Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar’s utopia

Even as Dr Ambedkar waged an identity-based struggle throughout his life, he gave an individuals dignity more weight than communal identity. He was aware of the limits of community and the narrowness of feeling engendered by it.

INDIAS colonial period is usually looked at from two different, and oppositional, perspectives. One perspective is that of thinkers belonging to mostly Savarna and dominant castes, like M.K. Gandhi and other nationalists, while the other perspective is that of Dalit–Bahujan and female thinkers from the dispossessed classes— people like Jotiba Phule and Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Due to the differences in their lived experiences, the dreams and struggles of these two categories of thinkers were also different. In a way, this difference between the two streams of thought can be useful in understanding the caste system in India.

Ideological divide between Dr Ambedkar and Gandhi

On one side of this ideological divide, Gandhi wanted the British to leave India and hand over the reins of government to Indian politicians.

For centuries, the community that is called Hindu had been bereft of the pleasure of heading the government as the country was being ruled by people of other religions.

Gandhi conducted many social movements like the Civil Disobedience Movement and the Quit India Movement to achieve his goal of self-rule. For that purpose, Gandhi also had in his mind a utopia or an ideal State which he called Ramrajya. GandhiRamrajya was the utopia of Savarna castes.

The difference between the two streams of thought espoused by Dr Ambedkar and Gandhi can be useful in understanding the caste system in India.

Here, it is necessary to find out whether the traditional Ramrajya and Gandhis notion of Ramrajya were the same or not. We must remember that Ramrajya cannot be separated from the varna system. In fact, it can be said that the concept of Ramrajya only becomes meaningful if we understand the varna system to be its backbone. A person stays within their maryada or follows the right code of conduct by discharging their duties within the limits set by their varna and gender. To transgress these limits would be criminal or sinful.

It is possible that this is a misconception regarding Ramrajya but this is the meaning that Dalit–Bahujan thinkers have attributed to it based on tradition. Shudra ascetic Shambuka’s killing by Rama is used as a metaphor in this context. 

On the other side, there were thinkers like Phule, Periyar and Dr Ambedkar who thought it was necessary for the British to rule for some more time. Dr Ambedkar believed that the British came to India too late and left too early.

The British undertook many reforms for the upliftment of women as well. Social reformer Pandita Ramabai and feminist activist Tarabai Shinde have sufficiently praised British rule in this regard. 

Gandhi was also an advocate of the varna system in his life-philosophy. While giving his thoughts on the varna system in his newspaper, Gandhi accepted with honesty that he held these notions. He also struggled for a long time for his beliefs. This struggle was both at the spiritual and social levels.

The result of all this was that Gandhi managed to include people from those classes of society in politics who were earlier not even counted within the Hindu fold. On one hand, this increased Gandhis political stature and on the other hand, this gave a vast number of Indians the opportunity to become politically conscious.

Due to the varna system, social mobility is almost absent in India. A person, despite all their qualifications, is insulted throughout their life due to the caste they were born in. While another person, despite many disqualifications, gets to occupy a respectable place in society and lead a life full of happiness, just because they were born in the right caste. 

We can also see a change in Gandhis thoughts over time. He didnt remain as staunch a supporter of the varna system as he used to be. He opposed untouchability and made several provisions in the Indian National Congress to combat the practice. 

To understand the change in Gandhis political practice, it is necessary to understand Dr Ambedkars struggles. It will be appropriate to pause here for a little bit and look at Dr Ambedkars social life. A persons early life has an important role to play in their later intellectual development. This fact is accepted not only by social scientists but psychologists as well. 

Also read: Do sanitation workers identify themselves with Ambedkar and Gandhi?

Brief biography of Dr Ambedkar

Dr Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891 in a middle-class family in the Mhow Cantonment Area (central India, present Madhya Pradesh). His father Ramji Maloji Sakpal served as a subedar in the British army and was appointed the principal of a government school after retiring as a subedar-major. He even got himself a diploma in education while in government service. Dr Ambedkars grandfather Maloji Sakpal served as a hawaldar in the British army. It is said that even before this, his ancestors had served in the army of the East India Company, but we have no documented proof for that.

Dr Ambedkar had two brothers named Balram and Anand, and two sisters named Manjula and Tulsa.

It was evident from Dr Ambedkars early childhood that he had an unusually sharp mind. He was the first person from his family to step inside a college. Even though his gotra was Sakpal, his father Ramji Sakpal changed his last name from Sakpal to Ambadvekar while getting him admitted in school. His village in Ratnagiri district was named Ambadve. Later, this very last name metamorphosed into Ambedkar.

In 1906, at the age of 15, he was married to Ramabai. In 1907, he entered Elphinstone College, which was affiliated to the University of Bombay. In 1912, he graduated from Bombay University with a degree in political science and economics. In 1913, the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, gave Dr Ambedkar the opportunity to take up the post of lieutenant in his army.

Dr Ambedkars father was not satisfied with his filling this post. One reason for that was the social condition in Baroda and the other was Dr Ambedkars brilliance. He knew that the post did not do justice to Dr Ambedkars talents. He wanted his son to take up higher studies. Dr Ambedkar also aspired to do the same and he worked tirelessly to make his dream a reality, braving economic privations, hunger, thirst and any other obstacles that came his way. 

In 1913, Gaekwad awarded Dr Ambedkar a scholarship to study at Columbia University. He used to send a part of his stipend back home to India to help his family out.

If the middle class expands within Dalits, other backward castes and Adivasis, the entire nation will develop at a much faster pace. For this to happen, it is necessary to slow down the process of privatisation and follow the principles of socialism laid down in the Indian Constitution in order to achieve a beneficial balance between the public and private sectors.

Dr Ambedkar was a man with a purpose and he was committed to learning as much as possible. He studied subjects like logic, sociology, political science, anthropology and economics, and received his MA in 1915. In 1916, he presented a research paper at Columbia University, titled National Dividend of India: A Historical and Analytical Study. It was later published in the form of a book in 1925, bearing the title The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India.

In this book, he presents a detailed review of British rule in India. While he takes the position of a neutral critic, he does not hesitate to or abstain from criticising the British for their shortcomings.

In 1923, he was awarded a DSc in economics by the University of London. His thesis was titled The Problem of the Rupee: Its Origin and Its Solution. He also studied law in London. 

After returning to India, he began working as a military secretary for the Maharaja of Baroda, as was stipulated in his scholarship contract. At that time, his family was also in dire need of financial help, so Dr Ambedkar accepted the job even though he had no interest in it. He went to Baroda but only sometime later he was to be hurt by social humiliations and feel the sting of untouchability. He returned to Bombay on hearing that his father had fallen gravely ill. His fathers untimely death worsened the economic condition of the family. At this sensitive time, both his brothers stepped up to help the family in every way possible. 

In 1918, he was appointed a professor of political economy at a reputed college in Mumbai, the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics. Although he was popular with his students, the behaviour of his teaching colleagues was prejudiced and discriminatory. He also worked as a lawyer but as soon as his clients came to know of his caste, they would refuse to give him their cases.

Despite this social hostility, he was soon to become a recognised name in the field of law. While practising at the Bombay High Court, he founded the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha with the aim of economic upliftment of the untouchables and spreading education among them.

Also read: Dr Ambedkar: lawyer of the marginalized

On April 3, 1927, he started a fortnightly newspaper called Bahishkrit Bharat. Before this, on January 23, 1920, he had also started a newspaper named Mooknayak. Apart for these, he published a newspaper named Janta from 193056, and in the twilight of his life (in 1956), he started a newspaper named Prabuddh Bharat. 

Caste versus class in India

Reflecting on the struggles of Dr Ambedkar, we come face to face with many contradictions of Indian society. We can see many of our long-held beliefs die ignominiously under scrutiny. Scholars keep criticising the middle class, not least for its opportunistic character. But the strange thing is that most thinkers, philosophers, doctors, engineers and so on belong to this very class.

Class does not function in Indias social structure like it does in the Western world. They have a high amount of social mobility in the West but due to the varna system, social mobility is almost absent in India. A person, despite all their qualifications, is insulted throughout their life due to the caste they were born in. While another person, despite many disqualifications, gets to occupy a respectable place in society and lead a life full of happiness, just because they were born in the right caste. 

Both Dr Ambedkars father and grandfather held relatively high positions in the army and fell in the upper-middle class category, but due to the caste they were born in, they could never achieve that status in society which people of some castes attain as if naturally. Therefore, a class perspective does not seem sufficient to understand Indias social, political and economic realities. A critical caste perspective is of primary importance to understand this social structure.

It is completely biased to think that only an ascetic can be worthy of our respect. This tendency has given birth to much hypocrisy and corruption at the religious and spiritual levels.

It is worth noting that the social situation of those castes which have their own middle classes is considered respectable. After independence, many castes were able to make use of educational and other opportunities available to them due to increased social mobility and attain a respectable place for themselves. Dalits and other backward castes still do not have this requisite middle class. Due to reservation in government jobs, a small middle class was emerging in these castes but even those gains now seem to be getting lost due to encroaching privatisation.

It is worth thinking about that those nations are considered developed which have a large middle class, while those nations are considered undeveloped or under-developed whose middle classes are small. In Indias context, it is necessary to understand that if the middle class expands within Dalits, other backward castes and Adivasis, the entire nation will develop at a much faster pace. For this to happen, it is necessary to slow down the process of privatisation and follow the principles of socialism laid down in the Indian Constitution in order to achieve a beneficial balance between the public and private sectors.

Most people belonging to so-called upper castes still do not like to see traditionally deprived communities making progress, and thus they are willing to accept privatisation even though it is bad for them as well. This is not just about the desire to assert caste dominance, but also about monopolising national resources.

If we look at it from a cultural perspective, members of Dr Ambedkars family were followers of the mystic poet and saint Kabir. Coincidentally, Dr Ambedkar got the opportunity to read about Buddhism in his childhood. He had faced caste-based humiliation himself and seen the people around him subjected to atrocities. He had suffered and was also sensitive to the suffering of others. He has recorded these experiences in his autobiography Waiting for a Visa. He took up the task of social enlightenment by initiating and taking part in many social movements.

Dr Ambedkar entered Indian politics after earning his stripes in movements like the Mahad Satyagraha and the Kalaram Temple Entry Movement, among others. In Indian politics, he encountered Gandhi, who was also working for the upliftment of the Untouchables through the Indian National Congress.

Also read: BR Ambedkar: Father of our Constitution and radical social thinker

Gandhi was against untouchability. In 1933, he started a newspaper named Harijan.

Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar belonged to the same class but due to their differing caste locations, they were perceived differently by the Indian public. When Gandhi went abroad, he had to face the same kind of racial violence that Dalit–Bahujans have to face in India. In India, Gandhi always enjoyed the privileges of belonging to a so-called upper caste. Dr Ambedkar, on the other hand, had to face entrenched opposition at all junctures of his life due to the presence of caste-based discrimination in India. This is a contradiction of Indian society which stems from the varna or caste system. Dr Ambedkar believed that the seed of this contradiction is present in the sacred books of Hinduism.

He wrote down his thoughts on this in his book Riddles of HinduismApart for this, he wrote a presidential address at the request of the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Society for the break-up of the caste system), which was later published in 1936 in the form of a book called Annihilation of CasteDue to some ideological differences, Dr Ambedkar decided not to take part in their annual conference. The organisation was aligned with the monotheistic Indian Hindu reform movement, the Arya Samaj and its members wanted Dr Ambedkar to exclude the issue of religious conversion from his address. Dr Ambedkar refused to cater to this demand even a little bit. He believed that removing this issue will make the problem completely unsolvable and make his address unjustifiable.

The point to ponder upon is why did Ambedkar do this? Why was he so adamant upon religious conversion and inter-caste marriage? Maybe we can get an answer to this question by asking ourselves if it is a mere coincidence that only those books are considered sacred by Hindus that glorify the varna system or the caste system and provide statutes for the exploitation and enslavement of Dalits, backward castes, Adivasis and women. In these social circumstances, can the utopia of Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar be identical? This is why Kabir says, “How can you and I desire the same, while I try to resolve things, you only try to complicate them?” 

Also read: Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the question of womens liberation in India  I

Deconstructing the ideal way of living and home in ancient Indian philosophies

Various traditions of philosophy have existed in India for a long time. Thinkers and disciples belonging to both atheism and theism have found a home here. The meaning of theism and atheism have also been changing over time. People believing in the conceptions of heaven and hell have also been found here, along with those who reject these conceptions outright. Along these lines, there has also been a long-standing debate among thinkers on the importance of the home. Some thinkers stress on the importance of relinquishing ones home while others stress on living a simple life at home itself. Only the former seems to have been given respect and importance in Indian tradition.

One stream of thought is fundamentally discriminatory and divides its own followers into high and low, while  the other stream of thought proposes equality and amity among all communities.

In reality, this importance is given to the idea of renunciation. Normally, people remain caught up in greed, avarice, lust, pride and anger, and blame the householders life for it. This is why being worldly is considered to be inferior in the spiritual and religious realms, even though those who become householders or participate in social life produce the things which bring us joy and comfort. It is completely biased to think that only an ascetic can be worthy of our respect. This tendency has given birth to much hypocrisy and corruption at the religious and spiritual levels.

In the Western world, ancient philosophy focussed on questions dealing with worldly life and made attempts to make life more comfortable and joyful. We can see this clearly in the philosophies of Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, among others. In India, among many thinkers like the Buddha, Mahavira and those belonging to the Charvaka (Sanskrit for worldly ones) school, the discussions and debates revolved around the living world. They didnt waste their time on things such as God, heaven, hell, and so on. The Charvaka tradition does not even recognise rebirth. 

Kabir has this to say on the home and living simply: I like those who bring the lost back home. Home is the place for love and happiness, home is everything, I like those who dont leave their homes to go live in forests.

Utopia and the ideal State

The framework of Dr Ambedkars utopia was laid down by his lived experience in Indian culture and society, by the suffering he encountered and endured both in his early and later life. His utopia has much in common with the utopias of mystic poet-saints Raidas and Kabir.

Raidas Begumpura (a place with no pain) is one such utopia in which a plea has been made to consider humans equal. Raidas said, I desire a kingdom in which no one sleeps hungry. Where the low and high live together, there Raidas is happy. In the same vein, Kabir said, The land without suffering is my country. I have been saying this to one and all, king, beggar, ascetic, emperor. If you want to attain the supreme position, come live in my country.

While Raidas and Kabir talk about equality among all castes, Ramanandi Vaishnava Hindu saint and poet Tulsidas thought completely contradicts them. He wrote: A Brahmin should be worshipped no matter how lacking in virtue. While a Shudra should never be worshipped even if he is the very embodiment of virtue.”      

Some scholars define the words Brahmin and Shudra differently and try to explain this stanza of Tulsidas accordingly. Can those scholars also define Kshatriya and Vaishya on these lines and tell us where they stand on the path of knowledge and devotion? Now let us look at the 32nd stanza in the ninth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the most revered of Hindu texts. In this stanza, Vaishyas and women have been included with the Shudras. 

O mortal! Even sinful types like women, Vaishyas and Shudras
can worship me and gain transcendence.
” 

A question can be raised as to who these sinful types are, who has made them and for what good reason? Additionally, the question is also raised as to whether the division between Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra applies only within the religious and spiritual realms, or is it applicable even in social life?

We can see that this discriminatory division emerges in its cruellest form in social life. Even gaining divine knowledge does not confer worth upon a person. And in any case, it is extremely difficult for common people to figure out who has gained this divine knowledge and who has not. 

The entire point of this deliberation is to show that one stream of thought is fundamentally discriminatory and divides its own followers into high and low, while the other stream of thought proposes equality and amity among all communities.

Dr Ambedkar became the vehicle of this tradition of equality and amity in modern times. His social work, personal conduct and the provisions he made in the Indian Constitution are a modern version of Raidas and Kabirs Begumpura. We can clearly see the contours of Dr Ambedkars utopia in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. 

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION.                   

We dont need to go into detail regarding every word of the Preamble, but understanding its essence is of the utmost importance because it tells us how Dr Ambedkar imagined his ideal State.

Also read: On the Trajectory Shown by Ambedkar

One ideal State was imagined by Plato, which was to be ruled by philosopher-kings; another ideal State was imagined by English lawyer, judge, social philosopher, author, statesmanand humanist Thomas More in 1516 CE. In the same vein, Dr Ambedkar imagined an ideal State in independent India in which personal dignity was given the most importance.

Even as Dr Ambedkar waged an identity-based struggle throughout his life, he gave an individuals dignity more weight than communal identity. He was aware of the limits of community and the narrowness of feeling engendered by it. This personal dignity is no other than Kabirsupreme position and Raidas Begumpura.

In the context of Dr Ambedkars utopia, his last book Buddha and His Dhamma is a most important guiding light for Indian society. Buddhas Dhamma has been transformed through Dr Ambedkars perspective. In his approach, to be a Buddhist monk does not mean begging for alms. Instead, it means being dedicated of knowledge, inspiring new ways of thinking, devoting oneself to social work and participating joyfully in worldly life.

Maybe this is why the traditional adherents of Buddhism did not readily accept Dr Ambedkars ideas. Some of them even heavily criticised these ideas and considered Dr Ambedkars Buddhism to be a separate religion altogether. Some called it Navayana and some Ambedkaryana.

In reality, Dr Ambedkar was a true utopian. A true utopian is one who spends most of his time in learning new and beneficial things. He recuses himself from those pointless questions of philosophy which are not related to making human life happier, more prosperous, more active and more enjoyable.     

Translated from the original Hindi by Akshat Jain, philosopher and translator.
The Leaflet