B.R. Ambedkar

B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) was an Indian politician who was a leader in the struggle for Indian independence, Law Minister at the time that India’s constitution was drafted, and a fierce critic of casteism (being himself a Dalit). He had studied economics at Columbia and the London School of Economics, before returning to India, where he worked variously as an accountant, a professor, and a lawyer before turning to politics. He called on the British to introduce representation specifically for the “depressed classes” in the colonial-era government (which the British actually did, in 1932), over the top of Gandhi’s objections.

In 1936, Ambedkar released Annihilation of Caste, a book which condemned Hinduism on the basis of what he felt was its inherent casteism. He himself converted to Buddhism, and he urged those who identified with his thinking to do the same, creating a socio-religious movement known today as Dalit Buddhism. He was constantly in conflict with Gandhi, as he felt that Gandhi supported casteism (and was dishonest about it – e.g. writing that he opposed the caste system in English-language newspapers but saying he supported it in Gujarati-language newspapers), and Gandhi felt that Dalits should not demand equal rights because it was divisive for the Hindu community. Ambedkar expressed interest in participating in the 1939 Day of Deliverance (organised by Muhammad Al Jinnah, to celebrate the mass resignation of the Congress government in protest at not being consulted over being dragged into WW2), and even though Ambedkar complained that the Dalit community he represented was “twenty times more oppressed” than Muslims, he and Jinnah spoke to the crowd in Bombay together (where they apparently said Islam and Hinduism were “irreconcilable”). After the 1940 Lahore resolution, where the Muslim League demanded an independent state of their own in Pakistan, Ambedkar published a book titled Thoughts on Pakistan, where he supported this demand.

Ambedkar also considered himself a socialist, although not without critical analysis of Marxist theories and writing books of his own where he sought to reconcile this with the situation in India. His major reservation about Marxism seemed to be that he felt Marxists too readily used violence to achieve their ends, but at other times he expressed the notion that his own opposition to violence was tactical rather than a matter of principle (i.e. he felt that Dalits suffered the most blowback when the labour movement resorted to violence). He was disappointed with self-proclaimed socialists from more privileged caste backgrounds, who largely dismissed the importance of anti-casteism in favour of focusing on the class struggle. Ambedkar compared anti-casteism to the “bourgeois democratic revolution” many Western countries went through, and saw it as a necessary prerequisite before Indians could genuinely struggle for socialism. That said, like many other Third World socialists, working in countries where the working class was politically weak and uneducated, he conflated “workers seizing the means of production” with state capitalism (with the state being taken as the rightful representative of the working class), which (combined with heavy, state-driven industrialisation) is what he more or less called for as an economist. He also saw the “socio-religious exploitation” of the Dalits as on par with, or perhaps even more important than, the economic exploitation of the working class.

Shortly before his death, Ambedkar wrote another book, The Buddha and His Dhamma, which is foundational to the Dalit Buddhism movement. He had two other works, aimed at reconciling Marxism with Buddhism, unfinished at the time of his death.

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