Republic at 70 | BR Ambedkar’s legacy: Hope, defiance, critique
About a month into his undergraduate course at Pune’s Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Government Medical College, Sanjay Dabhade found himself depressed and suicidal.
Hailing from the stigmatised Pardhi tribe from the hinterlands of northern Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, the young medical student battled a daily fog of slurs and ridicule targeted at his community, classified as criminal by the British.
There were few Dalit or adivasi teachers in the college to support him, and it was 1988 – a year before the stringent Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act would be enacted.
One night out on a stroll, he stumbled on a small blue bust of BR Ambedkar on the street outside his hostel; intrigued, he went to the library and started reading about India’s first law minister. In the struggles and triumphs of Ambedkar, Dabhade saw his own life, and the reading brought him close to a fledgling group of young anti-caste students who gathered in the evenings to support each other, discuss survival strategies and read Ambedkar’s work for inspiration.
“I wouldn’t have survived had it not been for Ambedkar. Babasaheb was the difference between me and Payal Tadvi,” said Dabhade, referring to the young medical researcher who committed suicide last year after months of alleged caste discrimination by fellow students.
Dabhade’s experience is echoed by diverse voices from India’s Dalit and adivasi communities, for whom Ambedkar has emerged as a figure offering both inspiration, because of his stellar academic achievements and his status as the architect of the Constitution, and resistance, because of his radical anti-caste stance and his clarion call to abandon Hinduism.
For his followers, Ambedkar’s appeal has three broad axes.
The first is hope. During an era where lower-caste students were routinely barred from attending schools, Ambedkar braved discrimination and a chronic lack of resources to become one of India’s top academic minds. This is why someone like Rohith Vemula, coming from a marginalised background and facing caste bias in university, looks to Ambedkar. Vemula committed suicide at the University of Hyderabad in 2016 alleging caste discrimination by the institution — a charge that the university has denied.
The second is the possibility of defiance against caste hostility. This is especially true in villages where local administration and law-and-order is often controlled by influential castes and Dalit families have little choice but to follow caste diktats. Ambedkar offers a radical break from this stagnant status quo by his presence in textbooks, in the Constitution and in global recognition, and this is why his statues and busts are often the first site of protest for Dalit communities. Think of Sanjay Jatav, a 29-year-old man from Uttar Pradesh, who in 2018 used the image of Ambedkar’s bust while breaking a ban, imposed by the upper caste community of his village, on Dalit grooms riding horses to their weddings.
The third is the promise of a grammar to critique caste-based structures. Ambedkar’s writing counters the majoritarian view of caste flowing naturally from Hinduism and Vedas, and instead, roots it in a fight for material resources and social hierarchy. It is this logic of de-naturalisation of caste that helps people such as Ranjanben — a resident of Gujarat’s Mehsana village who quit her sanitation work in protest against the 2016 Una flogging of Dalit men —to refute the dominant narrative of inferiority.
“In our work on the field, we find that Ambedkar often emerges as the pillar of strength for these communities. They compose songs around him and the Constitution, and this is used to spread awareness about laws and rights,” said Manjula Pradeep, an anti-caste activist.
A tough electoral fight
The main source of strength for Ambedkar’s followers is his role as the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly, where he was also a member of seven other committees, and left his mark in pushing for universal adult franchise, reservation for the scheduled castes and tribes, and the abolition of untouchability.
But in January 1946, it seemed that the doors of the Constituent Assembly had firmly closed on him.
In provincial elections that year, the Congress decimated Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation, which won only two of the 151 reserved seats across the country. The party, which had won 11 of the 15 reserved seats in Bombay in the previous elections in 1937, could retain only one seat in Bombay.
The debacle had two devastating consequences for Ambedkar.
One, the British were convinced that the Congress-backed Depressed Classes League (led by Jagjivan Ram) was the more representative organisation and that Ambedkar had little influence outside Bombay and pockets of the Central Provinces. This meant that Ram was offered a seat in the interim government, and Congress-backed Dalit leaders packed the Constituent Assembly.
This was a fundamental clash of ideas. For Ram, a staunch follower of MK Gandhi, and the Congress, the problem of caste was primarily a socio-economic one that could be resolved by reconciliation with and changing the minds of upper-castes, while Ambedkar thought caste as a singularly political issue and advocated a radical strategy of conversion to Buddhism.
The second consequence was that the Constituent Assembly seemed too far a reach for Ambedkar, who had bitterly criticised Gandhi and the Congress for years in public. But with British influence waning – and it becoming clear that the Congress was going to be in charge after Independence – it was crucial for him to enter the Constituent Assembly to safeguard the rights of the lower-castes.
As it happened, one of Ambedkar’s last lieutenants with a mass base — the Bengali Namashudra leader Jogendranath Mandal — offered him the election from the Jessore-Khulna seat with merely three weeks to go. With the help of six scheduled caste legislators and one tribal member, Ambedkar entered the Constituent Assembly.
Why did the electoral debacle happen? Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, a professor of history at the Victoria University of Wellington, offers several reasons in Transfer of Power and the Crisis of Dalit Politics in India, 1945-47.
One, that the federation simply didn’t have the organisational strength to fight an election, or the purse to match the might of the Congress. Second, that Ambedkar was busy with national affairs and there was no one looking after the party and the electoral machine. Third, that the federation and Ambedkar had through the 1930s and ’40s, steadily lost large chunks of ground support to the Congress, which in turn, ramped up its Harijan connect programmes, even as the communists organised Dalit peasants in Bengal and Telangana.
But the most important reason was the fervour of the freedom struggle, which swept up voters in waves of nationalism.
“The greatest hurdle for the Federation was the popular appeal of nationalism and the euphoria of patriotism created by the recent Quit India movement, which had set the tone for the election campaign,” Bandyopadhyay wrote.
The misadventure of the 1946 election would come to haunt Ambedkar again in independent India’s first election.
By the time the winter of 1951 came around, relations between Ambedkar and the Congress had deteriorated again. He had quit as law minister after the Hindu Code Reform Bill was stalled in Parliament, and he blamed Jawaharlal Nehru for not supporting him.
In the highly charged election, Ambedkar lost from the Bombay North seat to a political novice from the Congress by 14, 561 votes. As Raja Sekhar Vundru notes in Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel: The Making of India’s Electoral System, more than 77,000 votes were declared null-and-void, and Ambedkar complained of electoral malpractice against Left stalwart SA Dange, but it was dismissed. He later entered the Rajya Sabha.
The last few years of Ambedkar’s life were spent in feverish writing and organising, as he toured the country and exhorted his followers to follow him into Buddhism. This was also when many say he grew disillusioned with the electoral system and moved towards a cultural and social movement.
In one of his last speeches in Parliament on March 19, 1955, he said, in reference to an earlier comment from him on him burning the Constitution, “We built a temple for a god to come in and reside, but before the god could be installed if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple?”
Scholars caution that at this late stage, Ambedkar’s disappointment was not with the Constitution but with the electoral system, and how it had failed to birth independent Dalit leadership. “Indian social conditions didn’t allow a true democracy, and he was skeptical of the masses in a hierarchical society. But he never criticised the formation of a constitutional government,” said Nitish Nawsagaray, a professor of law at ILS Law College, Pune.
Ambedkar’s rise as a social icon of empowerment has ironically coincided with stagnating fortunes of mainstream Dalit political forces – his Republican Party of India is fragmented and a pale shadow of its formal self with only one Rajya Sabha member, Union minister Ramdas Athawale.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, started in 1984 in Uttar Pradesh, is smarting from successive electoral losses and new faces — such as Chandrasekhar Azad in Uttar Pradesh or Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat — are yet to become a significant electoral force.
Socially too, the gains have plateaued. Scheduled Caste communities continue to outpace their counterparts in literacy, as per Census data, but significant economic hurdles remain. Dalits are two-thirds less likely to be called for job interviews (according to a 2010 paper by Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell from the City University of New York), share of government jobs has shrunk and roughly a fourth of all households continue to report some practice of untouchability (according to a 2020 paper by Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Amit Thorat and Omkar Joshi at the University of Maryland).
Social and economic mobility have triggered a fierce backlash. In the last two years itself, upper-castes have attacked Dalits for owning a horse, taking out a wedding procession, sporting a moustache, adding a suffix to their name, asking for a raise, attending a traditional dance, and swimming in a well.
But buoyed by Ambedkar’s message, a new generation of Dalit people has refused to step back and taken his message to newer movements such as those fighting for the Muslim underclass — the Pasmandas — or transgender rights.
To be sure, there are challenges. In the Pasmanda movement, for example, that calls for equal rights for lower caste Muslims, Ambedkar’s treatise on graded inequality and exposition of social structures holds great promise, said Khalid Anis Ansari, a professor at Glocal University in Saharanpur. “But we need to explore his insistence on the role of conversion to remove caste. Many Muslims converted hundreds of years ago, but caste remains,” he added.
Still, 64 years after his death, Ambedkar’s ideas and institutions form the pillars of the world’s largest democracy and his legacy inspires millions of people to strive for a life of dignity. “More than the Constitution, he gave people a vision, hope and rights to achieve them. He conceptualised institutions and policies to bring progressive ideas to India way ahead of his time,” said Jyotsna Siddharth, an artist and activist.