Ambedkar: Ahead of his time

By Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra* 

Over the decades, Ambedkar Jayanti has become a commemoration with several meanings— a celebration that captures the ecstasy, frenzy, unwavering love, aspiration, assertion, inspiration and pleasure of struggle with which Ambedkar’s followers connect. On April 14, his followers recommence their pledge to wrestle with the daily discrimination. They call it ‘Knowledge Day’. In 2021, British Columbia declared it as ‘Equality Day’.

The significance of a thinker and statesman, or an iconoclast, revolutionary confronting injustice, is judged by time. Their thinking and actions set a benchmark for a timeless time. Dr B.R. Ambedkar is one of those radical thinkers, social reformers who remain significant for future generations for he was ahead of his time.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar stands taller. He was an eminent figure in Indian history as well as a jurist, economist, politician and social reformer. He became a well-known voice against the injustices of India’s caste system, fighting for the advancement of Dalits and other underprivileged groups. He dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of women and labourers as well as to ending societal prejudice against untouchables, or Dalits. Ambedkar has been associated with helping to draft the Indian Constitution, which embraces the values of justice, liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

Ambedkar’s unwavering fight against social injustice and support of the rights of marginalised castes have had a significant impact on the development of social reforms and policy in India. His legacy acts as a guiding light, inspiring ongoing initiatives to build a society that is more just and inclusive.

Celebrated on April 14th annually, Ambedkar Jayanti, also referred to as Bhim Jayanti, honours the memory of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the first Law Minister of Independent India and the principal architect of the Indian Constitution. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar gave the message of equality, freedom, fraternity, and justice to the country and the world, which is very important for humanity. Often referred as ‘Father of Indian Constitution’, will celebrate his 134th birthday on Sunday, April 14, 2024.

Dr. Ambedkar received India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1990 as a posthumous honour and the year 1990–1991 was proclaimed as the “Year of Social Justice.” Ambedkar Remembrance Day became more widely recognised as a result of these changes, and it was informally observed as a holiday in various states.

Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891, in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, which is now known as Ambedkar Nagar. In school (Satara and Bombay), college (Bombay), service under the Maharaja of Baroda (briefly in 1913 and again between July and November 1917) and study abroad (Columbia University, the London School of Economics, Gray’s Inn, the University of Bonn), he exhibited a scholarly orientation, a commitment to the life of the mind and trained intellectual gifts that no other national figure in Indian politics could match over this century.

By the time he finished his formal studies in the early 1920s, Dr Ambedkar had acquired qualifications that surpassed the M.A., Ph.D., M.Sc. (Econ), D.Sc. (Econ), Barrister-at-law he had added, by right, to his name and title; the young man had been through a real-life educational experience which most people (including the most renowned scholars) do not manage to acquire in a lifetime.

On Democracy

Democracy is not a form of government but essentially a form of society. It is incompatible and contradictory with isolation and exclusivity, leading to a distinction between the privileged and the underprivileged.

Babasaheb’s commitment to democracy and constitutional morality is the first thing that strikes the mind as we commemorate Ambedkar Jayanti. Democracy was a ‘way of life’ for him, not just a political tool to gain power and rule the masses. For Ambedkar, a democratic society is a prerequisite for a democratic form of government. He expressed this concern in many speeches about democracy as a form of government.

Ambedkar theorised substantive democracy, wherein a ‘social and economic democracy’ would breathe life into political democracy. His quest for a meaningful democratic society led him to explore the concept of ‘constitutional morality’.

Ambedkar’s oft-quoted reference to constitutional morality is from his speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, when he was responding to criticism of the draft Constitution.In a speech at the Pune District Law Library in 1952, Ambedkar described adherence to ‘constitutional morality’ as one of the prerequisites for the successful functioning of democracy. According to him, the Constitution contained only the skeleton whose flesh was found in constitutional morality. He equated constitutional morality with constitutional conventions in England.

Ambedkar also considered democracy as a revolutionary instrument to change the social order. For him, democracy was not just a rule of the majority but a way of life in which minorities should have a sense of security— a guarantee that no one would hit them below the belt. There must be no tyranny of the majority over the minority. The minority must always feel secure that it will not be hurt or double-crossed although the majority is running the government.

In a constitutional democracy, we must adhere only to constitutional methods to achieve social and economic ends. Individuals must not lay their liberties at the feet of others— this is what constitutional morality is all about. Democracy cannot only be a form but must exist in substance.

Political democracy is meaningless if there is no social democracy. For Ambedkar, social democracy comprised liberty, equality and fraternity. A parliamentary democracy based on adult suffrage will only create political equality— one man, one vote. The objective should be of one man, one value.

Democracy is often defined as ‘government by the people, for the people and of the people’. It is also defined as ‘government by discussion’. However, these definitions are inadequate in an unequal society. Democracy, according to Ambedkar, should lead to social and economic changes in people’s lives without bloodshed.

Dr Ambedkar pointed out in his famous speech to the Constituent Assembly, “India is today entering a life full of contradictions, where there will be equality in politics, but inequality in socio-economic life. How long can we continue this life full of contradictions?” Will we be able to survive? It is certain that if we remain deprived of social democracy for a long time, our political democracy will also be in danger.”

As far as economic democracy is concerned, economic inequality between the upper castes and Dalits is continuously increasing. Today’s situation is such that the rich are becoming richer and the poor are becoming poorer. The unequal distribution of wealth and resources is widening the chasm between the rich and the poor.

Income and wealth Inequality is higher than that of British Raj. Between 2014-15 and 2022-23, the rise of top-end inequality has been particularly pronounced in terms of wealth concentration. By 2022-23, top 1% income and wealth shares (22.6% and 40.1%) are at their highest historical levels and India’s top 1% income share is among the very highest in the world, higher than even South Africa, Brazil and US.

This is the irony is that the government becoming despotic, authoritarian and oppressive. Further, hatred is created against minorities. India is considered as flawed democracy and electoral autocracy. Media is subverted either through veiled threat or allurements. India is placed abysmally at 161 positions out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, according to the latest report released by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Ruling class does not adhere to constitutional morality. Oppositions are ignored while dissents are curbed . There is one types of undeclared emergency

Hindu fundamentalism and Ambedkar

Babasaheb, who played an important role in the making of the Constitution, established democratic values in the true sense through the Constitution. Therefore, our Constitution is the protector of our democracy. But in the circumstances arising today, Ambedkar’s ideology becomes more relevant. Today, our freedom of expression is under attack. We are going through a period like an undeclared emergency.

Constitutional values are being violated. “Hindu Rashtra” is being promoted in a secular country. Those who talk about democratic values are declared traitors. Communalism is being promoted. Mob lynching incidents are being carried out. Incidents of caste discrimination and atrocities are increasing. Fights with Dalits is a common thing; all limits of inhumanity are being crossed by people urinating on them. Humanity is being put to shame.

The BJP-RSS’s ascent to power at the Centre has led to the increased assertion of Hindutva politics, which is focused on Hindu nationalism in contrast to the Indian nationalism envisaged by the freedom movement and the Indian Constitution. One of the components of Hindu nationalism is to perpetuate the caste hierarchy in new forms.

Hinduism is the name given to the most ancient and persistent religion on the Indian subcontinent, and Hindutva is the name by which the ideology of the Hindu right, represented by the political party Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP). Today, Hindutva, a nationalist and right-wing ideology that seeks to impose the supremacy of Hindu culture and religion in India, is officially propagated by persons in constitutional positions. Hinduism is often described as a ‘way of life’ for its range of doctrines and practices. But Hindutva is the use of some symbols of Hinduism for political mobilisation.

The foot soldiers of Hindutva have used its ideology to justify violence against Dalits and religious minorities, seen as outside Hinduism and a threat to India’s Hindu identity. For example, cow protection has been used as a pretext for attacking Dalits and Muslims, often involved in the leather trade.

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in recent years has contributed to the rise of violence against Dalits and Muslims. This has led to a culture of impunity where perpetrators of violence feel emboldened to carry out attacks without fear of punishment.

The symbolism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving respect to Ambedkar, saying that Ambedkar is one of the guiding forces for him and his party, is no doubt powerful. “If India become a Hindu Rastra , it will, no doubt, be the greatest catastrophe for this country. Hindutva is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Rastra must be prevented at any cost.”

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date of origin of this brand of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism. But the first half of the 1920s is usually considered the beginning. In the early 1920s Vinayak Damodar Savarkar wrote Essentials of Hindutva. He differentiated between Hinduism and Hindutva – Hinduism according to him, was only a part of Hindutva. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was set up in 1925.

Historians have written of how in the 1920s and 1930s Hindu nationalists projected those different from themselves as enemies. While some present-day Hindu nationalists have at times claimed to use the term Hindu to “denote all people who believe in, respect or follow the eternal values of life that have sprung up in Bharat” rather than a religion, they contradict that claim when those ‘eternal values’ are given a religious slant.

The invocation of Ambedkar’s constitutional morality is essential in assessing the functioning of political democracy. The Constitution was designed to meet the needs of modern society. Seventy-five years ago, there was anxiety about the survival of democracy. Today, the question is whether democracy will survive or not in India and if survive what kind of democracy it will be.

When minorities— religious, ethnic, caste or ideological— are treated as enemies, democracy becomes a mere electoral game. The success or failure of democracies depends on how the majority treats minorities. Does the minority community have any defence mechanism against the majority? Majority rule is not a democracy. When people are arrested for exercising their right to freedom of expression, the Opposition is branded as traitors, minorities are repeatedly asked to prove their nationality, people who question the political ideology of the ruling class are imprisoned under draconian anti-terror laws, who can claim that there is any meaningful democracy in India?

Ambedkar believed that an ideal society is based on liberty, equality and fraternity. If the law and politics do not guarantee them, we will certainly create an unequal hierarchical society. Therefore, it is more sensible to transform electoral democracy into constitutional democracy based on the Constitution’s values. Ambedkar’s idea of constitutional morality is the touchstone against which the actors’ actions must be measured for the smooth functioning of democracy in India.

On Uniform Civil Code 

BJP leaders may cite Ambedkar’s support for a UCC as they push it in Parliament, but is it really in sync with the vision of the man who framed India’s Constitution? Ambedkar supported the inclusion of a Uniform Civil Code, but he was mindful of the serious objections several Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly had to it. Ambedkar had also hoped no government would exercise its power to enact a uniform code in a way that would “provoke the Muslim community to rise in rebellion”.

On 23 November 1948, Ambedkar sought to reassure the minority members in the Constituent Assembly during a discussion on the UCC. He said, “It [Article 35] does not say that after the Code is framed the State shall enforce it upon all citizens merely because they are citizens.” He also said it is “perfectly possible” that the future Parliament may in the beginning make a provision that the Code shall apply only to those who declare that they are “prepared to be bound by it”. In other words, initially, the “the application of the Code may be purely voluntary.”

In other words, Ambedkar felt that a UCC could be introduced initially as a voluntary code and that Parliament would certainly not force citizens to follow it.

On 2 December 1948, Ambedkar said during a lengthy discussion on Article 13 of the draft Constitution dealing with the fundamental right to profess any faith that “it is quite impossible for anybody to conceive that the personal law shall be excluded from the jurisdiction of the State”. What he meant is that in India,


Today politics is all about caste, race, religion, polarisation and mudslinging. Political narratives are crystallised in and around larger identities based on these very lines. Poetics has becomes a matter of expedience and rich people’s game. Ideology has taken a back seat in political discourses. In politics, expedience can mean making false promises or using short-term solutions to deeper problems, with the aim of getting elected (or reelected)

Parliament is merely used to propagate narrow party goals and hurling insulting words at political rivals. Leaders hardly deliver qualitative, intellectuals’ speeches; neither are they engaged in peaceful, humble and meaningful dialogues. They are obsessed with self-aggrandisement, publicity blitzkrieg and in a incessant race to stay in the power corridors so as enjoy power, prestige and publicity.

Ambedkar’s philosophy helps us to understand that humans need a universal moral standard to live in society. His intellectual pursuit entails priorities, praxis and social ethics that can orient towards an ideal of emancipation and social justice. His philosophy to ascertain freedom and equality so that fraternity could lay the foundation of a society. The idea of a good society is possible when the distinctiveness of individual is duly recognised and dignity is protected.



The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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