How Did Ambedkar Pick His Allies?


Prabodhan Pol

A closer look at the way in which Dr B.R. Ambedkar entered into political alliances will help us understand why he forged ties with communists, non-Brahmin parties and even Congress.

The 1940s and 1950s were profoundly transformative for India. Those decades witnessed the unfolding of India into an independent, sovereign republic with a new constitution installed in 1950.

Politically speaking, it was equally a very important period for Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Dalit-Bahujan movements throughout India. It was during this period that Ambedkar’s contributions to a bourgeoning India received immense attention.

His influence was not just limited to inaugurating the constitutional edifice of the newly established state, but it was also significant in providing a new social-political vocabulary to the downtrodden masses.

Ambedkar’s efforts to revive Buddhism also came in this period. His conversion to Buddhism was not simply a renunciation of one religion but it was a political act that sought to provide a new identity for Dalits in the changed socio-political scenario. Although the conversion experiment was mainly confined to Maharashtra in its initial years, its significance transcended beyond the state in the later period.

Apart from Buddhism and constitution making, Ambedkar during the 1940s and 1950s was also busy exploring possibilities of developing political alliances with different political groups across India. His experience with such alliances was mixed. At times it ended in a complete failure but many a time it helped him to creatively think about possibilities beyond Dalits. It provided Ambedkar with new avenues for political engagement and pushed him to contemplate the possibility of building a comprehensive political platform that could lead to the incorporation of different social groups.

How Did Ambedkar Pick His Allies?Despite his contentious interventions and radical articulations on caste, Hinduism, and the Congress in the public sphere, Ambedkar was still able to galvanise the support of different social and political groups throughout his public life.

His strong connections with mass activism and his profound commitment to the cause largely attracted the attention of different social and political groups of the time. His strategies of forging political alliances were never premised on compromising with the core of his political ideas. Therefore, despite his association with the Congress government as the law minister and chief draftsman of the constitution in the post-Independence period, he was able to distance himself from power.

He was the first minister in Nehru’s cabinet to have rejected the official ‘VIP’ car allotted to cabinet ministers. While addressing a question about his decision to join the Nehru cabinet, in an interview to a Marathi newspaper, he emphasised that his association with Congress was not due to any ideological camaraderie or friendship. He added that his decision to join the cabinet was mainly influenced by the historical significance of the occasion – of the transfer of power – which was difficult for him to miss.

But he did not fail to mention that he was not bound by any party protocols and discipline as he was not a Congress member and nor would he ever be lured by the entrapments of power associated with Congress.

In fact, in this interview, he made it clear that his longstanding view about Congress had not changed. While addressing the socialist supporters of Congress, he appealed to them to overcome their fascination for the ruling party, and instead focus on building a separate political organisation that would cater to the working classes, peasants and the toiling masses.

Ambedkar’s association with Congress in the 1940s thus reflects his willingness to foreground his politics beyond immediate caste and sectarian interests without losing its radical essence.

In his party manifesto, published on the eve of the first general elections of 1952, he had asserted his strong apprehensions against the sectarian politics of Hindu nationalism. Simultaneously, the party manifesto had also clearly positioned itself against Congress’s politics.

On the other hand, he had developed a camaraderie with like-minded political groups such as the socialists and non-Brahmins, despite having a few reservations against them. It was a result of a long association with these groups that brought them together in the decade of the 1950s.

His strategies of alliance never helped his political outfit fetch successful electoral results, particularly in the first general elections of 1952. Nonetheless, it highlights his pragmatism of alliance and conspicuous clarity of whom not to ally with.

In one of his speeches in the Bombay Legislative Council of 1939, he had said:

“Whenever there is any conflict of interest between the country and the untouchables, so far as I am concerned, the untouchables’ interests will take precedence over the interests of the country…I am not going to support a tyrannising majority simply because it happens to speak in the name of the country…As between the country and myself, the country will have precedence; as between the country and the Depressed Classes, the Depressed Classes will have precedence – the country will not have precedence.”

Ambedkar had developed a keen interest in Marx’s philosophy and works but he was likewise deeply suspicious of its application in India. His criticism of the communist movement was also premised on its indifference toward the caste question.

Right from the beginning, communist politics placed greater emphasis on the question of class-based politics, thereby ignoring a dominant social reality of India. Ambedkar had predicted that the communist movement would eventually fail in India because it was not led by the oppressed groups but by “a bunch of Brahmins”.

On the other hand, the communist party based in Bombay city was ferociously critical of Ambedkar’s politics since the late 1920s. He was often ridiculed by its leadership as a strike-breaker and a sectarian leader. It often led to uncomfortable tensions between communist groups and Ambedkarite supporters across Bombay city. Yet, we also find references to Ambedkar’s alignment with many communists’ activists and leaders in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. It was in the decade of 1950s that Ambedkar and communists again came together on a single and formidable anti-Congress political platform of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti.

On the other hand, since the late 1940s, many non-Brahmin, socialist activists and leaders from western India and elsewhere enjoyed proximity with Ambedkar.

Among them, prominent were Shankarrao More, Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, Pralhad Keshav Atre, Pandhurang Sadashiv Sane (also fondly known as Sane Guruji), S.M. Joshi, and Ram Manohar Lohiya.

Ambedkar’s association with non-Brahmin groups was very old. He had repeatedly argued that his work was influenced by Mahatma Phule and his non-Brahmin movement. The friendship with socialists, on the other hand, grew in the late 1930s and the 1940s. It went beyond the electoral equation when Ambedkar’s party, the Scheduled Caste Federation, joined hands with the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, an organisational collective that advocated and successfully led a movement for the creation of a united Maharashtra state.

The Samiti was dominated by socialists, communists, and non-Brahmin groups. It was K.S. Thackeray, a prominent non-Brahmin thinker who invited Ambedkar to lead the Samiti. Initially, he was a little hesitant but finally decided to join hands with a rapidly emerging oppositional political voice that could counter the powerful Congress hegemony in the province.

Thus, Ambedkar’s politics was as much shaped by his powerful leadership as it was by his choice of allies. His alliance with different socio-political groups and organisations reflects his urge to foreground a politics that catered to progressive and inclusive politics to thereby create a ground for alternative political possibilities. Conversely, he had maintained his firm opposition to sectarian and fanatic organisations, which evidently indicates his strong negation of those forces.

Ambedkar and his movement had some unwritten understanding of whom to ally with. This also speaks about their pragmatic approach to politics, especially, considering the political realities of the time.

One of the readers of his newspaper had once suggested the possibility of invoking a minimum eligibility criteria – anyone who does not believe in the Varna system – for people looking to become a participant in the Mahad Satyagraha.

Ambedkar responded by arguing that although he firmly believed in these ideals, yet, at this moment one should not impose this at this point. He further argued that such an imposition might affect the outcome of the Mahad movement. On the contrary, his criteria for selecting a political ally, were purely based on the prospective partner’s credentials, with respect to equality, democracy, and social justice.

His desire to ally with Ram Manohar Lohia, or his wish to convince prominent Marathi intellectuals and public figures like P.K. Atre to join his political outfit, Republican Party of India, said a lot about the criteria he adopted to choose his allies. His alliance with Congress immediately after Independence was purely based on his belief in transforming this opportunity to fulfil his socio-political vision.

Although an ardent opponent of Congress, he was aware of the importance of the opportunity and of his crucial presence in designing a modern and independent India. The constitution, which envisaged the ideals of equality, liberty, and fraternity, was the outcome of this opportunity. His strong urge to enact the Hindu Code Bill also reflected how he wanted to utilise his opportunity as a minister.

Courtesy The Wire

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