Ambdekar: the New found Messiah

Anindya Sen

In a year or so now, Bhimrao Ambedkar has been hogging perhaps more national limelight than ever before. Administration-induced self-killing of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad University in January 2016, where rabid upper-casteism was in full play, had exposed once more the power of feudal dead-weight in nullifying the promises of equality known to be embedded in Indian constitution.

Vemula's rather introvert suicide note was truly representative of the common psyche of the dalit masses, where he didn't accuse anybody for his death. A sense of void, a deep sense of defeat appears to have engulfed his being which starkly points to the odds faced by his existence in a life of 26 years. His silence however, is an indirect indictment of the whole Indian society, under the savage leadership of Hindutva brigade, where a dalit student didn't find it useful to mention anyone in the death note!!

If this is the level of alienation of a dalit PhD student from the mainstream Indian pshyche, it is not difficult to fathom the mental process of the dalit multitudes while they are the ones who virtually carry the nation on their shoulders.

Ambedkar's crusade against caste system was by default anti-feudal. In his individual struggle and in his ability in dominating the Indian meta-narrative of anti-caste movement, Bhimrao's anti-feudal credential can hardly be questioned, at least prima-facie.

But how far he was interested in advancing his agenda to further logical culmination? With conscious effort the religious reform which he unleashed truly had the potential to spill beyond religious fences. And there are reasons to anticipate that he was also aware of such possibility. Shortly after launching the temple entry movement, did Ambedkar start speaking about switching towards issues directly linked to material advancement of life such as food, education and all. He also started talking about political power and spreading the movement to rural areas. On his way to Europe in 1932, in a letter to the Anti-Untouchability League he exhorted them about the need of 'an army of workers in the rural parts'. The plethora of issues for campaign that he outlined however was, depressingly narrow and limited to civic rights alone such as rights to take water from common village wells, right to entry to schools etc. Curiously enough he wasn't able to figure out any other anti-feudal agenda, though peasant struggle even in those times was already quite strong in the countryside. Bhimaro's agenda was still 'a social revolution in Hindu society', which he conceived as a 'revolution in the mentality of caste Hindus'!

There were various models of peasant movement in the country in 1930s and 40s. Beginning in the land of Bihar under the leadership of Sahajanand Saraswati, which Subhas Bose reckoned with high esteem, waves of peasant struggle gradually assuming both anti-feudal-anti-colonial characters had been sweeping the country across her length and breadth. Ambedkar also tried his hand on the issue, albeit in his signature constitutional way by attempting to move a bill for abolition of Khoti land tenure system and effecting land to the tiller in Konkan, the place of his origin. The bill, celebrated as the first of its kind to propose abolition of serfdom, however ended up in a damp squib, as it was not tabled at all the fate being the same as many other reform efforts in the annals of Indian parliamentary system.

What may be mentioned in this context is that anti-feudal peasant movement was raging in Maharastra also, concentrated in Kalyan and Murbad tehsils under leftist leadership during his time. Ambedkar's involvement in peasant issues was conditioned by two factors—one, his close association with Shamrao Parulekar, who was instrumental in organizing and leading the struggles and two, Ambedkar found it worth-while particularly because the bill, if passed would have benefitted the Mahars, who formed the large chunk of the peasantry under the khoti system.

However, he was mostly confined to parliamentary activism and also maintained studied silence about other peasant struggles in the country. Seen in such context, his efforts in Konkan was more to consolidate his captive social base by making use of parliamentary 'opportunities' rather than a strategic engagement with peasant struggles developing at the grass-roots.

It was during his ascendency to position of power, two major peasant movements shook Indian feudalism to its root; one, Tebhaga movement in Bengal and the other, the Telengana peasant struggle which turned into a great armed struggle against semi-feudal-semi-colonial Indian state. Ambedkar was the law minister (1947-52) when in Telengana peasants were being butchered by Indian security forces with the help of local mercenaries (Rajakars). Accepted that he had issues with violence as a method, but can that explain his silence when his people were being butchered by the upper caste rulers, his avowed enemies? The fact that more than two-third of the population in the region belonged to depressed classes who were facing the brunt of attack, such silence amounts to betrayal to his much vaunted slogan of annihilation of caste. It could have been appropriate occasion for his resignation from the cabinet, which he did in 1952 on Hindu code bill. Such strategic silence definitely goes on to unearth elements of parochialism in the messiah of dalit liberation, perhaps originating from his obsession with parliamentary solutions to all problems.

Thus, his vision of social revolution within Hindu society as the purpose of his crusade, combined with parlia-mentarism successfully spoiled the show and turned out to be another case of belied opportunity as far as anti-feudal struggles are concerned in India.

Bhimrao grew up in a country ruled and perpetually looted by British. Being born to a subedar in British army, neither he nor his family had to suffer from any direct oppressive act of colonial rule at any stage of his life. His higher education overseas was supported by the princely state of Baroda which was among the most trusted royalties under the colonial power. Gaekwads who also sponsored his study in Columbia university, had the dubious distinction of switching to the British side at opportune moment while being part of Maratha resistance fighting the expanding British colonial power in the early part of 19th century.

However, for obvious reasons, an aspiring youth from among the socially downtrodden may not be expected to be too choosy in receiving support for higher studies. For Ambedkar it was more true because he wanted to attain certain status to enable himself in fighting the upper caste people on a level playing field. In this journey, education was his chosen, and possibly the only refuge. It was also on this pretext that he kept himself aloof, while studying in America, from the nationalist students activities there. He maintained studied distance and was calculative enough to weather away approaches by adherents of Lala Lajpat Rai to join forces with them.

However this aloofness was seen as bit disconcerting because his PhD thesis (Evolution of provincial finance in British India), in which he laid bare the essential exploitative nature of colonial revenue system, did raise great expectations among the overseas revolutionaries about him in fighting colonialism. Dhananjay Keer, Bhimrao's trusted biographer, described this work as reflecting his quintessential anti-colonial position.

One may or may not agree with the positions held in this thesis; in the hindsight it may also be questioned whether the positions held were his original or not. But this thesis earned him some repute as an anti-colonial crusader among the non-resident Indian students in America, whose association he consciously avoided. In his later life too, he never addressed issues related to colonial exploitation in any seriousness and as a result, his actions in socio-political reform didn't develop in that line. His actions which helped him dominate the dalit movement in India had, on the contrary, belied his own positions held in his PhD thesis.

A case in point is his choice for colonial icons for mass mobilization. In 1927 after deciding to actively, organize the dalits he chose the Koregaon monument as the rallying point of dalit Mahars. The monument in Koregaon Bhima village, built by the British government to 'honor' the bravado and martyrdom of its Mahar regiment which played decisive role in defeating the Maratha Peshwa Bajirao II in 1818, thereby decimating last line formidable resistance on Indian soil against expanding colonial power.

Mahars being 'untouchables' had accumulated hatred for the Peshwas, the high caste Maratha Brahmins and that hatred had been used by the British to great effect for colonial expansion. The monument, thus, while being a relic of Mahar pride against upper caste oppression, was at the same time a signpost of colonial victory as well as its legitimization. Ambedkar ignored this very important aspect while using it for indulging in and inspiring dalit pride.

For a man of Bhimrao's erudition, this can hardly be viewed as an act of innocence. It was certainly a chosen one on his part which earned him easy popularity though it was clearly not congruent with the spirit of anti-colonialism. In any case, this was a disjoint between his theoretical perception and political action. However, such disjoints are not unknown in history and have been described by Lenin and other Marxists as opportunism which is at the core of reformism in the realm of mass movement. In that sense Ambedkar was indeed a reformist. And in his case this reformism also led to an apologetic position vis-a-vis colonial power of his time.

It is all very well known that he drew attention to a deep-rooted social malady that caste system is among the Hindus which remained his primary domain of praxis, even as the dominant national political discourse of his time was freedom from 200-year-old plunder. This became his point of departure from the Congress brand of nationalism and he grew into an ardent critic of it. Apparently this critical position may have some appeal to leftist sensibilities and tend to bring him on the same page with the left because the left was also a critic of the freedom struggle under Congress tutelage, though from an entirely different perspective. It needs to understood in real earnest that the commonality was only in appearance and not in content. Despite being a staunch adversary of Hindu religious code of varnashram hardly did Bhimrao ever think deeper than burning Hindu scriptures or conversion to other religion and was not guided by any concept of radical socio-economic restructuring of Indian society.

For him, it was more simple and pragmatic and was free of any burden of ideological principle. His opposition to freedom movement sprang from the perception that colonial rulers were more protective for the depressed classes than the leaders of Congress who were at the same time leaders of Hindu society. And he never made a secret of his position. When Montagu-Chelmsford reform was being debated in the country, he came up with an article in Mook Nayak, which clearly asserted that "if the protection of the Britishers were withdrawn, those who did not condescend to look at the untouchables would trample them down"! (Dr Babiasaheb Ambedkar—Life and Mission by Dhananjoy Keer, pp 41-42)

His critique of the upper-caste bias of the Congress-led freedom movement had elements of truth per se but viewing Britishers as the savior of the depressed classes certainly smacks of ideological corruption and amounts to falling prey to the time tested divide and rule policy of the colonizers everywhere in history. And this is where all his radicalism led him to eventually turning him into a darling of the colonial rulers. Thus, his subsequent ascendency to the advisor of military council of the British government in the later years can't be seen as anything but natural if not calculative.

So many decades after his death, it may not make much sense to declare him a colonial stooge. But apologist he certainly was and it perfectly makes sense to ask, if this is the legacy the revolutionaries of present time need to bear to carry forward their struggle against neo-colonialism? Even liberal commentators, who are all praise for his personal struggle, his quest for knowledge, his erudition, his eloquence and his articulation of dalit issues in India's constitutional frame are not comfortable with his bonhomie with British power. On what pretext and purpose the revolutionary left should turn blind eyes to this facet is beyond anybody's comprehension.

The times of emergence and the social base were common for the Left in India and Ambedkarite social movement in the formative years and they developed with a consistent love-hate relationship. While in US, Ambedkar was deeply impressed by Western democracy and also got some exposure to leftist ideas. However, his intercourse with Marxism was mostly at the level of pedagogy and he never seemed to be impressed by the praxis, notably in USSR.

Maybe he was aghast with the tendency within the leftist circles of taking Marx and Marxist orthodoxy as dogma. Apparently he found Marx's philosophy as satisfying philosophy to the lower order. But he never found it worthwhile to develop an alternative Marxist praxis in India which he considered a direction rather than a dogma. Moreover socialist praxis in Russia was considered as a 'fraud'.

His efforts at drawing a parallel between Marx and Buddha (Buddha Or Karl Marx) clearly reflects how shallow his reading of Marx was. It was rather a hurried way to find someone in Indian soil close in caliber and excellence to Marx. For him, however, Marxism had already lost its sheen and he wrote in this treatise :
"much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces. There is hardly any doubt that Marxist claim that his socialism was inevitable has been completely disproved. The dictatorship of the Proletariat was first established in 1917 in one country after a period of something like seventy years after the publication of his Das Capital, the gospel of socialism. Even when the Communism—which is another name for the dictatorship of the Proletariat—came to Russia, it did not come as something inevitable without any kind of human effort. There was a revolution and much deliberate planning had to be done with a lot of violence and bloodshed, before it could step into Russia. The rest of the world is still waiting for coming of the Proletarian Dictatorship. Apart from this general falsification of the Marxian thesis that Socialism is inevitable, many of the other propositions stated in the lists have also been demolished both by logic as well as by experience. Nobody now accepts the economic interpretation of history as the only explanation of history. Nobody accepts that the proletariat has been progressively pauperised".

Any student of Marxism will readily identify the shallow and ludicrous tone of this reading which is not only pedestrian but amounts to motivated maligning as well. In either case, one can hardly take him or his understanding as Marxist, not to speak of himself as Marxist!

His relationship with leftists, as said earlier, was one of love-hate. In the realm of trade union movement, his main criticism for the left was that the left didn't address the issue of un-touchability in the factory premises. May be such criticisms were valid to some extent. But breaking labor strike in 1928, which Ambedkar attempted in Mumbai textiles can't be justified on that pretext and that history will remain an act of betrayal in the annals of Indian trade union movement.

True, there had been occasions of joint efforts in the aftermath, as in the industrial strike in 1939 but they were in the nature of united front activity from both sides. There were occasions when Ambedkar came up with strong criticism for left which seems to be credible even to this day. A case in point is his criticism of M N Roy for CPI's refusal to have its own trade union assuming that it would weaken anti-British fight and instead work from within the Congress trade union. Such suicidal tendencies within Indian communist movement were major impediments in independent assertion of the left and fight against such tendencies is still on. But for Ambedkar, it can be conclusively said that, those criticisms came not from a left plank and were essentially destructive in nature.

There are reasons to believe that form of movement used by him and the platform he chose to operate from had much to do with such ideological underpinnings, which was basically religious and conformist. His continued engagement with religion seems to be more strategic than tactical. While some of his senior pros had treaded the path of atheism in advancing cause of dalit movement, a la Periyar, it is rather surprising to find him engaged in the labyrinth of religion in the same pursuit. A life-long protagonist of 'dalit liberation' Ambedkar was reformist and for all his bitterness towards Hindu religion, he never envisaged usurpation of caste hierarchy in totality. All his valiance thus remained ever-subjugated to the crucial lack of radical theoretical perspective and will hence be remembered by history as reformist and not revolutionary.

Revolutionary streams of freedom movement in the country too had myriad ideological confusions. Not only many of them used Hindu icons as inspiration, many of them were seriously mired in religious ideology. But they were and are revered as revolutionaries because of their readiness to do maximum sacrifice. The examples they set of bravery, optimism, sacrifice, steadfastness in the face of terror and torture had been exemplary and would inspire many generations of youth in their struggle against oppression and injustice. In Ambedkar's case, it was no-where near theirs. His was a journey of an aspirant upwardly mobile dalit, whose primary ladder of ascendency was constitutionalism, which alone was enough to captivate the firebrand in him and reduce him into a religious reformist. No wonder he was never jailed in his lifetime!

Re-assessment of Ambedkar's work and perception, however, may not be viewed in isolation. It definitely has a long term implication, which calls into question the very basics of the edifice of revolutionary epistemology and practice. The reference point of Ambedkarite movement, in Babasaheb's lifetime as well as later, had hovered around constitutional reforms. They were reformist to the core despite apparent radical forms in burning Hindu religious scriptures etc. They were reformist not because they hovered around constitutional reform, but because they lacked the perspective of a radical social reconstruction which Babasaheb never seriously addressed.

Thus revisiting Ambedkar by the radical left after more than five decades of its existence should also lead them to re-evaluate Indian parliamentary system as a whole. Leaving aside all important issues indicating his complicity with and dependence on colonial power, this aspect may be paid adequate attention.

The radical left in India has already been participating in parliamentary forms of struggle for quite some time and it is important for them to develop enough clarity on these issues. Walking on this slippery path without clarity is fraught with obvious dangers of deviation and degeneration. Though such need has been aired by many, any substantive document on issues relating to Indian constitution and parliamentary politics is yet to come forth.

An erudite activist, a prolific writer Ambedkar certainly has many facets and dimensions. On occasions he had come up with strongest possible criticism for Hinduism as well as capitalism. But unfortunately, neither he was able to design a program for 'annihilation of caste' nor was he ever part of any vision of a society built on socialist lines. As for the first, he took an escape route by switching to Buddhism himself and as for the second, he was precisely against socialism as a possibility. Contradictions between his analyses and positions have been rife all through and perhaps that is the hall-mark of his thoughts where glimpses of brilliance, reflection of ground realities can be found on and off, though the overall ideological overtone remained conservative ever.

Casteist oppression left deep impression in his growing tender sensitivities of Bhimrao, growing in him burning hatred for Hinduism which was his lifelong obsession and drive for all vigorous social activism. But unfortunately that burning hatred failed to lead him to any radical ideological perspective and program, precisely because of his rabid anti-left position and obsession with religion and parliamentarism. His radical edge in social activism had left some trail even to this day and definitely merits attention from the left camp as regards joint actions and solidarity. But what needs to be understood is that confusing United Front (UF) activity with ideology can only invite disaster for the left with long term implications and may be difficult to recover from.

Vol. 49, No.36, Mar 12 - 18, 2017