The only leader from the pre-Independence era who continues to inspire millions, has become an icon of social revolt and is being discovered by more and more Indians across castes and religions is Babasaheb Ambedkar. As the country observed his 61st death anniversary on December 6, it is important to look at his core insights that were distilled in the Indian Constitution amidst the growing melee over mythology, legends, history and belief.
Many Indians believe in a single narrative fed to them by conservatives about India’s past and juxtapose it with the advent of foreign culture and hostile events. It was Ambedkar who wrote in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India that long before the arrival of Islamic invaders and Christian explorers and missionaries, two parallel schools of thought existed in India.
The dominant one was the Vedic school, which believed in “divide and rule” by stratifying society into four tiers. The largest population was of the Shudras (modern day Other Backward Classes), divinely ordained to serve the upper three ranks. There were broken men living outside villages as “untouchables”, tribals living in hills and nomadic tribes. Half of the population — of females — was deprived of individual liberty.
The other school of thought that intermittently ran parallel to the Vedic tradition — like the Charvaka school and the worldview of the Buddha — was egalitarian. This ideology negated the Vedas and its structure. It peaked when emperor Ashoka implemented the Buddhist philosophy which emphasised not just on a welfare state for humans, but for animals and the ecology as well. This did not last long, as the Brahminical school, armed with powerful emotional instruments, managed to keep its flock together by promoting rituals, beliefs and ensuring the hegemony of Brahmins assisted by Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. According to Ambedkar, the worship of cow and vegetarianism stemmed out of a strategy to demonise Buddhists, who were ultimately branded “untouchables”. Ambedkar called Buddhism a revolution which turned the wheel of progress for all, not just the privileged minority of upper castes.
The arrival of foreigners and their missionaries radically changed the socio-economic, political and religious scenario. The impoverished and oppression-ridden Indian society was conducive to conversions. Besides, the political ambitions of warrior-kings made them seek the help of foreign invaders to settle scores with their domestic rivals. Meanwhile, the Brahmin orthodoxy continued to monopolise learning and controlling the minds of the masses. They interpreted hostilities in terms of the binaries of Hindu versus Muslim, Hindu versus Christian, etc, despite the fact that Hindu kings were assisted by Muslim warriors and advisers and vice versa.
After Independence, the nation builders, who were faced with the challenge of integrating not just hostile princely states, but binding people of different castes, religions and languages, turned to the Buddhist philosophy. The Constitution incorporated justice, liberty, equality and fraternity at its core. Its chief architect, Ambedkar, went a step further and converted to Buddhism in 1956. Among the constitutional values, fraternity is yet to manifest, as a majority of Indians fail to transcend narrow mental barriers, often becoming hostile in order to preserve privileges of caste, gender, religion, language etc. Most of them still equate Indian history only with the Vedic narrative.The universalisation of education and the quota for OBCs (subject to economic backwardness) is making more Indians discover Ambedkar and identify with the parallel narrative. The most glaring example of how the two ancient schools of thought function is the manner in which Mahatma Gandhi’s detractors dealt with him. When Gandhiji criticised some points in Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar incorporated them in the next edition of his book with a point-wise rebuttal. When some Hindu fanatics had issues with Gandhiji, Nathuram Godse killed him.
The egalitarian narrative can save the country from the fanatics of different religions who make a hue and cry over “hurt sentiments” at the drop of a hat. The question is: How long are we going to stoop to the hyper-sensitivity of ill-informed people, misguided by the shroud political and religious interests?
The writer is a senior journalist based in Mumbai