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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The legacy of Ambedkar is our quest for harmony

The legacy of Ambedkar is our quest for harmony

Violence in Andhra Pradesh over a renamed district has shown how India’s relationship with Ambedkar remains both fraught and fertile. Our embrace of his ideals must not falter

Photo: HTPremium
Photo: HT

If stone could speak, Ambedkar statues could tell many stories. One of those would be a story of assertion. In villages and cities segregated by caste, every Ambedkar statue—typically clad in a blue suit, a copy of the Constitution in hand and a finger raised towards a future—is a claim that India’s Dalits make on the public space, a way for long-oppressed people to affirm their equality and dignity against a prolonged history of caste-based exclusion. For that very reason, it often invites a backlash from those unsettled by the coming apart of old hierarchies. Violence, vandalism or both have followed the construction of Ambedkar statues across India for many years now. Last week saw a re-run of the story, when violent protests erupted in Andhra Pradesh over the state government’s decision to rename Konaseema district after B.R. Ambedkar. Even a minister’s house was set on fire. This anger of dominant caste groups, by several accounts, was directed at what they read as the state giving Dalits too much power.

But Ambedkar, of course, is not only a leader of the community he was born into. If anything, he is essential to the way Independent India has grappled with the challenge of social justice. Think of his role as framer-in-chief of our Constitution, which is not only a progressive pact between the people and the republic, but a set of ideals by which Indian democracy measures itself. Think of his record as a law minister, when he piloted the Hindu Code Bill, despite fierce opposition to his attempts to empower women and reform the hierarchical, sexist basis of Hindu family life. Think of the erudition he brought to bear in shaping the idea of constitutional democracy, which he believed had the power to create a distinct Indian modernity—and bring an end to the elite capture of our resources and public life. This was the spirit of our freedom movement itself. Despite their many differences and public disagreements, the leaders of our struggle for independence—Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar among them—not only fought to end foreign rule, but to blunt the injustices that lay within. Ambedkar saw the cruel inequality wired into a caste-ridden society as not just a civilizational failing, but an obstacle to fraternity—an essential condition for true republic-hood. For long, however, caste remained a blind spot for the Indian Left. For the Right, his uncompromising critique of Hindu practices, his scepticism of nationalism, his contempt for hero worship and his dire warnings about majoritarianism make him a difficult, if not subversive, figure in our political arena. The project of Hindu unity is splintered by the challenge of caste. But it says something of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s nimble thinking that it has brought itself to engage with Ambedkar’s thoughts, even if it has gone down the road of appropriation by empty gestures.

Nations continue to engage with their founding fathers long after their death. In our case, from feminism to constitutional rights and affirmative action to federalism, many questions of the day lead us back to their vision for India. Perhaps even more than Nehru and Gandhi, our conversation with Ambedkar remains both fraught and fertile. The current moment is also a reminder of Ambedkar’s warning that the best of constitutions can be undone by tyranny of the majority. As our democracy matures and finds a way to realize the freedoms promised by the Constitution, the iconography of Ambedkar in our public spaces might come to tell more harmonious stories.

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Published: 30 May 2022, 11:04 PM IST
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