POLITICAL parties, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, are falling over each other to claim the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar. While the two major parties are planning round-the-year celebrations for the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar, with an eye on the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, regional parties are not far behind. Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal demanded a “permanent” holiday on April 14, Ambedkar’s birthday. Kejriwal tweeted: “Salute to Baba Saheb Ambedkar. Let’s try to implement the Constitution in letter n spirit. That wud be best homage to him.”
The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) mouthpieces Panchajanya and Organiser are coming out with collectors’ editions on Ambedkar. Large hoardings announcing the publication of the special issues dot the skyline of the national capital.
Dalit ideologues, however, view the rush to claim Babasaheb’s legacy with mild amusement. Political observers describe the BJP’s moves to appropriate Ambedkar as a key aspect of its social outreach agenda wooing Dalits across India. Uday Chandra, a postdoctoral fellow at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, said: “In the last general election, the proportion of Dalits voting for the BJP rose to 24 per cent from 11 per cent in 2009 [Suhas Palshikar and K.C. Suri in Economic & Political Weekly ]. While this is a sharp increase, we should recognise that this trend in Dalit voting patterns is far from irreversible. Moreover, three quarters of Dalits did not in fact vote for Modi and the BJP. Hence, the need for an outreach programme with its promise as well as pitfalls.”
He said that mere symbolism would not increase the BJP’s vote share. “The BJP will be accused now of mere symbolism if Dalits do not benefit substantively or materially from the current regime’s policies,” he said.
Besides, it appears that neither of the major political parties has read or understood Ambedkar, who made his views on Hinduism and the Congress clear in his lifetime. His intellectual and political project was dedicated to the annihilation of caste and he believed that it could not happen within the fold of Hinduism, which has an inherently oppressive hierarchical structure. During the transfer of power from the British to the people of India and when Partition was a looming possibility, Ambedkar had said, “The Congress cannot expect any sane person who knows anything about conditions in India to agree to the government of the country being placed in the hands of the Hindu majority, simply because it is a majority. The Congress chooses to forget that Hinduism is a political ideology of the same character as the fascist or Nazi ideology and is thoroughly anti-democratic. If Hinduism is let loose—which is what Hindu majority means—it will prove a menace to the growth of others who are outside Hinduism and are opposed to Hinduism. This is not the point of view of Muslims alone. It is also the point of view of the Depressed Classes and also of the non-Brahmins.” ( Writings & Speeches , Volume 17, Part One; Dr B.R. Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution—Struggle for Human Rights; Dr Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India).
Ambedkar renounced Hinduism and gave a call to Dalits to join Buddhism. His words, “I was born a Hindu, but will not die a Hindu”, have gained popularity. He said, “Some people think that religion is not essential to society. I do not hold this view. I consider the foundation of religion to be essential to the life and practices of society. At the root of the Hindu social system lies Dharma as prescribed in Manusmriti . Such being the case, I do not think it possible to abolish inequality in the Hindu society unless the existing foundation of the Smriti religion is removed and a better one laid in its place. I, however, despair of the Hindu society being able to reconstruct on such a better foundation.”
Ambedkar was also opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s views on the uplift of untouchables within the fold of Hinduism. The exchanges between Gandhi and Ambedkar over the issue of untouchability are in the public domain. Had the RSS and the Congress read Ambedkar’s writings, they would not be making such claims to his legacy. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the original inheritor of Babasaheb’s legacy by virtue of the extensive work done by its leader Kanshi Ram among Dalits, restricted itself to attacking the attempts by other parties to claim Ambedkar’s legacy. BSP supremo Mayawati said, “Other parties do a drama of celebrating Dr Ambedkar’s anniversary in a grand manner, but they never bothered to give him the due respect in his lifetime. They are propagating that Dr Ambedkar supported the RSS for its work among Dalits. Had it been so, Dr Ambedkar would never have gone and accepted Buddhism, which professes equality and peace for all. During elections, the BJP calls every caste Hindu, and after the elections are over, it only works for the rich and privileged castes.”
In Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, upper-caste BJP leaders ate food in Dalit homes. Earlier this year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat called upon the cadre to picnic and share food with the “lower castes”. The sociologist Sujatha Surepally said, “but after all, they ate only daal at these homes, and not beef!” Beef is a major source of affordable protein for the lower castes and a ban on the slaughter of the cow and consumption of beef is the BJP’s important national agenda.
Sujatha Surepally, who is the convener of the Telangana Bhoomi Rakshana Sangam and principal of Satavahana University College of Arts in Karimnagar, said the BJP was “showing its actual colours but all the other parties, including the Telangana Rashtra Samithi [TRS], the Telugu Desam Party, and the BSP celebrate the birthdays of Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Jagjivan Ram to sidetrack the real mission of eradication of caste”. These parties have set up “cells” for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), women and others to divide Malas and Madigas, backward classes (B.Cs) and other marginalised groups and to push their own agendas; in the case of the BJP, for instance, the Hindutva agenda. She said the BJP’s move to appropriate Ambedkar could be a part of its reformist agenda, but it cannot be seen in isolation from its core agenda of Hindutva.
On the TRS’ plan to install a statue of Ambedkar in the Telangana Assembly, she said: “First install it in your own party office.” She said if Prime Minister Narendra Modi was really concerned about preserving Ambedkar’s legacy then he should call upon the BJP cadre to convert to Buddhism, follow the Hindu Code Bill, socialise banks and lands and redistribute land among the people. “Will the BJP dare to do this?” she asked.
Tactics of co-option It is political pressure that is compelling these parties to reach out to the S.Cs and B.Cs and they are using the “outreach programme” to reconvert large sections of the populace. Until and unless any party dares to question the Hindu religious perspective on society, it will only be misquoting Ambedkar. “Mohan Bhagwat is only worshipping the idol of Ambedkar but breaking his ideology. Indian democracy has successfully failed to take forward the agenda of social revolutionaries such as Phule, Ambedkar and Jagjivan Ram,” said Sujatha Surepally. Apart from giving a token representation to Dalits in politics, nothing has been done to change their social and economic conditions. Dalits continue to face discrimination in subtle forms. Crimes against Dalits are unabated. And the two-tumbler system persists in several villages.
“Where are Dalits in the Land Acquisition Act? Who is going to lose in the privatisation process? Nobody is asking these questions. All parties are culpable in keeping the privileges intact. What is happening now is either you wage a battle against them or you co-opt them,” she said.
Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, director, Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, throws light on the historical trajectory of the process of co-option.
“Until 1990, Ambedkar was untouchable to all mainstream political parties. The question of the BJP looking at him did not arise at that time. The implementation of the Mandal Commission report, the V.P. Singh government honouring Ambedkar [posthumously] with the Bharat Ratna [the highest civilian award] and the massive Dalit civil societal celebration of his role across the country triggered a new debate. From 1991 to 2015, emerging civil societal forces acquired definite intellectual status in universities and colleges and became a force to reckon with. More significantly, Buddhism, has given Dalits a spiritual platform where they can have their own self-dignity, religion and God. It is a religious alternative to Hinduism. When Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956, he opened the locks of religious transformation. Eighty per cent of Dalits converted to Christianity in south India. Similarly, 30 per cent of Mahars joined Buddhism. In Uttar Pradesh, 20-30 per cent of Dalits became Buddhists. This is an unrecognised fact.”
Ambedkar as Prophet Ilaiah said that Dalits considered the Buddha the first prophet, Jesus Christ the second prophet, the Prophet Muhammad the third and Karl Marx, the fourth, whom they really loved and who they thought would really come and liberate them. But in the past 20 years, Ambedkar has become a prophet for Dalits. He is no longer simply a politician, a social scientist, an economist or a writer of the Constitution but a prophet. A large section of the population feels that the main prophetic role he played was abolishing the roots of untouchability. He gave Dalits equal rights in the domain of God, dignity, English education and a self-assertive role in society.
“The large masses of people rename their children and shave their heads and visit dikshabhoomi , Ambedkar’s burial place in Mumbai, or Shakti Sthal Ambedkar memorial park in Uttar Pradesh. This is not an issue of vote bank for them. Ambedkar is someone who liberated them. Imagine if 60 per cent of the people form their own religion, who will remain with Hinduism? It will simply crumble,” he said.
The RSS realises this. Earlier, it recruited cadre only from upper castes. From 1925 to 1975, its recruitment base was only upper castes. During the Babri Masjid agitation in 1992, the RSS recruited from Other Backward Class (OBC) and Shudra communities. A Brahmin or a Baniya youth could not participate in killing campaigns because they were already English educated and bound for foreign countries. The OBC youth were taken to Hanuman Vyamshalas and not schools. Instead of books, trishul s were distributed among them.
“If you look at [Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader] Pravin Togadia’s campaign, you will see that books were never distributed; only trishul s, with which they would have to attack Muslims. They tried to recruit Dalits in Andhra Pradesh but failed because Ambedkar was not on its banner then. The RSS put Vivekananda on its banner. Even the Congress has realised this. Now the RSS has started an underground network,” Ilaiah said. So a person who was seen as a lackey of the Imperialist, suited and booted and never clad in dhoti and kurta, and an agent of the British, suddenly became a social reformer. Although the Congress gave accessibility to Ambedkar to write the Constitution, it never put him on a gallery with its leaders. It was Dalits who started putting Ambedkar on their banners and the credit for this goes to Kanshi Ram.
Ilaiah said: “In a country that created untouchability, Ambedkar is more than a politician or a writer. Because of his stature, untouchability has become a global issue. U.S. President Barack Obama, the United Nations, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund chiefs have spoken about untouchability. Ambedkar initiated the abolishment of untouchability, therefore, the BJP is claiming his legacy. Modi said, ‘I would not have been here if it was not for Ambedkar’s struggles’. He realises that he can become Prime Minister but not the priest of the Tirupati temple. Maybe it is his caste honesty. His stature will only grow. Under the BJP, Christianity and Buddhism will grow rapidly. Christianity has grown under repression. The RSS-BJP cannot stop it. But Hinduism cannot grow beyond a point as it is based on primitive ideology and superstitions. It will not sustain itself with the spread of education and the coming up of our thinkers. Ambedkar’s texts cannot be misinterpreted. Among very advanced Dalits, there is a view that they should build Viharas and put Ambedkar and Buddha in them.”
The self-assertion movement of Dalits has gained so much strength that no party can afford to ignore it. But symbolism and vote-bank politics will alone not win the day for the BJP. The party is faring poorly on the action front. It has allowed an important ordinance to lapse. The S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Ordinance, 2014, promulgated by the President on March 4, 2014, was sent to the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment headed by BJP Member of Parliament Ramesh Bais. The committee submitted its report on December 19, 2014. The S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2014, proposed to replace the ordinance, which was introduced in Parliament in July 2014, has been pending although in January 2015, after the winter session ended, the Modi government had a slew of ordinances promulgated.