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Is There a Future for the Secular-Liberal Citizen in India Today?

Revisiting Ambedkar in an era of political Hinduism

Revisiting Ambedkar in an era of political Hinduism

By Mridugunjan Deka

This essay explores two central ideas of B.R. Ambedkar and puts them in the context of India’s contemporary political reality. These two tenets viz. liberalism and secularism figure as constitutive elements among Ambedkar’s contribution to Indian social and political thought. One often loses sight of this aspect even as his role in the drafting of the Constitution of India is celebrated in a mechanistic fashion like a ritual. In India’s highly charged political atmosphere of today, rife with a majoritarian view of how political and social life ought to be ordered, it is ironic to observe these two words becoming political slurs. They are often deployed to discredit dissent, and this eventually leads to an erosion of their significance themselves. It is a paradoxical situation when Ambedkar is sought to be appropriated by the proponents of political Hinduism within a sanitised Constitutional framework. The reason arguably lies in the bonds existing firstly between liberation and politics, and secondly the idea of religion as a reformist concept with secularism as a non-negotiable aspect.

Framing a double entendre

“Son of a poor mother like me”, said the Prime Minister of India addressing an audience in Chhattisgarh in 2018, “[c]ould become the prime minister due to Babasaheb Ambedkar.” In the course of the same speech, even as the Prime Minister went on to touch other issues, the irony seemed hard to miss: his triumph, despite Ambedkar, could not be dissociated from the electoral fruits of Hindu nationalism. Invoking Ambedkar has always been a tricky walk for Hindu nationalist sympathisers, who while sensing the practical futility of disavowing his legacy, have principal disagreements, if not outright hostility, for the ideas Ambedkar espoused.

Dr ‘Babasaheb’ Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the legal scholar and intellectual activist, was a towering figure of 20th century India. His major contributions stemmed from an experientially driven emancipation and empowerment of those deemed lower in caste and thus by implication lesser in human value. In other words, his work was driven by the ‘self’ steeped deep under the structural violence of caste and discrimination. Today, when India stands polarised thanks to a monolithic, ahistorical (and hence wishful) understanding of socio-political and secular values, the relevance of his ideas cannot be stressed enough.

These important ideas lose much sense of nuance and context in the din of pre-motivated and highly charged debates in the popular public sphere. The urgency to reiterate these ideas, yet again, is not only because of the dominant tendency to collapse Ambedkar’s intellectual contributions into the Constitution, it is also to defend ideas that the right-wing dominated discourse in India conveniently and coercively glosses over at best and suppresses at worst. The issues range from an uncritical appreciation or glorification of political Hinduism to declaring any dissent as a threat to national security. Through the crafty use of social media, secular was disparaged as ‘sickular’, liberals were characterised as ‘libtards’, and so on, disregarding the stakes India has in these values if it is to survive as a polity.

This essay, however, is an attempt at tracing in a more general/macro manner some of Ambedkar’s vital concerns, and what follows below is a brief appraisal of his approaches towards social and economic empowerment, and the necessity of a secular society, set against the contemporary context. As any perceptive observer of Indian politics could perhaps tell: the alliance between right-wing populism, which instrumentally deploys faith-based polarisation, and neoliberal corporates in India has meant a fast retreat of secular principles and social security welfarism, picking up from where they had left from the heady 1990s.

Defending politicisation of oppressions and the liberal seed of society

The dialectics between society and polity, both complementing and contending with one another as sites of reform and resistance, was critical to Ambedkar’s strategy of emancipation. “Political tyranny is nothing compared to social tyranny… A reformer who defies society, is a much more courageous man than a politician who defies the government” wrote Ambedkar a decade before the post-colonial nation came into existence(1). It is interesting to observe, in the light of the mentioned comment, what he differed on with the quintessential Mahatma (M.K. Gandhi) was on the strategy of empowering the so deemed ‘untouchables‘ of India. Gandhi wanted the battle to be waged within the confines of society, and this approach, for Ambedkar, meant keeping most social mores intact. His opinion was contrary to Gandhi’s, advocating to go beyond society as an arena of struggle. Ambedkar recognised the importance of inclusive politics and inclusion in legal-constitutional provisions. He expanded the works of reformers before him like Jotiba Phule, the other and arguably lesser invoked Mahatma; moving from narrow social empowerment to the realm of political empowerment. Inclusive politics was a must if the so-called lower castes were ever to live a life of dignity and safety: fruits sanctioned exclusively for the upper castes. But along with the inevitable need to radically diversify the theatres of the struggle for the out-castes, something which convinced him to politicise their plight, he also saw the peculiarity of the social situation.  

When the final Constitutional draft was up for adoption by the Constituent Assembly, he prophetically observed the contradictory life Indian society was entering into. The contradiction was that of equalities- the first being political equality and the second being social and economic equality.

Ambedkar was acutely aware that political equality did not necessarily translate into social equality, a fact that would render meaningless the practice of democracy in India after independence. Here, we can recollect what the Genevan political philosopher Rousseau said regarding parliamentary democracy in Britain in the 18th century- the English people are free for only one day after every few years, and that was on the day of casting their vote(2). The Indian parallel to Rousseau’s thesis was not lost on Ambedkar.

Thus, the concern for social justice went beyond legal justice, in ameliorating the socio-economic status of discriminated and historically exploited groups. Ambedkar creatively fought for the incorporation of concerns of social justice in the legal-rational sphere of the Constitution and other statutes. The incorporations meant a certain degree of compulsion on the part of the government to enforce socially directed legislations. The social change could not be left to the vague, mystical conscience of the privileged and powerful, it was “not an altruistic favour”(3). It would further help our case by juxtaposing what Ambedkar said regarding the inhumanity of the caste system in India and the trans-Atlantic slave trade system: the caste system was slavery without the responsibility to feed the slaves. He drew an analogy between the two and offered a gutting indictment of the oppressive caste system: it not only oppresses but also utterly washes off responsibility towards any sustenance, leave alone well-being, of those deemed lower in caste.

Even as a compulsory provision was made incumbent upon the government to undertake developmental policies in human and material well being, the societal change could not be left alone to the mechanical effects of laws that were specially legislated for historically oppressed and exploited sections. A society not holding dear to itself the ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity would fail to appreciate and build upon meaningful empowerment via laws and codes. In other words, these lofty and progressive change-making laws would not have any impact on a regressive society. Indeed, as Ambedkar observed, rights were not merely legal, they were as much dependent on the moral conscience of society. His observation of social rights/justice is contextual to what the anti-colonial Algerian psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon observed- racism, and not the economy, was the base of colonialism, for the constant economic exploitation of a group of people, the justification had to be racist(4). Similarly, Ambedkar located the roots of rigid casteism in society, and society in itself was an aspect that could not be discounted. 

Through relentless organising of the oppressed castes into bodies like Bahiskrit Hitakarani Sabha (Association for the Welfare of the Outcastes), and entering the popular journalism discourse through weekly publications like Mook Nayak (Leader of the Voice-less), Ambedkar strived for a composite socio-political change in the lives of those deemed lower castes, now called Dalits or Dalitbahujans, a widely accepted and politically significant term (Dalit is Marathi for crushed or broken, originally used by Jotiba Phule; Bahujan is a Pali term which is understood as the ‘oppressed many’).

Ambedkar was a student of economics too, in addition to law. He criticised the socio-economic position of Gandhi which gave primacy to village republics as a unit of organisation for post-independent India. He instead vouched for the individual as a unit, and not numerous village republics which represented ‘dens’ of narrow mindedness, bigotry and economic stagnation. What especially troubled him were the feudal relations and practices in villages that still endured.
Instead, and Ambedkar was on the same plane as Nehru on this particular issue, he reposed faith in industrialisation and urbanisation as agents of economic and social change. The spatial significance of economic mobility could not be simply reformed by legislative measures. He expressly called for the Dalits to migrate to the cities where social mobility was more probable, compared to rural India. The rural areas were more engulfed in ideas of rigid, normative caste structures; whereas the cities provided opportunities to escape from such hereditarily determined oppressions. In doing so, Ambedkar also anticipated the liberating quality of new technology on humanity. His economic ideas were ahead of his time because these were integral to a multi-pronged approach.

Mental liberation of society through scientific temperament, thus, was as vital to Ambedkar as legislation for the empowerment of the oppressed. One often forgets to include Ambedkar alongside Nehru in public discourses and standard textbooks while crediting the inclusion of scientific temperament in a country that, at the time of its formation, was counted amongst the least literate.

Secularism, religious reformism and dynamism

Like his socio-economic thoughts, Ambedkar’s secular credentials were partially drawn from his own experiences as a lower caste Mahar. Unlike Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, his fellow contemporary and comrade-in-arms in the fight against Brahminical hegemony and casteism in the South, and who was also an outright atheist, Ambedkar had a complex view regarding the viability of religion. He was of course against supernatural beliefs, superstitions and the excesses of religious dogmas, but still believed that a reformed and enlightened religion had its worth. Annihilation of Caste, one of his best-known tracts, for instance, calls for a radical break with some of the holiest Hindu scriptures. He alleged that texts like Manusmriti (ancient legal treatise) and the Vedas (oldest Hindu scriptures) sanctioned the caste system by justifying its origin and continuity. As such, it was impossible to hope for any end to oppression by staying under the reverence and control of these scriptures(5). However, he took pains to acknowledge the potential for reform in any religion by making a categorical distinction between a religion of rules and a religion of principles, arguing that humane qualities could only exist and endure in the latter. Differently put, Ambedkar was an avowed secularist who believed in a principle guided and contingency-based approach to religion, rather than a complete antagonistic or indifferent relation to it.

Even in his later life, pained by the constant refusal to change by the upper caste orthodox Hindus, a few months before his death, he relinquished his “accidental Hindu birth” and converted to Buddhism en-masse with his followers. He had finally come to the conclusion that it was not possible under the circumstances to be liberated within the Hindu fold, taking recourse to another faith-Buddhism for its egalitarianism. In fact, the Dalit scholar Kancha I. Shepherd has re-imagined the Buddha as a political philosopher arguably because of Buddhism’s genesis in an environment of a conflictual relationship with dogmatism and the hierarchy of orthodox Brahmanism, offering a resistance based on egalitarianism (6).

The reformist in Ambedkar blazed a trail to his own variant of Buddhism, christened Navayana. The metaphysical aspects of Buddha’s teachings were jettisoned, and a materialist interpretation, including the concept of societal struggle and a futuristic optimism of the ‘Self’, was arrived at. Reform, reclaim and recover, briefly put, was the socio-religious obverse of the Ambedkarite socio-political adage “Educate, Agitate, Organise.”

It was nuanced secularism at the same time because he also recognised the liberal role that a powerful religious philosophy could play in the minds of its followers. Thus in a rhetorical sense, he acquiesced to the latter part of the much clichéd quote by Marx “Religion is the opium of the people.” Usually truncated and used out of context, the other half in the line stated “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” (7).

A progressive understanding of secularism having a reformist core at its crux and a liberating utility was Ambedkar’s contribution to the secular ethos of the post-colonial Indian state that presently is, at the risk of the sounding evolutionist, sliding dangerously down the path of liberal anachronism.

Ambedkar without Ambedkar’s principles?

The Ambedkarite idea of a reformist religious ethos as a pathway to liberation of the self and the collective is in danger of being overridden, as are his observations of the social as a base of oppression. The threat comes from a rabid, dominant discourse of Unitarism propagated by the entrenched powers that be. One indication of this slide is in the recent spate of legislations in majoritarian nationalist ruled states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh that directly constrain individual liberty in inter-faith marriages. The legislations, issued as an ordinance in at least one state (laying bare the urgency of bypassing democratic consultations and discussions), mandatorily require prospective inter-faith couples to acquire the consent of the local administration to establish that no forced conversion or cajoling into a change of faith had taken place before marriage. Religious structures, like casteist structures, are inbuilt in the larger Indian society raising walls between social inter-relations like marriages, friendships and ritual invitations.

Interestingly, Ambedkar reposed faith in the potential of marriage to dilute and finally dismantle the casteist structure of society. Structural oppression of most kinds in society could be challenged similarly, including religious barriers to love. Indian society after 2014 is being increasingly re-imagined through the lens of a version of ‘anti-elitism’ (read anti-liberal, anti-Western educated) that celebrates a perverted form of monolithic vernacularisation in the Hindi-Hindu mould, which cancels or stigmatises any form of dissidence. Even Human Rights are being re-imagined along these lines.(8) Anti-status-quoist stances towards inherently present societal oppressions and discriminations are being compared to casting aspersions on a narrowly defined ‘national honour’. Slogans like “Garv Se Kahon Hum Hindu Hain” (Say with pride that you’re a Hindu) and open articulations in the mainstream media of casteist self- affirmations like “Janeu Dhari Hindu” (extolling the sacred thread the lower castes are forbidden to wear) have retrofitted and re-normalised old-world bigotry in the public sphere.(9)(10)
Majoritarian India is seemingly caricaturing Ambedkar as only a Constitutional expert whose commemorations ought to be mechanistically observed, while actively undermining Ambedkarite reformism that calls for dismantling some of the most oppressive social systems at large.


  1. Ambedkar, B R. (2014): Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition in Anand, S (ed). , Roy, A. London: Verso.
  2. Jha, Shefali (2018): Western Political Thought: From the Ancient Greeks to Modern Times, Noida  : Pearson.
  3. Chakrabarty, Bidyut, & Pandey, Rajendra Kumar (2009): Modern Indian political thought: Text and context. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications.
  4. Fanon, Frantz (1961): The Wretched of the Ea
  5. rthin the English translation by Philcox, Richard (2004), New York: Groove Press.
  6. Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji (2014): Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition in Anand, S (ed). , Roy, Arundhati, London: Verso.
  7. Ilaiah, Kancha Shepherd (2019): God As Political Philosopher: Buddha’s challenge to Brahminism, Los Angeles: SAGE Publications
  8. Marx, Karl (1844): In the introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Paris: Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.
  9. At NHRC, Amit Shah says don’t apply western norms of rights here. The Indian Express, 13th October 2019.
  10. ‘My Gotra is Dattatreya, I am a Kashmiri Brahmin’: Rahul Gandhi in Pushkar. The Economic Times. 27th November 2018.
  11. ‘Why BJP mocks Rahul Gandhi for being janeu dhaari’ by Kumar Shakti Shekhar, India Today, October 29th 2018.

Illustration by Dhrupadi Ghosh

About the Author

Mridugunjan Deka is an MPhil candidate at the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University. He is a postgraduate in Peace and Conflict Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS-G), Guwahati and an under-graduate in History from Hindu College, University of Delhi.    

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