“In the fight for Swaraj you fight with the whole nation on your side. In this (fight for a casteless society), you have to fight against the whole nation— and that too, your own”
- Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste
Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar filled various roles during the course of his career - a scholar, jurist, activist, politician, and many others. His intellectual capabilities were of the highest degree, transcending time barriers for evaluation. Despite his contribution towards the building of modern India, he is mostly viewed through the restricted lens of the leader of the untouchables and the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar, who was known as Babasaheb by his admirers, had a unique vision for Indian society, and his constant efforts and struggle made it take form in reality.
Nation and Nationalism
The notion of ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Nation’ has been omnipresent in political discussions in modern India with varied visibility. The discussions and rise of these notions are a part of the basics of the Modern Indian thought process. The interpretation of these into ideologies or movements have led to most of the political developments.
Ambedkar’s entry into public life coincided with the rise of such discussions which led to his opinions on the same. Nationalism is seen in India as the force behind the freedom movement and had been advocated by the people associated with it. The Indian National Congress under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi became the torch bearers of this ideology.
The concept of ‘nation’ has not been fixed and there are multiple versions of it. In the local context, it was widely believed to be an idea of self-governance - Swaraj - in India i.e., India, being ruled by its people. Ambedkar simplified Congress’ concept by interpreting it as a political transformation where the power is transferred from the British Imperialists to Indians. The manifestation of devotion or love for the country and this political transformation was referred to as nationalism. Ambedkar however, gave more distinct definitions to these ambiguous concepts and went on to analyse their reasons and repercussions. In other words, Ambedkar decoded the actions of Congress and also gave his own theory on ‘Nationalism’. Their ideology prioritized the transfer of power from the colonial powers to Indians.
Ambedkar’s Theory on Nation and Nationalism
Ambedkar gave a socio-political concept of nationalism centred around equality, liberty, fraternity and justice. He believed that nationalism was not just related to the formation of a state or its ideology of a modern egalitarian restructuring of power but also a liberal and equal society. He agreed with and used the French nationalist Ernest Renan’s description of a nation as ‘a daily plebiscite’ and envisioned a society coming together as “abatement of ascriptive hierarchy as well as discrimination, leading to the formation of a power-homogenized society is called a nation.” (Ambedkar on Nation and Nationalism, G. Aloysius) Nationalism is a unique force in the history of humankind that constitutes pride, self-dignity and well-being, and this force is manifested in times of political solidarity of that nation. Ambedkar has acknowledged this force and sees nationalism as a matter of both dignity and freedom of the people. He has given a clear distinction between nationality and nationalism and explained their connectedness: “Nationality is ‘consciousness of kind which is an awareness of the existence of that tie of kinship, ’ and ‘Nationalism, ’ is ‘the desire for a separate national existence for those who are bound by this tie of kinship.’…it is important to bear in mind that the converse is not always true. The feeling of nationality may be present and yet the feeling of nationalism may be quite absent. That is to say, nationality does not in all cases produce nationalism.” (Pakistan, or the Partition of India, 1945, Ambedkar). It is understood that there cannot be nationalism without an associated feeling of nationality. Nationality is a feeling that invokes “consciousness of kind” which leads to the binding of the people who share it. On the other hand, nationality also transcends the various social and economic inequalities. Ambedkar believed that for nationality to produce nationalism, two things are imperative – firstly, there must arise a will to live as a nation with expression and secondly, the social feeling must express itself as a cultural home. Even in his celebrated work, The Annihilation of Caste he mentioned a nation invoking consciousness of kind.
He emphasized that in Indian society, people have different identities and find it difficult to be Indians first. Emphasizing on the Hindus, who form the majority in the population, Ambedkar expressed his disagreement for them to be nationals, as each individual’s caste and even at times regional identities took precedence over one national identity. Ambedkar’s definition of nationalism had no place for parochialism. According to him, a nation must be both socially and politically in conjunction. The Indian National Congress was solely focused on gaining political democracy in India, whereas Ambedkar opposed this preference of political transformation over social reforms and believed that without social reforms that integrate different communities to believe in national identity, it shall merely be a transfer of power.
Criticism of Nationalism and Nation
As mentioned earlier, the main engines and drivers of the nationalist movement were the leaders and members of the Indian National Congress. Ambedkar has given a lucid explanation in his Annihilation of Caste as to why social reform is essential before both political and economic reform. He has described how the political reform movement gained momentum while the social reform movement faded. However, the results do not prove political reforms’ precedence over social reform. He has stated in his article published in ‘The Times of India’ Bombay edition (21, March 1940): It is entirely wrong to concentrate all our attention on the political Criticism of Nationalism and Nation independence of our country and to forget the foremost serious problem of social and economic independence. It is suicidal to imagine that political independence necessarily means real and all-sided freedom. Not to make a distinction between the freedom of the country and the freedom of the people in the country is to allow oneself to be misled, if not deceived.
Basis of the Nation: Equality, Liberty & Fraternity
Ambedkar’s idea of a nation was both a social and political democracy based on the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity. Therefore, the social gradation system dividing society into different communities, and especially, the caste structure in the Hindu community made him of the opinion that India was not a nation. Ambedkar, in his speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949 warned: I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? In India there are castes. The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealously and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.
Vision of Social & Political Democracy
In his work, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done To The Untouchables, he underlined the measures that must be taken to strengthen and protect the untouchables from atrocities. Those safeguard provisions were submitted by him to the British Government during the Round Table Conference and included equal citizenship, equality of rights, protection against discrimination, adequate reservation in legislature, cabinet and services and some more. These were his views on ways to make India a just society. Ambedkar also advocated the provision of departmental care, which would ensure the creation of a separate ministry that shall be empowered to take welfare steps for the depressed classes.
Clash Between Congress and Ambedkar
Strong criticism of the nationalism proposed by the Congress again came in when they prepared the Nehru Report in 1928 which was to address the question of the Constitution of India and the communal representation in the government. The report was prepared under the chairmanship of Pt. Motilal Nehru and had members from other parties too apart from the Congress. The all-party committee which was constituted had no members from the depressed classes. Further, the prepared document mentioned reservations in the legislature for religious minorities and no provisions were made for the depressed classes, nor were there any safeguards for them and against untouchability. Then, during the Round Table conference, Ambedkar represented the depressed classes and after the first session, the Minorities Committee prepared a report in which they considered a separate electorate for the depressed classes. However, in the second session, Gandhi too attended as the representative of the Indian National Congress. According to Ambedkar from his book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done To The Untouchables, Gandhi strongly opposed the separate electorate for depressed classes to such an extent that he went on to compromise for an agreement with the Muslim and Sikh representatives over separate electorates for them which his party earlier was opposing. However, his out of the committee settlement plan failed as the Sikh and Muslim delegation could not build consensus. Another important event that happened was that Gandhi claimed to represent all of India, including the depressed classes and implied it in such a manner as to nullify the claims of Dr. Ambedkar as the sole voice of the depressed classes. The conclusion which can be drawn from this is that Congress under Gandhi was rigid toward the demands of depressed classes for political representation and providing safeguards on one hand, and still wanted their support as they claimed to be their representatives.
Ambedkar has criticised Gandhian philosophy strongly, especially over his views on the caste system. Gandhism was the new name for Gandhian philosophy which was supported and mostly seen as the real thought of the nationalist movement. Gandhi has strongly spoken in favour of the caste system in the name of Varna Ashram Dharma or Varna System. This thought goes completely against the vision of an egalitarian and just society, as even if untouchability is removed, according to Gandhism, the Shudras cannot take up any profession apart from their own and that inter-dining and intermarriage should still remain prohibited. Thus, it will defeat the objective of creating a single national identity. However, it should also be remembered that Gandhi’s rigid stance on caste softened with time and he, with great zeal, pushed the antiuntouchability crusade. Nevertheless, the level of trust for the Gandhi-led Congress was so meagre that Ambedkar used the words of Edmund Burke, “Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined by too confident a security”
Ambedkar’s nationalism was about social endosmosis – creating a healthy environment for exchanges between different communities, ultimately, establishing a humanist social structure. He hence rejected the divine origin theory of the caste system and advocated a casteless society for India to be a nation. Caste was anti-national. His nationalism clearly stated that the primary identity of each person should be Indian and not premised on different religious or caste-based identities. His famous quote explains it clearly and precisely: “We are Indians, firstly and lastly”