In an interview to this newspaper, Prakash Ambedkar, a Dalit leader in his own right, rued that the stature of his grandfather, Babasaheb Ambedkar, has been limited to that of a Dalit leader. He spoke about Ambedkar, the polymath, and complained that much of his insightful writings on subjects ranging from economics and public policy to social history and religion remain unread and unacknowledged. Prakash Ambedkar’s criticism of modern India’s engagement with Babasaheb comes at a time when political parties are competing to appropriate his political legacy.
As the nation celebrates Babasaheb’s birth anniversary, even those organisations not known to uphold the modern, secular ideals of Ambedkar, want to be seen to be acknowledging his greatness. This is, of course, an indication of his stature as a Dalit icon. But more, it is a reflection of the emergence of Dalits as a politically mobilised community. A lonely figure in his day, Ambedkar today is a political and spiritual memory that energises millions of Dalits across the country, a reality no political party can afford to ignore. The Dalits identified in Babasaheb an icon who represented their collective rage against oppression and humiliation and found in his writings the ammunition to fight for rights and freedoms.
Ambedkar’s tenuous relationship with the independence struggle and the Congress limited his appeal to Dalit politics. But there is no reason why it should continue to be so. Ambedkar, the radical intellectual who had a wide range of concerns, must be retrieved from the skewed versions of history that paint him as only a Dalit leader or as a figure hostile to other national icons like Gandhi and Nehru.