Articles and Commentaries |
July 15, 2016

Revisiting Ambedkar’s Idea of Nationalism

~ By Swadesh Singh

Ambedkar stood with the most downtrodden and deprived sections of the Indian society; the sections which had no voice in public life. The social mobilization of these sections by Ambedkar helped in the national freedom movement. As the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, Ambedkar advocated a strong nation-state.


Over thousands of years, human civilization organized itself first in the form of family, then as religion and today we are organized as nation-state. It makes you wonder which institution would the future generations be living in? I posed this question to a well-known social scientist during a discussion on globalization. He weighed several ideas but concluded that in the present context nation-state is still the most enduring institution and likely to be the organisational unit for the coming generations too.

Today we live within this institution of nation-state. Foremost of our thoughts and actions, it serves as a centre of gravity, obvious at some time and obscure at others. It is one of the most organised, well designed institutions which has an organic relationship with mankind and where universal ideas like freedom, equality and democracy have a good chance to flourish. Western thinkers like Gellner, Anderson and Hobsbawm dealt with the idea of nation, nationalism and nationhood which developed in the region over the last 400 years after the Treaty of Westfalia in 1648.

The Bhartiya concept of Rashtra could be considered a parallel to the western term ‘Nation’ but both are also different on several counts. The primary difference between the two stems from the fact that Rashtra is more of an ethic-spiritual concept while Nation is a cultural concept.(1)

Many Indian leaders like Sri Arvindo, Gandhi, Nehru, Tilak, Tagore and Deen Dayal Upadhyay delved into the idea of Indian nation and nationalism. Their

ideas are either spiritual, meta-physical or statist. In this article we will try to trace Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s ideas and reflections on Nationalism. He is the most celebrated Indian leader, thinker and social philosopher of the 21st century who contributed in the 20th century. Large-scale celebrations marking his 125th birth anniversary were concluded recently. Observers felt that these celebrations were more wide-spread than those in his centenary year. One of the leading mainstream magazines termed him as the greatest leader of Modern India. Over the years, ideas of Ambedkar have become stronger and more relevant to the contemporary discourse.

Ambedkar and his Narrative of Freedom

At any given point of time, several parallel narratives can coexist. However, only one grand narrative at a time can push the discourse forward. Before the Indian Independence, the grand narrative was the freedom of India while several other narratives did exist. One such narrative was prescribed by the Congress party. It emphasized on freedom from the British colonisers. It can be said that this was the dominating narrative of the time. There were also other, though weaker or marginalized in comparison. One such narrative was that of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) which saw India as a glorious nation since time immemorial land targeted reconstruction of the Indian nation by strengthening its socio-cultural institutions. It wanted to arouse the national consciousness of every common Indian. The core belief in this case was that once the society becomes strong no one could enslave it.

Another narrative of the time was given by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. He talked about freedom of India from social inequality and untouchability. This could be understood as a subaltern narrative about the upliftment of downtrodden, deprived and marginalised sections of the society; the section that did not have any participation in public life of colonial India. Dr. Ambedkar became the voice of these 60 million deprived section known as Scheduled Castes (the term Dalit evolved later). Without emancipation of these deprived people, Indian freedom struggle was not deemed to be complete. The Indian national struggle in the first half of the century was not merely a struggle to wrest political power from foreign rule but also a struggle to lay the foundation of a modern India by purging the society of outmoded social institutions, beliefs and attitudes. Ambedkar’s struggle constituted a part of the internal struggle, one of the divergent and sometimes conflicting currents all of which helped to secure ‘freedom’ from external and internal oppression and enslavement.

Without Ambedkar’s opposition to mainstream nationalism, the process of internal consolidation of the nation would not have been carried out sufficiently enough to strengthen and broaden the social base of Indian nationalism.(2)

Ambedkar’s idea of Nationalism

Ambedkar elaborated on the idea of Nationality and Nationalism in his book Pakistan or the Partition of India. He describes nationality as a, “consciousness of kind, awareness of the existence of that tie of kinship” and nationalism as “the desire for a separate national existence for those who are bound by this tie of kinship.” It is true that there cannot be nationalism without the feeling of nationality. But, it is important to bear in mind that the converse is not always true. The feeling of nationality may be present and yet the feeling of nationalism may be quite absent. That is to say, nationality does not in all cases produce nationalism. For nationality to flame into nationalism two conditions must exist. First, there must arise the will to live as a nation. Nationalism is the dynamic expression of that desire. Secondly, there must be a territory which nationalism could occupy and make it a state, as well as a cultural home of the nation. Without such a territory, nationalism, to use Lord Acton’s phrase, would be a soul as it were wandering in search of a body in which to begin life over again and dies out finding none.(3)

Expanding Social Base of Nationalism

Ambedkar had immense faith in the bright future and evolution of this country. Even when he spoke of attaining freedom for India, his ultimate goal was to unite the people. He said, “So far as the ultimate goal is concerned, none of us have any apprehension or doubt. Our difficulty was not about the ultimate thing but how to unite the heterogeneous mass that we are today to take a decision in common and march in a cooperative way on that road, which is bound to lead us to unity.”(4)

Ambedkar clearly spoke in a felicitation program of his 55th birth anniversary, “I have loyalty to our people inhabiting this country. I have also loyalty to this country. I have no doubt that you have the same. All of us want this country to be free. So far as I am concerned my conduct has been guided by the

consideration that we shall place no great difficulties in the way of this country achieving its freedom.”(5)

Ambedkar was not against the idea of nationalism but against the Congress’s version which entailed freedom of India from British colonialism but not from Brahminical imperialism under which millions of Scheduled Castes had been yoked for hundreds of years. It was Ambedkar’s political challenge which compelled the Congress to appreciate the national significance of the problem of castes and to adopt measures which significantly contributed towards broadening and strengthening the social base of Indian nationalism.

Ambedkar’s Challenge to ‘Congress Nationalism’

Indian nationalism in its initial stages, by the very nature of its historical development, was an upper class (upper castes) phenomenon, reflecting the interests and aspirations of its members. Naturally when nationalists spoke in terms of national interest they certainly meant their own (class) interests. The evocation of ‘nation’ was a necessary ritual to ensure the much needed popular support for an essentially partisan cause. This sectarian approach to nationalism could be seen in the writings of none other than Pt. Nehru who later singled out as an example of a ‘left liberal’ view. He writes in his seminal work Discovery of India that mixture of religion and philosophy, history and tradition, custom and social structure, which in its wide fold included almost every aspect of the life of India, and which might be called Brahminism or (to use a later word) Hinduism, became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion.

The sectarian character of Indian nationalism persisted even after the nascent upper castes’ movement developed into a truly mass-supported anti-imperialist national liberation movement enlisting the support of millions of people cutting across the traditional social divisions. And, it is this failure to change its basically pro-upper class/castes orientation despite a basic shift in its underlying social base that Indian national movement in due course helped the rise of new sectarian socio-political currents, running parallel to the mainstream national movement. Ambedkar’s emergence on the Indian

political scene in 1920s, commencing the advent of Dalit (the scheduled castes) politics, was simply the manifestation of the same process.(6)

Ambedkar’s Dalit politics posed no really significant threat to the overall domination of the traditional ruling class, yet it certainly exposed the hollowness of the Congress’s nationalist claim to represent the whole nation. Finally, the unwillingness of the nationalist leadership to attack the long unresolved social contradictions at the base of the Hindu social order propelled people like Ambedkar to contest the claim of the Indian National Congress to represent the scheduled castes.(7)

It was in the backdrop of this escapist attitude of the Congress brand of nationalism that an alternative subaltern nationalism was born through Ambedkar. Ambedkar took up this question from social below and elevated it to a political high by linking this social question of caste with the political question of democracy and nationalism. Such an effort to prioritize society over polity and then linking them together was unprecedented in India before Ambedkar. Gandhi can be said to have made such an effort but his approach was obscure and primitive. According to Ambedkar,

“Without social union, political unity is difficult to be achieved. If achieved, it would be as precarious as a summer sapling, liable to be uprooted by the gust of a hostile wind. With mere political unity, India may be a State. But to be a State is not to be a nation and a State, which is not a nation, has small prospects of survival in the struggle for existence.”(8)

Ambedkar’s Faith in ‘Bharat’

Ambedkar had faith in ancient Indian institutions and texts except caste. He was convinced with the spiritual aspect of Indian texts and codes but not with its ritualistic aspects which had developed in last 1200 years. He talked about Annihilation of Caste not Dharma. He understood the importance of Dharma in India and when the time of conversion came as he had declared earlier, he chose Buddhism and not any other Abrahamic religion. He also had the option of declaring him as an Atheist but his rootedness in Indian ethos compelled him to choose Buddhism.

Dr Ambedkar pointed out that historic roots of democracy in India go back to pre-Buddhist India. A study of the Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas discloses that the Sanghas were nothing but Parliaments and knew all the rules of Parliamentary procedure known to modern times. Although these rules of Parliamentary procedure were applied by the Buddha to the meetings of the Sanghas, he must have borrowed them from the rules of the political assemblies functioning in the country in his time.

Dr Ambedkar emphasized that Hindus need not ‘borrow from foreign sources’ concepts to build a society on the principles of equality, fraternity and liberty. They “could draw for such principles on the Upanishads.” Even in Riddles in Hinduism, he points out that Hinduism has the potential to become the spiritual basis of social democracy.

Strengthening Nationalism through Constitution

Ambedkar opposed insertion of Article 370 which gives special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir but Nehru still went ahead with it to appease Sheikh Abdullah. Ambedkar wrote to Sheikh Abdullah on Article 370, “You wish India should protect your borders, she should build roads in your area, she should supply you food grains, and Kashmir should get equal status as India. But Government of India should have only limited powers and Indian people should have no rights in Kashmir. To give consent to this proposal would be a treacherous thing against the Interest of India and I, as the Law Minister of India, will never do it.”(9)

Justice K. Ramaswamy while probing into the legal aspects of nationalism likes to call Ambedkar a true democrat, a nationalist to the core and a patriot of highest order on various grounds.(10) He was the author and principal actor to make the ‘Directive Principles’ as part of the constitutional scheme. When it was criticized that the directive principles could not be enforced in a court of law, Ambedkar answered that though they were not enforceable, the succeeding majority political party in Parliament or Legislative Assembly would be bound by them as an inbuilt part of their economic program in the governance, despite their policy in its manifesto and are bound by the Constitution. Ambedkar, in his Constitutional schema of nationalism, undertook the task of strengthening the Executive in particular and the notion of ‘Integrated Bharat’ in general.

Rising above the regional, linguistic and communal barriers in a true republican spirit, Ambedkar invented a democratic nationalism consisting of Uniform Civil Code for India. His views of Uniform Civil Code were radically different from his contemporaries including Nehru who in principles accepted Hindu Code Bill and Uniform Civil Code but in practice, failed to get the Bill passed in one go, in spite of being in Government with majority. Ambedkar on the other hand made it a point to add the word ‘fraternity’ in the Preamble to the Constitution in order to inculcate the sense of common brotherhood of all Indians, of Indians being one people; it is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life.

He was also critical of Muslim Personal Law and tried his best to abolish it in favour of Uniform Civil Code. Ambedkar did not agree to the fact that Muslims had any immutable and uniform laws in India up to 1935. Ambedkar emphasized that in a secular state religion should not be allowed to govern all human activities and that Personal Laws should be divorced from religion.(11)

Dr. Ambedkar in his very first speech in the Constituent Assembly on 17 December 1946 had emphasized the need to create a strong Centre in order to ensure that India’s freedom was not jeopardized as had happened in the past on account of a weak central administration. His view was hailed by the Assembly and came later to be reflected in the Emergency Provisions of the Constitution. Undoubtedly the states are sovereign in normal times but by virtue of these provisions, the Centre becomes all-powerful and assumes control over all affairs of the nation whenever a situation arises which poses a danger to the security of the state.


There is no doubt that Ambedkar was vehemently opposed to the unjust social stratification in India, but to say that he was against the nation is wholly wrong. He was definitely against the Congress version of Nationalism. Ambedkar says, “I know my position has not been understood properly in the country. I say that whenever there has been a conflict between my personal interests of the country as a whole, I have always placed the claims of the country above my

personal claims. I have never pursued the path of private gain… so far as the demands of the country are concerned, I have never lagged behind’.(12)

Last year, In a seminar organised in New Delhi, Dr. Krishna Gopal (Jt. General Secretary, RSS) claimed, “Besides being a champion of the untouchables, Ambedkar was, first and foremost, a nationalist, a virulent anti-Communist and had immense faith in Hinduism; he was against Brahminical structures but some of his closest friends were from upper castes, while Brahmins provided him vital help at key moments in his life; he dismissed the historical theory of the Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent. He apparently also promised “shuddhikaran” or purification for those Dalits who had converted to Islam in Hyderabad state in 1947-48.”(13)

It is evident from the above discussion that Ambedkar was neither an anti-national nor just a leader of the Scheduled Castes. He was a national leader who understood the problems of the most exploited communities and tried to bring them into the main stream. He expanded the social base of Indian nationalism which helped first to attain freedom and later to put the country on path of progress. Today, when all thought converges around inclusive politics, Ambedkar has become more relevant than ever.

Nationalism is a dynamic process of social assimilation and therefore nationalism is to receive its perfect harmony in the realization of social brotherhood of men irrespective of caste, colour and creed.  Nationalism is not antithetical to humanism or individualism. One can enjoy complete individual freedom within a nationalist framework. Everyone needs a space to think, to grow and liberate. In the present point in time, Nation is the best institution we have to fulfil this purpose. We do need a grand narrative which includes the last woman in the queue. Dr. Ambedkar did give us a grand-narrative of “equality in socio-economic life along with political equality”.

1Madhav, Ram; Raashtram: Spiritual Ethical Concept of Nationhood

2Gaikwad, SM; Ambedkar and Indian Nationalismin Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 10 (Mar. 7-13, 1998), pp. 515

3Ambedkar, BR;A Nation Calling for a Home in  Pakistan or Partition of India

4Bharathi, KS; The Political Thought of Ambedkar in Encyclopaedia of Eminent Thinkers p.29

5Jadhav, Narendra; I have loyalty to our people and also to this countryin Ambedkar Speaks Vol. 1, (Konark Publishers, New Delhi 2013) p. 48

6Gaikwad, SM; Ambedkar and Indian Nationalismin Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 10 (Mar. 7-13, 1998), pp. 516

7I bid, 517

8 Ambedkar, BR; Pakistan and Communal Peace in Pakistan or the Partition of India

9Jamanadas, K;Kashmir Problem From Ambedkarite Perspective

10Subhash, Dr;Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Idea of Nationalism and His

Role in Making India a United Nation

11Tiwari, Y.K.; Ambedkar’s Vision of Uniform Civil Code, in Ambedkar and Nation-building, editors ShyamLal and K.S. Saxena

12KeerDhananjay; Dr Ambedkar’s Life and Mission, P 329

13 Mohan, Archis; RSS Claims Ambedkar was Nationalist Hindu,  Business Standard (31 December, 2014)

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