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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 37 New Delhi September 5, 2015

Inequality in the 21st Century World Order: Perspectives from Ambedkar

Saturday 5 September 2015

by S.N. Sahu

The accelerated pace of globalisation, at the heart of which remain neoliberal policies, has resulted in higher levels of inequalities causing frustration and dejection among vast masses of ordinary peoples across several countries.

Proliferation of Literature on Inequality at Global Level

Internationally acclaimed thinkers and economists have published monumental books on inequality depicting the widening gulf between the common people and a small section of the rich and wealthy and the danger it posed to social stability and harmony. In the book, Capital in Twenty First Century, its author, Thomas Pickety, very graphically analysed the alarming levels of inequality in the world. Yet another landmark book, The Price of Inequality, written by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, stressed on the point that economic progress and advancement would be arrested due to the massive gap in income between the privileged few and majority of the people. An article from the London Guardian on inequality in income described it as a ticking time bomb.

In the context of such worldwide concern by thinkers and scholars on the issue of inequality it is important to invoke the perspectives of Dr B.R. Ambedkar who very extensively reflected on the issue and stressed on removal of social and economic disparity for creating a healthy social and economic order. In fact in the twentyfirst century world, Dr Ambedkar’s probing analysis of graded social inequality of Indian society and the resultant social exclusion and exploitation suffered by the depressed castes has attracted the attention of the international media. The editorial of the London Guardian of April 30, 2011 on Dr Ambedkar contained the lines based on his incisive thoughts.

“‘How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?’ asked Ambedkar. ‘If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.’ His message, intended for 20th-century India, is just as relevant for 21st-century Britain.”

The above narrative from the London Guardian amply demonstrates the global significance of the life and work of Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

 Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr who led the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1950s and 1960s, also invoked Ambedkar to highlight the decline of opportunities for education for Blacks in America.

Going back to 1956 we find an obituary of Dr Ambedkar published by the The New York Times on December 8, two days after his sad demise. Some lines of that insightful obituary brought out the significance of Dr Ambedkar beyond the frontiers of India. It stated: “Dr Ambedkar was known and honoured throughout the world..... He could not live to see the accomplishment of much that he set out to do. Some of it will take more time. But his impact has been profound.”

An instructive article, ”India’s Maoist Group Gives up Violence”, authored by N. Bhanutej and published in the AlJazeera website on December 20, 2013, reveals that some Maoist leaders are now quitting violence because of the impact of Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts on them. The confession of a Maoist leader—“We realised the blunder of not studying Ambedkar (leader of the so-called lower castes or Dalits). All the while, we have focussed only on Marx, Lenin and Mao. We believe that we have much to learn from the Gandhian movement as well”—sums up the critical significance of the worldview of Ambedkar in creatively channelising the violent movements for justice and equality. The observations of the leader of the Communist Party of India (Revolutionary), Noor Zulfikar, quoted in the article sums up the new thinking aligned to the Constitution of India. He said: “The need of the hour is not armed struggle, but a broad, democratic and open mass movement and a united front of various people’s struggles. For this, we have to work in the democratic and legal framework.”

The article, published in the Aljazeera website, clearly brought out that the constitutional method prescribed by Dr Ambedkar constituted the constructive approach to redress the continuing social and economic grievances of the marginalised people. That is why late K.R. Narayanan as the President of India described Dr B.R. Ambedkar as “a compassionate rebel”.

Ambedkar Stressed on Constitutional Method

Dr Ambedkar had affirmed his faith on the efficacy of the constitutional method to achieve social transformation. He rejected unconstitutional methods which would be against law, jurisprudence and human rights of the people. It is important to deeply reflect on the life and work of Dr Ambedkar who suffered immeasurably on account of his caste status and yet never prescribed violent methods to deal with the centuries-old injustices inflicted on the Dalits in Indian society. If Ambedkar could have such firm faith on constitutional methods in spite of being a victim of extreme forms of exclusion, deprivation and humiliation, how can we justify employment of violence and violent method in pursuit of goals howsoever noble and justifiable these might be? Unlike many thinkers and activists of his time who argued for violent methods to address pressing social and economic injustices, Ambedkar prescribed constitutional methods and described other methods which were incompatible with the Constitution as the “grammar of anarchy”. His slogan “educate, organise and agitate” best represented the constitutional method for seeking socio-economic justice.

Professor Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, in their book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, invoked on several occasions the slogan of Dr Ambedkar “Educate, Organise and Agitate” to deepen public reasoning so that the instrumen-tality of democracy can be effectively used to espouse the social and economic entitlements of the suffering people and ensure justice to them. Alex von Tunzelmann, author of Indian Summer: the Secret History of the End of Empire, reviewed the aforementioned book of Amartya Sen in The Telegraph newspaper of the UK and wrote: “This book’s rallying cry is a quotation from one of the great figures of the independence years, B.R. Ambedkar: ‘educate, agitate and organise’. It clearly brings out the criticality and centrality of Dr Ambedkar’s worldview woven around democracy and democratic method to fashion the destiny of people. In this sense he was undoubtedly an outstanding democrat whose passionate concern was to radically change society by employing constitutional and democratic means and techniques.”

Law as the Disinfectant Against Inequality

Dr Ambedkar stressed on law and legal intervention to bring about social transformation and empower people. He, therefore, famously stated that “... that the principle of equality before law has served as a great disinfectant.” From his writings we learn the vital lesson that while through the instrumentality of law democracy can be strengthened, through violent and bloody methods democracy can be endangered. His fundamental notion of democracy included in its scope not only ‘one man one vote’ but also ‘one man one value’. But he regretted that in Indian society while one man had one vote, one value was not assigned to all human beings in Indian society.

Ambedkar as a Protagonist of Gender Equality

Besides dealing with the caste hierarchies which Amedkar referred to as graded social inequalities, he made a very bold approach for reforming the patriarchal Hindu social order by giving equal rights to women. For, he believed that social and economic equality can be best addressed by, among other factors, giving equality and equal opportunities to women who were relegated to the subordinate status in society. By piloting the Hindu Code Bill in the Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative), he pleaded for property rights of women—an idea which was unacceptable to many orthodox Members.

In fact, when such Members of the Assembly opposed the Hindu Code Bill on the ground that in the Hindu society there was no provision for guaranteeing women the right to property Dr Ambedkar quoted Smritis and other scriptures which upheld their right to property and persuaded them to respect the scriptures to economically empower women. In doing so, he was invoking the ancient wisdom enshrined in the scriptures and combining it with modern jurisprudence to uphold gender equality and women’s empowerment. His practical insight to blend scriptural prescription for women’s right with the modern legal notion of equality of everyone including women before the law underlined his creative reconciliation between the classical knowledge and modern jurisprudence.

Ambedkar and Buddhism

Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956. He declared that he became a Buddhist because Buddhism remained wedded to the ideals of Pragyan (Enlightenment), Karuna (Compassion) and Samata (Equality). It is noteworthy to invoke Swami Vivekananda in this context. Swamiji in volume 5 of his Complete Works wrote that it was Lord Buddha who for the first time gave to the world the gospel of social sympathy and the gospel of social raising up. In fact it was “the gospel of social sympathy” which was embraced by Ambedkar when he embraced Buddhism.

It is Professor Amartya Sen who in his book, Identity and Violence, wrote that wherever Buddhism became the predominant religion, there human development indices improved. Therefore, conversion of Dr B.R. Ambedkar to Buddhism constituted a historic attempt to uphold the ideals of enlightenment, compassion and equality. In fact his conversion to Buddhism can be seen as an act of reconciliation and understanding as Buddhism is spiritually closer to Hinduism. His advocacy of constitutional methods to bring about social change and address long standing social and economic inequalities was significant for furthering the cause of understanding and reconciliation in Indian society. In the similar way his acceptance of Buddhism was an act of reconciliation and understanding.

In the words of Swami Vivekananda, Lord Buddha was a rebel child of Hinduism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in twentieth century India Dr Ambedkar was also a rebel child of Hinduism. But his rebellion, as stated earlier, was based on compassion which was vindicated by his passionate advocacy of constitutional methods promoting the ideals of reconciliation and understanding in our complex society.

 Gandhi and Ambedkar Complemented Each Other

Gandhi and Ambedkar shared many views and adopted common approach to pursue socio-economic and political objectives. Both fought against persisting social evils like untouchabilty. They strove for achieving gender inequality and removing economic inequalities. If Ambedkar said that continuing denial of social and economic equality to people would imperil political democracy, Mahatma Gandhi boldly stated that deepening of economic inequality would result in bloody and violent revolution. That is why he put the issue of economic equality as one of the key points in his Eighteen Point Constructive Programme for achieving independence and constructive social change through non-violence.

While Gandhi made a moral appeal to the upper-caste people for change in their hearts and behaviour, Ambedkar forcefully argued for the upliftment of the outcastes through law, education and empowerment which he believed would eventually lead to the annihilation of the caste system. On one occasion Mahatma Gandhi defined spirituality in terms of not only entry of Harijans to temple but also in terms of their social, economic and educational upliftment. In fact he was providing assistance to Dalits through the Harijan Sevak Sangh by facilitating and enhancing their accessibility to education. We need to stress on their commonalities. There cannot be a watertight compartmentalisation of their ideas. While the Gandhian approach seems to be more spiritual and moral in content and character, Ambedkar’s ideas are more rooted in jurisprudence which he believed can be used effectively to serve the cause of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Late K.R. Narayanan, as the President of India, had stated that “If Mahatma Gandhi provided a moral purpose and mass dimension to our freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru provided a socialist and economic dimension and Dr Ambedkar provided a challenging social and democratic dimension.” It is such an integrated approach which can help us to appreciate the perspectives of Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar in the context of the rising levels of inequality in the world. n

[The above article is based on a lecture delivered by the author in a programme organised by the School of International Studies of Ravenshaw University on August 22, 2015.]

The author is a Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Earlier he served as a Director in the Prime Minister’s Office. The views expressed here are personal and not those of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.