December 6, 1956. Dr B R Ambedkar was no more. In his brief condolence message in the Rajya Sabha, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Dr Ambedkar for many, many years had been a very controversial figure in Indian public affairs, but there can be no doubt about his outstanding quality, his scholarship, and the intensity with which he pursued his convictions, sometimes rather with greater intensity than perhaps required by the particular subject, which sometimes reacted in a contrary way.”
In his over 30 years of active public life, Ambedkar contested the ideas and actions of almost every major political stream of those times — the nationalists (Congress), cultural nationalists (Hindu Mahasabha, Jan Sangh), Communists and Socialists. In return, Ambedkar remained a contested figure, in life and in death.
Yet, in the five to six decades since his death, Ambedkar has risen again, this time as a figure that none dare contest, at least not publicly. In fact, there is a clamour among the descendants of the same four political streams to firmly embrace him this year on his 127th birth anniversary. This political discovery of Ambedkar has passed through different phases since he first broke into the national firmament in the early 1920s with his strident campaign to end untouchability.
As the organisation that led the movement for Independence, the Congress’s ideological clashes with Ambedkar were the most talked about and chronicled. While he went on to challenge the Congress’s — and Mahatma Gandhi’s — claim to represent the untouchables, the most prominent of their disagreements was over separate electorates for Dalits. After the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, the British had accepted Ambedkar’s demand for a separate electorate for Dalits despite fierce objections from Gandhi, who represented the Congress. According to the Communal Award, a proposal on minority representation, 71 seats were meant for ‘untouchables’ for which only they could vote. Gandhi’s resorted to a fast-unto-death against this, forcing Ambedkar to relent in an agreement in 1932 that came to be known as the Poona Pact.
“Intellectually, Ambedkar defeated Gandhi. Politically, Gandhi defeated Ambedkar, forcing him to sign the Poona Pact, which is haunting Dalits even today,” says Narendra Jadhav, academic and Rajya Sabha member, recounting Ambedkar’s run-ins with the Congress.
That Ambedkar did not go to jail like the Congress leaders in the pre-Independence era was also something that the Congress held against him.
While Ambedkar conceded to Gandhi on the issue of a separate electorate for Dalits, he alarmed Hindu cultural nationalists by his declaration at the Depressed Classes Conference in Bombay on October 13, 1935, that while he was born a Hindu, he would “not die in the Hindu religion”.
Again, in 1936, he repeated his advocacy for change of religion at a conference of Mahars (a Dalit community to which he belonged), rattling the Hindu orthodoxy. While Gandhi called Ambedkar’s threat of renunciation of Hinduism a “bombshell in the midst of Hindu society”, it forced many others to sit up, among them the Hindu Mahasabha.
Keith Meadowcroft of the St Thomas University in Canada, in his 2006 paper The All-India Hindu Mahasabha, untouchable politics, and ‘denationalising’ conversions: the Moonje–Ambedkar Pact, captures the commotion Ambedkar’s renunciation of Hinduism caused among Hindu nationalists.
The paper reveals how N D Savarkar, younger brother of former Mahasabha president V D Savarkar, arranged a meeting between Ambedkar and “well-known Hindu religious preacher” Masurkar Maharaj. The Mahasabha’s 17th session, held in Poona a couple of months after Ambedkar’s threat in 1935, sought to strategise to checkmate the conversion threat. Such was the antagonism against Ambedkar and his ideas that in early 1936, the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, a Lahore-based organisation associated with the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha, rescinded Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ lecture in early 1936 because of objections from senior Punjab Hindu Mahasabhites, including Bhai Parmanand. Ambedkar went on to get his speech printed as a book, which to this day is regarded as a treatise on caste and its hold on Hindu society.
Mahasabha leaders, however, had to swallow their antagonism and in June 1936, deputed B S Moonje, a former president of the organisation, for negotiations with Ambedkar to settle the crisis. This deep suspicion of Ambedkar continued after Independence, when, as Law Minister, he pushed for reforms in Hindu personal laws through the Hindu Code Bill.
With Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Jana Sangh (precursor to the BJP) and the RSS seeing the Bill as a “threat to Hindu culture”, a series of articles and editorials in the RSS’s Organiser launched a tirade against Ambedkar’s move.
“We oppose the Hindu Code Bill. We oppose it because it is a derogatory measure based on alien and immoral principles. It is not a Hindu Code Bill. It is anything but Hindu. We condemn it because it is a cruel and ignorant libel on Hindu laws, Hindu culture and Hindu Dharms,” said an editorial in Organiser in 1949. RSS chief M S Golwalkar, too, castigated the move as an “affront to Hindu sanskar”.
In 1951, when Parliament stalled his draft of the Hindu Code Bill under pressure from the Hindu nationalists, Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet.
Ambedkar, likewise, was at odds with the Communists. Objecting to their unwillingness to heed to caste as a lived reality among the working class, Ambedkar did not lend his support to the textile workers’ strike led by Left unions in 1928-29. Additionally, Ambedkar remained wary of Marxism and was critical of its anti-democracy rhetoric and its alleged endorsement of violent methods to bring about revolution. Even after Independence, Ambedkar dissuaded Dalits from leaning on to Communists.
“Before I die, I must establish a definite political direction for my people. They have remained poor, oppressed and because of that, now, a new consciousness and new anger are growing among them. That is natural. But, it is also natural that this type of community becomes attracted to Communism. I do not want my people to fall under the sway of Communists,” Ambedkar wrote while conceiving the Republican Party of India, which only came into being after his death.
As for the Socialists, there is very little to suggest that they joined ranks with Ambedkar. Post-Independence, he did correspond with Socialists such as Ram Manohar Lohia and a few others, but he died soon after, leaving the Ambedkar-Socialist alignment far from fruition. He once contested a byelection from the reserved seat of Bhandara (Maharashtra) on the same ticket as socialist Asoka Mehta in 1954. But that was the closest they would come. With RPI confining itself to Maharashtra, the Socialists, who started championing the cause of women, backwards and minorities, slowly become the voice for the peasant-proprietor castes across the country.
And thus, for decades after his death in 1956, Ambedkar virtually remained a political untouchable for all the four major political streams. Political leaders who began their careers in the 60s or even those in early 80s confide that they did not hear as much of Ambedkar then as they do now. Ram Vilas Paswan, Union minister and the Dalit face of the NDA, says that the early part of his political career was steeped in the Socialist ways of Ram Manohar Lohia and the political rhetoric of his Samyukta Socialist Party or Sansopa. Ambedkar was nowhere in the frame then.
Now, as his LJP organises celebrations in Patna on April 14 to mark B R Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, Paswan admits Ambedkar has been a late influence on him. It was only in 1983, almost two decades after he began his career, around the time that Kanshiram began mobilising Dalits, minorities and backwards before he formed the BSP, that Paswan came up with his Dalit Sena. Political leaders and experts cite various factors for this lacklustre interest in Ambedkar. Over the years, the Congress has laid the biggest claim to the Dalit vote. Yet, until recently, the party never felt the need to invoke Ambedkar. “That’s because the Congress had created its own Dalit icon in the form of Jagjivan Ram; they did not need Ambedkar,” says Sanjay Paswan, senior BJP leader and former head of the party’s SC Morcha.
Ambedkar as a political idea did not find traction in other three political streams as well. JD(U) leader KC Tyagi reasons that Ambedkar didn’t make it to the discourse of the Communists and Socialists in the Hindi heartland because “these political parties drew their leadership either from the upper castes or from the OBCs”. The Dalits found little or no representation in the organisational structure of these parties. RJD vice-president Shivanand Tiwari offers another reason for why Ambedkar got lost in the Socialist rhetoric. “The Socialists turned to the OBCs since Dalits were anyway considered to be a Congress support base in those days. Also, since Dalits already had the benefits of reservation, the Socialists took the OBCs under their wing,” says Tiwari.
Even after the Jan Sangh wound up after its merger with the Janata Party in 1977, the Hindu cultural nationalists did not invoke Ambedkar. There are also allegations of the Congress carefully sidelining Ambedkar in an attempt to be seen as the lone champion of the Dalit cause across vast swathes of the country.
“Ambedkar was systematically kept out of the pedagogy. It was also unfair to project him only as a leader of untouchables when he was in fact a national leader,” says Narendra Jadhav, who has written several books on Ambedkar.
“Congress did not let Ambedkar be glorified,” alleges Paswan of the LJP.
The BJP makes similar arguments. “Ambedkar was always a big figure. It was the Congress which systematically tried to overshadow him to burnish the image of Nehru-Gandhi family icons,” alleges BJP general secretary Bhupender Yadav.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too said as much while dedicating a memorial to Ambedkar in New Delhi on Friday. Congress members, however, reject these arguments. “Jagjivan Ram has made great contributions to the Indian nation and the Congress. The impressions of battles between Congress and Ambedkar or Gandhi and Ambedkar are an exaggeration. They all worked together for national interest and had mutual respect. A few people have been distorting his statements from the past to create confusion in the minds of the new generation about the Congress and Ambedkar,” says senior Congress leader and former Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot.
Going by the clamour among parties across the spectrum — nationalists (Congress), cultural nationalists (BJP), socialists (SP, JD-U, RJD), and Communists — to project themselves as the biggest champions of Ambedkar’s Constitutional vision, now, it seems, is finally Ambedkar’s moment. Consider this: Modi has taken it upon himself to appropriate Ambedkar for the BJP, personally participating in 10 events directly related to Ambedkar between April 2015 and April 2016. Modi’s aggressive push has forced the Congress to respond lest the party is left behind. Rahul Gandhi, then vice-president and now president, visited Ambedkar’s birthplace Mhow (in Madhya Pradesh) in June 2015 and followed it up by participating in the concluding event of Ambedkar’s 125 birth anniversary celebrations organised by the party in April 2016.
Modi’s tight embrace of Ambedkar is in contrast to the previous NDA government’s approach, where prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave prominent ministerial responsibilities to Arun Shourie, author of Worshipping False Gods, who was vehemently critical of Ambedkar’s credentials. Even the RSS, whose Organiser had come down heavily on Ambedkar in the early years after Independence against his draft Hindu Code Bill, too has had to change tack. In fact, the Organiser, in its issue dated April 2016, had, under the guidance of RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal, brought out a special edition on Ambedkar, hailing him on the cover as the
Likewise, in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, the inheritor of the Socialist plank in the state, recently demanded that the BJP-led Central government file a review petition in the Supreme Court’s against its order that appeared to be diluting the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The move was surprising not only because it had done so even before the BSP could make the demand, but because the party under Mulayam Singh Yadav was at the forefront of protests against the 2012 legislation to provide for reservation in promotion in government jobs.
Even the Communists seem to have begun courting the blue of Ambedkarite Dalit movements and talking about a Red-Blue coalition. This was evident during the recent student protests at JNU and Hyderabad Central University, where Communist-affiliated student organisations joined hands with Dalit bodies.
So what explains this sudden embrace of Ambedkar?
A careful study of the events from the late 1980s suggests that this is a consolidation of the churn that started from the late 80s – over three decades after Ambedkar’s death. In 1986, Jagjivan Ram, the Congress’s tallest Dalit leader, passed away. Kanshiram’s BSP, founded two years earlier, in 1984, was not yet a formidable force and thus, the Janata Dal government, formed from elements of the erstwhile Janata Party, swung into action. They realised that weaning Dalits away from the Congress, which had become the community’s first choice in the Hindi heartland, was the most potent way to cripple the Congress in the long run. They needed a symbol and a message — and found that in Ambedkar.
Ram Vilas Paswan, an influential minister in the V P Singh-led Janata Dal government, recounts how his government took a series of steps in quick succession to restore the legacy of Ambedkar. It was during this period that Ambedkar’s portrait was installed in the Central Hall of Parliament. The government followed that up by conferring the Bharat Ratna award on the late leader. The government also legislated the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to appeal to Dalits.
Ambedkar, who was largely forgotten for almost three decades since his death in 1956, started gaining traction.
JD(U)’s Tyagi credits Kanshiram and the BSP for making Ambedkar “an electorally relevant factor”. “But for the BSP, Ambedkar would not have been this big a figure. It was Kanshiram who demonstrated electoral mobilisation in the name of Ambedkar,” he says.
There are various other reasons attributed for this resurrection of Ambedkar, among them the rise of a “new Dalit middle class”.
“Ambedkar became a role model to this new middle class — people who got jobs because of the reservation provisioned in the Constitution he drafted and who promoted education in the community,” says Chandrabhan, a public intellectual on Dalit issues.
Badri Narayan, social historian and cultural anthropologist, agrees, saying, “It is Dalit masses who should be credited with recreating Ambedkar. It is not the textual Ambedkar, but Ambedkar as imagined by Dalits that has got everyone to notice him. Rising education levels contributed to the emergence of a Dalit opinion class in the Hindi heartland. Thus, in the mind of the Dalit electorate, Ambedkar’s myth became more powerful than the real Ambedkar. This in turn led to a revival of Dalit political consciousness.”
This rising “political consciousness” meant that Dalits chose to have their say during elections, says Chandrabhan. “My understanding is that if the average voting percentage is, say, 65 per cent, the voting percentage among Dalit communities would be higher than the average. Political parties are aware of this,” he says.
It’s thus innate acumen that has got every other political stream to realise the political value of Ambedkar’s appeal.
“Unlike local Dalit faces, Ambedkar transcends all sub-castes within the Dalit community. He is an undisputed figure among all Dalit castes. It is a huge vote bank,” says RJD’s Shivanand Tiwari, before adding: “But this (embrace of Ambedkar) is not political expediency, only political pragmatism”.