There is a reason why Babasaheb Ambedkar—through his speeches, writings and images—has come to dominate a large number of protest spaces in last six years of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule. In both manifest and symbolic forms, violence against Dalit communities is growing under the rule of the brahmanical dispensation and its pet project of making India a Hindu Rashtra. Ambedkar was mercilessly against Hindu Raj and brahmanism, and that is why today’s protesters bring up his memories and his words all the time. This has led to a powerful resurgence of Ambedkar iconography. But there is another reason for Ambedkar’s growing popularity in the political scene. It is that he supported those social, political and economic ideas that appeal to large swathes of India in the current climate of distress.
Ambedkar’s advocacy of state socialism, underpinned by a desire to ensure productivity and equitable distribution of wealth, and his critique of “social welfare” capitalism, are what make him relevant to dissenters all over the country today. He wrote in States and Minorities: What are their Rights and how to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India, published in 1947: “Private enterprise [in India] … would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe”. As the economy shrinks in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the worst-affected are those on the margins, who are being robbed off their chances for a dignified life. Not just this. Every Indian struggling to find a job, each farmer denied a fair price for his crops, can easily to relate to Ambedkar’s ideas and proposals, all of which are in this important, but rarely talked about text.
Since Ambedkar’s death, ruling parties have tried to co-opt him in a variety of ways. While the Congress reduced him to an icon of just the Dalits, the Hindu right-wing interprets him as a “modern Manu”. His radical side has been constantly blunted and erased from the public discourse. Even the most essential of his ideas on caste and society, found in Annihilation of Caste, were all but lost in the 17 volumes of his collected works.
Drafted in the form of Articles, States and Minorities was conceived as a memorandum and was presented to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the All India Schedule Castes Federation. Ambedkar notes in its preface that this document was also released to the public on request of his caste-Hindu friends. The document contains the crux of Ambedkar’s social, economic and political thoughts and was far ahead of the Constituent Assembly’s final draft that ultimately became the Constitution of India.
In States and Minorities, Ambedkar proposed a “United States of India”, with more power to the states of the Union, which was to be organised with the objective to “make it possible for every subject to enjoy freedom from want and freedom from fear”. In clause 4 of section 2 of article 2 of this memorandum, Ambedkar proposed the reorganisation of the Indian economy to ensure state ownership of industry. He sought to nationalise and make universal insurance, to make agriculture a state industry and nationalise land, including collective farming.
These were not mechanical prescriptions but motivated by a philosophy of liberty, equality, and fraternity, for which Ambedkar is constantly feted. However, few understand today that in the long Appendix to the document he also pointed out that political structures emerge from any society’s economic organisation. Therefore, he saw a “liberal” constitution which stops at adult suffrage and fundamental rights as limited in scope from its very inception. It can merely prescribe the “form of the political structure of society leaving the economic structure untouched,” he wrote.
Even with adult suffrage, Ambedkar believed, all legislatures and governments can end up being “controlled by the more powerful”. This is a sentiment a number of Indian groups and communities can relate to in 2020. Be it the ongoing farmers’ protests, the protests for the rights of teachers to fair salaries, and workers’ demands for their minimum wages and better conditions, each ongoing agitation in India represents a desire to oppose a powerful state that wants to control them and refuses to hear them.
Ambedkar highlighted in States and Minorities that there is no guarantee that the legislature will safeguard the rights of the oppressed sections even if all adults get the right to cast vote. The interventions of big landlords and capitalists could defeat the one person-one vote promise in a stratified country like India. A guaranteed push towards equality can only come about through state socialism, that too if it is prescribed by law and written into the Constitution, Ambedkar said. That way, he felt, “it will be beyond the parliamentary majority to suspend, amend or abrogate it.” Surely the farmers protesting against three suddenly-introduced agriculture laws would relate to this. They, too, have been saying that the Centre’s three new farm bills were introduced without discussion and did not take their views into account.
Ambedkar understood the shortcomings of “liberty” as enshrined in liberal-capitalist philosophy. In liberal philosophy, liberty is often synonymous with the state refusing to intervene in the economy and market. This principle, according to Ambedkar, only means “liberty to the landlords to increase rents, for capitalists to increase hours of work and reduce the rate of wages… In other words, what is called liberty from the control of State is another name for the dictatorship of the private employer”. This kind of “liberty” would cheat people of their “fundamental rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” according to him. These are ideas that dissenters all over the country have been articulating over the last several years. As they push for a democracy to deepen, their agitations can be strengthened by Ambedkar’s words.
Dissenters and protesters facing the might of the state can take heart: they are not alone in demanding a restructure of India’s social and economic system. The same Ambedkar whom the right-wing claims to revere had warned on the eve of adoption of the Constitution that the country would creak under the weight of its inherent contradictions. Now, some of those contradictions are coming to the fore under the right-wing Hindutva rule. For instance, Ambedkar firmly believed that social and economic justice are two sides of the same coin. He, like today’s young and old dissenters, was not terribly enthusiastic about the direction Indian democracy was taking, and had said as much in an interview to the BBC in 1953.
At another time, Ambedkar had famously said: “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. In politics, we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote, and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, because of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value… We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy”. The contradictions Ambedkar warned of have sharpened in the last seven decades and the rise of Hindutva has made the crisis acute. On the one hand, caste-based discrimination and violence coupled with communalism are rising while privatisation of natural resources, health and education and curtailment of welfare measures have made the lives of Indian citizens more precarious. Therefore, “rediscovering” and bringing Ambedkar’s “State and Minorities” to centre-stage in the socio-economic and political life of India is the need of the hour and it seems India’s protesters have been doing just that.
The author is a research scholar at JNU. The views are personal