Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Why the Ambedkar legacy really matters

More important than tactically quoting him is to understand the Ambedkarite project

One of the welcome features of the parliamentary debates on the Constitution last week was the centrality given to the ideas of B.R. Ambedkar. We also saw the sorry spectacle of various political parties trying hard to claim him as one of their own. Such attempts to forcefully fit Ambedkar into a straitjacket does injustice to a complex thinker, undoubtedly the most scholarly political leader India has ever had.

Ambedkar wrote on various issues for over four decades, with utter intellectual honesty. A quick look at his oeuvre reveals an astonishing range. He wrote on why India needed to adopt the gold standard, on the exchange rate of the Indian rupee with the British pound, the evolution of provincial finance, the origins of the pernicious caste system, economic modernization as the ultimate solution to farmer distress, what needs to be done to annihilate caste, how to protect the rights of the oppressed, searing critiques of M.K. Gandhi, attacks on the Hindu orthodoxy, why the creation of Pakistan would be good for India, the nature of the Constitution, the need for linguistic states and the humane message of the Buddha. His range included economics, political philosophy, anthropology, history, religion and law.

The current fashion is to selectively quote from Ambedkar to make limited sparring points, as a result of which he is being claimed by the Hindutva camp, the Congress, the free market crowd, the Lohiaites and the Communist Left. His grammar of anarchy speech, made on the day the constituent assembly met on 26 November 1949 to adopt the draft Constitution, is a favourite these days. Far more important than tactically quoting Ambedkar is to understand the bigger Ambedkarite project, which has unfortunately not kept pace with his growing posthumous popularity.

Ambedkar himself often spoke about his intellectual debt to the philosopher John Dewey, who was his mentor at Columbia University. Many of the constant themes in Ambedkar’s varied writings spring from the school of pragmatic philosophy that Dewey was a distinguished member of. The pragmatists championed the cause of individual liberty, they welcomed modernity, they had a disdain for metaphysics, their politics was moderate, and they argued that truth is not an objective category, so any idea must be judged by whether it works or not when put into practice.

But perhaps the most significant idea or at least the most relevant for our times, from Dewey that one can find in Ambedkar is democracy as a way of sharing a common life with other human beings. Democracy is thus not just about periodic elections but a way of living. One core idea is that human beings are not only shaped by social institutions but also shape them in return, but the latter is possible only if there is an aware citizenry that has had the benefit of good education and equal rights. Ambedkar brilliantly adapted these insights from the pragmatic philosophers to develop his critiques of the caste system, his ideas about the Indian nation and his views on the requisites of a robust democracy.

It is easy to selectively quote Ambedkar. He wrote like a libertarian economist in defence of the gold standard in his early career. He led labour unions for the time when he flirted with what he described as state socialism. He attacked Hindu society but had hard truths to share about the reality of Muslim politics in undivided India. He was the moving spirit of the Constitution but once threatened to burn it in a fit of anger. He wanted India to have a strong centre though he warned about the threat of dominance by the Hindi states.

Picking and choosing quotes while ignoring the larger Ambedkarite project is an easy sport that too many indulge in these days. That Ambedkarite project is about individual liberty, the end of the caste system, social democracy, a democratic public culture, the embrace of modernity, pragmatism, constitutional methods and education for an enlightened citizenry.

Can any political party claim Ambedkar as its own? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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