Following Dr. Ambedkar's example, Team Anna should use constitutional methods and enhance people's faith in them. Otherwise it will convey the message that only coercive and unconstitutional methods work.
A group of people, with placards showing Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, staged a demonstration in Delhi a few days ago against Anna Hazare's proposals on the Lokpal and the methods used by his team. More often than not, Dalits look with suspicion on any attempt to tamper with the Constitution. Team Anna has, however, suggested that its Lokpal bill would benefit Dalits more than anyone else. This led me to look at Dr. Ambedkar's position as compared to the mode of agitation being deployed by Anna Hazare and his team.
In his last, visionary speech after the submission of the drafted Constitution on November 25, 1949, Dr. Ambedkar warned of three possible dangers to the new-born democracy. These related to social and economic inequalities, the use of unconstitutional methods, and hero-worship.
Dr. Ambedkar first pointed to the contradiction between equality in politics in the form of one-person-one-vote and the inequalities in social and economic life. He argued that for political democracy to succeed, it needed to be founded on the tissues and fibres of social and economic equality. He warned that 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. Although we in India are trying hard to reduce the vast inequalities that exist, the working of political democracy is already under heavy stress due to discontent in some parts of country.
Dr. Ambedkar's second, and more important, warning in the present context related to the methods to achieve social and economic objectives. He urged the people to abandon bloody as well as coercive methods to bring about change. This means abandoning methods of civil disobedience, non-cooperation, coercive forms of satyagraha and fast. Referring to the use of these methods during the British period, Dr. Ambedkar observed: “When there was no way left for the constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods.” But using them since that period, in his view, was “nothing less than the Grammar of Anarchy.” He advocated that “the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us as a nation.”
Dr. Ambedkar's third warning related to “hero worship.” He was immensely concerned over the political culture of “laying down the liberties at the feet of great men or to trust them with powers which enable them to subvert their institutions.” He believed that there is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. No man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of the people of India than in the case of any other country, for in India, bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in politics, unequalled in magnitude to the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world, argued Dr. Ambedkar. He went on to add that bhakti or hero-worship in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul, but in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
These views of Dr. Ambedkar also evolved through a much deeper commitment to constitutional methods and their use in the anti-untouchability movement during the 1920s and the 1930s. The 1920s and the 1930s saw a series of agitations led by Dr. Ambedkar to get public wells, tanks and Hindu temples opened to “untouchables.” In the present context, recalling two such incidents is very relevant, namely, the agitation for access to a water tank in Mahad, and for entry into the famous Kalaram temple in Nasik. In both cases, Dr. Ambedkar was up against violent high-caste Hindus, with the British sitting on the fence.
Dr. Ambedkar started the Mahad agitation in 1927, but the “untouchables” got access to the tank only in 1937 through a court order. The people of the high castes had managed a court order to ban the entry of “untouchables” into the tank on the grounds that it was a private tank. Dr. Ambedkar accepted the court order and discontinued a second march to the tank. But he fought through the courts and got justice in 1937, almost after 10 years. He did this using legal instruments and a peaceful mass movement, without the coercive means of fasts and hunger strikes.
Similarly, the agitation for entry into the Kalaram temple went on for four years, from 1930 to 1934. He discontinued the agitation in 1934 following opposition by priests, notwithstanding the support extended by Gandhiji. But he fought a legal battle, along with a peaceful agitation, for the next four years, and in 1939 ultimately secured entry to the temple for “untouchables.”
During the 1920s and the 1930s, Dr. Ambedkar combined mass mobilisation with legal methods in the anti-untouchability movement, but never allowed unconstitutional and coercive methods to take hold, despite instances of violent attack on “untouchables.” Once he came face to face with Gandhiji with the latter's fast-unto-death and he had to compromise on the demand for a separate electorate with what is the present-day political reservation. Coercive means forced him to surrender the demand for a separate electorate, the consequences of which are visible today.
Team Anna should realise that the Indian Constitution provides ample opportunities for advocacy, through discussion and lobbying with parliamentary Standing Committees, Groups of Ministers, the Ministers concerned, the Prime Minister, courts, and above all through a peaceful agitation. With several political parties on their side, the possibility of reaching a middle ground is high. Experience with constitutional means shows that civil society activists, through their constant struggles, have persuaded the two successive United Progressive Alliance governments to acknowledge several basic rights and convert these into laws. The right to employment through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the right to information, rights under the Forest Act, the right to education, and now the right to food, are some of the revolutionary measures that civil society has been able to accomplish through constitutional methods. It is an opportunity for Team Anna to use constitutional methods and enhance the faith of people in these; otherwise Team Anna will convey the message that only coercive and unconstitutional methods work.
As Dr. Ambedkar observed, due to certain aspects of Indian culture our people are highly vulnerable to hero-worship. How a yoga teacher could convert yoga devotees into religious devotees and finally into political supporters within a few years' time is a classic example of what hero-worship and bhakti can do. Another religious preacher has threatened that he would use his religious followers for political end which he thinks does not require discussion with them as they follow him in whatever he tells them to do.
Anna and his team should recognise that for a new democracy like ours, which is operating within the framework of undemocratic relations based on the caste system, constitutional methods and social morality need to be cultivated and promoted with a purpose. The Lokpal Bill is too important a piece of legislation to be passed under threat and unreasonable deadlines. All its aspects need to be discussed with extreme care and with consensus among all sections. Dalits have begun to express concern about its implications for them. In a society where the anti-caste spirit and prejudices are present in abundance, they feel that given its proposed wide-ranging powers, it may be misused.
The Commissioner for Scheduled Castes reported about 11,469 complaints by Dalit government employees during the period from 2004 to 2010 that were linked to caste prejudice. Several thousand more complaints under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, such as giving “false or frivolous information to any public servant and thereby cause such public servant to use his lawful power to the injury or annoyance of member of SC/ST” are waiting for justice. Therefore, Dalits have begun to seek safeguards against the complaints emanating from caste prejudices in the Lokpal Bill. I think the government has rightly brought the bill for an open discussion before the Standing Committee that comprises MPs from all parties, so that the Bill is discussed by all sections in a peaceful milieu and not under duress and force.
Anna Hazare knows that the road to social change is a difficult one. He helped Dalits in a number of ways, including by repaying loans taken by Dalits with contributions from villagers. Yet he could not bring about fraternity between them — Dalits continue to stay in segregated localities in his village. Corruption, like untouchability, is deeply embedded in the social fabric of our society. Therefore, besides legislation its eradication requires changes through education and moral regeneration.
(Sukhadeo Thorat is Professor of Economics, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)