The >125th birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is an apt occasion to assess and reassess his thoughts and ideology and their relevance in India and the world today. Ambedkar was a philosopher who not only interpreted the society and the world during his time but also struggled to change them, fighting as a foot soldier. Having a universal vision, he shaped and steered struggles in which was forged his belief in secularism, social justice and socialism. He believed that the annihilation of caste and negation of capitalism are imperatives for change and taking India and the world forward. He declared that the bourgeoisie (capitalism) and Brahminism are the twin enemies of the people.
Ambedkar also analysed nationalism in the context of the demand of the Indian commercial community/class that sought to replace Europeans in the field of trade and commerce. They wanted to do so using the trope of nationalism. They also wanted lower exchange rates and higher profits in foreign trade by taking recourse to nationalism. Ambedkar critically observed such profit-seeking orientation of the commercial class and disapproved of their predatory economic pursuits under the garb of nationalism. The very same class compromised with the British colonial Raj and served its interest. Right-wing forces such as >Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) did the same. In 21st century India where the architecture of the economy is dominated by corporate and finance capital in alliance with the political formations championing the cause of so-called nationalism, it is extremely critical to recall the analysis of Ambedkar indicting the sole profit-making pursuits at the cost of people’s interests.
Nationalism as a fig leaf In the present context, nationalism is being invoked in a coercive manner spreading fear and terror among people. Ambedkar, the principal architect of our Constitution, in his numerous writings reflected on nationalism and gave valuable insights. He argued very >passionately for adequate representation of the untouchables in the legislature, executive and public service. Nationalism was used as a cover to negate such demands. In fact, he categorically wrote that nationalism became the core plank to take a stand against the struggling humanity within the country and thereby creating fertile conditions for the upsurge of rank communalism. Indeed, what he wrote before Independence has become a grim reality today. The communal fascist forces have not only secured state power at the Centre but also control and command the state apparatus and their functions at the national level to serve their sinister design.
It is instructive to note that Ambedkar very persuasively, prophetically and incisively wrote that the governing class in India always raised the cry of ‘nationalism/Bharat mata is in danger’ whenever the exploited classes demanded justice and fair and equal treatment and affirmative action for representation in the legislature, executive and public service. He also pointed out that the governing class was aware that class ideology, class interests, class issues and class conflicts would spell disaster for its rule and therefore always sidetracked the issues and interests of the exploited masses by playing upon the sentiment of nationalism and national unity. He described it as a misuse of nationalism. It is tragic that what Ambedkar wrote much before our Independence is now becoming a grim reality in contemporary India. Under the present dispensation at the Centre and several States, ‘ >Make in India ’ is witnessing concentration of wealth in a few hands, growing inequality, galloping unemployment, farmers’ suicides and widespread disenchantment of the youth and all sections of the toiling people.
It is well known that during the freedom struggle untouchables demanded separate electorates. Such a demand was described as anti-national in spirit. Ambedkar rejected the description by stating that separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs and Christians did not make them >anti-nationals . Then he insightfully commented, “Obviously, nationalism and anti-nationalism have nothing to do with the electoral system. They are the results of the extra-electoral forces.” In 21st century India, it is the extra-electoral forces represented by the RSS and other extremist forces that have ‘dedicated experts’ on history, culture and sociology trying to define nation and nationhood.
The importance of social justice In his ‘Annihilation of Caste’ lecture, Ambedkar described caste as anti-national and wanted to address the scourge of caste discrimination and exclusion through the instrumentality of law, which he poetically described as “the greatest disinfectant against inequality”. In his speech in the Constituent Assembly, while stating that India is an integral whole, he cautioned, “The sooner we realise that we are not yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For then only we shall realise the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realising the goal.” Therefore, he stressed on justice, not only political and economic but also social justice. According to him, the key components of social justice are liberty, equality and fraternity. Ambedkar said, “The system of rank and gradation is simply another way of enunciating the principle of inequality, so it may be truly said that Hinduism doesn’t recognise equality.” Ambedkar, being a compassionate rebel, found Buddhism closer to his understanding of social justice. An economist too, the quest for social justice led him to become a social democrat and study Karl Marx’s ideology. He compared the >Buddha and Marx and said, “The ideology of Buddha and Karl Marx and a comparison between them just forces itself on me.”
Such notions of all-embracing nationalism included in its scope gender equality and women’s empowerment which he wanted to achieve in full measure through his epoch-making Hindu Code Bill. Democracy for Ambedkar was a way of living. He wrote, “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living of conjoined communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.” He strongly felt that a society based on liberty, equality and fraternity should be the only alternative to a caste society, and that is why he attached greater importance to the principle of “one man, one vote; one man, one value”. He was very particular that the democracy that he upheld went beyond the formal expressions of it and moved into the social and economic realm where substantial democracy prevailed. This form of democracy, he imagined, would ensure dignity for all.
Nationalism that is inclusive Some of the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the RSS are now invoking nationalism in a coercive and recurrent manner. They underline the point that nationalism is in danger and it is important to inculcate the spirit of nationalism among citizens, particularly students, to safeguard our unity and integrity. >The slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ is being used by them as the only symbol of nationalism and it is asserted by the leaders of the BJP that recitation of this slogan by Indians affirms their credibility as nationalists. They describe everything else as anti-national.
Ambedkar rightly observed, “Nationality is a social feeling. It is a feeling of a corporate sentiment of oneness which makes those who are charged with it feel that they are kith and kin. This national feeling is a double-edged feeling. It is at once a feeling of fellowship of one’s own kith and kin and an anti-fellowship feeling for those who are not one’s own kith and kin. It is a feeling of ‘consciousness of kind’ which on the one hand binds together those who have it so strongly that it overrides all difference arising out of economic conflicts or social gradations and, on the other, severs them from those who are not of their kind. It is a longing not to belong to any other group. This is the essence of what is called a nationality and national feeling.”
This elevated notion of nationality cannot be generated and achieved by mere sloganeering based on a violent masculinist approach. It requires a concerted democratic effort and high level of statesmanship and vision to empower people and reclaim their dignity through the spread of education and provision of livelihood emanating from an inclusive and non-alienating economy as a right. This is the true meaning of Ambedkar’s nationalism, which is creative, compassionate and emancipatory in the universalistic sense.
D. Raja is the National Secretary of the CPI and a Member of Parliament