Book Review

B.R. Ambedkar, India and Communism

New Delhi, Left Word,
Introduction by Anand Teltumbde,
156 pp, Rs. 225.

Chaman Lal

Dr. BR Ambedkar’s relation with communism and Marxism was complex. Ambedkar was critical of the Marxist emphasis on class and felt that caste is a form of oppression and exploitation quite distinct from class. Over the decades Ambedkarites and Marxists alike have laboured to create a chasm instead of finding a common ground. Thankfully today, the youth movement in the country is trying to build bridges; many student organisations in JNU or in Hyderabad University or IIT’s in Chennai and Kharagpur, have focussed on common grounds between Marxist revolutionary Bhagat Singh and Dalit liberation thinker Dr. Ambedkar, along with Periyar and Mahatma Phule. The recent publication of an incomplete manuscript of Dr Ambedkar helps us to get a more nuanced understanding of Ambedkar’s relation with communism. The book has been edited by Anand Teltumbde, a renowned Dalit scholar closely related to Ambedkar’s family.

Apparently Ambedkar planned to write a longish book entitled ‘India and Communism’. It was to have three parts, Prerequisites of Communism, India and Prerequisites of Communism and What then shall we do? The second part was to focus on ‘Hindu’ social order and the impediments it posed for communism. It was this part that he first began working on and his incomplete manuscript has 65 typed pages on Hindu Social order and its basis. The same files contained manuscripts of another proposed book ‘Can I be a Hindu?’ or rather a chapter from it entitled ‘symbols of hinduism’. These papers are likely to have been typed in early 1950.

Teltumbde frames the two manuscripts with a long introduction (about 70 pages of a 145 page book)which he has titled, ‘Bridging an Unholy Rift’

In opening page of the book, there is a quotation from Dr. Ambedkar’s 1936 major writing, ‘Annihilation of the Caste’:

‘If the Socialists wish to make Socialism a definite reality, then they must recognise that the problem of social reform is fundamental and that for them there is no escape from it’.

Reading this statement 81 years after it was first penned, makes one realise how complex Indian society is and how the need for social reform has become more acute than even in 1936 and the intervening period has shown that how socialists or communists have failed in this task and now they stand almost marginalised in society, which they were leading at one time.

Teltumbde begins his introduction with a quote from radical black American thinker Malcolm X: ‘The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world’ (Page 9). The very first formulation of Teltumbde is that those who project Ambedkar as anti-communist or anti-Marxism are grossly prejudiced, though he agrees that Ambedkar had a serious reservation in accepting certain theoretical postulations of Marxism.

Teltumbde very harshly underlines the fact that the entire post- Ambedkar Dalit movement reflects the singular obsession to treat Marxists as the enemy. This has allowed the Dalit ‘leaders’ to remain ensconced in the ruling circles, enjoying perks and privileges, while still calling themselves ‘Ambedkarites’ (Page 11). Even Dalit Panthers, the radicals on the pattern of Black Panthers of US, split on same pattern of RPI. He further notes how notable Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Udit Raj and Ramdas Athavale have walked over to the most reactionary Brahamanical party- Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), but would not touch Communists even with a bargepole! These opportunist leaders are ready to go with the utterly anti- Ambedkar thought of BJP, but attack Prakash Ambedkar, who favours a common front with Socialists and Communists as ‘anti-Ambedkar’ and even ‘a Maoist sympathiser’!

Teltumbde describes Dr. Ambedkar’s relationship with Marxism as ‘enigmatic’ – he was never a Marxist, but described himself as ‘Socialist’!

Teltumbde draws our attention to Karl Marx’s 25th June 1853 essay: The British rule in India, in which he characterizes the Indian castes as ‘the most decisive impediment to India’s progress and power’. Ambedkar himself never rejected the notion that ‘struggle against caste is integral with class struggle’ (Page 19). Ambedkar was unhappy at the Communists' conception of class as only ‘economic’ excluding socio-religious aspects of it. Teltumbde argues that while Ambedkar did not accept Marxian concept of class, he was closer to a Weberian notion of class. In fact Ambedkar himself treated caste as class: ‘A Caste is an Enclosed Class’. Indeed the first phase of Ambedkar’s political work was marked by a close alignment with the socialist-communist movement.

Ambedkar formed his first political party, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in August 1936, which is described by Christopher Jaffrelot as the ‘first leftist party in India’, as the Communist party was either underground or working under the umbrella of Congress party. The ILP along with CSP (Congress Socialist Party) organised a huge march of 20,000 peasants in 1938 and showed the way to merge ‘caste and class’ in practice. In 1938 itself the ILP and the AITUC (the CPI-affiliated All India Trade Union Congress) joined in calling a massive strike of one lakh workers against the Trade Disputes act of 1929, against which Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt had thrown bombs in the Central Assembly in April 1929. (Ambedkar was not hostile towards communism until the 1930’s. Only his experience with Bombay communists made him bitter about everything communist. Ambedkar had a soft corner for the Soviet Union leader Stalin, being the son of a shoemaker. He observed even fast on the day that Stalin died.) According to Teltumbde, Ambedkar was at his radical best in 1930s. Ambedkar ended this phase by dissolving the ILP in 1942 and forming the All India Scheduled Caste Federation (AISCF).

According to Teltumbde much of the differences between Dr. Ambedkar and the Communist leaders of his time had been due to the Communist conception of ‘Base and Superstructure’. They sought to give primacy to the ‘economic emancipation of davits’ and left their caste discrimination which was considered a part of the ‘superstructure’ to take care of itself once the economic exploitation was ended. Communist party in its opportunism was treating many comrades from Dalit background as a ‘showpiece’ of their concern for the Dalits. Thus, Jiban Dhupi of Anushilan background, who was released from jail after eleven years in 1946, was flaunted as a ‘Scheduled Caste Fighter against Social injustice’ in the CPI central organ. In contrast, K N Jogelkar, a senior CPI leader was allowed to remain a member of the ‘Brahmin Sabha’ for many years.

Teltumbde argues that on the issue of nationalism and anti-imperialist struggles, Ambedkar and CPI had important differences. While CPI considered the Congress party to be anti-imperialist and nationalist and felt friendlier towards it and was critical of Ambedkar. For Ambedkar, the interests of Dalits were primary, who had got some relief from the British regime in terms of getting education and some job opportunities. Ambedkar wanted to protect the interests of Dalits in post British India and did not trust Gandhi or the Congress party for that. Indeed he may have agreed to participate in the framing of the future constitution of India for that reason.

Ambedkar, despite chairing the subcommittee which drafted the Indian constitution, was far from happy with it and often expressed his disenchantment with it. Teltumbde quotes Ambedkar, ‘I was a hack, what I was asked to do, I did much against my will... But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I don’t want it. It does not suit anybody’. (Page 68 quoted from Rajya Sabha, 2nd September 1953). It is ironical that today that same constitution is being eulogised as the bulwark Indian democracy and freedom.

According to Anand Teltumbde though Ambedkar thought communism was an emancipatory philosophy and had a huge attraction for the toiling masses, it did not have much to offer to Dalits in getting rid of the oppressive social structure. In Anand Teltumbde’s opinion the doctrinaire approach of early CPI alienated Ambedkar from Marxism.

Coming to the present Teltumbde argues that just caste identity politics will not lead Dalit movements anywhere, rather it would only splinter them further. He favours class and caste integration to enhance the path of revolution and hopes that the publication of Ambedkar’s incomplete writings would ‘inspire the Dalits and communists to complete the belated task to shape India’s and the world’s future’. (Page 78)

In his chapter, The Hindu Social Order: Its Essential Principles, Ambedkar begins by focusing on two fundamentals for free social order: 1. Individual as an end in himself and 2. Social order must be founded on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, the three principles of French revolution.

Dr. Ambedkar discusses in detail the meaning and implications of these principles and tests the Hindu Social Order, whether it follows these foundational principles of ‘free social order’ or not; and he finds that the Hindu Social Order miserably was failing to follow these essential principles. In the discussion Dr. Ambedkar underlines the most divisive and discriminatory aspects of Hindu social order. He gives an example from the Brahmin caste alone from Punjab of those days, where out of one crore and a half population of the main Brahmin caste, had 1886 sub-castes of Brahmins alone!

Dr. Ambedkar makes it clear that the first and fundamental principle of the Hindu social order is ‘graded inequality’, he gives illustrations from the ‘Manu Smite’ to prove his point, which underlines seven kinds of slaves and the Hindu law recognises slavery as a ‘legal institution’! (page 98). Dr. Ambedkar underlines the ‘fixity of occupations for each class and continuance thereof by heredity’ as the second principle of the Hindu social order. The third principle of the Hindu social order is explained as the ‘fixation of people within their respective classes’. Dr. Ambedkar notes further that the Hindu social order has a ‘ban on free interchange and intercourse between different classes of Hindu society. There is a bar against inter-dining and inter-marriage.’ (Page 108).

In another chapter, The Hindu Social Order: Its Unique Features. Dr. Ambedkar notes three special features of Hindu social order, the most striking being-‘the worship of the superman’! In Ambedkar’s own words, ‘The Hindu social order is nothing but Nietzsche’s Gospel put in action’! (Page 111) Ambedkar considers that the Brahmin is the Superman of the Hindu social order, who is entitled to certain privileges as he could not be hanged, even though he might be guilty of murder as per Manu Smriti. Dr. Ambedkar further explains the Hindu social order by saying that ‘the rise of common man is antagonistic to the supremacy of the Superman.... Common man is in a state of perpetual degradation…’ (Page 119)

Dr. Ambedkar is very firm in his opinion that ‘The Hindus are the only people in the world whose social order – the relation of man to man is consecrated by religion and made sacred, eternal and inviolate.’ He concludes this chapter with these words: ‘No one can deny that the Hindu social order has become the habit of the Hindus and as such is in full force’. (Page 130)

In another chapter, Symbols of Hinduism, Ambedkar goes back to 305 B.C., focusing on the Greek ambassador Megasthenes’ view that the social organisation of the Hindus was 'of a very strange sort’. Megasthenes observed the Indian population to be divided into seven parts. From 305 B.C., Ambedkar moves to 1030 A.D. by referring to Alberuni’s travel accounts of India, who observed four major castes or varnas of Hindus, Brahmins being the highest in ladder. Ambedkar further refers to Portuguese official Duarte Barbosa being in India during 1500-1571, who gives detailed analyses of Indian castes.

Dr. Ambedkar sees caste and class as being interlinked in the Indian social set up. Dr. Ambedkar challenges the notion of caste being outcome of ‘Varna’, rather he says that ‘Caste is a perversion of Varna’. Dr. Ambedkar touches the question of ‘Savarna’ Hindus, means being part of four Varna system, which include Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras and ‘Avarna’ Hindus, means who are out of Varna system, called ‘Antyaj’ also, meaning worse than even Shudras! Dr. Ambedkar’s manuscript breaks with these words-‘The Avarna Hindus comprise three....’

Dr. Ambedkar saw no scope for equality for Dalits inside the Hindu social order, so he opted out of it by accepting the Buddhist faith and calling upon fellow Dalits to do the same. While he was left with little time after adopting Buddhism, his followers did not carry forward his scheme of taking the Dalits out of Hindu social order and creating a new liberty, equality and fraternity based social order, not even the Mayawati led Bahujun Samaj Party did it, neither earlier various Republican Party factions did it. Today, we find all of them at the mercy of the RSS-Hindutva based party BJP.

Anand Teltumbde by his enlightened introduction to these papers of Dr. Ambedkar has tried to open a window again for leftists and Ambedkarites to enter into debate and find common ground for changing the sliding down of Indian society into the clutches of the RSS-Hindutva Hindu Social Order, resisted so passionately by Dr. Ambedkar. Modi is the Superman of Hindu Social Order as explained by Dr. Ambedkar, with whom Dalits can have no truck. Under present circumstances, leftist forces are probably the closest allies of Ambedkar’s imagined social order based on liberty, equality and fraternity, but would both sides accept this challenge? Rosa Luxemburg explaining the situation as ‘Socialism or Barbarism’! India is perhaps in similar conditions today where it has to choose ‘Socialism or Barbarism’! Socialism could be of the Ambedkar variety or Bhagat Singh / Che Guevara variety or any other variety as being tried in different Latin American countries at the moment, but the Barbarism of Hindutva social order is not an option!

Hope that Anand Teltumbde, Prakash Ambedkar like Ambedkarite thinkers and various leftist groups and parties find a common ground, as students are trying in many places like ‘Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar-Periyar- Phule’ groups as in IIT Chennai to lead the country out of the morass of Hindutva fascist forces, which are quite strong at the moment, being in power at state level as well as in society with vigilante groups like ‘Gau Rakshaks’ and many more like Sriram Sene, or Hindu Jagran Vedike, which are killing rationalists like Dabholkar-Pansare-Kalburgi-Gauri or Akhlaques-Junaids etc. By the falsification of history and whipping up blind religious passions like Hitler and Mussolini whipped up in Germany and Italy of the 1930’s and whose price was paid by the whole world, not just these two countries. Same are the conditions today of the world with Trump and Modi in power in two powerful countries with huge populations!

Hope Indian and US people will learn some lessons from history and will not allow it to be repeated again, which will be much more destructive than the World War II, caused by Hitler and Mussolini. Dr. Ambedkar’s unfinished book can be a guide to us.

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