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As Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the sixth Ambedkar Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on Monday and laid the foundation stone for an Ambedkar Memorial, there was some deft and some rather exaggerated political name-calling as the PM charged his opponents of “lies” and “untruths” about BJP governments challenging the reservation policy .
He declared that BJP governments in various states and at the Centre, in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s time and his own, had not and would not go back on the constitutional promise of reservations for Dalits and tribals.
PM Modi said Ambedkar was more than a Dalit icon– he was the equivalent of Martin Luther King. This is not the first time that the PM has tried to find parallels of international statesmen in Indian leaders. Earlier, at a function to commemorate those who had fought against the Emergency, PM Modi had likened Punjab CM, SAD’s Parkash Singh Badal to Nelson Mandela, something that had spawned a range of bewildered and angry responses from the state and outside.
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Also, this is not the first time that members of the Sangh have tried to lay claim to Ambedkar’s ideas, but a few things said by the PM this time were interesting.
The PM said that BR Ambedkar was a member of the first Nehru cabinet but he wondered had why he had quit the ministry and mentioned the Hindu Code Bill as a reason.
BR Ambedkar did quit over his inability to push the Hindu Code Bill as rapidly and in the form that he had wanted to. His grouse was that the Congress at the time was a divided house with a section of the hardline Hindu leadership within the party (of which the first President, Rajendra Prasad was a part) was not anxious to allow the reforms to Hindu law and customs as desired by the bill.
Interestingly, the RSS was also opposed to the Bill. Modern India’s historian Mridula Mukherjee asks, “Where was the Sangh on the Hindu Code bill? Nehru was slower on this than Ambedkar wanted and Nehru eventually waited to win the general election before he backed it fully, but several Hindu Mahasabha leaders and the RSS were vehemently opposed to the move and critiqued it strongly.”
Even as he introduced the bill on Feb 5, 1951, Syama Prasad Mookerji, of the Hindu Mahasabha, a present day hero of the BJP and a colleague of Ambedkar in Nehru’s cabinet, strongly opposed it, calling it something that would shatter the stability and magnificence of Hindu culture.
Historian Ram Guha has spoken of how in a single year, in 1949, the RSS held 79 meetings, in Delhi and burnt effigies of Nehru and Ambedkar, “where the new bill was denounced as an attack on Hindu culture and tradition.”
On the issue of reservations, the RSS in two interventions, one by its chief last year before the Bihar elections and once more recently, pitched for a “review” of the reservation policy, creating unease and leading to widespread criticism. Asks Mukherjee; “Can the RSS show us one resolution while reservations were being discussed when they favoured them? They were, and still are, opposed to genuinely abandoning Brahminical Hinduism in favour of a more modern idea of democracy and citizenship.”
In his speech, PM Modi described himself as a “Bhakt of Baba saheb” who would do everything that ‘Baba saheb’ wanted done but which did not happen “for 60 years”. With state polls around the corner and the BJP facing criticism for the handling of the Rohith Vemula suicide and sedition cases at JNU, the BJP needs Baba Saheb more than ever.
In the build up to the five assembly elections, and in the battle for UP which the BJP appears to have joined early, the Dalit vote will be critical and the BJP does not want to hand over the advantage to a resurgent Mayawati.
After Hyderabad Central University’s Dalit Phd scholar Rohith Vemula’s death and previously when the Centre’s hostility towards Ambedkarite groups such as the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in IITs and other universities, the BJP has been vulnerable to the idea that it is reflexively anti-Dalit assertion, wanting to appropriate Dalits, but on its terms.
Then in the JNU issue, its attempts to make ‘sedition’ more about the nationalism than governance led to calls for “blue and red” to come together on one platform making it important for the BJP to battle the threat of both groups demonstrating fellowship in the public imagination and electoral politics.
‘Babasaheb’ Bhim Rao Ambedkar, in his final days, took a decision to leave Hinduism and to convert to Buddhism. This marked a departure for Ambedkar who had agreed to a framework, as evident under the Poona Pact, with Gandhi to not press for separate electorates for the “Depressed classes” (as Dalits were called then) but to agree to reservations on seats within the ‘general’ (Hindu) constituencies. By converting to Buddhism a few months before he died, he made the most forceful statement against the Brahminical hold on Hindus that went beyond anything he wrote in even ‘The Annihilation of Caste’, among his most radical work.
This fact it very difficult for the Sangh to speak about, let alone cite kinship with him. But now, when in power, decades after reservation has been in place and a vocal and numerically significant section has been able to breathe new life into the Ambedkar legacy, it is something that they feel is worth their while to try and grab hold of even if it may invert established historical facts.