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Home / Opinion / Today’s politics aims to neutralize BR Ambedkar

In January 1943, the great B. R. Ambedkar gave a typically perceptive speech on the 19th century liberal from Pune, Mahadev Govind Ranade. He compared the reasoned politics of Ranade with the irresponsible populism of M. K. Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah.

In this speech, Ambedkar also warned against the usual Indian tendency towards political idolatry. He told his audience of liberals that a true master such as Ranade would want his followers to take guidance from his work rather than be bound by specific conclusions: “There is no ingratitude in the disciple not accepting the maxims or the conclusions of his master. For even when he rejects them, he is bound to acknowledge to his master in deep reverence."

This advice is worth remembering as the nation marks the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar. Politicians of every hue are now claiming Ambedkar as one of their own. These cynical attempts from across the political spectrum to neutralize Ambedkar by putting him on a pedestal need to be rejected. What matters far more than the ongoing ideological battles based on stray quotes is to commit to the neglected Ambedkarite project. It remains central to the health of our constitutional democracy.

Ambedkar often spoke of his deep intellectual debt to John Dewey, his teacher at Columbia University. American pragmatists such as Dewey were strong believers in individual liberty, they welcomed modernity in all its forms, they had little time for metaphysical debate, they had tremendous faith in the radical possibilities of public education, and they argued that ideas should be judged by whether they worked in practice. The same approach is evident in the scholarly writings by Ambedkar on economics, constitutional law, politics, anthropology, history, social reform and religion.

Ambedkar argued that democracy is about far more than trudging to the voting booths every five years. He saw democracy as a way of “associated living" between people who form a society. An unequal society cannot be a robust democracy because it has no conception of associated living or the common good. His searing critiques of the brutal caste system should be understood against this backdrop. It is no surprise that Ambedkar believed that a political democracy needs to be strengthened with social democracy, which most importantly means the annihilation of caste.

Where Ambedkar could be said to have parted ways with Dewey was in the solution to the problem of caste oppression. Dewey put a lot of hope in education as a way to minimize social oppression. Ambedkar too told his followers to educate themselves, but he also saw that it would take too long for education to create an equal society in an illiterate country such as India. It is for this reason that he banked on the constitutional state to not just be a neutral referee but also an instrument of social change. In his monumental study of Indian liberalism, Cambridge scholar C.A. Bayly has described Ambedkar as a counter-liberal.

A third aspect of the Ambedkarite project that is very relevant today is his plea for constitutional morality. In his justly famous speech during one of the last sessions of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar warned that abandoning constitutional morality—or freedom constrained by the rule of law— would open the gates to anarchy. He said the Indian people should “hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It must mean that we abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha".

To use Ambedkar to further some partisan political campaign is to do injustice to the great man. So also the desperate urge to put him on a safe pedestal rather than take forward the larger Ambedkarite project. Anybody worried about the persistence of illiberalism in Indian society, the rise of divisive politics, the easy attractions of Manichean debate, the weakening authority of the state and the challenges of economic modernization would do well to go back to Ambedkar.

Do you think Ambedkar’s political philosophy has been ignored? Tell us at views@livemint.com.

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