B.R. Ambedkar’s timeless relevance

Over the decades, Ambedkar Jayanti has become a festival with several meanings a celebration that captures the ecstasy, unflinching love, aspiration, assertion, inspiration and joy of struggle with which Ambedkar’s followers connect. On April 14, his followers renew their pledge to wrestle with the daily discrimination of Hinduism. They call it ‘Knowledge Day’. In 2021, British Columbia declared it as ‘Equality Day’.

THE significance of a thinker and statesman, or an iconoclast confronting injustice, is judged by time. Their thinking and actions set a benchmark for a timeless time. B.R. Ambedkar is one of those revolutionary thinkers who remain significant for future generations for he was ahead of his time.

A thinker is always judged by their intellectual contribution, but as Hindu scriptures sanctify that Shudra, Ati-Shudra and women should be denied education, intellectual pursuance of a person who belongs to an ‘Untouchable caste’ does not have the backing of inherited social capital nor are their thoughts easily accessed by others.

An ‘Untouchable’ or member of a lower-caste becoming an intellectual was punished. It was like a sin— violating the order of Varnashrama Dharma of Hinduism. There are several examples of such ‘transgression’ in Hindu scriptures. In the Ramayana, Shambuka was killed by Rama for crossing the boundary of caste order. Ekalavya chopping off his thumb as an offering to Dronacharya in the Mahabharata is another example.

Also read: B.R. Ambedkar: Father of our Constitution and radical social thinker

The denial of education to a large section of society has had a generational impact even in the twenty-first century. In the nineteenth century, Mahatma Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai declared that education itself was a weapon to fight the Brahminical monopoly over education.

Ambedkar considered education a means to bring revolutionary social change and develop critical, emancipatory and egalitarian knowledge for a good society to evolve.

Ambedkar considered education a means to bring revolutionary social change and develop critical, emancipatory and egalitarian knowledge for a good society to evolve. He created a standard to pursue education to acquire knowledge and intellectual excellence. For him, intellectual or academic engagement was as crucial for professional interest or earning bread and butter as it was in seeking to use knowledge for society’s  good.

Babasaheb’s movement was not merely aimed at the emancipation of Untouchable oppressed castes. His intellectual contribution provided an epistemic vantage point in pointing out society’s fundamental problems that offered a broader framework and perspective to understand it as a whole and entailed a radical emancipatory normative for revolutionary change.

In his classic book Annihilation of Caste, responding to the work of upper caste leaders and organisations, Ambedkar raised basic questions like who is an intellectual, why is the intellectual class not interested in the question of caste and why do they never considered caste as a social or national problem.

In Hindu society, Brahmins are regarded as Bhudevas (Gods on Earth) and only they can impart education. In other words, Brahmins constitute the intellectual class.

According to Ambedkar, the intellectual class is the most influential, if not the governing class, in any country. The intellectual class could foresee, advise and lead the country, whose destiny depended on it. If the intellectual class is dishonest and indifferent to the plight of the rest of the society, it can’t be helpful when the society is in crisis.

Intellectualism without virtue is meaningless. A knowledgeable person without morality is dangerous. “An intellectual could be a good man but easily be a rogue,” he writes. Likewise, “an intellectual community may be a band of high-souled persons, ready to help, ready to emancipate erring humanity or it may easily be a gang of crooks or body of advocates of the narrow clique from which it draws its support.”

Ambedkar further writes that Brahmins are regarded as the country’s custodian vis-à-vis their caste. The protection of their caste is akin to protecting the country. Therefore, it is difficult to find a Voltaire in the Brahmin community

One needs to critically examine the role of Brahminism concerning knowledge production and control, where we find that the Indian polity, economy, culture and society are preserved through the Brahminical discourse of knowledge. Needless to say that upper castes control the architecture of democracy.

Upper castes have always been the majority in the system. For example, the judiciary has always been a caste profession. An upper-caste judge celebrates the Manusmriti in court, another defends caste and patriarchy, the pseudo-upper-caste liberal judge neither criticises the orthodoxy of religion nor rejects it, and another upper-caste judge supports lower castes without really delivering justice.

A Dalit chief justice publicly said that it is difficult to get justice. His view seems correct considering the low rate of conviction against Dalit atrocities. In fact, there have been cases where courts deliver judgements without informing the victim’s family, which is against the basic principles of natural justice. On the contrary, a high number of people from oppressed communities are in prisons.

Arguably, the pursuit of knowledge by upper castes is to maintain order and not change society. In his talk to BBC about Prospects of Democracy in India, Ambedkar writes: “To give education to those who want to keep up the caste system is not to improve the prospect of democracy in India but to put our democracy in India in greater jeopardy.”

In his talk to BBC about Prospects of Democracy in India, Ambedkar writes: “To give education to those who want to keep up the caste system is not to improve the prospect of democracy in India but to put our democracy in India in greater jeopardy.”

Caste discrimination in educational institutes is a glaring reality in India. In his 1916 essay Castes in India, Ambedkar endorsed that caste could become a global problem when Hindus migrate to other parts of the world. A hundred years later, caste has become a global problem. Whether it is California, Georgia or New York in the US, Canada, the UK or South Africa, caste has manifested itself in various forms.

Now students from a Dalit background have expressed their experience of the subtle ways in which they are humiliated for their caste names. For the first time in US university history, Brandeis University prohibited discrimination on the basis of caste in its non-discrimination policy. Harvard and California State Universities have also recognised caste in their anti-discrimination policy.

Furthermore, women’s bodies, in particular, controlled by men not only perpetuates the superiority of men but also insists upon the architecture of race, class and caste. Caste exists in asymmetric graded inequality of power that distorts the worth of human recognition.

In her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson writes: “It (caste) embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics and sets forth the rules, expectations and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species.”

Ambedkar is both present and absent in academic and political discourse. He has become a token symbol in political discourse and is used by political parties. It is a distortion.

In the last few decades, a new Ambedkar scholarship is emerging in academia, coming from upper castes and Western academics. One must critically examine such scholarship, whether the presence of Ambedkar’s thought is an impulse to change the casteist academic space or reproduce it in just its name so as to reoccupy the academic space.

Also read: Dr Ambedkar: lawyer of the marginalised

Meaning of Ambedkar over the years

Ambedkar relentlessly struggled to achieve human dignity for millions of toiling masses systematically oppressed by caste, class and patriarchy. His uncompromised fight against this systemic injustice led to the foundation of an emancipatory movement.

Over the decades, Ambedkar Jayanti has become a festival with several meanings— a celebration that captures the ecstasy, unflinching love, aspiration, assertion, inspiration and joy of struggle with which Ambedkar’s followers connect. On April 14, his followers renew their pledge to wrestle with the unyielding struggle they face every minute. It is their day against the daily discrimination in Hinduism. They call it ‘Knowledge Day’. In 2021, British Columbia declared it as ‘Equality Day’.

Ambedkar is a spectacular example for those fighting against Brahminism’s systemic injustice. He gave a new purpose to millions who had never thought of becoming civil servants, professors, chief ministers and legislators. Ambedkar fascinates them— becoming an Ambedkarite is their fate.

Babasaheb was one of the great world leaders who spent their life in the fight against an unjust system. He was a rare and exceptional world-class iconoclast and statesman who rose from the bottom to the top. More than 60 years after his death, he continues to be relevant across the globe.

However, scholars and intellectuals have not yet been able to properly capture the multiple facets of Ambedkar that have impacted ‘Untouchable castes’. An Ambedkarite is guided only by the idea of justice. The name ‘Ambedkar’ is epistemic— a symbolic figure in a substantive meaning of the term that could alter the Hindu society. This should be the real reason for celebrating Ambedkar. Dalits often say, ‘We are because He was.’ Ambedkar exists in their political battle against injustice.

Ambedkar is part of their marriage ceremonies, his books are considered treasures— he is a cultural memory. He is a symbol of pride, joy, assertion and revolution for a good society and life. Ambedkar is a shared memory when they celebrate anything good for them.

A Dalit who achieves something important is facilitated with an Ambedkar portrait. Likewise, a marriage pandal is decorated with Ambedkar’s picture. This is the counter-culture against the Brahminical social order. Ambedkar is still alive due to his presence in Dalit lives, not because of the academia or political parties. Ironically, Dalits never get the credit.

Ambedkar and the present

The idea of Ambedkar contradicts the present regime. For example, Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism was a renunciation of Hinduism. But he is produced in distorted forms by the government— the identity, not his idea. Furthermore, those who speak about his beliefs are jailed.

This is the irony of a majoritarian democracy that elects a government that becomes authoritarian and oppressive. Such a rule suppresses voices who dissent or are critical of it. The regime gives a free hand to its foot soldiers to impose the Brahminical order to perpetuate its ideology. Intellectuals, activists and students critical of the government are under surveillance or arrested— especially, Dalits and Muslims. The space for critical thinking and freedom of mind has declined in celebrating Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.

Also read: Understanding civil liberties from an Ambedkarite perspective

In his essay Conditions and Precedent For a Successful Working of Democracy, Ambedkar identified that one of the conditions and precedents of a democracy is to have an Opposition. He writes: “Democracy requires not only that the government should be subject to a veto, a long-term veto of five years, at the hands of the people, but there must be an immediate veto… Democracy means that nobody has the perpetual authority to rule, rather the rule is subject to sanction by the people and can be challenged in the house itself.”

Treating a person and communities with indignation is an act of anti-humanity. It is an offence to the fundamental notion of justice in which a person’s freedom and equality are violated. 

The second necessary condition and precedent of democracy, Ambedkar writes is “constitutional morality and public conscience”. “In the name of democracy, there must be no tyranny of the majority over the minority. The minority must always feel safe that although the majority is carrying on the government, the minority is not being hurt or the minority is not being hit below the belt.” Ambedkar offers a normative to political democracy that helps to develop critical thinking in the minds of citizen towards a vibrant democracy.

Second, Ambedkar’s portrait has become a symbol for citizens who play the critical role of opposition to the ruling regime. The credit for celebrating Constitution Day as National Law Day goes to Ambedkarites across the globe, who have been using the Indian Constitution as their political normative for social transformation.

It is a historical moment to see Muslim women holding Ambedkar’s portrait and the Constitution to claim their rights. Muslims are treated as second-class citizens by the Hindu majoritarian state with their existence facing a perpetual threat and violence.

Therefore, Ambedkar and his thoughts are a timeless fight against time. His importance will endure because the oppressed have started to raise their voice.

Ambedkar beyond time

Ambedkar dared to say what was right and wrong— he always spoke the truth. He judged society through the lens of justice. He claimed that all humans are equal and free. He believed that the misrecognition of communities and identities creates tyranny and inequality, which leads to systemic injustice. They want to be recognised by their distinctiveness as free socially autonomous beings without the imposition of identities.

Treating a person or a community with indignation is an act of anti-humanity. It is an offence to the fundamental notion of justice in which a person’s freedom and equality are violated.

Ambedkar’s philosophy helps us to comprehend that humans need a universal moral standard to live in society. His intellectual pursuit entails priorities, praxis and social ethics that can orient towards an ideal of emancipation. His notion of enlightenment concerning the ethics of reason is to ascertain freedom and equality so that fraternity could lay the foundation of a society.

The idea of a good society is possible when the distinctiveness of individual is duly recognised. It is a new identity and community in which a person’s worth matters in seeking the common good— justice.  

The Leaflet