Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Vision for the Working Class



Ambedkar Jayanti, Amidst a Workers’ Struggles   

This year’s Ambedkar Jayanti arrives on the back of a two-day general strike on 28 and 29 March, called by central trade unions and other sectoral organizations. The unions are demanding work for every hand, equal pay for equal work, the scrapping of the labour codes, immediate measures against the record-high unemployment and skyrocketing price-rise, and an end to mass privatisation and sale of the country’s public resources.

This strike is of great importance, given that the working class of the country is facing onslaughts, due to the pro-corporate and communal policies of the present government. The wounds of the migrant workers owing to the arbitrarily imposed lockdown are still fresh in our memories. The government used the pandemic to push through the unpopular labour codes which, for all practical purposes, legalizes hire and fire practices and restricts the workers’ rights, including the right to strike.

In fact, the problems had started way before the pandemic. A study of the Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS) data of 2018-19 reveals that more than half of the workforce were self-employed, nearly a quarter were daily wage casual workers, and only about 24% were Regular Wage Salaried (RWS) workers when covid struck.  At that juncture, merely 4.2% of the total workforce in the country could be categorised as having a “good job” or “decent work.”  From the standpoint of human development and access to social protection, casual workers were at the bottom of the pyramid along with many in the self-employed category. In the course of the pandemic, there has been a steady decline in real wages across each of these segments of the workforce – the self-employed have faced the sharpest decline.

Precarity and vulnerability in the country have increased and inequality has widened.  The growing inequality coincides with a steady decline in the corporate tax to GDP ratio from over 3 percent in 2010–11 to a meagre 0.9 percent in November 2020.  Thus, we are facing a general crisis related to work, employment, and livelihoods. In response to this, workers’ struggles are emerging everywhere.

As these struggles look to broaden themselves and combine with other struggles, they are inevitably searching for ideological strength from other struggles happening now and from those that have happened in the past. This search takes us to the legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

The Significance of Babasaheb’s Ideas for the Working-Class Politics

Ambedkar had the foresight to spot the danger of “Hindu Rashtra” on the distant skyline as early as the 1940s. Today that danger is at our gates, in the shape of the Modi Raj. Similarly, Ambedkar also foresaw the necessity of a strong working-class politics. He also provided a basic outline for how it might look, and for its role in deepening democracy. He did so at a time when Indian society was still largely semi-feudal (some call it pre-capitalist) and a generalized condition for a strong working-class assertion against the capital was yet to emerge.

For Ambedkar, the “nation” was no ready-made thing to celebrate. Rather, it must be painstakingly built by recognizing and destroying the foundations of inequality and oppression. Work and labour, for Ambedkar, were key axes of inequality and oppression which took different forms – of caste, class, and gender. Ambedkar of course famously struggled for the annihilation of caste and for gender equality. These were all part of a substantive vision of socio-economic transformation that he tried to put forward. Struggles against capitalism were integral to this vision.

Not only the ruling classes but even some influential Ambedkarite ideologues, with great hopes in the equalizing power of capitalism and globalization, have tried to paint Ambedkar as a “free-market neoliberal”. But Ambedkar’s life and his writings are a testament to his strong opposition to capitalism and his espousal of the cause of the working class.

In 1938 Ambedkar, while addressing the GIP Railway Dalit Mazdoor Conference in Manmad, had declared that the Dalits had two enemies, Brahminism and Capitalism.  At a time when Ambedkar was unsure of his election to the Constituent Assembly, he prepared a memorandum in March 1947, published in May 1947 as “States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India”. This document, presented as a “Constitution of the United States of India”, strikes a different note from the constitution that was eventually drafted.  This document recommended that key industries should be run by the state and that the state should acquire all agricultural land, divide it into farms of standard size, and let out the farms for cultivation to residents of the village as tenants, to be cultivated collectively. In some ways, this document presents a vision of democracy that was more radical than what the constitution envisioned.

The document prophetically observed that industrialization through private enterprise would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism had produced in Europe. In the Appendix to this document Ambedkar observed how capitalism’s tendency to create inequalities, was fundamentally opposed to democracy:

“The fear of starvation, the fear of losing a house, the fear of losing savings if any, the fear of being compelled to take children away from school, the fear of having to be a burden on public charity, the fear of having to be burned or buried at public cost are factors too strong to permit a man to stand up for his Fundamental Rights. The unemployed are thus compelled to relinquish their Fundamental Rights for the sake of securing the privilege to work and to subsist.”

Ambedkar’s work with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) has garnered a fair bit of attention among today’s activists. We suggest here that his work with the ILP was not a one-off. Similarly, his understanding of caste as a division of labourers and not merely a division of labour, shows that he located the specificities of caste within the context of modes of production. Towards the latter phase of his life, he even actively considered the potentialities of communism “in some form”.  He is not known to have actively associated with the Communist Party, but within his framework of political praxis, he provided ample scope for working class struggles.

Understanding Ambedkar Today

India is going through a phase in which the limited achievements of Indian democracy are being eaten away. As a response to that, there is an objective need to defend the constitution in a particular context. At the same time, questions are also being raised as to whether the corporate-communal aggression can be fought back simply by defending the constitution. Deep down within peoples’ movements, there is another question lurking. Or rather the above conundrum is being thought through differently. Is our fight about defending the constitution as it was written? Or is it about substantively realizing the aspirations which produced the constitution? Aspirations which, though partially realized in the earlier decades, were still far from being fulfilled at the dawn of the Modi Raj.

A key aspect of these aspirations is the striving for equality in all its forms – social, economic, and political. It is obvious that such equality cannot be achieved without a conscious and well-organized struggle against the key axes of inequality – income, caste, class, gender, race and so on. India is now witnessing a tremendous ascendancy of corporate capitalism. Exploitation and inequality in terms of work, labour and livelihoods is reaching massive proportions. India is also urbanizing rapidly, and the non-farm sectors are coming to occupy an increasingly important space in the economy. The struggles of the working classes are therefore going to be crucial in the fight against inequality.

To learn that the key architect of the constitution was a proponent of working-class movements – not only its demands but also its modes such as strikes, sit-ins, and so on – and of struggles against capitalism, is really enlightening. Ambedkar may have theorized primarily about caste/class intersections in the rural setting, but his work is important for understanding and fighting against the entanglements of caste and class in the industrial and urban settings as well.

Does our constitution give enough space for militant working class struggles to thrive and to take their demands to a meaningful resolution? For Ambedkar, the constitution-as-document was only a part of India’s democratic journey. Whether the constitution will work or not, depended on its implementation, Babasaheb repeatedly warned. Besides, the vision outlined in the “Constitution of the United States of India” suggests that for him the aspirations that produced the constitution mattered as much as the constitution itself. Hence it would be wrong to freeze Ambedkar into a mere writer of the constitution-as-document. His was a prolonged critical engagement with the idea of liberal democracy on the one hand, and the needs and challenges of building an equal society on the other. The outcome, for him, was open-ended.

India’s progressive forces are right now working through the limitations and possibilities of liberal democracy from the vantage point of building an equal society. Militant struggles against casteism, patriarchy and capitalism might even put the constitution to test in the times to come. Even if that happens though, Ambedkar’s life and work, and his evolving engagement with liberal democracy – before, during and after the writing of the constitution, will be a vital point of reference.