Row over cartoon demeans the Dalit movement in general and Ambedkar in particular
The intellectual-rational capacity of the current brand of Congress leadership has always been in doubt. In the latest episode of fast-track community appeasement by banning a controversial Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon in an NCERT textbook,the ruling elites of our country hit a new low in their political opportunism. Kapil Sibal is,in general,not a popular figure among Dalits,but his attempt to hog the limelight via such gimmickry will make him a laughing stock. Significantly,the group worst affected by this controversy is not the Congress or any of its leaders,but the Dalit movement in general. Such a trivialisation of B.R. Ambedkar has the potential to portray the Dalit movement as devoid of concrete political issues,infantile and aggressively lumpen in its approach.
Ambedkar is not just a political figure. He is adored by many in India as a prophetic figure. For Dalits,he represents their sentiments,emotions and aspirations in public life. His iconic presence in the Dalit psyche has provided inspirational impetus to new social movements,and has substantively democratised inter-community living. After Ambedkar,the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra radicalised Dalit consciousness and brought vital questions of caste atrocity,violence and unemployment among Dalit youth to mainstream political discussions. Dalit movements in Maharashtra are known for their rooted materialism,revolutionary potential and capacity to alter socio-political culture. They have utilised modern and progressive values,and have criticised the conservative fundamentalism of cultural iconography as regressive and backward. However,in its current form,the Dalit movement in Maharashtra has been reduced to trivial and emotive issues that are dangerous enough to kill the courageous spirit of earlier progressive movements. The political trivialisation of the Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon is an absurd attempt to demean the Dalit movement in general and Ambedkar in particular.
Maharashtra has remained volatile at different intervals in the past due to aggressive protests by the Dalits. In 1997,11 people were killed in a police firing at Ramabai Nagar in Mumbai. They were protesting against the desecration of Ambedkars statue. Protests against the desecration and the killings spread across Maharashtra,paralysing law and order. Similarly,in 2006,in the Kherlanji massacre case,a young Dalit girl and her parents were brutally murdered. Maharashtra witnessed another round of angry and violent protests against caste violence and the negligence of the state in delivering justice. These spontaneous movements were supported by the progressive intelligentsia outside Maharashtra,because of their moral appeal and righteous claim to justice. Further,they were not manipulated or controlled by politicians,but represented collective Dalit anger against police brutality and a feudal-brahmanical village order. The merit of the Dalit movement in Maharshtra thus lies in such conscious and radical gestures adopted by the Dalit masses,without falling prey to a politicians agenda.
The Dalit leadership in Maharashtra has a bad track record when it comes to Dalit empowerment. The current cartoon controversy is explicitly devoid of ethical value. Even an analytical description of this half-century old cartoon strip will show that it has a passive humour element and a peculiar political context in which Ambedkar was a prime actor. The NCERT book is in many instances appreciative of Ambedkars untiring efforts to integrate progressive elements of social justice into the Constitution,which the protestors have ignored.
This controversy,created by the Republican Party of Indias Ramdas Athawale,has radically challenged general assumptions about rational-progressive Dalit activism in Maharashtra. Such emotive hyperbole has been created to maintain exclusive clout over Dalits,without touching on pressing questions of Dalit emancipation. This decision will be marked opportunistic or unethical because of the narrow,petty objective that it carries. It reflects the incapacity of the Dalit leadership to imagine its own path through political struggle and mass mobilisation. The Dalit constituency will again be objectified as identical to any right-wing fundamentalist group unfit for a vibrant and tolerant democracy.
Social and political elites have periodically manipulated the emotional and sensitive relationship between Ambedkar and the Dalits with symbolic gestures,but have not set a concrete agenda for comprehensive Dalit emancipation. Dalits are still the group worst-affected by caste atrocities and the majority continue to live in dire poverty,away from Constitutional protections. Dalits and other oppressed groups will be able to reap the benefits of democracy only if they become equal participants in active political struggle,with a categorical consciousness of their primary ideals. Such sensational and farcical attempts by Dalit groups to appease the community,and their equal legitimisation by the ruling elites,are antithetical to the democratic ethos Ambedkar envisaged while writing the Constitution.
The writer is assistant professor of political science at Delhi University