The Constitution has been a horizon of hope for the Dalits in India since Independence. [BR] Ambedkar ensured that the ills taking place against them before Independence did not recur in post-colonial India. The erosion of constitutional values, therefore, affects the Dalit community substantially and adversely.

Today, Dalit politics is concerned with saving the Constitution.

The actualisation of the constitutional idea of the nation, therefore, remains the political horizon that Ambedkarites and other humanists fight towards. Immense faith is reposed by the Dalits and other principled humanists in Ambedkar, and their vision of the nation is shaped by Ambedkar’s ideas. In this respect, we should make a distinction here between two categories for analytic purposes: the constitutional idea of the nation and the Ambedkarite idea of the nation.

The constitutional idea of the nation is the conception of nation / nationalism stemming from the Constitution and its Preamble, as elaborated above. This idea of the nation is being undermined today. The Ambedkarite idea of the nation is the conception of nation/ nationalism emerging not only from the present structure of the Constitution but also from Ambedkar’s idea that we ought to take substantive measures to make such a nation, to make it into a reality.

...[T]he Ambedkarite idea of the nation...provides a viable political goal for future Ambedkarite politics. Simultaneously, given the fact that this idea of the nation already includes the principles that the constitutional idea of the nation defines, a struggle towards achieving it must necessarily ensure the recognition and application of those principles.

The distinguishing feature of Ambedkar’s position is that like others in the Constituent Assembly, he also supported the parliamentary form of democracy, and some sort of socialist economy and secularism, as the basis of our sovereign republic.

However, Ambedkar’s stance went beyond the consensus of the early parliamentarians, as he attempted to understand the very conditions for a viable political democracy. Ambedkar is unique in this respect...

Ambedkar dealt with the concept of nation and nationalism for the first time in his book Thoughts on Pakistan, which was reprinted as Pakistan or the Partition of India. According to one prevalent view, which is represented by Savarkar and his followers, the nation is primarily a matter of geography, culture and language. The commonality of language, race, territory and culture, or religion, makes the nation.

Ambedkar’s views differed from this notion. He argued, “A nation is not a country in the physical sense, whatever degree of geographical unity it may possess. A nation is not a people synthesised by a common culture derived from a common language, common religion or common race...Nationality is a subjective psychological feeling. It is a feeling of corporate sentiment of oneness which makes those who are charged with it feel that they are kith and kin...It is a feeling of ‘consciousness of kind’ which binds together those who are within the limits of kindred. It is longing (a strong feeling of wanting together) to belong to one’s own group...This is the essence of what is called a nationality and national feeling.” Ambedkar’s notion of the nation was much more ethically oriented than the religiously and metaphysically oriented ones of his contemporaries.

He further observed that there was a difference between nation (or nationality) and nationalism.

They are two different states of the human mind. Nationality means “consciousness of kind” and “awareness of the existence of ties of kinship”. (Kinship here means the fact of “being related to family, a feeling of being close to a member of the family, because you have similar origins or attitude.”)

Ambedkar writes, “Nationality is a social feeling of a corporate sentiment of oneness. It is a feeling of consciousness of kind, like-mindedness, possessing things in common in life of communication, participation and of sharing with all those who constitute one nation. In this sense, a nation is a society where there is an unlimited scope for ‘social endosmosis’. Nation is...a mode of associated living, of conjoined communicated experience.”

He subsequently argues, “The point is that nationality is not primarily a matter of geography, culture or language...The nation is not a physical thing in which certain objective characteristics, such as commonality of language, race, territory, etc persist. Nation, on the contrary, is a spiritual reality binding people into a deep comradeship.”

Nationalism, on the other hand, means the desire for a separate national existence for those who are bound by this tie of kinship. In this context, Ambedkar observed, “There cannot be nationalism without the feeling of nationality being existent. But the converse is not always true. The feeling of nationality may be present and yet the feeling of nationalism may be quite absent. This is to say that nationality does not flame in nationalism. For nationality to flame in nationalism, there must arise the ‘will to live the nation’. Nationalism is the dynamic expression of that desire.”

In this context, it is quite clear that a common land, language, culture and religion are partly necessary conditions for the existence of a nation, but this commonality is not enough to make the country a nation in the concrete sense of the term. A feeling of oneness, that we are all kith and kin, really binds people together.

This oneness is possible only through constant communication, participation and open sharing among all those who constitute one nation. The relevant message from Ambedkar is thus that fraternity is a necessary condition for the existence of a nation in the concrete sense of the term. Fraternity encourages a mental attitude of fair play and equality towards one’s compatriots. The lack of fraternity in social relations undermines all efforts to strengthen the nation. Hence, if there is a lack of fraternity, we would remain a nation in the making and never be able to achieve the substantial status of a nation.

From the point of view of the Dalits or ex-untouchables, the Hindu social order, namely the caste system, remains a great obstacle to the idea of nationhood. The caste system is, in fact, antagonistic to the concept of nation or nationality. Caste divides people and leads to a sense of isolation and segregation. Above all, it creates an anti-social feeling and foments rifts and antagonism between the low castes (or untouchables) and high castes.

The lack of fraternity in social relations undermines the feeling of oneness, which is a prerequisite for a healthy nation. So the idea of a nation for Dalits is one which is free of discrimination, isolation and segregation. This necessitates sincere and sustained efforts on the part of both the state as well as the high-caste members of civil society. The reality, however, is just the opposite. The upper castes do not seem to be making any effort to build relations based on equality and fraternity. Therefore, for the ex-untouchables, the idea of a concrete nation remains a distant dream.

The Dalit Truth: The Battle for Realizing Ambedkar’s Vision

Excerpted with permission from “The Dalit Idea of the Nation, Inspired by Ambedkar”, by Sukhadeo Thorat, from The Dalit Truth: The Battle for Realizing Ambedkar’s Vision, edited by K Raju, Vintage.