There is a palpable sense of hurt in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words when he complains that “everyone rushes to do politics in the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar” while “no other government has honoured, given respect to Babasaheb Ambedkar the way the present government has”. To buttress his argument, the prime minister spoke about the public works that were launched in memory of Ambedkar by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and the memorial the present government is to inaugurate next week.
The Dalit unrest that rocked the country over the Supreme Court’s order on the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act earlier this week and the opposition campaign that the Modi dispensation is insensitive to Dalit interests appear to have triggered the prime minister’s fusillade. Modi wants Ambedkar to be remembered as a visionary icon who gave the republic its Constitution and spoke for and created a host of institutions, including for waterways, irrigation and ports, as the PM reminded the country on Thursday.
The Modi government has held several events to memorialise Ambedkar, but could not claim Ambedkar’s legacy because it has failed to recognise the living Ambedkar, who inspires political mobilisations that seek to affirm and assert the identity and rights of Dalits and other oppressed communities.
The Modi government, like the Congress governments of the past, has preferred to confine Ambedkar to a symbolic presence and freeze him in stamps and statues. A memorial, of course, has utility for it can boost a people’s self-respect and inspire them to action — Mayawati’s Ambedkar parks in UP exemplify the power of symbolism. But the political Ambedkar, who lives in the liberal — and in the Indian context, radical — vision that illuminates the Constitution, is compromised by the custodians of the republic.
The quest for an egalitarian society is fundamental to his political vision: The rights and freedoms — to equality, free speech, minority rights — detailed in the Constitution are meant to transform India from a hell-hole of inequalities, social hierarchies and oppression to a republic of free and equal citizens.
Seven decades after Independence and 67 years since turning a republic, this ideal remains unrealised. The restiveness of Dalit communities across the country only reflects the failure of successive governments and the political mainstream in translating the vision in the statute books into everyday experience.
The politicised Dalit identifies the Constitution, along with elections, as a powerful instrument to assert her self and citizenship; any talk of rewriting the statute or diluting its spirit is interpreted as an affront to Babasaheb’s republican vision. An argument that pits the statue against the statute is a non-starter.