Opinion: Why Ambedkar's life and teaching is still relevant
Educate, agitate, organise: The core of Ambedkar's message to the Dalits who continue to struggle against a marginal existence in India Photograph: (Others)
Sixty-two years have passed since December 6, 1956 that Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar has passed away. In the meantime, Dalit politics has undergone multiple twists and turns in the face of majoritarian politics in India. As Hindutwa forces gain ground in the country, the Dalits are forced to rethink the symbols and principles representing their collective bargaining presence in the democratic polity.
While the call to reject Hinduism and convert to Buddhism is still there, Dalit leaders of today, such as Jignesh Mevani is urging the Dalits to forego the cow-centric political rhetoric. Instead, the young Dalit leader from Maharashtra advocates gaining land rights as their basis of political action.
In midst of these shifts, however, two aspects of Dalit politics remain cardinal, their fight against culturally enforced discrimination and economic inequality. Starting with Ambedkar, Dalit leaders over the years have emphasised on scientific rationality as a weapon to fight authoritarianism and dogmas.
Ambedkar’s trust in Buddhism (as an alternative to Hinduism) and his confidence in reason stemmed from his love of enquiry that disproves the infallibility doctrine.
By making science and rational thinking as the basis of their identity and economic regeneration, Ambedkar - the indisputable Dalit leader of the twentieth century - strove to carve a respectable niche for the community in independent modern India.
Ambedkar’s trust in Buddhism (as an alternative to Hinduism) and his confidence in reason stemmed from his love of enquiry that disproves the infallibility doctrine. In "Buddha or Karl Marx", one of his last speeches, Dr. Ambedkar includes the following in his summary of the essential teachings of the Buddha: “Nothing is infallible. Nothing is binding forever. Everything is subject to inquiry and examination."
Ambedkar’s passion for democracy - his belief that democracy embodies a state of "liberty, equality and fraternity" - was closely related to his commitment to rationality and the scientific outlook as well.
Ambedkar believed in the utility of scientific spirit to combat authoritarianism; he saw it as essential to liberate and protect oneself from ideological manipulation that had for centuries acted as tools of casteist subjugations.
Throughout Ambedkar’s writings and actions there is one common thread, that is, socio-economic progress in India required a cultural revolution; one that will not only destroy the culture of the past, but also build something of value in its place. Like the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, Ambedkar gave primacy to scientific reason as the new standard for a “constant revision and revolution of old values”. For him, the priority was not making Hinduism or Hindu society “shine forth” but building a new, equal, free, open, non-hierarchical modern India.
In direct contradiction to Gandhi, Ambedkar believed the modern India needs to have a casteless society. He would use the principles of natural science to build up a theoretical attack on the “chaturvarna” system of Vedic Hinduism. Hinduism justifies caste hierarchy as being in accordance with the order of nature itself, so Ambedkar turned out to be the most ardent advocates of a de-sacralised understanding of the natural world.
Dalit’s attack on the Hindu caste system, therefore, became concomitant with an effort to “demystify” the elite Hindu understanding of nature as permeated with the divine spirit. Ambedkar was relentless in his advocacy that, scientific knowledge about the natural world cannot remain limited only to specialised technical fields, but must influence the values and purposes of social life.
Hinduism justifies caste hierarchy as being in accordance with the order of nature itself, so Ambedkar turned out to be the most ardent advocates of a de-sacralised understanding of the natural world.
It was only through nurturing critical and rational thinking, Ambedkar believed, that Indian society could build up a protection against the arbitrary exercise of power.
Along with cultural equality, Ambedkar relentlessly advocated for the end of economic marginalisation of Dalits. He was well aware that economic regeneration of modern India would be incomplete without the economic progress of the Dalits. Just like Nehru, Ambedkar believed that industrialisation is the only way to end India’s poverty. But Ambedkar proposed to make industries serve human needs rather than run them as purely profit-making centers.
His vision of industrial society included the goals of equity and justice. Thus, “techne” was not merely a vocation for him, rather, he gave an ethical interpretation to technological knowledge. In advocating popularisation of vocational training, Ambedkar propped it as a challenge to the brahmajnana of the Brahmins that had always operated outside or above the production process.
In advocating popularisation of vocational training, Ambedkar propped it as a challenge to the brahmajnana of the Brahmins that had always operated outside or above the production process.
In asking for changes in all aspects of national life, from social to ethical, Ambedkar desired a modern India that would critically revisit its traditions without sacrificing the sacred. In his advocacy for the need of the rational in the national life, he forced the majoritarian community to take an introspective look at the treatment it meted out to the people at the margin. Ambedkar’s call for reason was, however, not directed exclusively directed at the powerful; reason and scientific thinking became an avowed “weapon” of the Dalits to fight cultural and economic subjugation. Thus, the symbols of Dalit resistance may change over time, but the surreptitious flow of logical thinking needs to continuously enrich the identity politics of the community for now as well as in the future.
(Disclaimer: The author writes here in a personal capacity).