abasaheb Ambedkar has been accused of keeping a distance from India’s freedom movement which resulted in the alienation of the Dalits from the movement.(Arun Shourie, 2012). While it is true that Ambedkar participated in none of the movements against British rule led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress, it would be enlightening in this regard to view the Indian political scenario from 1930s till Independence from the perspective of Ambedkar and the Depressed Classes of India.
Participating in a debate in the Bombay Legislative Assembly on 26 October 1939, Babasaheb Ambedkar, offered some guiding clues to his political philosophy. In a very forceful speech he says:
“ I know my position has not been understood properly in the country. It has often been misunderstood. Let me, therefore, take this opportunity to clarify my position…Whenever there has been a conflict between my personal interests and the interests of the country as a whole, I have always placed the claim of the country above my own personal claims… But I will also leave no doubt in the minds of the people of this country that I have another loyalty to which I am bound and which I can never forsake. That loyalty is the community of untouchables, in which I am born, to which I belong, and which I hope I shall never desert. And I say this to this House as strongly as I possibly can, that whenever there is any conflict of interest between the country and the untouchables, so far as I am concerned, the untouchables’ interests will take precedence over the interests of the country. I am not going to support a tyrannising majority simply because it happens to speak in the name of the country. I am not going to support a party because it happens tospeak in the name of the country. I shall not do that. Let everybody here and everywhere understand that that is my position. As between the country and myself, the country will have precedence; as between the country and the Depressed Classes, the Depressed Classes will have precedence—the country will not have precedence.”
Ambedkar’s political priorities are evident. He remained steadfastly opposed to any individual, idea, organisation or movement that he felt was not in the interest of the Depressed Classes. Since, in his view the idea of freedom from British rule as it existed then did not in any way advance the interests of the Depressed Classes, he distanced himself from any of the movements, particularly those undertaken by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.These include the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-21, Civil Disobedience Movement of 1030-31 and the Quit India Movement of 1942.
Had Babasaheb Ambedkar felt convinced of the sincerity of the leaders of the freedom movement with regard to the interests of the Depressed Classes, he might have extended them cooperation. And in that case, the fight for freedom from the British and the one for the freedom from the social injustice could have been concurrent and simultaneous.
Unfortunately this did not happen; Dr.Ambedkar felt that the interests of the Depressed Classes would never be attended to appropriately by either the Indian National Congress or by the Mahatma. A few broad reasons may be identified for the total absence of any meeting ground between Ambedkar and the leaders of the freedom movement:
- The Freedom Movement, Dr. Ambedkar felt, was overwhelmed by the single goal of attainment of freedom from the British and had little space for the interests of the Depressed Classes. This exclusive focus on the political gain had its roots in the well-known controversy at the time of LokmanyaTilak, G. G. Agarkar and later Justice M. G. Ranade as to whether political reforms should precede social reforms or follow them.
In a speech that he gave under the auspices of the Deccan Sabha of Pune in 1940, titled ‘Ranade, Gandhi &Jinnah’, Dr Ambedkar sided with Justice Ranade and maintained that the thesis that political reforms should precede the social reforms was untenable. The opponents of Justice Ranade maintained that the attainment of political power was a precondition for the protection of rights of the people or conferment of these rights on them, if they did not exist. Dr.Ambedkar however felt that as things stood then, the rights existed only for a minority; the vast majority of the population did not have such rights inthe first place. The question, therefore, of their protection on attainment of political power did not arise.
Second, he maintained that even if the rights were conferred on the majority after political reforms were achieved, these would not be effective since‘such rights are protected not by law but by the social and moral conscience of society. ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar felt that Indian society lacked this conscience and in its absence the conferment of political rights on people would be infructuous. He further maintained that self-government was not necessarily a good government since a democratic self-government would be effective only in an atmosphere of social democracyand this was absent in Indian society.
- The Freedom Movement was dominated by caste Hindus who, Dr Ambedkar felt, had been by and large ruthlessly indifferent to the fate of the Depressed Classes and were unlikely to change in an independent India. In the speech in the Bombay Legislative Assembly referred to above, he quotes numerous instances to show the continued social injustice by caste Hindus on the Depressed Classes. This, despite the efforts by the leaders of the Depressed Classes since the later part of the 19th century to ameliorate their conditions and combat injustice.
Dr. Ambedkar knew well that only a miracle would work a sudden change of attitude of the caste Hindus on attainment of freedom and self-rule and therefore averred attainment of social democracy prior to political democracy.
3. There was a marked difference of approach toward the problem of Depressed Classes between him and Gandhi. While Gandhi felt there was no place for untouchability in the caste system and disapproved of caste inequality,he did approve of the caste system in the form of varnashram. Gandhi felt that untouchability should be removed within the framework of the varnashram. He therefore relied largely on the change of heart of the caste Hindus.(emphasis added)
Ambedkar’s programme for the removal of untouchability on the other hand focused on lifting the standard of education of the untouchables and integrating them into the Indian society as modern politically strong citizens with aspirations to rise to the level of the highest Hindu.That is why the motto ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise’ became the motto of the whole Dalit movement not only before Independence but subsequently too. .
In view of these fundamental differences in approach toward and perception of the problem of untouchability between Ambedkar and Gandhi, it was little wonder that the two men, great souls as they were both, could never find an amicable meeting ground on the Indian political firmament till the end of their life. This isprobably the most unfortunate political fact of modern Indian history.
It would be erroneous to dub Dr.Ambedkar anti-national or a stooge of British government for having kept away from the freedom struggle. In a speech in 1917, Shahu Chhatrapati, the ruler of Kolhapur, stated that political independence in the face of a rigid and exploitative caste system would only mean the power in the hands of a few bent on exploitation of the lower classes. He went further and underlined the need for British support and counsel till the evil of caste system had disappeared. There were others who shared that view at the time . They did not face criticism at the hands of contemporaries. None of them is regarded as having worked against the interest of the country. Dr.Ambedkar should be no exception.
And who can deny the contribution made by Babasaheb Ambedkar as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution? Babasaheb Ambedkar made a lasting contribution to India’s stature in the comity of nations as the world’s largest democracy and is rightfully considered a founding father of the Indian republic..
Beyond this Babasaheb Ambedkar’s life should be viewed as a part of a larger and ‘a correlated but different freedom struggle, one for the liberation of the most oppressed sections of Indian society. This was a liberation movement wider and deeper than that of fighting colonialism, focusing on the kind of new nation that was to be built’ (Gail Omvedtin ‘Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India’). The freedom struggle that Dr. Ambedkar waged was no less dignified than the the fight against the British rule in that it was an attempt of the weakest of the weak to gain a rightful place in society and a life of a human being, respectful and honourable.
In a long term perspective, the movement to lift the depressed classesbenefits caste Hindus as well for no society can thrive for long at the cost of development of one of its segments. And for this recognition India owes a great deal to the individual who initiated and led a great liberation movementas a true friend of human freedom. The greatness of his mission transcends the boundaries of any kind andshines as the lodestar for the movements of the oppressed everywhere.
Notes. ArunShourie:Worshipping False Gods. Harper Collins.Latest edition. July 2012
Hemant Devasthali,taught Business Economics at Ness Wadia College of Commerce, Savitribai Phule Pune University. He retired as its Principal of the college in 2010. He has written on socio-economic issues. IN 2008 he founded Anand Yatra a support group for the elderly widowed, separated or unmarried in 2008. He is honorary advisor, to Maher, well-known institution in Pune for destitute women, men and children.