B R Ambedkar once said, “I was born a Hindu… but I will not die as a Hindu”. Hence, before his death, he chose Buddhism. Inspired by him, a section of Dalits also converted to Buddhism. So soon after his Mahaparinirvan Divas, December 6, we need to ask: What is the relationship between the ideals and lived reality of Dalit life in the context of growing Hindutva?
There is a trend among members of a section of newly-educated Dalits in north India of adopting Buddhism. But during field work in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we observed that their conversion, in terms of religious memories from Hinduism to Buddhism, is not yet complete: Some, for instance, are unable to stop themselves from celebrating Hindu festivals and worshipping Hindu deities, alongside worshipping Buddha and Ambedkar.
In UP, one may find Ambedkar statues in and around the Dalit bastis of many villages. Ambedkar is a symbolic inspiration for Dalits and the marginalised. This kind of symbolism provides them social confidence. In some of these bastis, the youth offer their prayers to Ambedkar statues after achieving any success in life or on special occasions. They find a kind of divinity in the symbol of Ambedkar. The Hindu Dalits, Dalit followers of Kabir and Ravidas, worship Ambedkar alongside their panthic deities and gurus: As we know, most Dalits in North India are followers of Hinduism, the Kabir panth and Ravidas panth. Despite criticism of the caste system, these sects comfortably interact and work within various Hindu religious public spheres.
Ambedkar remained strongly critical of the Hindu caste system. However, the Hindutva movement is trying to reconfigure Ambedkar as a symbol that is respectable for everyone by downplaying his criticism of the caste system. They want to extricate the criticism of the Hindu caste system from the version of Ambedkar they are trying to propagate. If all Hindus across castes start respecting Ambedkar, then his criticism of Hinduism maybe sidelined from the memory of Dalits and subaltern communities.
Ambedkar is also projected as the brand ambassador of the samrasta campaign run by the Hindutva parivar. One may find Ambedkar calendars and portraits at many RSS offices and public programmes. The BJP has taken various steps to showcase its concern, and respect, for Ambedkar’s memories and memorials: More than what the Congress did when it held office.
Although Kabir panthis and Ravidasis presented an alternative religious space and identity, they have a close relationship with Hindu religious memories due to their roots in the Bhakti movement. The aspiration to assert themselves as Hindu is growing among a section of subaltern communities. In villages near Allahabad, Sonbhadra and Mirzapur, smaller Dalit castes like Nats and Mangata — who had liminal religious identity till a few years ago — are now worshipping Hindu deities.
These communities aspire for social dignity by appropriating mainstream religious identities. Hindutva forces understand these growing aspirations, and try to project themselves as a social-cultural group working for the welfare of all Hindus. They also assert themselves as political-cultural groups following the ideals of Ambedkar. It is not easy for the Hindutva parivar to appropriate the symbol of Ambedkar, but they are consistently producing narratives — visual, cultural and political — to create a selective remembrance, and forgetting of, the original image of Ambedkar.
The social memories created by the Hindu religion, and the Hindutva version of Ambedkar’s symbol, are creating a situation where the Hindutva parivar is easily accessible to a section of the larger Dalit community. It is interesting to observe that an emphasis on Hindu religion and values — once a major criticism of the RSS by Dalits and subalterns — is now providing fertile ground to the Hindutva parivar.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 7, 2019 under the title “Ambedkar without caste”. The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
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