EPW Vol – XLVIII No. 19, May 11, 2013 | Anand Teltumbde

It is one thing to revere one’s hero but quite another to consider him to be god. Following Ambedkar means being inspired by his vision of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and acting in accordance with his advice to “educate, agitate, organise” so as to realise his goals of annihilation of castes and achievement of socialism.

Anand Teltumbde ([email protected]) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

This is an abridged version of a speech delivered on the 122nd birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar at the Open University, Mysore on 15 April 2013.

A controversy was created by a Mumbai-based Marathi dalit daily by using some of my statements sans the context relating to Babasaheb Ambedkar at a conference on “Marxism and the Caste Question” and manipulating the sentiments of dalits. The motive of the canard against me notwithstanding, the unfounded story has nevertheless helped foreground a crucial question as to what Ambedkar is and what it means to be his follower. The manner in which Ambedkar is invoked in justification of each reactionary acrobatic by the political class and even referred to by dalit intellectuals either out of sheer ignorance or as a part of their consciously carved out strategy to curry favour of the ruling classes, has served to reduce him to an inert “godhead” to be merely worshipped or worse, a reactionary identity icon blocking any further enlightenment. The near decimation of dalit movement, the persistent misery of the dalit masses and the growth of a reactionary stratum of self-seeking dalit elites engendered by this bhakti cult over the last four decades have set in motion a vicious cycle of hopelessness among the masses further reinforcing the saviour syndrome among them. It is time we see through this insidious process to extricate the real Ambedkar from the growing morass of reaction.

The Real Ambedkar

The underscoring theme of Ambedkar’s life reflects the deep impact of his professor John Dewey while he was a student at Columbia University. As one scholar says, “Unless we understand something of John Dewey…it would be impossible to understand Dr Ambedkar.”1 This influence ran through his writings as well as the strategies and tactics he formula­ted.2 Dewey’s philosophy of progressive ­pragmatism or instrumentalism considered all knowledge as tentative and thus stressed the importance of any theoretical postulate being tested in practice to progressively enrich theory. It thus reje­cted the existence of any “grand theory” such as Marx’s. Despite Ambedkar’s creative genius in applying this mode of thought to the Indian context, his philosophical proclivities clearly reflect the deep influence of Dewey. A plethora of anecdotal and empirical evidence can be cited besides his own admission as late as in June 1952 that he owed his whole intellectual life to Dewey.3 This philosophical approach basically precludes any enduring thesis to be an ism about historical progression.

Ambedkar, however, had a clear vision explicated in terms of his “ideal” as “the society based on liberty, equality and frater­nity”,4 the famous motto of the French Revolution. But he claimed that he had taken this value triad from Buddha. He was not satisfied with the discrete bourgeois conception of this motto and insisted on the coexistence of all three to be found in Buddhism. Here he tends to transcend Dewey, who, while meaning the same, is content with its classic source located in the French Revolution. A social paradigm of such conception could be ideal to strive for and arguably be likened to Marx’s communism sans, of course, the latter’s scientific construction.

In the Indian context, the foremost hurdle in the path towards this vision being the institution of caste, Ambedkar rightly identified annihilation of castes as his goal. The second goal that was identified by him was socialism, which for him was an essential ingredient of democracy. His idea of socialism was surely Fabian, again inherited from Dewey, the American Fabian, and reinforced during his stay at the London School of Economics, the institution founded by the Fabian society. In contrast to Marx’s scientific socialism, this socialism would be bro­ught about gradually, through the enligh­tened middle classes and be characterised as the emancipation of land and industrial capital. His first political party, the Independent Labour Party, founded in 1936, was ­fashioned after the Fabian-backed party of the same name in England. It clearly propounded the socialist goal and had proudly adopted a red flag for itself. Later, he famously proposed a model of state socialism be incorporated into the Constitution as its basic feature, not ordinarily alterable by the legislature.5 His embracement of Buddhism at the end of his life was a step towards socialism, as, according to him, it had the same end as that of Marxism but without its deficient means, viz, violence and dictatorship.6

Ambedkar’s Final Words of Advice

Did Ambedkar reflect, much less leave behind, a systematic theory that explains or predicts the world and constitutes an “ism”? But for the identity obsession, the honest and objective answer to this question has to be in the negative. Rather to think otherwise is to negate his basic core. His life reveals that he tried out various strategies and tactics depending on the unfolding situation to the extent that one finds a bewildering degree of inconsistency in his thoughts and actions. Ambedkar would simply dismiss this by saying that consistency was a virtue of an ass.7 What informed these inconsistencies was the philosophy of progressive pragmatism. For example, his declaration that he would never die as a Hindu was explained as the existential strategy to overcome the weaknesses of dalits in merging with an existing religious community.8 After two decades he fulfilled his vow by embracing Buddhism which was hardly known in mainland India.

Soon after the adoption of the Constitution, Ambedkar exhorted his followers to shun agitation as a political tactic and adopt constitutional means, but there­after he publicly denounced the Constitution as of no use to any one and disowned it saying he was used as a hack and that he would be the first person to burn it. Thus not merely expediency but even in theory Ambedkar does not leave behind any systematic body of thought that can be termed Ambedkarism, simply because he did not believe in one. He does leave for us his vision, his goals and a role model to follow.

His methodological direction to his followers comes in his “final words of advice”: “educate, agitate and organise”, the famed mission and slogan of the Fabian society, which he had adopted as the mast for his paper Bahishkrit Bharat, quite like the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo(The New Order). It basically stressed the ever changing nature of reality and the need to be enlightened enough to comprehend and confront it: Educate so as to understand the world around, agitate against evil and organise in order to gain strength to root it out. He exhorted his followers to beprabuddha with the cognitive capability to analyse their situation, develop an abhorrence towards injustice and unitedly stru­ggle to root it out. He did not impose his methods or conclusions onto his followers but rather expected them to devise appropriate strategies and tactics in their own space and time as enlightened people.

Following Ambedkar

Following Ambedkar means being inspired by his vision of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and acting in accordance with his advice “educate, agitate, organise” so as to realise his goals of annihilation of castes and achievement of socialism. It means being enlightened and not self-blinded, hymn-singing devotees. It is one thing to revere one’s hero but quite another to consider him to be god as he himself cautioned:9

Hero-worship in the sense of expressing our unbounded admiration is one thing. To obey the hero is a totally different kind of hero-worship. There is nothing wrong in the former while the latter is no doubt a most pernicious thing. The former is only man’s respect for everything which is noble and of which the great man is only an embodiment. The latter is the villain’s fealty to his lord. The former is consistent with respect, but the latter is a sign of debasement. The former does not take away one’s intelligence to think and independence to act. The latter makes one a perfect fool.

Quite like Buddha, who exhorted his disciples not to take his advice uncritically and to be a light unto themselves (atta deep bhava), Ambedkar also cautioned against uncritically accepting the maxims and conclusions of anyone howsoever great:

No great man really does his work by crippling his disciples, by forcing on them his maxims or his conclusions. What a great man does is not to impose his maxims on his disciples. What he does is to evoke them, to awaken them to a vigorous…exertion of their faculties. Again the pupil only takes his guidance from his master. He is not bound to accept his master’s conclusions. There is no ingratitude in the disciple not accepting the maxims or the conclusions of his master. For even when he rejects them he is bound to acknowledge to his master in deep reverence ‘You awakened me to be myself; for that I thank you.’ The master is not entitled to less. The disciple is not bound to give more.10

The march of the Ambedkarites in the light of the foregoing could be clearly seen as anti-Ambedkar. Indeed, they have consistently disrespected him in their acts of commission and omission: ignoring his vision of annihilation of castes and achievement of socialism in overtly celebrating caste identities and promoting slavishness to an ill-constructed icon of that great iconoclast. They have ghettoised him in their sectarian temples as an infallible god and made him un­available for future generations to learn from. As he once said:

I am prepared to pick and choose from everyone, Socialist, Communist or other. I do not claim infallibility and as Buddha says, there is nothing infallible; there is nothing final and everything is liable to examination.11

It is high time Ambedkarites understood Ambedkar before flaunting their Ambedkarism from their cosy armchairs.


1 K N Kadam, “Dr Ambedkar’s Philosophy of Emancipation and the Impact of John Dewey” in The Meaning of Ambedkarite Conversion to Buddhism and Other Essays (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan), 1997, V.

2 Arun P Mukherjee, “B R Ambedkar, John Dewey and the Meaning of Democracy”, New Literary History, 40.2 (2009): 345-70.

3 A letter to Dr Savita Ambedkar: Last accessed on 20 April 2013.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writing & Speeches (BAWS), Annihilation of Castes, Vol 1 (Mumbai: Government of Maharashtra), p 57.

5 BAWS, States and Minorities, Vol 1, p 406.

6 BAWS, Buddha or Karl Marx, Vol 3, p 443.

7 BAWS, Vol 1, p 141.

What Path to Salvation? Speech delivered by Ambedkar to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference, 31 May 1936, Bombay. Translated from the Marathi by Vasant W Moon, http://www.columbia. edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/ 00am bedkar/txt_ambedkar_salvation.html, last acce­ssed on 20 April 2013.

9 BAWS, Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Vol 1, p 231.

10 Ibid.

11 While discussing the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) Bill, 1954 as law minister, BAWS, Vol 15, p 960.

This is an abridged version of a speech delivered on the 122nd birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar at the Open University, Mysore on 15 April 2013.