Anand Teltumbde, EPW
If the number of statues, memorabilia, pictures and posters; songs and ballads, books and pamphlets, or the size of congregations in memory were the parameters to measure greatness, there may not be any other great in history who can rival Babasaheb Ambedkar. Newer and newer places and events are getting added to the list of his memorials where ever growing congregations take place every passing year. He has been such a phenomenon that after a while it would be difficult for people to believe that such a person who had to struggle to drink water from a public water source, open for cats and dogs, ever walked on this planet. Even the gods in heaven, if they exist, would be jealous of him. What might be behind this miracle? There is no doubt that he has been a messiah for Dalits, initially only a section of them and now the most of them. It is natural for them to be beholden for what he has done to them single handedly and single mindedly. True though, it would be pure naïveté to believe it to be the lone and the entire cause. The catalytic role played by the ruling classes in constructing and promoting Ambedkar icon has been major one and mutually reinforcing.
The recent overtures of the Sangh Pariwar to claim Ambedkar are blatant enough to make Dalits understand the underlying dynamics.
Making of the Icon
The Congress representing political Hindu, was the main adversary of Ambedkar. Recall, Gandhi opposing tooth and nail Ambedkar’s attempt to win Dalits separate electorates during the round table conferences in 1932 and eventually blackmailing him into signing the Poona Pact that annulled the prospective independent political existence of Dalits. After the transfer of power, the Congress tendentiously saw to it that Ambedkar does not enter the constituent assembly. But it soon made a volte face. The folklorish explanations notwithstanding, it was Gandhi’s strategic genius to get Ambedkar elected to the constituent assembly when he had no way left to enter it and then make him the chairman of its drafting committee. Although Ambedkar played a statesman in exchange of safeguarding Dalit rights in the Constitution, this new found affinity did not last long. Ambedkar had to resign from the Nehru cabinet on the issue of retrogression over the Hindu Code Bill. Later, Ambedkar had even disowned the Constitution saying he was used as a hack that it was of no use to anyone and that he would be the first person to burn it down. He called the Congress a ‘burning house’ which could be entered by Dalits only at their peril. But that did not deter scores of ‘Ambedkarites’ from joining the Congress to serve ‘Ambedkarism’.
The Congress skilfully carved out a class of rich farmers out of the most populous band of shudra castes in rural areas with such euphemistic policies as land reforms and Green Revolution. While this class remained its ally for the larger part, it developed its own political ambition, floating regional parties and gradually capturing local to state power bases. The electoral politics became competitive bringing importance to the vote blocks in the form of castes and communities, both skilfully preserved in the Constitution in the name of social justice and the religious reforms, respectively. It was from here on that the conscious cooptation drive of the ruling parties began, of course first with the Congress. Ambedkar’s core concerns were overshadowed and he was systematically iconized into a nationalist, a quasi Congress man, as a statesman and the maker of the Constitution. This propaganda killed many birds with single stone: it won over Ambedkarite masses, accelerated exodus of opportunistic Dalit leaders to the Congress, disoriented Dalit movement along identity lines and gradually de-radicalized Ambedkar. Slowly, other parties also had to enter the competition in projecting their own Ambedkar icon.
Saffronizing Ambedkar
The Sangh Pariwar created by the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) by launching outfits for major areas of the public sphere (Jan sangh for political, VHP for religious, etc.) and targeting major sociological categories (Rashtriya sevika sangh for women, ABVP for students, BMS for workers, VKA for tribals) to widen its appeal and to diffuse its ideology also floated second generation outfits to deal with strategic and emergent issues. Samajik Samrasata Manch (social assimilation platform) was to woo dalits into its fold. The RSS born in 1925, around the same time as the dalit and communist movements, banked initially on its imagined Hindu majority but failed to make a mark either socially or politically, until it got its 94 MPs elected in 1977 election riding the anti-Congress wave. Initially scandalized by Ambedkar’s anti-Hinduism utterances, it tacitly despised him and banked upon the non-Ambedkarite Dalits as later professed by Bal Thackeray. However, having tested meat of political power, it realized, it could not ignore Ambedkar who had grown into a pan Indian Dalit icon. It strategized to saffronize him picking up his stray statements sans context and mixing them with its Goebbelesqe lies. First of the strokes of saffron on Ambedkar was in comparing the incomparable: Hedgewar with Ambedkar, calling them ‘two doctors’, as though Hedgewar, just a licentiate medical practitioner, with diploma that comes after matriculation and Ambedkar with two doctoral degrees from the world renowned institutions were comparable. What could really be similar between them?
While Ambedkar’s pragmatism left behind numerous inconsistencies, nobody can miss out the central theme of his life which was to usher in what he himself verbalized as his ideal society based on ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, insisting on their simultaneity. He saw annihilation of castes and socialism (annihilation of classes) to be its prerequisite; democracy as constituting and Buddhism as the moralizing force. RSS’s world view is diametrically opposed to this on every count. The saffron Ambedkar is a nationalist; the real Ambedkar dismissed India to be a nation, and specifically warned that the ‘Hindu nation’ would be calamitous. RSS’s Ambedkar is a great Hindu despite his vow that he would never die a Hindu. RSS projects Buddhism, which Ambedkar embraced after discarding Hinduism, as just a sect of Hinduism brushing away the entire history that it symbolized the shraman revolt against Hinduism and bloody counter revolution of the latter that completely erased Buddhism from the land of its birth. The statements like Ambedkar wanted Sanskrit to be the national language, a saffron flag as the national flag, that he commended the RSS for its good work and that he was for ‘ghar wapasi’, which tries to dwarf Ambedkar to the levels of VHP monkeys, do not deserve to be even commented on. They have been saying that Ambedkar was against Muslims, throwing stray sentences from his Thoughts on Pakistan. This book was written in a polemical style, Ambedkar donning the robes of both an advocate for Hindus as well as for Muslims. Unless one diligently reads it, one could miss many of the arguments as his own opinions. I have exploded this lie in 2003 in my book, Ambedkar on Muslims: Myths and Facts. But again going by his liberal persona and a plethora of other references where he praised Muslim community to the extent Islam would appear to be his preference for conversion (Mukti Kon Pathe, 1936), he can just not be portrayed as petty minded anti-Muslim person. The RSS better understood, it could cheaply project some Dalit stooges on their stage, but would never be able to show Ambedkar as a pigmy little communalist.
Neoliberal Compulsion
The competitive Ambedkar icons offered by the political manufacturers in the India’s electoral market have completely overshadowed the real Ambedkar and decimated potential weaponry of Dalit emancipation. While these icons differed in shades, they all painted Ambedkar in neoliberal colour. The Ambedkar-icon nearly dislodged Gandhi as the mascot of the state, which had worked right from 1947 through 1980s. Gandhi suited the regime in managing polity, camouflaging its anti-people strategic intent, its welfarist rhetoric and its Hindu rate of growth. It began to lose its sheen as the capitalist crisis mounted impelling the rulers to adopt neoliberal reforms. The rhetoric of aggressive development, modernity, open competition, free market, etc. necessitated new icon which would assure people, particularly those of lower strata whom it would hit most, ‘rags-to-riches’ hope in free-market paradigm. None other than Ambedkar fitted the bill. It was the same strategic requirement as seen by Gandhi at the time of creating the Constitution for the newly born anaemic India. The social Darwinist ethos of Neoliberalism had particular resonance with the supremacist RSS ideology which is what catapulted BJP to the stratosphere of political power.
While all parties have use of Ambedkar-icon for wooing Dalits, RSS has it most. It is therefore that from nineties the BJP commands more reserved seats than the Congress. The neoliberal regime badly required its balladeers from among the Dalits and they got it. A significant Dalit middle class, led by some of their heroes belaboured during initial years to convince Dalits how Neoliberalism would be beneficial to them; how Ambedkar was a neoliberal and how Dalits have made fantastic progress with these policies unleashing a ‘revolution’ of Dalit bourgeoisie. They find particular affinity with BJP and are found on their platforms off and on. It is therefore that most Dalit leaders today are in BJP-fold. [See my” Three Dalit Rams Play Hanuman to BJP”, EPW, 12 April 2014] This year with extraordinary efficiency BJP bought the innocuous building in London for Rs 44 crores just because Ambedkar stayed in one of its apartments as a student; it cleared the Indu Mill land issue for grand Ambedkar memorial in Mumbai and planned an equally grand Ambedkar International Centre at Delhi.
All these intoxicates Dalits, the 90% of whom are relatively at the same place as they were at the beginning of the last century or worse as they had hopes then and now they have none. They wouldn’t understand Ambedkar’s ‘samata’ is not ‘samrasata’ or Ambedkar’s worldview is not the neoliberal social Darwinism that is out to kill them. They even don’t understand that a few hundred crores on Ambedkar memorials is pittance as compared to over Rs. 5 lakh crore the government stole from their share in budgets just in a single decade!
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and a civil rights activist with CPDR, Maharashtra.