In their lust for power and by joining the xenophobic Hindutva forces, the Dalit leaders have not only destroyed the vision of Ambedkar but have also legitimised and consolidated the oppressive caste system in India. Srija Naskar reports.
Meandering through the pre-2014 JNU Students’ Union (JNUS) election juloos on the busy ring road of Jawaharlal Nehru University, what got me thinking was a Left progressive party poster, condemning atrocities against a Dalit boy in a school in Tamil Nadu, sloganeering Baba tera mission adhoora, humsab milke karenge poora, juxtaposed with a poster captioned Jai Hind with Babasaheb on it by the radical Right-wing student wing of the University. This propels me to delve into two strings of thought: one that Arundhati Roy points out in her essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ where she mocks Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi for never giving Dr. B.R. Ambedkar even a walk-on part in the film although it was funded by the Indian government, except for the major role he had played in the making of the Indian Constitution, plus, Kancha Ilaiah’s potent question in his essay, ‘The Ethereal Realist’.
How and why did Ambedkar cross the stage of a mere leader and intellectual in the mind of Dalits? How did he acquire the status and stature of a prophet?
The aftermath of their critical inputs have been something like this: Arundhati Roy, being a Radical Left Maoist cannot speak in favour of Babasaheb and Kancha Ilaiah’s roots quite obviously allows him to attack upper-caste intellectuals. It seems that Ambedkar has only been reduced to a mere Constitution-maker by the Hindu intellectuals and a preacher by the Dalits without trying to find a balance in thoughts and ideas. This will surely pose a grave threat to the importance of a public intellectual like Babasaheb in today’s times in a pluralistic country like India, currently under siege by one-dimensional fascist ruling structures. So plural, that while Ambedkar’s struggle marks pre-independent India, post-independent modern India stinks of shameless opportunism from the new Dalit leadership that has emerged. As academic Ajay Gudavarthy of JNU has elucidated in his article titled ‘A Rightward Shift in Dalit Poltics’: “Dalits seem to have come a full circle from the agenda of ‘annihilation of caste’ to ‘secularisation of caste’, and conversion from Hinduism to actively claiming the Hindu identity.”
The Indian Constitution that abolished untouchability in 1950 had roots in ancient India where caste was prevalent and practiced rigorously. The society was hierarchical along the lines of caste stratification. Besides Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, the lowest caste was categorised as untouchables and they too were divided into three categories — untouchables, unapproachable and unseenable. As Ambedkar elucidates in Volume 5 of his Writings and Speech, “They had different names in different parts of the country – Pariahs, Atishudras and Namashudras, whose touch and even voice were deemed by the caste Hindus to be polluting and against the so-called purified Brahminical tradition.”
The origin of untouchability dates back to the inception of Hindu civilisation when every attempt of diabolical contrivance was made to suppress and enslave humanity. It is said that when chaturvarna came to be recognised as a law during the late Vedic period, instead of bringing a change in the methods and structures of slavery, it only reorganised the slavery system, in the sense that a Brahmin could be enslaved only by a Brahmin, a Kshatriya by both Brahmins and Kshatriyas, a Vaishya by Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, and a Shudra by all.
During the pre-independence era, the term ‘Depressed Classes’ was used to denote the untouchables. This was replaced by the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ in 1935 when these castes were placed in a schedule as privy to special rights. And, Mahatma Gandhi termed untouchables as Harijans to deliberately deprive the untouchable community of these special privileges that were vehemently opposed by Ambedkar later on. He rejected the term ‘Harijan’ on the grounds of the word itself that had a Brahminical lineage attributed to it to further denigrate the untouchables.
The machinations of Vedic law centuries before, and Gandhi during the freedom movement, and the machinations of RSS pracharak and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centuries after, show the reassertion of the unjustified social order out of vested interests through the garb of sympathy by amending laws and tagging names to them, while writing books on them. Modi in his book Karma Yoga wrote, “I do not believe that they (Valmikis) have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation… At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.”
John Dewey, whose philosophical underpinnings influenced Ambedkar’s thoughts and writings, was a Fabian socialist. Ambedkar, too, like most Fabian socialists, believed that reform could be brought about through a gradual process, not a revolution. This is debatable, considering that the movement of the untouchables against the injustices of the Hindu social order has a long history, especially in Maharashtra, that, although, began with petitions and protests during the first stage, was later followed by an open revolt. The untouchables of Bombay had launched their Satyagraha at Mahad for establishing their right to take water from Choudar, a public tank, and to gain entry into Parvati temple; for the latter the Satyagraha was organised at Poona. Later on, when Gandhi started the Satyagraha movement, Ambedkar opposed it and extended his support to the Vaikom Satyagraha movement that was the first systematically organised agitation in Kerala against orthodoxy to secure the rights of the depressed classes.
It also remains debatable whether Ambedkar did this to gain an entry point into politics or it was used as a springboard for further emancipation of the ‘untouchables’. This was Ambedkar’s major ideological departure whose importance is overshadowed by the fact that he chose Buddhism over Islam and Christianity when he converted in 1956. It is often argued that Buddhism was not an easy choice over Islam and Christianity because it offended Hindus and Hinduism more than Islam or Christianity.
In the article titled ‘Along the Mystic River’ in the Kindle magazine, Amit Sengupta writes, “You enter the terrain near Wardha, where both Mahatma Gandhi and Vinobha Bhave made sprawling ashrams and next to which, in Nagpur, thousands of Dalits became Neo-Buddhists led by Babasaheb Ambedkar.” The key tenet of Buddhism was non-theistic and it rejects the concepts of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity. The Brahminic doctrine of Karma, on the other hand, produces two-fold results — affecting the doer and producing an impression upon his soul. In a concept like this, there is very little room for human effort, everything is pre-determined.
As pre-determined as the ‘homecoming ceremony’ (of the many others being openly flaunted since the Modi regime has come to power) that was arranged by the ‘Dharma Jagran Vibhag’ of RSS for the youth, who had converted in Western Uttar Pradesh to Christianity to rid themselves of the ominous caste system. RSS’s Khem Chandra who was quoted ,”This is called ghar wapasi, not conversion. They left by choice and today they have realised their mistake and want to come back. We welcome them. We can’t let our samaj scatter; we have to hold it tight. I have told them that honour comes from within the community and not from outside.”
Ambedkar’s fight was both at a religious and political level. In 1930s, he was in his radical best and had formed the Mumbai Kamgar Sangh in 1935 that anticipated the merger of class and caste. The communists had relegated caste to a ‘superstructure’ and at the ground level there were reports of discrimination against Dalits who came from Bombay’s textile mills and who were being denied better payment. In fact, the Cripps Report in 1942 asked Ambedkar to dissolve his Independent Labour Party because it was alleged that the party did not represent any community.
Throughout his life, Ambedkar never yielded to romantic conceptions of India’s past or the so-called magnificent structure of Hindu culture and of its glorious tradition. In that sense, he was a dynamic statesman. While Gandhi along with other nationalists were singing praises of the caste-ridden village structure, aspiring for a mythical Ram Rajya, Ambedkar was looking at it as a site of localism, full of infinite ignorance, entrenched roots of feudalism, oppressive casteism and narrow-mindedness.
It is said that the Mahars under Ambedkar, who were at the forefront of the anti-caste movement, are considered as the most upwardly mobile, and as their traditional occupation was not land-based but crafts-based, they felt easily alienated from the village and needed the open space of urban India to mobilise. They felt that their conditions needed a distance from the village and an immersion into the tenets of modernity. This modernist approach of Dr. Ambedkar came to the forefront when he was drafting the Constitution. He was resolutely in favour of a uniform civil code and for greater rights of women in the Hindu Code Bill. But, when the Hindu Code Bill was rejected by Nehru’s Cabinet in 1951, he had no other option but to resign.
The mobilisation of Dalits today has taken a different turn and so has the relevance of Ambedkar. As rightly pointed out by Ajay Gudavarthy in his article titled, ‘A Rightward Shift in Dalit Politics’, the emergent Dalit groups seem to be challenging the dominance of the upper castes by finding acceptance in the circle. Gudavarthy goes on to explain how fractured the identity of the Dalits have become, how they have been sub-categorised into Extremely Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes, and appropriated by political parties such as the Congress and BJP alike. In fact, he says, “The coming together of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar is precisely to put brakes on the BJP’s efforts in weaning away the less privileged OBCs from their fold.”
This kind of caste-practice has led to the emergence of a new middle class who want to be part of the aspirational story of the traditional upper classes; hence, the 2014 General Election poll results have shown ‘middle class’ Dalits coming out in large numbers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to vote for Narendra Modi. It then becomes no hard task to fathom why opportunistic Dalit figures like: Lok Janshakti party chief Ramvilas Paswan has joined NDA, Dalit leader Ramdas Athwale has joined hands with a reactionary Right-wing Shiv Sena along with Maharashtra or former JNU SFI Leftist and anti-Hindutva leader Udit Raj’s Indian Justice Party chose to shamelessly join BJP looking for a seat in Parliament.
It only becomes shockingly paradoxical to fathom that the key party of NDA, that is, the BJP, an upgraded form of Jansangh with its communal and xenophobic agenda, which was an upper caste bania party and instrumental in humiliating and degrading Dalits, are being trusted today by Dalit leaders. It creates a doubt and a sense of fear amongst the true Ambedkarites as to how far these leaders are dedicated to the paths and agendas shown and set by Babasaheb Ambedkar, I quote him from the revised edition of his book Partition of India, “If Hindu Raj becomes a reality, it would be the greatest menace to this country. Whatever Hindus may say does not make a difference because Hinduism is a danger to independence, equality, brotherhood. It is an enemy of democracy and we must make all efforts to stop it from becoming a reality.”
Post-Ambedkarite Dalits have moved on from social to economic mobility, finding comfort in the latter to perpetuate the dominance of the exploitative caste system in India. In turbulent times such as this, it is important that we take great care in not compartmentalising Ambedkar. If the vision of Babasaheb is to be parochialised by a sect to reduce him to a militant Dalit, and his contributions restricted to subaltern castes, we might nullify his importance as a wise democrat, who, if were alive today, would have condemned fellow Maharashtrian Uddhav/Raj Thackeray as much as he would have the Maoists who claim to speak on behalf of the disadvantaged to abandon the gun and join the democratic process that the Constitution had legitimised.