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MARGIN SPEAK

Ambedkarites against Ambedkar


Anand Teltumbde

It is one thing to revere ones hero but quite another to consider him to be god. Following Ambedkar means being inspired by his vision of liberty, equality and fraternity and acting in accordance with his advice to educate, agitate, organise so as to realise his goals of annihilation of castes and achievement of socialism.

controversy was created by a Mumbai-based Marathi dalit daily by using some of my statements sans the context relating to Babasaheb Ambedkar at a conference on Marxism and the Caste Question and manipulating the sentiments of dalits. The motive of the canard against me notwithstanding, the unfounded story has nevertheless helped foreground a crucial question as to what Ambedkar is and what it means to be his follower. The manner in which Ambedkar is invoked in justication of each reactionary acrobatic by the political class and even referred to by dalit intellectuals either out of sheer ignorance or as a part of their consciously carved out strategy to curry favour of the ruling classes, has served to reduce him to an inert godhead to be merely worshipped or worse, a reactionary identity icon blocking any further enlightenment. The near decimation of dalit movement, the persistent misery of the dalit masses and the growth of a reactionary stratum of self-seeking dalit elites engendered by this bhakti cult over the last four decades have set in motion a vicious cycle of hopelessness among the masses further reinforcing the saviour syndrome among them. It is time we see through this insidious process to extricate the real Ambedkar from the growing morass of reaction. The Real Ambedkar The underscoring theme of Ambedkars life reects the deep impact of his professor John Dewey while he was a student at Columbia University. As one scholar says, Unless we understand something of John Dewey...it would be impossible to understand Dr Ambedkar.1 This inuence ran through his writings as well as the strategies and tactics he formulated.2 Deweys philosophy of progressive pragmatism or
may 11, 2013

This is an abridged version of a speech delivered on the 122nd birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar at the Open University, Mysore on 15 April 2013. Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

instrumentalism considered all knowledge as tentative and thus stressed the importance of any theoretical postulate being tested in practice to progressively enrich theory. It thus rejected the existence of any grand theory such as Marxs. Despite Ambedkars creative genius in applying this mode of thought to the Indian context, his philosophical proclivities clearly reect the deep inuence of Dewey. A plethora of anecdotal and empirical evidence can be cited besides his own admission as late as in June 1952 that he owed his whole intellectual life to Dewey.3 This philosophical approach basically precludes any enduring thesis to be an ism about historical progression. Ambedkar, however, had a clear vision explicated in terms of his ideal as the society based on liberty, equality and fraternity,4 the famous motto of the French Revolution. But he claimed that he had taken this value triad from Buddha. He was not satised with the discrete bourgeois conception of this motto and insisted on the coexistence of all three to be found in Buddhism. Here he tends to transcend Dewey, who, while meaning the same, is content with its classic source located in the French Revolution. A social paradigm of such conception could be ideal to strive for and arguably be likened to Marxs communism sans, of course, the latters scientic construction. In the Indian context, the foremost hurdle in the path towards this vision being the institution of caste, Ambedkar rightly identied annihilation of castes as his goal. The second goal that was identied by him was socialism, which for him was an essential ingredient of democracy. His idea of socialism was surely Fabian, again inherited from Dewey, the American Fabian, and reinforced during his stay at the London School of Economics, the institution founded by the Fabian society. In contrast to Marxs scientic socialism, this socialism would be brought about gradually, through the enlightened middle classes and be characterised as the emancipation of land and industrial capital. His rst political party, the Independent Labour Party, founded in 1936, was fashioned after the Fabian-backed party
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MARGIN SPEAK

of the same name in England. It clearly propounded the socialist goal and had proudly adopted a red ag for itself. Later, he famously proposed a model of state socialism be incorporated into the Constitution as its basic feature, not ordinarily alterable by the legislature.5 His embracement of Buddhism at the end of his life was a step towards socialism, as, according to him, it had the same end as that of Marxism but without its decient means, viz, violence and dictatorship.6 Ambedkars Final Words of Advice Did Ambedkar reect, much less leave behind, a systematic theory that explains or predicts the world and constitutes an ism? But for the identity obsession, the honest and objective answer to this question has to be in the negative. Rather to think otherwise is to negate his basic core. His life reveals that he tried out various strategies and tactics depending on the unfolding situation to the extent that one nds a bewildering degree of inconsistency in his thoughts and actions. Ambedkar would simply dismiss this by saying that consistency was a virtue of an ass.7 What informed these inconsistencies was the philosophy of progressive pragmatism. For example, his declaration that he would never die as a Hindu was explained as the existential strategy to overcome the weaknesses of dalits in merging with an existing religious community.8 After two decades he fullled his vow by embracing Buddhism which was hardly known in mainland India. Soon after the adoption of the Constitution, Ambedkar exhorted his followers to shun agitation as a political tactic and adopt constitutional means, but thereafter he publicly denounced the Constitution as of no use to any one and disowned it saying he was used as a hack and that he would be the rst person to burn it. Thus not merely expediency but even in theory Ambedkar does not leave behind any systematic body of thought that can be termed Ambedkarism, simply because he did not believe in one. He does leave for us his vision, his goals and a role model to follow. His methodological direction to his followers comes in his nal words of
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advice: educate, agitate and organise, the famed mission and slogan of the Fabian society, which he had adopted as the mast for his paper Bahishkrit Bharat, quite like the Italian communist Antonio Gramscis L Ordine Nuovo (The New Order). It basically stressed the ever changing nature of reality and the need to be enlightened enough to comprehend and confront it: Educate so as to understand the world around, agitate against evil and organise in order to gain strength to root it out. He exhorted his followers to be prabuddha with the cognitive capability to analyse their situation, develop an abhorrence towards injustice and unitedly struggle to root it out. He did not impose his methods or conclusions onto his followers but rather expected them to devise appropriate strategies and tactics in their own space and time as enlightened people. Following Ambedkar Following Ambedkar means being inspired by his vision of liberty, equality and fraternity and acting in accordance with his advice educate, agitate, organise so as to realise his goals of annihilation of castes and achievement of socialism. It means being enlightened and not selfblinded, hymn-singing devotees. It is one thing to revere ones hero but quite another to consider him to be god as he himself cautioned:9
Hero-worship in the sense of expressing our unbounded admiration is one thing. To obey the hero is a totally different kind of heroworship. There is nothing wrong in the former while the latter is no doubt a most pernicious thing. The former is only mans respect for everything which is noble and of which the great man is only an embodiment. The latter is the villains fealty to his lord. The former is consistent with respect, but the latter is a sign of debasement. The former does not take away ones intelligence to think and independence to act. The latter makes one a perfect fool.

man does is not to impose his maxims on his disciples. What he does is to evoke them, to awaken them to a vigorous...exertion of their faculties. Again the pupil only takes his guidance from his master. He is not bound to accept his masters conclusions. There is no ingratitude in the disciple not accepting the maxims or the conclusions of his master. For even when he rejects them he is bound to acknowledge to his master in deep reverence You awakened me to be myself; for that I thank you. The master is not entitled to less. The disciple is not bound to give more.10

The march of the Ambedkarites in the light of the foregoing could be clearly seen as anti-Ambedkar. Indeed, they have consistently disrespected him in their acts of commission and omission: ignoring his vision of annihilation of castes and achievement of socialism in overtly celebrating caste identities and promoting slavishness to an ill-constructed icon of that great iconoclast. They have ghettoised him in their sectarian temples as an infallible god and made him unavailable for future generations to learn from. As he once said:
I am prepared to pick and choose from everyone, Socialist, Communist or other. I do not claim infallibility and as Buddha says, there is nothing infallible; there is nothing nal and everything is liable to examination.11

It is high time Ambedkarites understood Ambedkar before aunting their Ambedkarism from their cosy armchairs.
Notes
1 K N Kadam, Dr Ambedkars Philosophy of Emancipation and the Impact of John Dewey in The Meaning of Ambedkarite Conversion to Buddhism and Other Essays (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan), 1997, V. 2 Arun P Mukherjee, B R Ambedkar, John Dewey and the Meaning of Democracy, New Literary History, 40.2 (2009): 345-70. 3 A letter to Dr Savita Ambedkar: http://www. ambedkar.org/Babasaheb/JohnDewey.htm. Last accessed on 20 April 2013. 4 Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writing & Speeches (BAWS), Annihilation of Castes, Vol 1 (Mumbai: Government of Maharashtra), p 57. 5 BAWS, States and Minorities, Vol 1, p 406. 6 BAWS, Buddha or Karl Marx, Vol 3, p 443. 7 BAWS, Vol 1, p 141. 8 What Path to Salvation? Speech delivered by Ambedkar to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference, 31 May 1936, Bombay. Translated from the Marathi by Vasant W Moon, http:// www.columbia. edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/ 00am bedkar/txt_ambedkar_salvation.html, last accessed on 20 April 2013. 9 BAWS, Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Vol 1, p 231. 10 Ibid. 11 While discussing the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) Bill, 1954 as law minister, BAWS, Vol 15, p 960.

Quite like Buddha, who exhorted his disciples not to take his advice uncritically and to be a light unto themselves (atta deep bhava), Ambedkar also cautioned against uncritically accepting the maxims and conclusions of anyone howsoever great:
No great man really does his work by crippling his disciples, by forcing on them his maxims or his conclusions. What a great

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