"Time is infinite and the earth is vast. There will be born a man who will appreciate what I say" (Bhavabhuti) is the hope expressed by Babasaheb Ambedkar referring to his mission and philosophy. In India primordial loyalties are too strong to recognise the intrinsic worth of an individual unless s/he belongs to one's own caste/religion, which he derided.
It is in this background that the work and philosophy of Ambedkar and its universal and eternal relevance should be treated. Nothing – socio-economic, religio-cultural politico-national and international - escaped the Doctor's scalpel. Whether the solutions he offered are agreeable to his or the present or future generation(s) or not, none of them could/can shy away from taking his questions seriously. In fact, their relevance is eternal and demands answers from every generation. The truth that his is a multifaceted personality - scholar, social revolutionary, economist, constitutionalist, women's liberator, democrat, prolific writer, journalist, teacher, student of many subjects and prophet - is indisputable. However, it is not possible to deal with all the aspects here, so, I propose to touch three areas, i.e., 'Sacredness of Human Personality', 'Women's liberation' and 'Democracy as a State of Mind'.
To my mind the most important legacy of Ambedkar is his unequivocal pronouncement of the 'Sacredness of Human Personality'. As an iconoclast, idol worship is useless for him. He does not believe that it would make untouchables equal members in and an integral part of the Hindu Society. He says: "I started temple entry Satyagraha only because I felt that was the best way of energizing the Depressed Classes and making them conscious of their position."
When Gandhi requested him to support Dr. Subbarayan's Temple Entry Bill he asks: "the question is on what side Mahatma Gandhi will be when the question of the abolition of Chaturvarna and Caste" is raised. When Gandhi said he couldn't discard 'Varnashram' (he changed his position later) Ambedkar says clearly: "To accept temple entry and be content with it, is to temporise with evil and barter away the sacredness of human personality that dwells in them."
He tells Hindus plainly: "to open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate. If you think, it is bad manners not to respect the sacredness of human personality, open your temple and be a gentleman. If you rather be a Hindu than a gentleman, then shut the doors and damn yourself for I don't care to come." Ambedkar, as a staunch proponent of equality, which is another name for human dignity asks: "Why is Equality essential?" He answers quoting Prof. Beard: "A society without any respect for human personalities is a band of robbers."
Ambedkar identifies caste as the root cause for extinguishing 'human dignity' saying: "Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity, but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy, but not for men of other castes." Therefore, he calls for its annihilation to restore human dignity in India. How prophetic it is! The poster on Aam Admi Party as "Upadravi Gotra" is a classic example. And who in India has a better claim on the title 'Archangel of Human Dignity' than Ambedkar? Hence Nehru describes him as 'a symbol of revolt against all oppressive forces'.
Women's liberation for Ambedkar is the offshoot of his concept of 'Sacredness of Human Personality' and the personality of woman, according to him, is no different. For him it is not a mere concept but a moral value system that is sacrosanct. He doesn't have patience for people who treat women as soft or weak. Ambedkar analysed how the woman is victimised by the oppressive, caste-based and rigid hierarchical social system and was convinced that socio-cultural forces artificially construct gender relations, especially bolstered by Manusmriti and Hindu religion. He dug deep into the women's issue and brought out many scholarly tracts like Castes in India: Their Mechanism Genesis and Development, The Woman and the Counter Revolution, The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women – all these culminating in the Hindu Code Bill.
He chastised the gender relations that are constructed by the Brahminical order, which conditions women to conform to a stereotypical feminine behaviour, requiring them to be slavish and ignorant befitting a domestic servant. His passion for gender equality is seen in his student days when he wrote: "our progress will be greatly accelerated if male education is pursued side by side with the female education..." Declaring that "I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved" he suggests strategies like education for emancipation of women from oppression, a firm 'NO' to child marriage, family planning, participation in political and social struggles side by side with men, etc.
As the chief architect of Indian Constitution he incorporated extensive safeguards for women. In fact, the present day maternity and child care leave have their origins in his support of the Maternity Bill in 1927 wherein he says: "It is in the interest of the nation that the mother ought to get a certain amount of rest during the prenatal period and also subsequently". He squarely placed the burden of this on the Government. Same is the case with women's reservation. Perhaps Ambedkar is the only political dignitary who resigned from his ministerial berth on the issue of women's rights! Therefore, it is not an exaggeration when a speaker fervently exhorted his women audience that their first ritual in the morning should be to do 'pranam' (salute) to Ambedkar before they start their daily routine, as he is one of the leading women's liberator of modern times!
Another factor, which makes Ambedkar evergreen, is his insistence on democracy. Democracy, according to him, is the only form of government, which is capable of meeting the crying needs of the people. However, his Democracy is dynamic. In a speech "Conditions Precedent for the Successful Working of Democracy" he observed "Democracy is always changing its form, that it is not always the same in the same country and that it undergoes changes in purpose." According to him 'the purpose of modern Democracy was not so much to put a curb on an autocratic king but to bring about the welfare of the people'.
He defines democracy as "a form and method of government where by revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed". For him democracy is more a state of mind rather than a system of government. In a talk given for the Voice of America he said that democracy could not be equated either with republican or parliamentary government. The roots of Democracy lay not in the form of government, parliamentary or otherwise. "A democracy", he observed, "is made of associated living. The roots of democracy are to be searched in the social relationship, in terms of the associated life between the people who form the society."
According to him Indian society is not conducive for democracy to grow and take roots and we must struggle hard to make it successful. He identifies the conditions to make democracy successful: i) there should not be glaring inequalities; ii) constructive opposition; iii) equality before law; iv) observance of constitutional morality; v) functioning of moral order in society and vi) public conscience. How precise, scientific and true this analysis is and how contemporary! Ever since decolonisation it has been proved beyond doubt that only democracies have been able to provide some sort of stable governments and progress. The Father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, despite being benevolently autocratic, chose to retain democracy in his country proving the efficacious nature of Democracy.
For Ambedkar, Human Dignity, Women's Equality and Democracy form some sort of a triumvirate. They are indivisible like his other trinity, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. We can say that it is here, according to him justice lies. Therefore the assertion: Dr. Ambedkar and his philosophy are eternally relevant.
Illustration by Unnamati Syama Sundar.