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What’s the way forward for determining Ambedkar’s legacy? It’s messy, unchartered

A session on BR Ambedkar stressed that he left his stamp on everything, from Dalit empowerment to the nation’s water and power policy. The discussion touched on a range of issues, from how modern India remembered him to how his dreams and plans might have been betrayed by the very systems he helped set up and more.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 26, 2018 19:09 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Chintan Chandrachud, Christophe Jaffrelot, Manoranjan Byapari and Sukhadeo Thorat in conversation with Pragya Tiwari during a session titled Dr. Ambedkar and his Legacy on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival on Friday.
Chintan Chandrachud, Christophe Jaffrelot, Manoranjan Byapari and Sukhadeo Thorat in conversation with Pragya Tiwari during a session titled Dr. Ambedkar and his Legacy on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival on Friday. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

What is BR Ambedkar’s greatest legacy? Is it the affirmative action system, India’s Constitution or does it spread across a wider spectrum of issues – labour policy, gender rights and economic theory?

The second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Republic Day, opened with a discussion on how modern India remembered Ambedkar, and how his dreams and plans might have been betrayed by the very systems he helped set up. The panelists traversed the many phases of Ambedkar – from the early period of socialism and labour phase, to the intermediate electoral democracy and constitutionalism and the latter rebellion against not just institutional Hinduism but the very document he drafted.

For Jaipur Literature Festival full coverage, click here

For academic Sukhadeo Thorat, Ambedkar was foremost a pragmatist who couldn’t be boxed in narrow debates around Dalit empowerment or reservation. “Ambedkar contributed in everything – on water and power policy, on the reorganisation of states. You name the issue and he worked on it – based on equality, fraternity and justice,” he said.

Thorat also sought to dispel myths around the belief that Ambedkar wanted quotas to be discontinued after 10 years, and pointed out that Vallabhbhai Patel had blocked reservations at the last minute during the constituent assembly sessions. It is only when Ambedkar threatened to quit, and put the drafting of the Constitution in jeopardy that negotiations began. “Ambedkar wanted quotas in jobs, education and politics; he didn’t want quotas to be temporary. That was Patel. Ambedkar negotiated under pressure,” he added. “Reservation is based on discrimination. It should continue as long as there is discrimination.”

Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot agreed. He said the lack of data made it impossible to guage the progress of Dalits but underlined the importance of quotas as shown by the absence of Dalits in sectors where there is no reservation, such as the private sector. “The other important strand of Ambedkar is conversion. He believed there is no way to reform Hinduism from the inside. You have to leave.”

For author Chintan Chandrachud, Ambedkar’s influence was threefold: First in instituting Article 32, the right to constitutional remedy by which courts can strike down laws deemed harmful. The second was the lengthy and detailed nature of the constitution that made space for even provisions for local-body elections. The third was the idea of constitutional morality that mirrored Ambedkar’s disavowal of the tactics of civil disobedience and Satyagraha. “Play by the rules and challenge using argument was his way,” Chandrachud said.

Watch: Hindustan Times team at JLF 2018. HT reporters from the ground

But as powerful as Ambedkar’s legacy is, it is not without its disappointments – primarily in the ways caste continues to define jobs, education and political life for a majority of Indians. “The moment you remove reservation, there are no Dalits. The democracy Ambedkar envisaged centred freedom of expression, individual rights and freedom. He wouldn’t recognise today’s India,” said Jaffrelot.

Moreover, as writer Manoranjan Byapari added, the promise of social upliftment was betrayed, not just by the government but also the left parties, who let caste get enshrined in their upper echelons. “In their hearts was Brahmanism. They kept their ritual worship and janeu. They used the Dalits,” he said.

The way forward for determining Ambedkar’s legacy is messy and uncharted – with forces from the left and the right raring to appropriate the man. Chandrachud offers an example to sum up the man’s powerful vision: in the closing debates of the constituent assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar clashed on how flexible the constitution should be. India’s first prime minister believed it should be easily amenable but Ambedkar wanted strict provisions. In the short term, it seemed Nehru had won. In the first 20 years, the Constitution was often amended, aided by the Congress’ brute majority. But after the Emergency and in recent years, the changes have been fewer and less frequent – the basic character of the Constitution appears to have settled in. In the long run, Ambedkar has held sway.

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