Ambedkarism — The Theory of Dalit Liberation

‘Ambedkarism’ is today a living force in India, much as Marxism is: it defines the ideology of the Dalit movement and, to a large extent, an even broader anti-caste movement. Yet, just as ‘Marxism’ as a trend in the working class movement has to be distinguished from the actual theorizing of Karl Marx, so the urge to abolish the social and economic exploitation involved in caste and capitalism (which is the main significance of ‘Ambedkarism’ as a general movement ideology) must be distinguished from the complex grappling of an individual activist-theoretician with the interpretation of Indian reality.

Ambedkar’s thought was not always consistent and it did not (and the same of course can be said for Marx) fully resolve the problems he grappled with. But some themes stand out:

First, an uncompromising dedication to the needs of his people, the Dalits (as he said once in response to a legislative council claim that he should think as ‘part of a whole’- ‘I am not a part of a whole; I am a part apart) which required the total annihilation of the caste system and the Brahmanic superiority it embodied:

Second an almost equally strong dedication to the reality of India– but an India whose historical–cultural interpretation he sought to wrest from the imposition of a ‘Hindu’ identity to understand it in its massive, popular reality;

Third a conviction that the eradication of caste required a repudiation of ‘Hinduism’ as a religion, and adoption of an alternative religion, which he found in Buddhism, a choice which he saw as not only necessary for the masses of Dalits who followed him but for the masses in India generally;

Fourth, a broad economic radicalism interpreted as ‘socialism’ (state socialism’ in some versions; ‘democratic socialism’ in others) mixed with and growing out of his democratic liberalism and liberal dedication to individual rights;

Fifth, a fierce rationalism which burned through his attacks on Hindu superstitions to interpret even the Buddhism he came to in rationalistic, ‘liberation theology’ forms;

And finally, a political orientation which linked a firmly autonomous Dalit movement with a constantly attempted alliance of the socially and economically exploited (Dalits and Shudras, ‘workers’ and ‘peasants’ in class terms) projected as an alternative political front to the congress party he saw as the unique platform of ‘Brahminism’ and ‘Capitalism’.

However, Ambedkar, like Marx, did not spend the major part of his active life in research and writing, with political activism as a sideline; rather, the demands of leadership absorbed the major part of his time. The 1930s being a period of intense turmoil there was little space for writing. Though many of his crucial ideas were formed during the 1930s, almost all of his writings came in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was spending most of his time in Delhi, as Labour Minister and the general spokesman for the untouchables. During the 1930s he not only adopted but also sought to give a political embodiment to a general left ideology combined with the theme of caste annihilation. Yet the decade came to an end with the failure of a left alternative to the bourgeois- Brahmin Congress, and the 1940s were very different, an era of Congress hegemony was firmly established in the national movement at the same time as the traumatic transition to independence in a period of global upheavals overshadowed everything else.



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