The Role of Intellectuals in the Anti-Caste Movement: Lessons from Ambedkar’s Academic Credentials

Without a collective defence of social justice politics by a Dalit-Bahujan intellectual class, it is easy for counter-revolutionaries to retain their cultural hegemony and class domination.

The ongoing debate over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s educational qualifications is often dismissed as pretentious or a sign of the superiority complex of the urban elites who look upon university education as the hallmark of intelligence and wisdom. Though there is not much truth in such a claim, it is evident that good academic training helps us engage with social and political questions prudently and provide us a comprehensive vision to understand crises. It is sad that the growing numbers of political actors today do not value good educational qualifications or cherish intellectual credentials.

In India’s independence movement, the nationalist spectrum was dominated by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Babasaheb Ambedkar, V.D. Savarkar, Jayaprakash Narayan and so on. These people represented the educated intellectual class that had received academic training in Western universities. Their advanced scholarship surely influenced them to develop distinct ideological persuasions that contributed to the building of a rich democratic discourse in modern India. Amongst all these people, Ambedkar’s persona stands distinct.

Ambedkar was an exceptional national leader, an outstanding figure within the discourse on social justice, and a great religious thinker. His extraordinary academic achievements facilitated his position as the legitimate leader of the social justice movement, helped him evolve newer strategies and ideological goals for the emancipation of oppressed peoples and introduced rational and critical methods as the necessary tools to examine social and political problems.

Ironically, within the Dalit-Bahujan movement too, there is a growing desertion of intellectuals. The educated class often hesitates to lead social justice movements or to take intellectual autonomous positions against the ruling elites. Without deep engagement and the collective assertion of the Dalit-Bahujan intellectual class in defence of social justice politics, it is an easy task for counter-revolutionaries to retain their cultural hegemony and class domination over the poor and vulnerable masses.

Knowledge as power

A lot of hagiographic material is in circulation today on Ambedkar’s life. It is in vogue to call him ‘radical and revolutionary’ or even the ‘messiah’ of the socially oppressed people. His followers have ordained him as divine and on ‘auspicious’ occasions, such as his birth anniversary, he is even adorned like a Hindu god.

Such devotion and passion have made Ambedkar a charismatic hero for a cult, elevating him above criticisms and challenges. But Ambedkar himself would not have liked such hero worship or the idea that he was bestowed with some divine charisma. Instead, he achieved a prominent space in India’s modern history as an intellectual leader only after he underwent heart-wrenching experiences of humiliation and survived precarious class conditions, bad health and even tragic incidents of death in his family.

Also read: While Celebrating Ambedkar as a ‘National Hero’, We Must Not Forget His Central Thesis

In the classical Hindu social order, the ‘Untouchables’ were condemned to bear physical exploitation and class precarity without opposition. It was only in modern times that such illegitimate and inhumane social practices were questioned. Though the growing force of modernity could have brought changes in the material conditions of the ‘Untouchables’, Ambedkar utilised his intellectual merit consciously to elevate and emancipate the socially marginalised groups and place them as a crucial component of democracy. Ambedkar generated a powerful revolutionary thinking not due to divine abilities or social inheritances, but by toiling hard as a scholar to deeply understand philosophical treatises on justice, equality and freedom.

Application of training

In two recently released and important biographies of Ambedkar – Aakash Singh Rathore’s Becoming Babasaheb and Ashok Gopal’s A Part Apart – the authors dwelt deeply on Ambedkar’s early academic life and demonstrated how he surpassed economic crises and personal tragedies to earn prestigious academic accolades in two of the world’s finest universities – Columbia University in the US and the London School of Economics in the UK.

Rathore chronologically explains Ambedkar’s 10-year-long, difficult pursuit from 1913 to 1923, of higher degrees in political economy, law and sociology. Ambedkar tirelessly studied for 18 hours a day, slept after only one meal on most days and even faced the tragic news of the deaths of his two children during that time. These crises would have broken the soul of any other person, but Ambedkar pursued his intellectual journey in the most meditative manner and achieved awesome academic credentials

When Ambedkar returned to India, he was the most educated person in the country. However, the brutal caste psyche of the dominant castes showed no respect for his extraordinary scholarship. Instead, he was humiliated and harassed. However, Ambedkar knew the power of knowledge and how to utilise modern pedagogic approaches to understand social and political problems. He confidently used his newly garnered intellectual ability to build a powerful social and political movement for the ‘Untouchables’.

Ambedkar realised that socially marginalised people are historically burdened under Brahmanical cultural values and that no one in the past had attempted to rescue them from their wretched conditions. Only after gaining the intellectual training of modern idioms, he realised his responsibility towards the liberation of the downtrodden.

Also read: Remembering the Annihilation of Caste

His personal experiences of caste discrimination were converted into a conscious social agency. He instrumentalised it courageously and gave an elan for the total destruction of the Brahmanical hegemony and the liberation of the ‘Untouchables’ as rights-bearing citizens. His sincere training in the social sciences, especially pragmatic social philosophy, helped him engage with caste and ‘Untouchability’ questions with a distinct intellectual rigour.

He understood that the ‘Untouchables’ were extremely poor, were unconscious of their social and political objectives and overtly vulnerable in the class and caste relationship. He introduced a new rights-based discourse to address the concerns of the depressed classes, divorcing himself from the paternalistic-philanthropist solution offered under Gandhian social ideology.

This was evident at the Nashik Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, when Ambedkar, at a very young age, mobilised his people to claim rights over a public water tank. The village elites violently attacked the gathering and the protesters were humiliated and boycotted. Though Ambedkar’s activists were ready to retaliate with similar force, he advised them to take legal recourse instead. Gopal narrates how Ambedkar contested the Brahmanical social elites in a tiring court battle for 10 years and won a judgment in favour of the ‘Untouchables’. Rathore relates how, in his Mahad speech, Ambedkar explained to the poor and illiterate audience the importance of such mobilisation, borrowing ideas from the French Revolution and Roman history and elaborating on the modern notion of human rights.

This patience, this calculated vision of the future, this ambition to build a non-violent resistance to the Hindu caste order, were the products of Ambedkar’s academic and intellectual training. In the later stages of his life, Ambedkar demonstrated the power of modern educational training in his writing, public speeches, legislative council deliberations and during the Constituent Assembly debates.

His inquiry into the caste question used very little rhetorical claim or banal conjecture borrowed from myths and folklore. Instead, he built the argument from an elevated intellectual location, quoting different literary sources and referring to empirical evidence. His academic oeuvre, journalistic writing, pamphlets, petitions, reports, speeches and monographs created a huge intellectual resource that inspired generations of scholars, activists and leaders to engage with contemporary social and political issues with similar intellectual zeal, commitment and vision.

Seeking intellectuals

The Dalit-Bahujan movement has been admired as a struggle of revolutionaries and intellectuals that has courageously reprimanded the orthodox ruling elites for their exclusive exploitation of social privileges and class power.

The movement draws its inspiration from the legacies of the Buddha, Nanak, Basavanna, Kabir, Tukaram, Jyotiba Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar and others. It has launched various struggles to end the heinous forms of caste-based social discrimination, inhumane hierarchies and patriarchal relationships that exist in Indian society. It has surely reformed social and class relationships substantively. However, the road is just half-travelled as a vast section of the Dalit-Bahujan society still lives in acute poverty and precarious social conditions.

Also read: Ambedkar’s Warnings About Three Types of Dictatorships

Ambedkar had hoped that the educated class and the intelligentsia would emerge as the vanguard force to defend the merits of social justice. Instead, in recent times, the Dalit movement’s radical zeal and quest to end Brahmanical dominance has slumped. Further, the assertive Hindutva movement of today promotes itself as an inclusive platform, cunningly welcoming the Dalit-Bahujan sections within its fold and rupturing and complicating their radical political vision.

The movement now suffers from a lack of intellectual ideas and impressive political actions to challenge the right wing’s Machiavellian strategies and galvanise the oppressed sections for a robust democratic mobilisation. The need for impressive intellectual leadership has thus become more urgent and necessary if democratic values, human rights and the dignity of the Dalit-Bahujan masses are to be protected and furthered.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Center for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.