The Gospel and B.R. Ambedkar’s Vision of a Truly Free India

As we celebrate India’s independence day, it is beautiful to remember we are independent but it is important to ask if we are free.

On August 9, a group of over 350 Dalits were halted on their way to deliver a gift to the president. It was a specially designed brass coin, weighing 1,111 kilograms, with an inscription of B.R. Ambedkar and the word “untouchability” in 15 different languages. They had a simple question: “Will the 1947 dream of untouchability-free India be a reality in 2047?”

As we celebrate India’s independence day, it is beautiful to remember we are independent but it is important to ask if we are free.

A few years ago, I read B.R. Ambedkar’s famously undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste. He sent his speech in advance to his hosts. They reviewed it, considered it too controversial, and rescinded his invitation.

In a twist of historical fortune, this probably worked out for the best. He self-published the speech and it is perhaps more memorable undelivered, and deservedly so.

When I read Ambedkar’s speech, I could hear his longing for an India that has not yet come to be. It made me wonder, “How can the gospel help realise Ambedkar’s vision of equality in India?”

Without the Doctrine of the Image of God, Equality is a Necessary “Fiction”

While Ambedkar desired equality, he described the doctrine of equality as difficult to justify. He was content for it to be a necessary fiction that leaders should accept for its practical benefits.

“The doctrine of equality is glaringly fallacious but, taking all in all, it is the only way a statesman can proceed in politics—which is a severely practical affair and which demands a severely practical test,” he wrote in Annihilation of Caste (263).

All created things point to God’s glory, but none more so than a human being.

He also said, “The objections to equality may be sound. But what of that? Equality may be a fiction, but nonetheless one must accept it as the governing principle” (261).

However, Ambedkar’s longing for the dignity of all Indians is fully qualified in the doctrine of the image of God.

In Genesis, the equality of male and female is given immutable validity. Far from fiction, it has divinely instituted authority (Gen. 1:27-28).

If you are a human being, you are created in the image of God—with intrinsic worth, from the womb to the tomb. All created things point to God’s glory, but none more so than a human being.

Revival is Better Than Revolution

B.R. Ambedkar chose Buddhism because he recognised and rejected Christ’s claims to divinity. He preferred the self-abnegation of Buddha, who presented himself as no more than a human being.

Yet Ambedkar recognised the impact of Christianity on social change. He says, “One can say, generally speaking, history bears out the proposition that political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions.

The religious reformation started by Luther was the precursor of the political emancipation of the European people. In England, puritanism led to the establishment of political liberty. Puritanism founded the new world” (224).  

Christianity is an engine of progress that is routinely touted as an enemy of progress.

More recently, author Tom Holland—a historian, not a Christian—wrote the book Dominon: The Making of the Western Mind. It reveals how Ambedkar’s observation is more than an opinion. It is a historically justifiable reality.

Holland, in a conversation with Swapan Dasgupta at the Jaipur Literature Festival in March 2020, traces the influence of Christianity on Rome and through the ages. He confesses that his treasured, modern, secular ideals of equality owe their validation to a crucified man.

Christianity is an engine of progress that is routinely touted as an enemy of progress. But rumours of the negative influence of our faith on society are grossly overstated.

What happened in 16th century Europe first happened in ancient Rome. It can happen in modern India too. Some call it revolution. We call it revival.

The early church proclaimed the power of God without capitulating to different gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). It showcased the love of God and turned natural enemies into an eternal family (Gal. 3:26-29).

It took nothing less than sacrificial leaders to give our nation independence. But it takes more than human leaders to give people the freedom of equality.

Laws can only restrain the evil of caste inequality. It will take nothing less than the power of God to change a person’s heart.

The Old Has Gone. The New Has Come.

Ambedkar’s vision of a new India called for nothing less than a new life.

In calling for a doctrinal basis in consonance with liberty, equality, and fraternity, he says, “It means a complete change in the values of life. It means a complete change in the outlook and in attitude towards men and things.

It means conversion: but if you do not like the word, I will say it means a new life. But a new life cannot enter a body that is dead. New life can enter only into a new body. . . .To put it simply: the old must cease to be operative before the new can begin to enliven and pulsate.” (311).

Ambedkar’s vision of a new India called for nothing less than a new life.

Here, reading Ambedkar reminded me of the apostle Paul, who wrote, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16-17).

The change in Paul has confounded the minds of many and changed the minds of some.

He was a violent man and a blasphemer—breathing murderous threats, and throwing men and women into prison. He once gave approval to the public execution of a Jewish convert to Christ named Stephen (1 Tim. 1:13; Acts 9:1-2, 8:1-3).

How did this man become the champion of the church he was persecuting? Why did he begin to preach the faith he once tried to destroy (Gal. 1:23)?

How did the man who separated himself from gentiles now so affectionately call them his “joy” and his “crown” (Phil. 4:1)?

He laid his eyes on Jesus—raised from the dead—and God gave him a new life that the law was powerless to create in him (Acts 22:6-10).

India needs to see Christians who have seen Jesus so clearly and changed so deeply, it makes them see people equally.

Ambedkar’s Central Question and Our Central Hope

For Ambedkar, “religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of rules” (305). He considered rules to be practical, but principles to be intellectual (304).

As far as he was concerned, there is one central question every religion must answer: what mental and moral relief does a religion bring to the suppressed and the downtrodden?

Christianity’s answer to Ambedkar’s central question is neither rules nor a principle. It is a suffering servant (Isa. 53:3-5, 7-9).

No religion has the audacity to announce to the world as its central hope, a crucified man. The apostle Paul found it blasphemous.

His motivations in persecuting Christians were not racial; they were religious. He was zealous to condemn anyone who touted a condemned man as the hope of Israel.

Christianity’s answer to Ambedkar’s central question is neither rules, nor a principle. It is a suffering servant.

Yet when Paul laid his eyes on the risen Christ, he knew Christ is the hope of the whole world—not only of Israel.

So he believed and preached that what happened to Christ happens to anyone who is in Christ.

God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavenly realms at his right hand (Eph. 1:20-21).

So too, when we were dead in our sins, God made us alive together with Christ, raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-7).

If we are the marred image of God, Jesus is the true image of God. Through him, we behold the Lord who is transforming us into his image with ever increasing glory (2 Cor. 3:17-18).

If the King of kings and the Lord of lords can humble himself to receive the death of a slave, then perhaps the lowest of the low can be raised to share in the eternal glory of a gracious King.

On this Independence Day, may the church share in Ambedkar’s longing for the annihilation of caste and intercede for the union of God with his people.

May it be that our nation finds more freedom in Christ than what even Ambedkar imagined for us, and may we receive it long before 2047.