“Ambedkar would have spoken out”

Project Syndicate talks with Shashi Tharoor an MP for the Indian National Congress and the author, most recently, of Ambedkar: A Life

Project Syndicate: Your latest book, Ambedkar: A Life, is a biography of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a figure widely revered in India for his role in abolishing the caste system, empowering the Dalit community, and creating India’s constitution. How might a modern Ambedkar regard – and resist – rising bigotry and majoritarianism in today’s India?

Shashi Tharoor: There is no doubt that Ambedkar would have opposed this trend in India today. He was the first – and remains the most important – figure to articulate a non-Hindu conception of Indian nationalism, making current attempts by the Hindutva movement to appropriate him astonishingly hypocritical. Ambedkar deplored what he called Hindu society’s undemocratic nature, as reflected in its internalisation of inequality and untouchability. “If Hindu Raj does become a fact,” he bitterly exclaimed, “it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country.”

On majoritarianism, Ambedkar famously reminded the Constituent Assembly of the vital importance of minority protection, arguing that “minorities are an explosive force which, if it erupts, can blow up the whole fabric of the State. The history of Europe bears ample and appalling testimony to this fact.” Given that India’s minorities have “agreed to place their existence in the hands of the majority” and “loyally accepted the rule of the majority, which is basically a communal majority and not a political majority,” the majority has a “duty not to discriminate” against them. Such a man would surely have spoken out strongly against the majoritarian bigotry that has been on the rise in India in recent years.

Beyond being a Dalit icon, you point out, Ambedkar had strong feminist credentials. In fact, he placed “equal emphasis upon both caste and gender-based discrimination.” Where did Ambedkar succeed in improving women’s position in Indian society? Are there other parts of Ambedkar’s legacy that do not get the attention they deserve?

Ambedkar was far ahead of his time. In a 1942 speech, he declared: “Let each girl who marries stand up to her husband, claim to be her husband’s friend and equal, and refuse to be his slave.” This was an audacious assertion of Indian women’s dignity within their own families – one that few Indian men would echo even today.

Ambedkar’s approach to women’s rights was anchored in his profound commitment to equality. And his impact was considerable. It was because of his exhortations that Dalit women changed their style of draping their saris to match other Hindu women – a visual reflection of the principle of equality that undergirded his beliefs. He also fought successfully for maternity benefits for women laborers.

Ambedkar even sought to pass a resolution in support of government-funded birth control in the Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1938. While his resolution was defeated by conservative opposition, he had sown seeds that would eventually flower: the law was passed in the 1970s. Likewise, the Hindu Code Bill that he advocated – which proposed to grant Hindu women the right to inherit property, to initiate divorce, and to manage their own finances – was initially resisted. But these are all the laws today.

Ambedkar: A Life begins with a caveat: “This is the story of the rise of a man of ideas, illustrated with extensive quotations from his writings and speeches, and not of a man of physical adventure.” For readers outside India, who might not be familiar with Ambedkar’s ideas, which quote or concept would you be most keen to highlight?

There are so many! If I had to pick one lesson, I would point to Ambedkar’s understanding – of which he convinced the Constituent Assembly – that it was not enough to abolish untouchability. To undo millennia of discrimination and exploitation, India had to institute the world’s first and furthest-reaching affirmative action program, which uplifted the oppressed by, for example, allocating places for them in schools, universities, government services, and even parliament. It is thanks to Ambedkar that affirmative action in India goes beyond guaranteeing equal access to opportunities; it guarantees equitable outcomes by reserving a share of opportunities for Dalits and Adivasis. 

You have argued that the Ukraine war has turned India’s “long-standing diplomatic and strategic dependence” on Russia into a serious liability. But many – including India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar – are convinced that the war can strengthen India’s global standing. Have discussions within Indian policy circles about relations with Russia changed since you first sounded the alarm? At the same time, has the war created opportunities that India should be seizing?

So far, Indians consider their global status enhanced by the Ukraine War, as India is one of the few countries that is being wooed equally by both sides – and succeeding at maintaining good relations with each.

India has dramatically increased its oil imports from Russia – which it secures at a discount – and is reselling some of that oil to the United States, after refining it locally. To many, Russia now looks not like a liability, but rather like a useful partner whose conduct in Ukraine it is in India’s interest to overlook. The US, for its part, has no interest in alienating India at a time when China’s increasing belligerence and “friendship without limits” with Russia remain matters of concern in Washington.

So, India is still riding high, and international criticism of its foreign policy is muted. As a result, domestic criticism understandably remains almost non-existent.

You have urged India to “recognize the need to cooperate with others to constrain China’s overweening ambitions.” How would you approach this objective? Are groupings like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – likely to do what is needed to protect India’s “core security interests”?

India seems to be the least willing of the Quad’s members to give the grouping a security dimension. The fact that China sits on its border – and occasionally breathes fire down its neck – may partly explain this reluctance. But, in fact, this is all the more reason to pursue greater security cooperation.

Despite India’s historic policy of non-alignment and avowed refusal to join any alliances, China’s assertiveness warrants cooperative efforts to keep its ambition in check. I have even called for widening the Quad into a “Quad Plus,” which includes Southeast Asian countries with similar apprehensions about China’s muscle-flexing. But none of this seems to be in the cards. India’s wariness of security pacts still prevails.

India faces no shortage of domestic challenges, including uneven population growth across regions. You cite “ignorance about family planning and the benefits of smaller families” as the “principal factor” behind rapid population growth in India’s northern states. What enabled the southern states to get it right, and how can their success be at least partly replicated in the north?

India’s southern states have dramatically different human-development indicators from their northern counterparts – higher literacy rates, better health care, lower maternal and infant mortality, and more gender equality, to name a few. These factors go a long way toward explaining the growing population imbalance in India.

But the north is gradually catching up, and it’s estimated that in a couple of decades, fertility in the northern states, too, will have fallen to replacement rates. By then, however, our population will have peaked at about 1.7 billion, compared to just 300 million when India gained independence 75 years ago.

 © Project Syndicate

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