B.R. Ambedkar is remembered on his 63rd death anniversary on December 6, principally as the chief draftsman of the Indian Constitution. But above all, Ambedkar was a valiant fighter for the cause of the Dalits. His strategies to achieve the goal of empowering Dalits shifted with changing contexts but the goal always remained the same: attaining equality with caste Hindus in all spheres of life.
It was in pursuit of this goal that in the early 1930s he advocated a separate electorate for the Dalits. This demand was accepted by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in his Communal Award of 1932, which granted Dalits 18% of the total seats in the Central legislature and 71 seats in the Provincial legislatures to be elected exclusively by Dalits. However, Ambedkar’s success was short-lived because of Mahatma Gandhi’s fast unto death against a separate electorate for Dalits, which he saw as a British ploy to divide Hindu society. Ambedkar gave up his demand in return for an increased number of seats reserved for Dalits but elected by the general Hindu population.
However, Ambedkar regretted his decision because he soon realised that given the disparity in the number of eligible voters between caste Hindus and Dalits as well as the huge disparity in their socio-economic status, very few of the elected Dalits would be able to genuinely represent Dalit interests. Both Gandhi and Amedkar abhorred untouchability, but the terms they used to describe the “untouchables” demonstrated the wide gulf in their approaches to the issue. Gandhi called them “Harijan” (God’s children) in order to persuade caste Hindus to stop discriminating against them. For Ambedkar, this was a patronising term and he used the nomenclature Dalit both to describe the reality of oppression and to galvanise his people to challenge and change the status quo.
In the second half of the 1930s Ambedkar considered the Muslim League a potential ally. He concluded that if Muslims and Dalits acted jointly, they could balance the political clout of caste Hindus. However, he was disillusioned after the Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution of March 1940 demanding a separate Muslim majority state. He felt this undercut Dalit interests in two ways. First, if the Muslim League succeeded in gaining Pakistan, it would drastically reduce the Muslims’ heft in Indian politics and allow caste Hindus a free hand in running the country. Second, even if the bid for Pakistan failed, the Muslim League’s demand for parity in representation with the Hindus effectively marginalised all other groups, especially the Dalits.
After Independence Ambedkar made his peace with the Congress leadership believing that he could enhance Dalits’ rights from within the power structure. He became Law Minister and Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. He resigned from the Cabinet in 1951 when his draft of the Hindu Code Bill was stalled in Parliament because conservative Hindu members opposed it.
Although he died a frustrated man, Ambedkar’s devotion to the cause of Dalit empowerment has continued to galvanise Dalits until today. This Dalit awakening is represented in student activism on university campuses as well as through the emergence of Dalit-based parties. However, there are three major problems that continue to bedevil Dalit activism. First, intra-Dalit differences based on sub-castes allows forces opposed to Dalit empowerment to divide Dalits and deny them the clout that they can wield in the Indian polity. Second, interpersonal rivalry among Dalit politicians leads to the same result. Third, the inability of the Dalit leadership to stick with their non-Dalit allies, especially in times of political adversity, makes them appear as unreliable political partners. The most important lesson to learn from Ambedkar’s repeated exhortations is that unless they remain united, the Dalits will be denied their due share of political power.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University