Limiting Ambedkar

Print edition : December 13, 2013

A statue, Buddha Vihar complex in Gulbarga, of B.R. Ambedkar leading his followers for mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956. Photo: THE HINDU Archives

In the process of focussing on “the caste that produced Babasaheb Ambedkar”, the book dilutes the larger role of Ambedkar as a political reformer, nationalist, nation-builder, and statesman par excellence.

THE book under review is Eleanor Zelliot’s 1969 doctoral thesis. As she would have, the original thesis title, Dr. Ambedkar and the Mahar Movement, was misunderstood as limiting Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a most unfortunate and inaccurate reading; Ambedkar tried all his creative life to involve all castes, other areas [of the country], all levels of society; and not very successful in Maharashtra among other “Untouchable” castes, he became an all-India leader and today he has no regional limit, no caste identity, and is a force even more powerful in many areas of India than during his lifetime. Eleanor Zelliot is only partly true, for at least two reasons.

One, while Ambedkar is indeed one of the tallest national leaders and is more relevant today than ever, India’s caste-based vote-bank politics and the politics of Ambedkarism that continue to exploit Dalits have effectively regionalised him.

Two, Ambedkar’s political appropriation by Dalits as a Dalit icon continues to perpetuate his caste identity, which is increasing in intensity with every passing day. The acrimony in Parliament by Dalit politicians against including in a textbook a cartoon in which Ambedkar figured, which forced the hamstrung National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to remove it, is yet another tragic case of perpetuating his caste identity—an identity which Ambedkar tried to transcend, albeit symbolically, by embracing Buddhism shortly before his death.

In this context, it is important to recall the caution in Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949: “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered lifelong services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. In India, Bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation.”

Anand Teltumbde is right in saying that “it is one thing to revere one’s hero but quite another to consider him god”, for which he quotes Ambedkar from another source: “Hero worship in the sense of expressing our unbounded admiration is one thing. To obey the hero is a totally different kind of hero worship. There is nothing wrong in the former while the latter is no doubt a most pernicious thing. The former is only man’s respect for everything which is noble and of which the great man is only an embodiment. The latter is the villain’s fealty to his lord. The former is consistent with respect, but the latter is a sign of debasement. The former does not take away one’s intelligence to think and independence to act. The latter makes one a perfect fool.” Teltumbde adds that “following Ambedkar means being inspired by his vision of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ and acting in accordance with his advice to ‘educate, agitate, organise’ so as to realise his goals of ‘annihilation of caste and achievement of socialism’” (“Ambedkarites against Ambedkar”, Economic & Political Weekly, May 11, 2013.)

When Eleanor Zelliot published her thesis in 2004, conscious of what she considered “limiting Dr. Ambedkar”, she substituted the Mahar Movement in the title with the Untouchable Movement and called it Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Untouchable Movement. When she republished the book in 2013, she switched from the Untouchable Movement to the Dalit Movement. But for these tinkerings with the title, the book is essentially Eleanor Zelliot’s 1969 thesis. As another book by her, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, published in 1992, apparently as a tribute to Ambedkar on the occasion of his birth centenary celebrations, uses Ambedkar Movement in the title, readers might wonder why this terminological jugglery; more so when in Ambedkar’s world and work the Dalit movement was only a launch pad for a larger reform movement strongly grounded in humanism, human rights and Western values.

All the same, to turn to the centrepiece of the book, as Eleanor Zelliot writes, the story of the Mahar caste is the story of change: “With the coming of the British concomitant with the Mahar’s diminishing village duties as village servants, arose new opportunities, especially in the Indian armies of the British. From the educated members of this non-traditional Mahar group new leadership arose and spearheaded the Mahar movement since 1890.”

How the Mahar movement shaped the life of Ambedkar and how Ambedkar used the energies released by political changes to further Mahar progress are Eleanor Zelliot’s main concerns.

Ambedkar gave almost sole credit for the untouchables’ movement towards higher status to the contact with the army. On this Eleanor Zelliot quotes him: “In the army of the East India Company there prevailed the system of compulsory education for Indian soldiers and their children, both male and female. The education received by the Untouchables in the army while it was open to them gave them one advantage which they never had before. It gave them a new vision and a new value. They became conscious that the low esteem in which they had been held was not an inescapable destiny but was a stigma imposed on their personality by the cunning contrivances of the priest. They felt the shame of it as they never did before and were determined to get rid of it.”

With the help of Sayajirao Gaekwad, the benevolent Maharaja of Baroda, Ambedkar had the fortune of getting an education of the highest order at a time when many people had hardly any access even to its rudiments.

Despite such an education, which only a few of even the most merited among caste Hindus could attain then, Ambedkar could not shake off his untouchability. If anything, he was encumbered by it now more than ever. For, though the Maharaja appointed Ambedkar as his military secretary soon after his return from abroad, the caste Hindus did not allow him to continue in office. The oft-quoted instances of the indignities that were inflicted on him are of his subordinates flinging files and papers at his desk, rolling the mats when he got up to go, and denying him even drinking water.

The height of his humiliation was an incident of a group of Parsees armed with lathis approaching him menacingly for “defiling” their hostel where he was staying incognito, abusing him as a “despicable untouchable”, and driving him out of the hostel.

With his shelter thus gone, and with the Dewan to whom the Maharaja had referred him for help expressing his inability to help, as his biographer Dhananjay Keer wrote, “tired, hungry and fagged out, he sat under a tree and burst into a flood of tears”. Ambedkar was to serve the Maharaja for 10 years under the bond executed by him before he was sent to the United States for higher studies, and the Maharaja wanted to make him his Finance Minister after he had gained some experience. But with all these humiliations, and with no place to stay, his career with the Maharaja came to an abrupt end.

Ambedkar’s humiliations and disabilities and childhood experiences as an untouchable hardened his feelings towards caste. Seeing the untouchables as a “besieged”, “broken” and “dehumanised” people, and viewing their disabilities from a victim’s perspective, he turned his adversity into an opportunity to reshape recalcitrant social patterns through social and political reforms, especially for liberating the untouchables from their centuries-old enslavement and ostracism, for which he used and reshaped the Mahar movement.

Ambedkar’s social reform moves included the 1927 Mahad satyagraha for vindicating the right of the untouchables to the Chowdar tank by drawing and drinking water from the tank; the temple entry movement in Nashik in 1930 for asserting their right to worship in the Kalaram temple and the closure of the temple for a year necessitated by the satyagraha of volunteers in turns, which continued right up to 1936; the exhortation of untouchables to sink their differences and work unitedly for their uplift and the annihilation of caste; the advice to them in 1929 to embrace any other religion that would treat them as human beings; the 1935 emotion-charged revelation that while it was beyond his power to prevent his birth as an untouchable, it was within his power to refuse to live under ignoble and humiliating conditions; the solemn assurance to his people that he would not die a Hindu, and the advice to them to seek solace and self-respect in any other religion which guaranteed them equality of treatment, status, and opportunity; and the attempts to build up a movement for mass conversion and eventual conversion to Buddhism on October 14, 1956, at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur, taking along with him about five lakh of his followers.

The annual mass congregation of Ambedkar’s Buddhist followers from all over India and abroad with unfailing regularity at Deekshabhoomi is a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Ambedkar’s political reform moves were essentially democratic. Starting from 1919, he appeared before the commissions and committees constituted by the British administration for India’s incremental freedom, of which his participation in the two Round Table Conferences in London in 1930-31 was the most crucial. When, even after the two sessions of the Conference the Indian delegates failed to reach mutual agreement on the reforms, in particular on the nature of the electorates, in August 1932 Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald issued an arbitral award binding on all parties. Even though the “Communal Award” vindicated Ambedkar’s claims by granting the untouchables regular votes in the general electorates and additional separate electorates in areas of their concentration, his victory soon turned into anguish.

On hearing of the Award, M.K. Gandhi, imprisoned in the Yeravada Jail following his civil disobedience campaign, began his “fast unto death”. With the refusal of Britain to alter the Award without Ambedkar’s consent, with the uproar of caste Hindus and the Congress press, and with a cataclysm against the untouchables looming large if Gandhi were to die during his 21 days’ fast, Ambedkar passed through hell and high water.

In the final settlement reached on September 24, 1932, between Ambedkar and caste-Hindu leaders, known as the Poona Pact, the untouchables lost the separate electorates for an increased number of seats in joint electorates. The main object of Ambedkar’s insistence on separate electorates was to enable the untouchables to ventilate their grievances and obtain redress. But the Pact prevented this from happening. Of the untouchable legislators elected after the Pact, he wrote in 1945: “They were completely under the control of the Congress Party Executive. They could not ask a question which it did not like. They could not move a resolution which it did not permit. They could not bring in legislation to which it objected. They could not vote as they chose and could not speak what they felt. They were there as dumb driven cattle.”

Although Ambedkar’s campaign was primarily for the emancipation of the untouchables, its consequences have been far-reaching. For one thing, the shockwaves it sent through the caste system have helped, albeit in a limited sense, in cleaning up the Augean stables of Hindu society. For another, it is the new political culture which Ambedkar built up over three decades in articulating the socio-political rights of the untouchables, that culminated in the constitutional provisions for formal equality to all and special dispensation to the historically disabled groups, in particular the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Eleanor Zelliot’s excess of passion for the Dalit movement, as is evident from her assertion that “although Ambedkar’s figure dominates this study, it is not meant to be his political biography; nor is this an attempt to record the history of Untouchables as a whole; it has been limited to the story of the Mahar caste and its leader, leaving other matters aside in order to focus on the caste that produced Babasaheb Ambedkar and which followed him most closely” dilutes the larger role of Ambedkar as a political reformer, nationalist, nation-builder, and statesman par excellence.

Eleanor Zelliot’s book is organised into six chapters after the “Introduction”. The first five deal with, as the titles indicate, “The Mahar Background”; “Dr. Ambedkar and the Untouchable Movement, 1917-35”; “The ‘Depressed Classes’ in Politics, 1917-35”; “The Religious Conversion Movement, 1935-56”; and “Political Development, 1935-56”. The sixth chapter does not have much bearing on the previous chapters and is a poor surrogate for a “Conclusion”.

As Ambedkar’s followers have been more concerned with the politics of his iconic status than building upon his work, they vaporised much of his legacy, and caste is still the worst scourge in Maharashtra, leave alone the rest of the country, with Dalits as the worst victims of oppression. This is not to deny Ambedkar’s great contribution not only to Maharashtra but, more importantly, to the whole nation, which is the Constitution, of which he was the architect. Its preamble in some sense is also his epitaph.

Although the book does not dwell on many of the important issues relating to Ambedkar’s world and work, it is still wholesome and enjoyable reading.

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