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Ambedkar, The Nation-builder

By Vivek Kumar

28 April, 2004
The Pioneer

It is beyond doubt that Ambedkar has been a victim of the process of
"reductionism". He has either been reduced to the status of a Dalit leader
or, at the most, as the chief architect of the Constitution. However, if
we evaluate his contribution in terms of statesmanship, political
leadership, and intellectual inputs in economic, social, political,
educational and judicial realms, we will be forced to call him a
nation-builder. His endeavour to deconstruct and reconstruct Indian
society on structural basis rather than by social reform is testimony to

Ambedkar, a product of unequal social order with stigmatised identity,
vehemently criticised the social reformers of his time for paying only lip
service to the issues of caste and untouchability. It is ironical that
they never realised that these institutions have proved detrimental to a
quarter of Indian population. Most social reformers during this period
talked about social reforms like abolition of sati, child marriage, female
infanticide, imparting education to women, emphasis on widow remarriage,
use of swadeshi, etc., instead of structural changes.

According to Ambedkar, the irony was that the social reformers were
unaware that these evils were offshoots of the caste structure. Hence,
what India needed was annihilation of the caste system and not social
reforms. Second, these evils were not present among Dalits and Shudras;
hence, these reforms had nothing for them. As the caste institution
affected Dalits differently, Ambedkar wanted to end the caste system
itself. This, he knew, could be done only by questioning the sanctity of
Hindu sacred texts, institutionalising inter-caste marriages and
inter-dining, and dismantling the hereditary priesthood.

Another structure which Ambedkar questioned and wanted dismantled was the
Indian village. He faced scathing criticism for ignoring the village as
the unit of administration in the draft constitution. Why was the
Constitution not being raised and built upon the village panchayats? His
critics wanted India to contain many village governments. Ambedkar showed
the real image of Indian villages to the Constituent Assembly by stating
that Indian villages were devoid of equality, liberty and fraternity, and
hence of democracy.

"It is the very negation of republic. If it is a republic, it is a
republic of Touchables, by the Touchables and for the Touchables. The
republic is an empire of the Hindus over the untouchables," said Ambedkar.
That is why he pleaded that the individual should be considered the unit
of the Constitution, which was happily accepted. How can we ignore
Ambedkar's contribution towards the nation as whole, and 70 per cent of
India's population that still lives in villages?

Ambedkar's major contribution towards reconstituting the Indian social
structure was dismantling the hierarchical Indian society based on
ascriptive and particularistic cultural traits and establishment of
parliamentary democracy. He saw that democracy would ensure equality,
liberty, fraternity, prosperity, and happiness to the common people.
Therefore, he emphasised that social and economic democracies are sine qua
non for a successful political democracy. But he cautioned against leaders
taking a superficial view of democracy. He was against treating
constitutional morality, adult suffrage and frequent elections as the be
all and end all of democracy, because even western thinkers had made the
same mistake.

Parliamentary democracy collapsed in Italy, Germany and Russia in the 20th
century because it could not create a government of the people or by the
people; it was producing government of the hereditary ruling class. Real
democracy, according to Ambedkar, would lead to the governing class losing
power. His vision is bearing fruit today, when we see the subaltern
classes - the Dalits and the OBCs who have never tasted power - in the
corridors of power.

Finally, Ambedkar envisaged establishment of equality - social, economic,
and political - not just as a slogan but as a concrete policy. He made
equality of opportunity a fundamental right. But he was conscious that in
an unequal society, equality of opportunity could lead to further
production of inequality because those groups which were already ahead in
the social ladder would always have an advantage. Therefore, Ambedkar also
enshrined "equality of condition" in the Indian Constitution. This
condition was nothing but reservations for the Dalits.

With these measures, he possibly wanted to change the composition of the
institutions of power with representation of marginalised sections. But
when we observe the output of these policies for equality, we see a gap.
Still, the marginalised sections lag far behind amidst their modest
mobility. Can we build a strong nation if a quarter of its population is
still lagging behind? Till this population is left behind, Ambedkar and
his vision will remain relevant.