Ambedkar Contributed to Multiple Streams of Dalit Consciousness

The Ambedkarite movement is increasingly influenced by Buddhism: the religion of peace and human enlightenment following the great conversion movement launched by Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1956 (Representative image)

The Ambedkarite movement is increasingly influenced by Buddhism: the religion of peace and human enlightenment following the great conversion movement launched by Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1956 (Representative image)

The Dalit movement in India is a legacy of the multiple streams of Ambedkar’s efforts to bring in equality and make systemic changes to the social order. As we stand today, Dalit movement to claim political power is vacillating and was not sustainable. This had a limited success.

Raja Sekhar Vundru
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The Dalit movement in India is a legacy of the multiple streams of Ambedkar’s efforts to bring in equality and make systemic changes to the social order. As we stand today, Dalit movement to claim political power is vacillating and not sustainable. This has had a limited success.

The success or failure of Dalit quest for political power had an impact on the other efforts of Dalits to bring in equality.

But the failure or success of quest for political power has never stopped Dalits from claiming their rights against the vast milieu of oppressive practices of the Indian society.

Ambedkar’s idea of what a political party should stand for was clear in the manifesto he drafted for the Scheduled Caste Federation in 1951. The core principles of a political party, according to it, should be:

“The attitude of the Party in public affairs will be governed by the following principles:-

(1) It will treat all Indians not only as being equal before the law but as being entitled to equality and will accordingly foster equality where it does not exist and uphold it where it is denied.

(2) It will regard every Indian as an end in himself with a right to his own development in his own way and the State as only a means to that end.

(3) It will sustain the right of every Indian to freedom- religious, economic and political– subject to such limitations as may arise out of the need for the protection of the interests of other Indians or the State.

(4) It will uphold the right of every Indian to equality of opportunity subject to the provision that those who have had none in the past shall have priority over those who had.

(5) It will keep the State ever aware of its obligation to make every Indian free from want and free from fear.

(6) It will insist on the maintenance of liberty, equality and fraternity and will strive for redemption from oppression and exploitation of man by man, of class by class and of nation by nation.

(7) It will stand for the Parliamentary System of Government as being the best form of Government both in the interest of public and in the interest of the individual.”

Ambedkar’s initial effort for a voice in the political process was to bring in representation of Dalits in the elected bodies and he fought with Mahatma Gandhi on this. His efforts bore fruit and in the British Indian Constitution of 1935 provided for reserved seats for Dalits in legislative bodies.

By 1937, the first untouchable elected representative appeared on the horizon of Indian polity. Ambedkar himself was elected from Bombay and was a member of Bombay Legislative Council. The same continued in 1946 election. In 1950, Ambedkar faced a stumbling block in Sardar Patel, who opposed reserved seats for any community. Ambedkar ensured that Dalit representation continued for another 10 years.

But in 1960, when the issue of extension of reserved seats came up, neither Ambedkar nor Patel were alive. The condition of Dalits made the polity to continue the representation in elected bodies till now and it will be up for review again in 2020.

The Dalit movement for space in elected bodies is a continuous stream of consciousness the Dalit movement sustains, unlike its quest for political power. Ambedkar, through the Poona Pact in 1932 with Gandhi, ensured representation in services for Dalits, which is a perpetual condition since it is based on adequate representation.

Another huge focus of Dalit movements is to protect this remedy to their discrimination for representation in services of the government. Large groups of employees’ federations, SC, ST and OBC associations protect this opportunity brought in by Ambedkar. This Dalit movement for jobs is visible and vocal because of the employee base the Dalits have. Dalits also supported the OBC reservation during the Mandal agitation and were in the lead, simply adhering to core of Ambedkarite ideology for representation of various classes. This is one of strongest movements of Dalits.

Ambedkar’s efforts for eradication of untouchability and denial of access to civil rights was amplified by his fight for access to water during the Mahad Satyagraha in March 1927 and present during the burning of Manusmriti in December 1927 . His evaluation of Hinduism came in his failed experiment of Nasik Kalaram Temple entry in 1930. He decided to renounce Hinduism five years later and did the same after a good twenty years in 1956 in Nagpur, bringing the Buddhist stream of Dalit movement. The movement to move away from Hinduism is slow but strong as more and more Dalits became conscious of their continued oppression on the basis of caste. Dalits regularly organise “deeksha” programs for conversion to Buddhism and sometimes do it as a protest, like the one in Una, Gujarat.

The legal remedy for oppression, deprivation was brought in the independent India starting with Untouchability Offences Act of 1955, which became the Protection of Civil rights Act in 1977. This led to the more powerful SC ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989 and an even more focused version in 2016. A strong stream of Dalit movement focuses on these basic human rights provided in these Acts. The 2016 version of the Act is due to a sustained Dalit movement over the 25 years of 1989 Act on Atrocities.

Ambedkar touched not only Dalits but also the other oppressed half of Indian society, the women and his Hindu Code Bill in 1950 was an indication of his wider canvas of equality campaign. Very few women owned Ambedkar as their savior after the initial failure of Indian polity to bring in Hindu Code Bill. The accrual of equal rights to women was slower than the Dalit quest for equality. Like Dalits, women too struggle today to claim their equal space.

Ambedkar wrote extensively on many aspects of Indian polity and his 1955 formula for the minority communities against the oppression of majority community is a gem. He classified Dalits as a minority group of a community. The 1955 electoral formula can be an interesting read and a solution to the crisis of certain communities, who are lesser in number, for representation.

He gave a solution in his book titled ‘Thoughts on linguistic states” in 1955: “The caste is a nation but the rule of one caste over another may not be admitted to be the same as the rule of one nation over another. But supposing the case is not carried so far but is limited to majority and minority even then the question remains: What right has the majority to rule the minority? The answer is that whatever the majority does it is right. What complain the minorities can have ? People who rely upon majority rule forget the fact that majorities are of two sorts : (1) Communal majority and (2) Political majority.

A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own members born in it. How can a communal majority run away with the title deeds given to a political majority to rule? To give such title deeds to a communal majority is to establish a hereditary Government and make the way open to the tyranny of that majority. This tyranny of the communal majority is not an idle dream. It is an experience of many minorities. This experience to Maharashtrian Brahmins being every recent it is unnecessary to dilate upon it. What is the remedy?

No doubt some safeguards against this communal tyranny are essential. The question is: What can they be? The first safeguard is not to have too large a State. The consequences of too large a State on the minority living within it are not understood by many. Larger the State, the smaller the proportion of the minority to the majority. To give one illustration — if Mahavidarbha remained separate, the proportion of Hindus to Muslims would be four to one. In the United Maharashtra the proportion will be fourteen to one. The same would be the case of the Untouchables. A small stone of a consolidated majority placed on the chest of the minority may be borne. But the weight of a huge mountain it cannot bear. It will crush the minorities. Therefore creation of smaller States is a safeguard to the minorities.

The second safeguard is some provision for representation in the Legislature. The old type of remedy provided in the Constitution were (1) certain number of reserved seats and (2) separate electorates. Both these safeguards have been given up in the new Constitution. The lambs are shorn of the wool. They are feeling the intensity of the cold. Some tempering of the wool is necessary.

Separate electorates or reservation of seats must not be restored to. It would be enough to have plural member constituencies (of two or three) with cumulative voting in place of the system of single-member constituency embodied in the present Constitution. This will allay the fears which the minorities….”

Ambedkar’s remedies to the ills of the polity and society continue to inspire Dalit movements and Ambedkar’s ideology of equality has gained wider following.

(The author is an IAS officer and holds a doctorate on Ambedkar’s electoral idea from Nation Law School, Bangalore. All views are personal and not News18)

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