How Did Ambedkar Imagine India After Independence?

A "free" India would be a model democracy that redistributed power to the marginalised, and purged society of oppressive social institutions, beliefs and practices.


B R Ambedkar’s significance in Indian history has been largely credited to the struggle for Dalit rights, but his views on nationalism have received less attention. For Ambedkar, the Indian national movement was dominated by the elite who would perpetuate the caste system in independent India. He envisaged the transformation of India into a modern, progressive country, a necessary condition for which would be the annihilation of caste. Ambedkar’s views on nationalism—more than emerging from a disdain towards anti-imperialist rule—stemmed from a need to restructure the prevailing socio-economic order.

This reading list examines Ambedkar’s idea of a nation, the reasons for his opposition to the Indian national movement, and his vision of independent India.

1) What Makes a Nation
Shabnum Tejani writes that those at the forefront of the Indian freedom movement, namely the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, were so adamant on convincing the British that India was a nation that they had never stopped to ask who the Indian nation was for. For Ambedkar, nationality was a “social feeling” that imbibed a sentiment of fellowship and superseded class and caste differences.

Nationality, for Ambedkar, also involved a deep emotional tie, “a longing not to belong to any other group” (Ambedkar 1946: 31). What would be the conditions for such a sentiment? A shared race, culture and language may provide the basis for a patriotism that was particularly Indian … For nationality to exist there needed to be more than a common race, language or culture. There needed to be a “spiritual essence,” a tie of kinship. Above all, it required “the will to live as a nation” (Ambedkar 1946: 39).

2) Creating Ambedkar’s Republic
An independent India needed to establish a safe social order. Sreejith Sugunan writes that Ambedkar’s views on constitutional morality and parliamentary process were founded in Buddhism. According to Ambedkar’s interpretation, a Buddhist vision for India was less concerned with following an “enlightened leader,” and was more concerned with codifying a set of laws and practices to amicably settle differences.

The Buddhist “means,” in Ambedkar’s reading, had to do with the codification of the rules of engage-ment between the ruler and the ruled. The establishment of such terms and conditions, this article argues, is sacrosanct for Ambedkar. This set of codified terms and conditions, which is the Constitution, not only establishes the legitimacy and longevity of the ruling regime, but also prescribes the conditions that allow for the use of violence … in Ambedkar’s understanding, political conduct should acknowledge the plurality of opinions. Non-violent political conduct is, then, about working together despite fundamental differences, negoti-ating and coming to a decision that requires compromises from all parties, and nurturing and participating in institutions and traditions that will establish an enabling framework for making new possibilities.

Further, Rudolph C Heredia writes About Ambedkar's belief that Buddhism originally defined India, but with time it was replaced with Hinduism corrupted by Brahminism. Ambedkar hoped that the newly constituted republic of India would be founded upon his neo-Buddhist Navayana.

The constituent assembly debates, over which Ambedkar presided, hammered out the compact expressed in the Constitution of India. This represented the broad consensus of the movement led by the Indian National Congress. Despite differences and disagreements, this was not a pragmatic political compromise lacking conviction and commitment, but a compact based on mutual trust to allow for various underlying approaches and perspectives that were to be sorted out with sensitivity and understanding.

3) Opposition to the National Movement
Freedom from foreign rule was insignificant if it did not include freedom from internal forms of servitude and oppression. S M Gaikwad writes that Ambedkar was not opposed to the Indian freedom movement, but rather to the Congress-led national movement which did not see emancipation of the Scheduled Castes as a nation-building exercise. The national movement had to include not only wresting power from the ruling British, but also building a platform for modern India by purging Indian society of outdated social attitudes and beliefs.

Freedom that the nationalists were struggling to secure had very little to offer to the scheduled castes and other oppressed sections of the Indian society. Freedom from the British rule would not end their servitude and misery. It is, therefore, important to note that while the nationalists representing the advanced sections of the Indian society were struggling to achieve freedom from the British rule, people like Ambedkar, representing the Indian “helots” and other oppressed, backward people, were fighting to regain the very 'manhood' of the people stripped of their inalienable humanity by history's most oppressive and degrading hierarchical system of social segregation called the Hindu caste system.

Moreover, Gopal Guru argues that Ambedkar and the Dalits would have joined the national movement had there been a guarantee of their recognition as an autonomous political identity. Ambedkar’s hesitance was further reinforced by the Congress and other nationalists’ vague promises on the redistribution of power to the marginalised.

Ambedkar was more sceptical about the narrative of nationalism which has been till today reinvoking the tradition of freedom, sacrifice, dedication and glory of the freedom fighters particularly of extremist variety. But at the same time, this narrative of nationalism is very vague and abstract about the concrete and therefore, contestable question of unequal distribution of power and prestige of the dalits and other toiling masses … the nationalists have always fulminated against the distribution of power among the deprived sections of the society and therefore have seldom if ever, had occasion to deplore the absence of power among the dalits. On the contrary, they have opposed such distribution of course on not such a convincing rational ground but on patriotic grounds which made convenient sense only to some selective sections during the freedom struggle.

4) Linguistic Federalism as a Necessary Condition for Democracy
Ambedkar’s support for creating states on the basis of linguistic lines stemmed from his belief that social homogeneity would make democracy “work better.” Shabnum Tejani writes that according to Ambedkar, a homogeneous society would ensure that no one group would attempt to abuse power. India’s structured social difference was what made democracy in India difficult to execute.

Ambedkar’s solution was to have “one state, one language”. Each state should be a linguistic unit, but to avoid the pitfall of creating further nationalisms, the regional language could not be the official language of the state, which had to be Hindi. Thus the administrative unit should be the linguistic state but the administrative language should be shared across the nation (Ambedkar 1955: 145-46). Ambedkar was arguing neither for the self-determination of linguistic groups, nor for a formulation of one language, one state (Ambedkar 1955: 165). Rather, it was the shared language that would make such states viable.

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