing is binding forever. Everything is subject to inquiry and examination.[xxx]
Jean Dreze says that it is important to bring forth this relationship between democracy and rationalism / scientific outlook because of the ‘recent threats to Indian democracy (which) often involve a concerted attack on rationality and the scientific spirit.’ (Ibid.)
I will accept and follow the teachings of Buddha. I will keep my people away from the different opinions of Hinyan and Mahayan, two religious orders. Our Bouddha Dhamma is a new Bouddha Dhamma, Navayan.[xxxi]
An important development in the last decade of Ambedkar’s life was his decision to embrace Buddhism with lakhs of followers. Apart from his deep fascination for Buddhism from younger days, his conversion to Buddhism had also to do with his contention that the ‘untouchables’ were in fact former Buddhists. He elaborates it in his book The Untouchables: A Thesis on the Origin of Untouchability (1948).[xxxii] Thus it could also be said to be a return to ‘their’ original religion than a conversion. Interestingly one finds deep commonality between Dr Ambedkar and Jyothee Thass, the great Tamil-Buddhist Scholar, who also maintained that ‘Untouchables’ were early Buddhists.
His ‘conversion’ to Buddhism was also renouncement of Hinduism which according to him had
proved detrimental to progress and prosperity of my predecessors and which has regarded human beings as unequal and despicable.[xxxiii]
If one refers to the 22 pledges he administered to his followers on the occasion then one can broadly categorise them into four parts: complete rejection of Hindu gods (for example, I will not accept Brahma,Vishnu and Mahesh as Gods) and their worship and the related rituals (I will not perform Shraddha Paksh or Pind Dana, rituals to respect the dead); acceptance of the principles and teachings of Buddhism; declaration that ‘all human beings are equal’; and ‘no faith in divine incarnation’.
An important aspect of this ‘return’ or ‘conversion’ is the fact that it was also a reinterpretation of Buddhism which he described as Navayan—a new vehicle. Apart from a big monograph Buddha and His Dhamma where he tries to revisit Buddhism, one can get a glimpse of his reading of the Buddha and his teachings from the speech he delivered in Kathmandu merely a fortnight before his death which was posthumously published as Buddha Or Karl Marx.
Summarising the ‘Creed of Buddhism’, while on the one hand he underlines the necessity of ‘religion for a free society’, at the same time, he says many things which would be rather unacceptable to a scholar or follower of religion because he appears to reject the ‘necessity of God’ as well as Shastras and rituals. Thus for instance, he says:
- Religion must relate to facts of life and not to theories and speculations about God, or Soul or Heaven or Earth.
- It is wrong to make God the centre of Religion.
- It is wrong to make salvation of the soul as the centre of Religion.
- It is wrong to make animal sacrifices to be the centre of Religion.
- Real Religion lives in the heart of man and not in the Shastras.
- Man and morality must be the centre of religion. If not, Religion is a cruel superstition.
- It is not enough for Morality to be the ideal of life. Since there is no God it must become the law of life.[xxxiv]
Ambedkar differentiates himself from popular definitions of religion first by criticising the way religions have tried to explain the origin and the end of world and says that its ‘function is to to reconstruct the world and to make it happy’. He then goes on to explore the source of unhappiness, and does not talk about ‘sins’ or ‘otherworldly affairs’ but says that ‘unhappiness in the world is due to conflict of interest and the only way to solve it is to follow the Ashtanga Marga.’ Further elaborating on the ‘Creed of Buddhism’, he says that ‘private ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another’ and ‘it is necessary for the good of Society that this sorrow be removed by removing its cause.’ While religions the world over have remained the basis of ‘othering’—which in extreme cases have resulted in genocides too—Buddhism as perceived by Ambedkar believes that ‘all human beings are equal’ and ‘worth and not birth is the measure of man’.
While supporting ‘war for truth and justice’ and also emphasising that the ‘victor has duties towards the vanquished’ in the last part of his summary of the ‘Creed of Buddhism’, he not only challenges the monopoly of a few over learning but also emphatically states: ‘Nothing is permanent or sanatan. Everything is subject to change. Being is always becoming.’
This speech—as the title shows—also throws light on his views about Marxism. Of course it is not for the first time that he had expressed his views on the theme. In his famous booklet Annihilation of Caste he had already made it clear that while he appreciates the goal of Marxism, he is repelled by its Indian practioners. In this speech too, he declares that ‘Buddha is not away from Marx’ if ‘for misery one reads exploitation.’
For him non-violence is not an issue of principle: ‘The Buddha was against violence. But he was also in favour of justice and where justice required he permitted the use of force.’ Ambedkar further writes that:
Violence cannot be altogether dispensed with. Even in non-communist countries a murderer is hanged. Does not hanging amount to violence? Non-communist countries go to war with non-communist countries. Millions of people are killed. Is this no violence? If a murderer can be killed, because he has killed a citizen, if a soldier can be killed in war because he belongs to a hostile nation, why cannot a property owner be killed if his ownership leads to misery for the rest of humanity? There is no reason to make an exception in favour of the property owner, why one should regard private property as sacrosanct.
He goes on to assert that even Buddha established communism:
The Russians are proud of their communism. But they forget that the wonder of all wonders is that the Buddha established communism so far as the Sangh was concerned without dictatorship. It may be that it was a communism on a very small scale but it was communism without dictatorship, a miracle which Lenin failed to do.
Of course, he underlines that:
The Buddha’s method was different. His method was to change the mind of man, to alter his disposition, so that whatever man does, he does it voluntarily without the use of force or compulsion.
The concluding remarks he makes while ending his speech seem to validate, in Anand Teltumbde’s words, ‘his decision as confirming to Marxism, minus violence and dictatorship in the latter.’[xxxv]
It has been claimed that the Communist Dictatorship in Russia has wonderful achievements to its credit. There can be no denial of it. That is why I say that a Russian Dictatorship would be good for all backward countries. But this is no argument for permanent Dictatorship. . . .
We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be too much emphasised that in producing equality society cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty. Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all.[xxxvi]
These are no ordinary times to discuss the future of our republic.
We have before us an India where (to quote Prof Achin Vanaik):
The centre of gravity has shifted perhaps decisively to the right, in three crucial spheres: economy, secularism and democracy.
It is an India where the political dispensation at the centre is busy furthering the exclusivist/majoritarian worldview of Hindutva supremacism coupled with the neoliberal agenda under the glib talk of development and a concerted attack has been unleashed on (what Ambedkar defined as) minorities of various kinds and other deprived sections.
What can then be the contours of Dr Ambedkar’s Vision for our times?
It will necessarily have to be: ensure that the ‘state shall not recognise any religion as state religion’ and ‘guarantee to every citizen liberty of conscience’; stand against ‘majoritarianism of every kind’ and, more specifically, prevent the majority from forming a government without giving any opportunity to the minorities to have a say in the matter; stand up for women’s emancipation, for state ownership in agriculture with a collectivised method of cultivation and a modified form of State Socialism in the field of industry; stand against inequalities of wealth which private capitalism produces. It will necessarily have to be for annihilation of caste as ‘the existence of the Caste System is a standing denial of the existence of ideals of society and therefore of Democracy.’[xxxvii] It will be for reason and rationality and scientific temper and not for dumbing of minds.
It does not need reminding that it will not be based on sanitisation or vulgarisation of Dr Ambedkar in any form as is being experimented with these days. While his appropriation by the Hindutva Right and its attempts to carve out a ‘suitable’ Ambedkar for its project based on exclusion and hatred has been widely commented upon and exposed, much needs to be done to expose the projection of Ambedkar as a free market economist.[xxxviii] Scholarly sounding pieces have appeared based on selective quotes from his vast corpus of writings to project him as a ‘Free Market Economist”.[xxxix] In contrast to Ambedkar’s views, there are also articles valorising capitalism for supposedly annihilating of caste.[xl] This latter article by a noted columnist and an upcoming industrialist from the oppressed communities argues that:
Capital is the surest means to fight caste. In Dalit’s hands, capital becomes an anti-caste weapon; little wonder that the traditional caste code prohibits dalits from accumulating wealth. Dalit capitalism is the answer to that regime of discrimination. The manifesto demands promotion of dalit capitalism through a variety of means-procurement, credit options and partnerships.
Last but not the least one will have to be wary of ‘hero worship’ or laying ‘liberties at the feet of a great man’ as it can culminate in ‘subverting of institutions’ in a democracy as Ambedkar has warned us. In fact he had this to say while dedicating the Constitution to the nation:
This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.[xli]
Everybody can see that this caution has contemporary import. No month passes when some responsible member of the ruling dispensation compares the honourable PM to God or as ‘God’s gift to India’.
While Bhakts can rejoice about this unique gift to India, every sensible person would agree that if this trend is allowed to continue then it is a ‘sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.’
[vii] Rajmohan Gandhi, Patel : A Life, Navjeevan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, p. 428
[viii] Excerpts from Sardar Patel’s address in Madras, 1949, taken from: S. Irfan Habib (ed.), Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings, Aleph Book Company; see: Book Extract, “Sardar Patel on RSS and the perils of imposing Hindu Rajya”, https://www.dailyo.in.
[ix] Translated from: Pyarelal, Purnahuti, Chaturth Khand, Navjeevan Prakashan, Ahmedabad, p. 465.
[x] Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar : Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 1990, p. 456.
[xiv] “Rejected as ‘Reactionary’ by Dalit Icon, RSS Eyes BR Ambedkar’s Legacy”, April 14 , 2015, http://www.hindustantimes.com; Nikhil Thiyyar, “Appropriating Ambedkar”, April 14, 2016, http://www.hardnewsmedia.com.
[xvii] Nikhil Thiyyar, “Appropriating Ambedkar”, op. cit.
[xxvii] Shyam Chand, “Dr Ambedkar on Democracy”, op. cit.
[xxxvii] Ambedkar’s speech on the ‘Voice of America’ radio, May 20, 1956, op. cit.
[xxxviii] Anand Teltumbde, “Ambedkar And Communists”, op. cit.