There is an Ambedkar statue in the Jatav basti in Jayapura village near Varanasi. On Ambedkar Jayanti, every year, Jatavs from Jayapura and adjoining villages offer flowers and garlands to the statue and sing harikirtan — songs extolling the glories of Hindu gods. Very few people from outside the Jatav community participate in the celebrations. Ambedkar Jayanti, observed a few days ago, has a different character in another village near Allahabad. Here, people observe Buddhist rituals to mark the occasion.
In urban centres, the day is marked by Ambedkar melas: Lectures, meetings and seminars are organised, tableaus depicting the life of Babasaheb Ambedkar put up and makeshift stalls of Dalit literature come up in several places. Songs and theatrical representations of Dalit struggles transform these celebrations into public events that instill pride among the marginalised. Dalit singers and composers use kajri, biraha, sohar and many other folk forms to portray events in the life of Ambedkar and disseminate his ideas. In some places, non-Dalits also participate in the celebrations.
People remember Ambedkar in their own way. In villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Rajasthan, one may find Ambedkar statues in a variety of colours. In some of these statues, Ambedkar dons a blue coat, in others, his attire is green, and in some others, he wears a red or black suit. It seems almost every area and community has its own Ambedkar. It is very difficult to homogenise Ambedkar, either in political discourse or in visuals and performances.
At the same time, there are signs of a common Ambedkarite consciousness. Social dignity, progress, protest and assertion are the hallmarks of this consciousness. Folk songs, literature and plays are being composed around the thoughts and ideas of Ambedkar. Thousands of Dalit civil society organisations all over the country are disseminating the Ambedkarite ideology. Dalit orchestras perform in the qasbas of Uttar Pradesh on occasions such as Ambedkar Jayanti and writers from backward and Dalit communities in small towns are at the forefront of a literature movement that has inspired the marginalised to fight for social respect. They are the organic intellectuals of the Dalit communities in the Gramscian sense.
This process has enabled the community to produce its social and political leaders, opinion makers and intellectuals. The Ambedkarite Dalit public sphere is growing by the day. This sphere was limited in pre-Independence India and even in the years immediately after Independence. Ambedkarite consciousness started expanding slowly through the efforts of the Samata Sainik Dal; samitis that took inspiration from the ideas of Ambedkar came up in the slums and cantonment areas of the cities. The activities of the Republican Party of India, Bahujan Samaj Party and other Dalit organisations led to the dissemination of Ambedkarite consciousness among the poor and the marginalised in different parts of the country.
The Dalit public sphere has much to do with the symbolism around Ambedkar. The Dalit migrants to cities were inspired by Ambedkar’s ideas. They, in turn, disseminated these ideas when they returned to their villages. Ambedkarite women’s organisations emerged in various parts of the country and shaped different strands of the Dalit feminist discourse.
Influenced by Ambedkarite ideology, marginalised communities began to aspire for social dignity, and this quest, in turn, informed their politics. Most gave up their traditional occupations, which were considered as one of the causes of untouchability, and the stigma around them. They acquired education and got government jobs. The Jatavs of Uttar Pradesh launched a social movement in the villages of the state in the 1960s. This movement, today known as the Nara Maveshi movement, continued well into the 1980s. The Jatav males refused to dispose cattle carcass and the women of the community abstained from their caste-ordained role of cutting the umbilical cords of newborns. They moved to cities and towns to explore new forms of livelihood.
In UP, the ideas of Ambedkar inspired people from communities such as Jatav, Kori, Pasi, Dhobi, Valmiki — and many other MBC and OBC groups — into political participation. Dalit communities such as Mahars and Matangs in Maharashtra and the Malas and Madigas of Andhra Pradesh contributed to the making of an Ambedkarite discourse.
However, many numerically smaller Dalit castes do not identify with the symbolism around Ambedkar. In Musharpatti area of Jayapur village, for example, no one knows of Ambedkar, though the Jatavs in the same village celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti. Numerically smaller Dalit communities in UP such as Kuchbadhiya, Hari, Bansfor and Baheliya still practise their traditional occupations. A city-dwelling middle class that disseminates Ambedkarite ideas has not developed amongst these communities and they have not become part of the Ambedkarite public sphere. This holds true for some Dalit castes of Andhra Pradesh and smaller Dalit castes in Maharashtra as well.
In some places, a few dominant Dalit castes assert their association with Ambedkar and try to stop the smaller Dalit groups from celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti. Ambedkar is not only a political symbol for backward and Dalit masses, he is their hero (nayak), icon and saheb. “Saheb” does not denote a person wielding power in the Dalit vocabulary. He is a person of knowledge, a source of inspiration. The symbol of Ambedkar is a source of inspiration that has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Dalits in India. A Dalit writer had tears in his eyes, when he told me, “Aaaj mai jo bhi hoon, Ambedkarji se prapt prerana ke karan hoon”. Whatever I am today, it is because of Ambedkarji’s inspiration.