(This article was first published on 6 December 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti.)
Within the discourse on social justice in India, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s name is overtly been heralded as the most respectable. He heroically fought the battles for the liberation of socially oppressed communities and brought tremendous changes in the socio-political psyche of the nation.
He has emerged as a classic example of ‘subaltern’ political leadership who not only contested the powerful nationalist leadership of the Congress Party but also created a distinct institutional identity for the deprived sections and introduced an emancipatory political ideology.
Can Centre Emulate Ambedkar’s Political Journey?
The current regime at the centre also claims that it endorses and executes Ambedkar’s social justice agenda. However, it will be difficult for them to further his political legacy. His politics is meant to establish the Dalit-Bahujan communities as the autonomous arbitrator for power against the hegemony of the social elites.
Though a part of the social justice agenda can be materialised (like, token representation), imagining an organic Dalit-Bahujan leadership at the helm of the state power, is still a distant dream.
Ambedkar organised three political parties in his life span. The first—the Independent Labour Party established in 1936 had a Left-Socialist ideological baggage and raised the issues of poor tenants, agricultural labourers and industrial workers. The party had an impressive performance as it won 11 seats out of 13 reserved constituencies and also won three general seats in 1937’s Assembly elections of Bombay Presidency. However, it had little influence on other regions and the non-Mahar communities kept a distance from it.
In 1942, when the process of Constitution writing was announced, Ambedkar realised that the ‘untouchable castes’ need to assert their social and political rights identical to the other minority groups.
He acknowledged the need for mobilising the Depressed Classes under one banner and established his second party— ‘All India Schedule Caste Federation (AISCF)’ to raise the exclusive demands. It expanded to other provinces (especially in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab) but mostly remained interested in demanding constitutional safeguards for the Untouchables.
Ambedkar’s Emancipatory Politics Empowered the Marginalised
Finally, in 1956, months before his demise, Ambedkar reorganised AISCF as the Republican Party of India (RPI). He believed that the new party must adopt modern and liberal principles and should form alliances with like-minded organisations against the domination of the Congress party. He tried to build communication with the socialist party (mainly with Jai Prakash Narayan) and was hopeful to form a Dalit-Backward class alliance.
In his political journey, Ambedkar kept a concrete distance from the objectives and social ideas of the nationalist social elites. He constructed an autonomous socio-political alternative based on a distinct reading of ancient India. He claimed that the Dalit-Bahujan past is about great civilizational contributions that is destroyed and disturbed by the Brahmanical ‘Counterrevolution’.
His fierce critic of Hinduism is based on the evaluation that religion based on hierarchical caste system overtly discriminates a vast majority (including the women) and oppresses a significant section, especially the Untouchables worse than the animals. Any political formulation that neglects such visible social tragedies, was 'anti-national' for Ambedkar.
'Non-tokenism & Equitable Representation'
Secondly, Ambedkar differed from the Radical-Left critical perception on parliamentary democracy. Instead, he mobilised the oppressed groups in favour of the liberal-democratic ideals and remained a votary of constitutional democracy throughout. His call to his community for conversion to Buddhism supplements the modern liberal principles that envisage society on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Thirdly, Ambedkar consciously improvised his political parties by keeping the interests of the socially oppressed sections against the historically privileged communities. Ambedkar’s political activism represented the first entry of the socially-marginalised groups into the political circles, claiming equitable share in the polity. He argued that for the functioning of a meaningful democracy, participation of the poor and representation of the socially oppressed groups must be granted.
Finally, Ambedkar was also not content with periodic ‘token’ representation of the Dalit-Bahujan groups in the power circles. Political movement under Ambedkar was a serious attempt in building an equitable political culture in which the Dalits can independently participate as the legitimate claimants of power and equal rights.
What Future Does Dalit-Bahujan Politics Hold?
The Post-Ambedkar social justice movement in India has groomed under the influence of Ambedkarite thought. It is heralded for its vibrancy, intellectual tradition and secular-liberal values. For example, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under the leadership of Kanshi Ram was impressive in confronting the political establishment with ideological zeal and mass support. The BSP consistently tried to establish the Dalit constituency as a prime arbitrator in political deliberations otherwise dominated by the rich social elites.
Though during 1990s, the party mobilised the Dalit masses on crucial political struggles and later achieved a landmark victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, it had a limited influence in developing an alternative political formulation against the right-wing assertion.
In the last decade, the Dalit political movement has mellowed, allowing the right-wing BJP to claim leadership of the Dalit-Bahujan groups. Hindutva is now projected as an all-inclusive ideology that claims to provide suitable representation to all.
Ambedkar’s social and political ideas help us to examine the location and status of socially marginalised groups in the contest of power. The visible marginalisation of the Dalit-Bahujan groups and decline of their ideological merit in the mainstream political discourse only showcase the vulnerabilities and powerlessness of the socially oppressed groups.
To counter Hindutva politics requires renewed assertion of the Dalit-Bahujan political autonomy and the arrival of independent movements for social justice. It is appropriate time to revalue Ambedkar’s political thoughts to make Indian democracy truly substantive and republican.
(Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)