Home / Opinion / Ambedkar and idle worship

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar would not have approved.

The latest act of tokenism from both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress has been to adopt Ambedkar as an idol into their pantheon of political gods. For both parties, that’s a bit like a character from asura-loka becoming a deva. “I am no worshipper of idols, I believe in breaking them," said Ambedkar.

The iconoclastic, irreverent and irreligious Ambedkar stood against exactly the kind of deification and hero-worship that has been foisted upon him. Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who literally and metaphorically raised him onto a pedestal, conferred this demigod status first upon Ambedkar in the 1980s. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Ram’s protégé and BSP leader Mayawati are all wooing Ambedkar’s memory to appeal to the Dalits and in so doing improve their electoral arithmetic.

Presciently, Ambedkar said this immediately before the Constitution was adopted, “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"?

Ambedkar was a brilliant but complex man, some might say full of contradictions. He was an accomplished lawyer, economist and politician, after having secured two doctorates, one from Columbia University and another from the London School of Economics. His early work in economics (see this excellent article by Pramit Bhattacharya, Mint April 10, 2016, defies easy categorization. In the context of that time, he was an advocate of the gold standard, a greater role for the state, industrialization and cooperative farming. He was against both Marxism and capitalism. His moral, political and economic philosophy is probably best described as “Buddhist-Lockean-Fabian": a strange amalgam if ever there was one.

Ambedkar the lawyer, and famously the lead drafter of the Constitution, was a liberal in the Western sense of the term, with a deep belief in liberty, equality and fraternity. As a politician he was very keen to further “fraternity". Ambedkar was not merely interested in constitutional protection against the tyranny of the majority exercised through the arms of the state, but also the tyranny of the community exercised against its own components by 2,000-year-old social structures.

Ambedkar the politician saw everything from and through the lens of Dalit exclusion. He himself observed that this segregation was absolute, “untouchability is not a case of social separation, a mere stoppage of social intercourse for a temporary period. It is a case of territorial segregation and of a cordon sanitaire putting the impure people inside a barbed wire into a sort of a cage." This singularity of perspective led him to be an opponent of both Gandhi and Jinnah. In a radio interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation a year before his death, Ambedkar claims that as one of few “non-devotees" he knew Gandhi well. He charges Gandhi with double dealing, of deceiving people and of being a representative of the orthodoxy. He concluded by saying that Gandhi will be remembered as mere “episode" in India’s history not an “epoch maker".

In many ways, Ambedkar was an equal opportunity offender. In addition to his criticism of Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru, he openly wrote against the Hindu movement in this way: “the Hindu nationalist who hopes that Britain will coerce the Muslims into abandoning Pakistan, forgets that the right of nationalism to freedom from an aggressive foreign imperialism and the right of a minority to freedom from an aggressive majority’s nationalism are not two different things, nor does the former stand on a more sacred footing than the latter".

Ambedkar the leader was dissatisfied that India was becoming a republic in an imperfect, unequal sort of way. He said, “a democratic form of government presupposes a democratic form of a society. The formal framework of democracy is of no value and would indeed be a misfit if there was no social democracy. It may not be necessary for a democratic society to be marked by unity, by community of purpose, by loyalty to public ends and by mutuality of sympathy. But it does unmistakably involve two things. The first is an attitude of mind, and attitude of respect and equality towards their fellows. The second is a social organisation free from rigid social barriers. Democracy is incompatible and inconsistent with isolation and exclusiveness resulting in the distinction between the privileged and the unprivileged."

“Democracy is not a form of government, but a form of social organisation", he asserted.

The halo around Ambedkar the Dalit symbol is being usurped by newly converted devotees. They have proceeded to do exactly what Ambedkar was worried about: furthering their shallow political ambitions at further cost to social democracy.

PS: “In politics, bhakti is a sure road to degradation and eventually dictatorship", said Ambedkar.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to

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