Dispatch #35: Ambedkar Jayanti Linkfest

Here are a few articles on Dr Ambedkar's contribution to the Indian constitution; his thoughts on the caste system in India & his role as a social reformer

1) BR Ambedkar- Father of our Constitution and radical social thinker: One of his greatest achievements to reform society was the inclusion of the concept of universal adult franchise in the Constitution. Modernism being one of the pillars of his understanding of society and social reformation, Ambedkar used his political prowess to effect a bloodless revolution by providing for voting rights to all, including women and the proletariat. 

2) What is constitutional morality? For Ambedkar, without fraternity, ‘equality and liberty would be no deeper than coats of paint.’ Nowhere does Ambedkar make the argument that the Constitution is about distribution of power among different castes. Caste embodies a principle of social separation, and is, to use his phrase, ‘anti-national’. Its very existence precludes an ability to abstract from one’s identity. It ensures that the relationship between groups is perpetually competitive. A constitutional morality, by contrast, requires both these features – abstraction and agreement or cooperation. It requires the presumption that we are equal.

3) BR Ambedkar- Slayer of All Gods: With many great leaders, we assess how they measure up to standards and ideals of a civilisation. In Ambedkar’s case, the reverse is true. He is the yardstick to which a whole civilisation must measure up. We don’t judge him by our ideals; he should be the ideal by which we judge ourselves. In engaging with Ambedkar, the question is not of assessing him; it is of assessing ourselves, and trying to understand why we continue to avoid confronting his bracing call to justice, his advocacy of reason, the depth of his institutional imagination. He is the mirror in which we dare not look at ourselves; his presence is a constant reminder of our bad conscience and bad faith.

4) The doctor and the saint: Ambedkar’s main concern was to privilege and legalise “constitutional morality” over the traditional, social morality of the caste system. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly on 4 November 1948, he said, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

5) Ambedkar's Warnings About Three Types of Dictatorships: While drafting India’s Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar saw three types of threats to the democratic and egalitarian ethos that he wanted to infuse the nation with. Therefore, for him, the Constitution was not only a means to provide rights to the citizens, but was also meant to be a barrier to keep these threats from establishing any form of dictatorship.

6) Babasaheb’s warning- In politics, hero-worship is a path to degradation and eventual dictatorship: Ambedkar was aware of these lurking dangers. He underlined the importance of observing caution which John Stuart Mill had uttered to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long service to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness.

7) The misappropriated legacy of B.R. Ambedkar: If one were to sketch a typology of leaders from the time India was being imagined as a modern nation-state to the first few years of its existence, Ambedkar stands apart for combining three attributes: modernity of outlook; bringing scholarship and learning to political life; and pragmatism in public life.

8) Our ‘un-Indian’ Constitution: Although the idea of non-violence has been associated with Gandhi’s legacy, its greatest political practitioners have been India’s most marginalised groups. Dalits, who were India’s most unimaginably oppressed social groups, with most reason to resent the structural violence of India’s inherited social and political order, have in a sense been at the forefront of owning a constitutional culture. This is in part due to the fact that B.R. Ambedkar, now iconised as one of the architects of the Indian Constitution, was Dalit; this is partly due to the fact that the Constitution gave political representation and representation in public jobs to Dalits, and partly due to the fact that the Constitution saw itself as a charter of social reform. But given the scale of social violence that Dalits suffered, the degree to which they see the Constitution as their own is remarkable. Constitutionalism at its core signifies a politics of restraint.

9) Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar- Three Formulations of 'Real India': According to Ambedkar, the Indian village was an embodiment of the Hindu social organisation. It had no place for Dalits who were physically ghettoed away in each village. He showed how the romanticised Indian village republic, and the virtues of traditional living. were in reality, oppressive structures that thwarted freedom.

10) Did Gandhi Want to “Annihilate Caste?” Revisiting the Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate: Did Gandhi refuse to denounce the caste system?

"The Doctor and the Saint"—written by Arundhati Roy as an introduction to B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste—questions the deification of Gandhi, and whether his vision of an independent India included emancipation for all. 

Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi wrote an article in 2015 as a response to Roy’s work, seeking to shed light on the Ambedkar–Gandhi relationship. Rajmohan wrote about the supposed “warmth” between the two, asserting that Gandhi was neither casteist nor racist, and that Roy’s only intention was to tarnish Gandhi’s legacy. 

Roy and Nandini Oza respond to Rajmohan Gandhi, contending that he has failed to adequately address the accusations levelled against his grandfather. Rajmohan Gandhi’s rejoinder ends the debate, responding to the main points of criticism. 

11) Did Gandhi and Ambedkar Share Similar Beliefs for Dalit Emancipation? Gandhi’s approach to issues of caste-based exploitation and subordination has been critiqued and scrutinised by theorists and practitioners over the years. This scrutiny involves, in many instances, contrasting Gandhi and B R Ambedkar’s approach to the question of Dalit emancipation.

In 1996, Suhas Palshikar argued that while there are stark differences in the approach taken by Gandhi and Ambedkar, their shared goal of collective emancipation would require Gandhi to change his methodology. This is because, although Gandhi did not make caste-based inequality the centre of his struggles for emancipation, his views on the caste system reflected his “ultimate preparedness to abolish caste.”

Anupama Rao responds to Palshikar and argues that the insight he provides into the beliefs and actions of the two thinkers reveals just how far apart their political methods and beliefs for emancipation were. A key differentiator was that Ambedkar’s understanding of caste was grounded in lived experiences of violence, while Gandhi’s knowledge of caste was that of an abstract concept.

Palshikar responds to Rao, arguing that his article attempted to build bridges between two rich discourses. Specifically, he believes that both Gandhi and Ambedkar saw Indian society as being composed of non-fragmented identities. Rao responds to Palshikar again and argues that, given the histories of domination and subordination of caste categories, they must not be depoliticised. Rather, caste divisions must be recognised and worked through, in order to achieve any form of unity.

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