The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Why Amitava Lala is actually an Ambedkarite

Sometimes popular worship and admiration does great disservice to the object of adoration. Take Rabindranath Tagore. No bhadralok considers himself worth his hilsa if he has not read Tagore’s novels and plays, if he cannot sing his songs. Bengalis, in general, have a distinctly proprietorial attitude towards Tagore, which, in my view, distinctly diminishes him. Yes, he revolutionized the Bengali language. Yes, he more-or-less redefined Bengali literature. And yes, he wrote some exquisite poetry in Bengali and many not-so-exquisite songs. But beyond all this, he was a thinker of a truly universal reach and significance. His writings on culture, education and nationalism can be read with profit in Copenhagen or Caracas as much as in Calcutta.

Another Indian who has suffered from being made a sectarian icon is B.R. Ambedkar. He is worshipped by Dalits across the land; his picture adorning cobblers’ shops, his name marking out village streets where live his followers and caste-fellows. His posthumous reputation is in striking contrast to that of his greatest political rival. Thus, as the Bangalore critic, V.T. Rajesekhar, points out, “Gandhi Jayanti is now an official function in which some old bandicoots reluctantly gather and deliver some hypocritical speeches sitting inside a closed room. Within an hour or so, it is all over. Compared to that, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Jayanti is a massive day-long open-air celebration attended by thousands of Dalits spending their own money.”

The Dalits honour Ambedkar as an opponent of the caste system. So should we, but in truth he was much more than that. The Dalit capture of the man should not blind us to the fact that he was also an economist of ability and a political theorist of range and subtlety. There are aspects of his work and thought specifically addressed to the emancipation of Dalits; and other aspects that apply with equal force to non-Dalits as well.

Consider, in this connection, Ambedkar’s final speech to the constituent assembly of India. As chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution, Ambedkar did his job with both distinction and efficiency. In the last session of the assembly, he was showered with extravagant praise. Among the epithets he was granted, at least one he would have disdained, that of being the modern Manu. For his modernist sensibilities were deeply at odds with that of the ancient law-giver of the Hindus; indeed, one of his first significant political acts (back in 1927) was to publicly burn the Manusmriti itself.

On November 25, 1949, the day before the assembly wound up its proceedings, Ambedkar made a moving speech summing up their work. He thanked his fellow members of the drafting committee, thanked their support staff, and thanked a party of which he had been a life-long opponent. Without the quiet work in and out of the house by the party bosses, he would not have been able to render order out of chaos. “It is because of the discipline of the Congress Party that the drafting committee was able to pilot the Constitution in the Assembly with the sure knowledge as to the fate of each article and each amendment.”

In a concession to patriotic nostalgia, Ambedkar then allowed that some form of democracy was not unknown in ancient India. “There was a time when India was studied with republics”, he said; and even monarchies were limited, not absolute. Characteristically, he invoked the Buddhists, who to him had furthered the democratic ideal in their bhikshu sanghas, which applied rules akin to those of parliamentary procedure —votes, motions, resolutions, censures, whips.

Ambedkar also assured the house that the federalism of the Constitution in no way denied states’ rights. It was mistaken, he said, to think that there was “too much centralization and that the States have been reduced to municipalities”. The Constitution had partitioned legislative and executive authority, but the provinces were in no way dependent on the Union, and the Centre could not alter the boundary of this partition. In his words, “The Centre and the States are co-equal in this matter.”

Ambedkar ended his speech with three warnings about the future. I shall offer them here in reverse order. His last warning was to urge us not to be content with what he called “mere political democracy”. India had got rid of alien rule, but it was still riven by inequality and hierarchy. Thus, once the country formally became a republic on January 26, 1950, it was “going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions' How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life' If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

The second warning concerned the unthinking submission to charismatic authority. Ambedkar quoted John Stuart Mill, who cautioned citizens not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”. This warning, he said, was even more pertinent here than in England, for “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be the road to the salvation of a soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Both these warnings were strikingly prescient. For while elections continue to be held, and voter participation rates continue to increase, the exploitation of low castes and women has scarcely abated. Whatever the Constitution might say, the value attached to a Brahmin man is still often higher in practice than to a Dalit woman. The caution about hero-worship has likewise been disregarded. Indians have been too willing to apply Bhakti to politics, to lay their liberties at the feet of a not-so-great man or woman. Hence the rise to power of such authoritarians as MGR and NTR, Jayalalithaa and Mayavati, and Bal Thackeray.

I come, in the end, to Ambedkar’s first warning, which concerned the place of popular protest in a democracy. There was no place for bloody revolution, of course, but in his view there was no room for Gandhian methods either. “We must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha,” he said. Under an autocratic regime, there might be some justification for them, but not now, when constitutional methods of redressal were available. Satyagraha and the like, said Ambedkar, were “nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us”.

After Independence, the Gandhians retreated to their ashrams. But the Gandhian techniques of protest have been used by a wide variety of political groups. Not least the communists of Bengal. In the late Forties, they preached bloody insurrection; but in a few years they had changed their minds. It was while working with the East Bengal refugees that they first adapted, for their own purposes, Gandhian methods of protest. As Prafulla Chakrabarti writes, in the early Fifties “Calcutta became the city of processions, the nightmare city. Processions, demonstrations and meetings, traffic jams, brickbats and teargas shells and lathis coming down in showers, burning tramcars and buses, and occasional firings — these became the hallmark of the city.”

The anger of the refugees was in good part justifiable. But what their leaders began has continued down the years, often with much less reason. The culture of cholbe na has made Calcutta a city of processions without purpose. What was once legitimate protest has now become the Grammar of Anarchy. Hence the recent judgment of the Calcutta high court, and hence also the massive and perhaps undying controversy around it. My modest contribution to the debate is this hitherto unnoticed point: that Mr Justice Amitava Lala is an Ambedkarite.

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