Selections from Ambedkar's writing provide a brief glimpse into his astonishingly diverse oeuvre
B.R. Ambedkar was a man of many parts—a scholar, a social reformer, a politician, a religious thinker and the moving spirit of the Indian constitution. He wrote prolifically over his nearly four decades in public life. Here, Mint offers a very brief glimpse into his astonishingly diverse oeuvre. These selections have been chosen with an eye on contemporary relevance, and hence do not cover what Ambedkar wrote on the more immediate issues of his time.
Ambedkar was exposed to the sheer brutality of the caste system even when he was a child. In an undated autobiographical note, he described what he had to endure during a family trip. Even when he later came back from the US to take a job in the Baroda government, Ambedkar found it hard to get accommodation in the city.
“As is usual among the Hindus, the station-master asked us who we were. Without a moment’s thought I blurted out that we were Mahars. He was stunned. His face underwent a sudden change. We could see that he was overpowered by a strange feeling of repulsion. As soon as he heard my reply he went away to his room, and we stood where we were. Fifteen to twenty minutes elapsed; the sun was almost setting. Our father had not turned up, nor had he sent his servant; and now the station-master had also left us. We were quite bewildered, and the joy and happiness which we had felt at the beginning of the journey gave way to a feeling of extreme sadness.
After half an hour, the station-master returned and asked us what we proposed to do. We said that if we could get a bullock-cart on hire, we would go to Koregaon; and if it was not very far, we would like to start straightway. There were many bullock-carts plying for hire. But my reply to the station-master that we were Mahars had gone round among the cartmen, and not one of them was prepared to suffer being polluted, and to demean himself carrying passengers of the untouchable classes. We were prepared to pay double the fare, but we found that money did not work.
The station-master who was negotiating on our behalf stood silent, not knowing what to do. Suddenly a thought seemed to have entered his head and he asked us, “Can you drive the cart?" Feeling that he was finding out a solution of our difficulty, we shouted, “Yes, we can." With that answer he went and proposed on our behalf that we were to pay the cartman double the fare and drive the cart, and that he should walk on foot along with the cart on our journey. One cartman agreed, since it gave him an opportunity to earn his fare and also saved him from being polluted.
It was about 6:30pm when we were ready to start. But we were anxious not to leave the station until we were assured that we would reach Koregaon before it was dark. We therefore questioned the cartman about the distance, and the time he would take to reach Koregaon. He assured us that it would be not more than three hours. Believing in his word, we put our luggage in the cart, thanked the station-master, and got into the cart. One of us took the reins and the cart started, with the man walking by our side.
Not very far from the station there flowed a river. It was quite dry, except at places where there were small pools of water. The owner of the cart proposed that we should halt there and have our meal, as we might not get water on our way. We agreed. He asked us to give a part of his fare to enable him to go to the village and have his meal. My brother gave him some money and he left, promising to return soon. We were very hungry, and were glad to have had an opportunity to have a bite... We opened the tiffin basket and started eating."
We needed water to wash things down. One of us went to the pool of water in the river basin nearby. But the water really was no water. It was thick with mud and urine and excreta of the cows and buffaloes and other cattle who went to the pool for drinking. In fact that water was not intended for human use. At any rate the stink of the water was so strong we could not drink it. We had therefore to close our meal before we were satisfied, and wait for the arrival of the cartman…
“On his advice I went to the toll-collector’s hut and asked him if he would give us some water. ‘Who are you?’ he inquired. I replied that we were Musalmans. I conversed with him in Urdu (which I knew very well), so as to leave no doubt that I was a real Musalman. But the trick did not work and his reply was very curt. ‘Who has kept water for you? There is water on the hill, if you want to go and get it; I have none.’ With this he dismissed me. I returned to the cart, and conveyed to my brother his reply. I don’t know what my brother felt. All that he did was to tell us to lie down.
The bullocks had been unyoked, and the cart was placed sloping down on the ground. We spread our beds on the bottom planks inside the cart, and laid down our bodies to rest. Now that we had come to a place of safety we did not mind what happened. But our minds could not help turning to the latest event. There was plenty of food with us. There was hunger burning within us; with all this we were to sleep without food; that was because we could get no water, and we could get no water because we were untouchables."
—From an autobiographical note, circa 1934
THE SOCIAL REFORMER
The most important battles Ambedkar fought were for the rights of his people. The treatment given to untouchables angered him. He attacked Hindu society for what it had done to the untouchables, but also told social reformers from the upper castes that caste could not be annihilated unless the old religious texts themselves are questioned. If Ambedkar was critical of Hindu society, he was perhaps even more critical of Muslim society, especially its regressive politics and its treatment of women.
“You are right in holding that Caste will cease to be an operative farce only when inter-dining and inter-marriage have become matters of common course. You have located the source of the disease. But is your prescription the right prescription for the disease? Ask yourselves this question; Why is it that a large majority of Hindus do not inter-dine and do not inter-marry? Why is it that your cause is not popular? There can be only one answer to this question and it is that inter-dining and inter-marriage are repugnant to the beliefs and dogmas which the Hindus regard as sacred. Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind. The destruction of Caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change. Caste may be bad. Caste may lead to conduct so gross as to be called man’s inhumanity to man. All the same, it must be recognized that the Hindus observe Caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed. They observe Caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy, you must grapple with is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste."
—From the Annihilation of Caste, 1936
“There can thus be no manner of doubt that the Muslim Society in India is afflicted by the same social evils as afflict the Hindu Society. Indeed, the Muslims have all the social evils of the Hindus and something more. That something more is the compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women.
These burka women walking in the streets is one of the most hideous sights one can witness in India. Such seclusion cannot but have its deteriorating effects upon the physical constitution of Muslim women. They are usually victims to anaemia, tuberculosis and pyorrhoea. Their bodies are deformed, with their backs bent, bones protruded, hands and feet crooked. Ribs, joints and nearly all their bones ache. Heart palpitation is very often present in them. The result of this pelvic deformity is untimely death at the time of delivery. Purdah deprives Muslim women of mental and moral nourishment…
The existence of these evils among the Muslims is distressing enough. But far more distressing is the fact that there is no organized movement of social reform among the Musalmans of India on a scale sufficient to bring about their eradication. The Hindus have their social evils. But there is this relieving feature about them—namely, that some of them are conscious of their existence and a few of them are actively agitating for their removal. The Muslims, on the other hand, do not realize that they are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal. Indeed, they oppose any change in their existing practices.
—From Pakistan, or the Partition of India
Ambedkar was a trained economist with two PhD degrees. As in most other aspects of life, Ambedkar was an uncompromising modernist in economic matters. He believed that the industrialization of India was the best antidote to rural poverty. The first excerpt is from one of his first academic publications as an economist and the second is from the manifesto he drafted for the Independent Labour Party.
“In short, strange as it may seem, industrialisation of India is the soundest remedy for the agricultural problems of India. The cumulative effects of industrialisation, namely a lessening pressure (of surplus labour) and an increasing amount of capital and capital goods will forcibly create the economic necessity of enlarging the holding. Not only this, but industrialisation, by destroying the premium on land, will give rise to few occasions for its sub-division and fragmentation. Industrialisation is a natural and powerful remedy…"
—From Small Holdings in India and their Remedies, 1918
“The party believes that the fragmentation of holdings and the consequent poverty of the agriculturists are mainly due to the pressure of population on the land, and unless the pressure is relieved by draining off the excess population subsisting on land, fragmentation will continue, and the condition of the agriculturists will remain as poverty-stricken as it is today. In the opinion of the party, the principal means of helping the agriculturists and making agriculture more productive consists in the industrialisation of the province. The party will, therefore, endeavour to rehabilitate old industries and promote such new industries as the natural resources of the provinces will permit… The party accepts the principle of state management and state ownership of industry, whenever it may become necessary in the interests of the people."
—From the programme of the Independent Labour Party, 1936
THE POLITICAL THINKER
Ambedkar was a political liberal who believed in the values of liberty, equality and fraternity. But he also warned that political democracy would be at risk if the underlying society remains unequal or if Indians did not embrace what he described as constitutional morality.
“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us."
The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. 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.
The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?"
—From a speech in the Constituent Assembly, 1949
“I would not be surprised if some of you have grown weary listening to this tiresome tale of the sad effects which caste has produced. There is nothing new in it. I will therefore turn to the constructive side of the problem. What is your ideal society if you do not want caste is a question that is bound to be asked of you? If you ask me, my ideal would be a society based on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. And why not? What objection can there be to Fraternity? I cannot imagine any. An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men."
—From the Annihilation of Caste
“My social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed by philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha. In his philosophy, liberty and equality had a place; but he added that unlimited liberty destroyed equality, and absolute equality left no room for liberty. In his philosophy, law had a place only as a safeguard against the breaches of liberty or equality; but he did not believe that law can be a guarantee for breaches of liberty or equality. He gave the highest place to fraternity as the only real safeguard against the denial of liberty or equality — fraternity which was another name for brotherhood or humanity, which was again another name for religion."
—From an address to All India Radio, 1954
THE CRITIC OF GANDHI
Ambedkar was an unsparing critic of M.K. Gandhi. He ended a book on whether India should be a federation or a unitary state with an acerbic comparison between what he called the Age of Ranade and the Age of Gandhi. Some of his warnings remain relevant even today.
“We are standing today at the point of time where the old age ends and the new begins. The old age was the age of Ranade, Agarkar, Tilak, Gokhale, Wachha, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Surendranath Bannerjee. The new age is the age of Mr. Gandhi and this generation is said to be Gandhi generation. As one who knows something of the old age and also something of the new I see some very definite marks of difference between the two. The type of leadership has undergone a profound change. In the age of Ranade the leaders struggled to modernize India. In the age of Gandhi the leaders are making her a living specimen of antiquity. In the age of Ranade leaders depended upon experience as a corrective method to their thoughts and their deeds. The leaders of the present age depend upon their inner voice as their guide. Not only is there a difference in their mental make up there is a difference even in their viewpoint regarding external appearance. The leaders of the old age took care to be well clad while the leaders of the present age take pride in being half clad. The leaders of the Gandhi age are of course aware of these differences. But far from blushing for their views and. their appearance they claim that the India of Gandhi is superior to India of Ranade.
They say that the age of Mr. Gandhi is an agitated and an expectant age, which the age of Mr. Ranade was not.
Those who have lived both in the age of Ranade and the age of Gandhi will admit that there is this difference between the two. At the same time they will be able to insist that if the India of Ranade was less agitated it was more honest and that if it was less expectant it was more enlightened. The age of Ranade was an age in which men and women did engage themselves seriously in studying and examining the facts of their life, and what is more important is that in the face of the opposition of the orthodox mass they tried to mould their lives and their character in accordance with the light they found as a result of their research. In the age of Ranade there was not the same divorce between a politician and a student which one sees in the Gandhi age. In the age of Ranade a politician, who was not a student, was treated as an intolerable nuisance, if not a danger. In the age of Mr. Gandhi learning, if it is not despised, is certainly not deemed to be a necessary qualification of a politician.
To my mind there is no doubt that this Gandhi age is the dark age of India. It is an age in which people instead of looking for their ideals in the future are returning to antiquity. It is an age in which people have ceased to think for themselves and as they have ceased to think they have ceased to read and examine the facts of their lives. The fate of an ignorant democracy which refuses to follow the way shown by learning and experience and chooses to grope in the dark paths of the mystics and the megalomaniacs is a sad thing to contemplate."