Modern India had witnessed an epoch-making movement of depressed classes headed by Dr Ambedkar, whose legacy continues to influence the polity and society of the country. Today, statues of Ambedkar outnumber those of Mahatma Gandhi, as his ideology has long superseded that of the latter. His vision of inclusive India through democratic socialism is acknowledged by almost all political parties today. This is a remarkable change in the Indian political scenario in the 21st century.
A prophetic thinker, he cautioned, “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality…We must remove this contradiction at the earliest…or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”
Not surprisingly in the 80s, the depressed classes emerged as political forums while the Central government preemptively accommodated the demands of other backward classes for inclusion in the 90s, as recommended by the Mandal commission. More and more marginalised communities have started asserting now. This is evidently the influence of Ambedkar’s vision, whose struggle was not merely for the emancipation of Dalits. Though it was the focus, the larger canvas was social justice.
Rather than downplaying it as vote bank politics, we need to realise that this is a result of the contradiction between democratic polity and the undemocratic society we live in; and accordingly, address it.
Ambedkar’s definition of democracy itself is inclusive as ‘not merely a form of Government but primarily a mode of associated living.….an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen’. Therefore, it is not as rule by ‘majority’ but by ‘unanimity’; so that interests of the dominant and the marginalised are harmonised.
Reinforcing the sentiment, he also envisages that ‘political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it, social democracy’ – with liberty, equality and fraternity as a way of life. ‘To divorce one from the other,’ to him, ‘is to defeat the very purpose of democracy’ as he apprehended that equality without liberty would kill individual initiative and that liberty without fraternity would produce the supremacy of the few over the many.
Naturally so, he advocated in favour of a strong Centre as ‘constable to enforce the trio’ so as to ensure inclusiveness. These days when regional and sectarian concerns try to override national interests, Ambedkar’s prescription is all the more relevant in order to hold ‘Bharat’ and ‘India’ together.
Women empowerment was an integral part of Ambedkar’s movement. This fact never received the credit it deserved. For him, the progress of a community is to be measured by the progress of women. The Special Marriage Act 1954 and the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which were a part of his original Hindu Code Bill, birthed a new era of freedom for women from oppressive
practices and endogamy. This was the beginning of women’s liberation in the country in the real sense and the increasing women empowerment today is only a legacy of Ambedkar.
After the 73rd amendment in 1992, women now constitute up to 50% of panchayat bodies in many States. However, in Legislative Houses, it is less than 10% against the world average of 20%; though ironically women’s turn out in polls increased from 46.6 % in 1962 to 65.7% in 2014 (ECI), almost equal to men.
Ambedkar dismissed the theories of a class war, visualising that a caste-ridden society, far from division of labour, is only ‘division of labourers’ and power is not only economic but social too. Ambedkar was not wrong if the poor performance of Communist parties in India is any evidence.
Disagreeing with Nehru’s socialism that social inequalities automatically capitulate to economic equality, Ambedkar emphasised social equality as a precondition for economic equality. It’s high time the extremist forces who believe in class war and violence appreciated Ambedkar’s philosophy and had a change of heart.
With ‘ascription’ disallowing ‘achievement’, social inequalities undo the benefits of democracy. Hence, affirmative action is indispensable. Inclusion and social mobility are complementary to each other.
Caste is directly identified with occupational prescription in Gandhian romantic rural India, which only rationalises ‘graded inequalities’ denying social mobility. No wonder, atrocities against lower castes and women are endemic in our villages. Freedom from traditional occupational fetters, therefore, is a primary option to debilitate caste.
Phenomenal urbanisation in the 21st century opened gates of economic and social freedom to the weaker sections, which migrate regularly to cities in order to make a living unrelated to caste. This is corroborated by erstwhile Planning Commission’s data that the incidence of poverty in rural areas in 2011-12 for SCs was 31.5%, for STs it was 45.3%, whereas in urban areas, it was 21.7% and 24.1%, respectively. The Smart City mission and the Skill Development mission of the Central government deserve credit for their vision is in consonance with that of Ambedkar, ie to empower the weaker sections towards a dignified living.
Similarly, the Swachh Bharat mission, more than sanitation, is also a mission of sensitising people towards dignity of labour by dissociating stigma of caste with occupation. We need more initiatives of this sort.
The regressive character of caste can only be countered by a progressive culture of inclusiveness. Media deserves commendation for its role today as a catalyst in the process by encouraging social intercourse with scientific temper. The enviable manpower of India cannot be wasted by mindless obsession with caste. Ambedkar’s legacy continues to influence us towards a great social endosmosis aimed at building a united India with fraternity.
(The author is a senior bureaucrat in Chhattisgarh)