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EQUALITY ABOVE EVERYTHING

The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar Edited by Valerian Rodrigues, Oxford, Rs 595

An eminent scholar, politician, and constitutional expert, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was also a social reformer who upheld the cause of the underprivileged and struggled hard against the evils of untouchability and the caste system. An “untouchable” himself, he felt that the untouchables had to fight their own battles.

In an almost Marxian vein, Ambedkar considered economic exploitation the single most important problem in India. Almost predicting the failure of parliamentary democracy in the country, Ambedkar argued that “parliamentary democracy in standing out as a protagonist of liberty has continuously added to the economic wrongs against the poor, the downtrodden and the disinherited classes...political democracy cannot succeed where there is no social and economic democracy”.

“Parliamentary democracy...”, he further argued, “did not even endeavour to strike a balance between liberty and equality, with the result that liberty swallowed equality and has made democracy a name and a farce.” Untouchability and like practices, he noted, had their roots in economic inequality and exploitation.

Despite all his reservations, however, Ambedkar remained a votary of constitutional democracy always. He drafted several documents that were to shape the course of constitutional developments in India. He is also the author of two eminently readable books on Buddhism — The Buddha and his Dhamma and The Buddha Puja Path.

Ambedkar’s objections to the caste system were rooted in the fact that the division of labour it brought about was based on birth and not on choice. But he also knew that caste and untouchability could not be eliminated by legislation or other political means — the mentality of the governing classes towards the so-called “servile” classes would need to change for this.

In this regard, Ambedkar was sharply critical of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for his ambivalence towards caste — implying it was reactionary and outdated. Quoting from the Harijan (May 18, 1921), Ambedkar showed how Gandhi took care never to hurt the interests of the propertied classes — all they needed to do was to voluntarily declare themselves trustees of the poor. Going further, he pointed out that Gandhi was not satisfied with notional class distinctions, but insisted upon a class structure. No wonder then that Ambedkar was so disillusioned with Hinduism he embraced Buddhism two months before his death.

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