Amid Bengal election 2021, here’s what we can learn from Ambedkar’s idea of religious politics

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Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, affectionately known as Babasaheb Ambedkar, was one of the few who did not want to mix religion with politics.

This is the year of course-altering elections in Indian politics and the West Bengal Assembly Elections is the most colourful and important of them all. The Bengal polls are in eight phases this year, making it the longest drawn state elections in recent history. While on one hand, we have the incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fighting to stay in power, on the other, we have the Modi-led BJP trying to crack into the border state. But what this election and several others over the past few years have brought to light is the extreme polarisation that has been infused into the public’s minds. We, to begin with, is extremely polarised and the netas have added fuel to the fire. On his 130th birth anniversary, here’s what we can learn from Ambedkar’s idea of religious politics.

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, affectionately known as Babasaheb Ambedkar, was one of the few who did not want to mix religion with politics. “A thought comes to my mind — what would happen to her democratic constitution? Will she be able to maintain it or will she lose it again? When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the grammar of anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us,” Ambedkar famously said after the last day of the Constituent Assembly, November 26, 1949.

“On January 26, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one-man, one-vote and one-vote, one-value,” he said. “In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one-man, one-value. How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?” he questioned.

He also spoke about the problems that might arise if inequality prevailed for a long time post-independence. “If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up,” he said. But, here’s what we can learn from Ambedkar’s idea of religious politics.

But has anything changed?

We still see leaders going to temples to appease the majority Hindu and then offering Namaz to try and keep the Muslim vote as well. We have experienced extreme polarization over the past few decades that we have been independent. A study published by professors Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver, Steven Rosenzweig from Yale University established that a party that is communal in nature or sides with one religion more than the other would gain from communal riots.

They said, “The pacifying effect of Congress incumbency appears to be driven by local electoral considerations, in particular, the party’s exceptionally strong linkages to Muslim voters during the period we investigate.” Then went on to add that, “Riots produce ethnic polarisation that benefits ethnoreligious parties at the expense of the Congress”. While the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in India cost the Congress a bit much, they only make the “ethnoreligious parties” stronger “at the expense of multi-ethnic ones like the Congress”. Meaning that a party like the Bharatiya Janata Party which associates more with one religion than the others would benefit more from a communal riot than a party that apparently has no preference when it comes to religion.

Ambedkar was worried that India will be divided by its own people, even after independence. “What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people,” he said in one of his famous speeches. “In the invasion of Sindh by Mahommed-Bin-Kasim, the military commanders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mahommed-Bin-Kasim and refused to fight on the side of their King. It was Jaichand who invited Mahommed Ghori to invade India and fight against Prithvi Raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki Kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Moghul Emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh Rulers, Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh Kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the event as silent spectators,” he added.

Here’s what we can learn from Ambedkar’s idea of religious politics

It is not that India did not know what is a democracy, said Ambedkar. “There was a time when India was studded with republics, and even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited. They were never absolute. It is not that India did not know Parliaments or parliamentary procedure,” he said.

Ambedkar also had three famous “tips” for the people of his country. “The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives,” he said. “The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with the power which enables him to subvert their institutions’,” he added.

Ambedkar concludes with a third warning, “The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.”

If the politicians of today would have to learn from Ambedkar, we would probably see a different world. But observing the current political and socio-economic conditions it does not seem likely.

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