I was a teenager studying at Ruia College in Matunga. One day in December, I saw a long queue had formed starting somewhere away and it wound around just across from our college doubling in length. The people who were queuing were patient but sad. You could see that they were poor and yet they had managed to put on their best, often ragged torn clothes. Here were the Lower Depths.
I asked around why this long queue. I was told they were patiently waiting to pay their respects to Babasaheb Ambedkar who had just died. The sight changed my view of politics. I had of course been aware of Dr Ambedkar. I knew he had started Siddharth College. I was also aware of the Republican Party he had founded. What I had not realised was the depth of his following among the downtrodden. The word Dalit had not taken as strong a root in popular language as it has now done. As an upper-caste middle-class boy, I had been brought up like all caste Hindus to be blind to the existence, let alone the plight, of the Untouchables. They were invisible to us. Here for the first time in my life, I was witnessing the power of this Man to inspire the love and devotion of these invisible people.
That was 59 years ago. Much has changed since then. Few would argue that it was the political organising genius Kanshi Ram who converted the large following of Babasaheb into a political power bloc. If political parties are falling over each other to claim the Man for themselves, it is because Dalits have been empowered as a vote bloc. The Congress may snarl at the BJP/RSS in their fight over Babasaheb, but they have forgotten what damage Gandhiji did to Ambedkar’s great achievement at the Round Table Conference. The Congress had refused to attend the first Conference but the rest of India — all religions, castes, including the Untouchables, provinces and Rajas and Maharajas — were there. Ambedkar negotiated hard to win separate electorates for his people. But caste Hindus were opposed to giving such concessions to the lowest in their view. Gandhiji went on a fast unto death, “a filthy act” as Babasaheb described it.
Ambedkar had to surrender. A pact was signed by him and Congress leaders on behalf of caste Hindus (whom the Congress chose to represent, being a secular party!). The Untouchables lost their chance to carve out the means for their uplift. They were offered reserved seats but that meant the caste Hindus had to vote for the Untouchable candidates. Only the tame ones, who would not challenge the caste order, would get by.
All his life Ambedkar fought Hinduism and caste. His immense learning can be seen in his critique of the Bhagavad Gita and his scorching analysis of caste. Of course, he did not secure the change he would have wished. Congress leaders stood strong against any tinkering with caste. They had breadcrumbs for their favourite Untouchables like Babu Jagjivan Ram. Even he faced discrimination when, during the Janata days, Charan Singh vetoed JP’s idea that Jagjivan Ram should be prime minister. No matter how far you get as an Untouchable, you remain an object of contempt by the upper castes.
Now lo and behold, poor Babasaheb is being claimed by the BJP/RSS as a great Hindu!
Hypocrisy has no limits when it comes to vote-grabbing. Rather than remember his radical fight against the caste system (a fight which the Communist movement did not support), they now put him on the neutral pedestal of the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. As Father of the Constitution, he is less likely to be remembered for his challenge to Hinduism, which suits all the major parties.
Ambedkar rejected Brahmanism. He wrote about the revolutionary challenge that Buddhism had offered to Brahmanism for a thousand years long ago. That history has been written out of Indian memory. Babasaheb should be remembered for what he was — a staunch critique of Brahmanism and the caste system, not to be fought over as the bearer of a vote bank. After a long life of struggle, he deserves to rest in peace.