As more and more communities beyond the erstwhile “untouchables” discover his historical importance, B R Ambedkar is emerging as the most preferred icon from pre-independent India for the assertion of the egalitarian principles enshrined in the constitution.
However, his posthumous mass appeal has made political parties appropriate him, albeit by selectively picking his views to suit their convenience. The Congress has appropriated him, minus his bitter criticism of the Congress being an outfit of the “Shetji and Bhatji”, catering to the needs of the economic and religious elites. The left appropriated him minus his rejection of communist ideology on grounds that it supports an armed revolution and intends to establish a “dictatorship” of the proletariat. The right wing parties have appropriated him minus his bitter views on religion in general and Hinduism in particular. The interest across the political spectrum in Ambedkar is only for numbers which matter in a parliamentary democracy.
However, core followers in his home state of Maharashtra are still grappling with some of the contentious aspects of Ambedkarism. For instance, the 22 oaths administered to his followers who converted to Buddhism with him in 1956 have turned out to be a barrier in forging unity of marginalised communities. While the oaths (which include a ban on worshipping Hindu Gods, performing rituals by Brahmins and rejection of the four-tiered varna system) have mentally liberated Buddhists, they have become an impediment in forging unity of the marginalised masses (Dalits, tribals, social and educationally backward classes). There is a schism between Hindu Dalits and Buddhists that runs deep.
After his demise, none of his lieutenants could match his vision or intellectual prowess, most of them becoming servile to mainstream parties for crumbs of power and, in the process, shutting out other communities from the Republican Party of India, which he wanted to build up as an alternative to the Congress by unifying Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Shudras and minorities. Launched 10 months after his death, the party has remained confined to one community and continued to fragment like amoebic divisions till date. His grandson, Prakash, tried to forge unity of the masses across caste and religion, but had to remain content with success in local bodies in the Akola district of Maharashtra. Besides, in recent times, Prakash has tilted heavily towards the Left. Ambedkar’s audacity remains an uphill task for his followers — Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists. Among Buddhists, a boisterous section has widened the rift with other marginalised sections by criticising Hindu gods. Some of them even feel ashamed of being called Dalits and want to shed the tag, notwithstanding the fact that “Dalit”, semantically, is the collective identity of all who are oppressed. This has enabled mainstream political parties to exploit the rift for electoral gains. During Ambedkar’s lifetime, the Congress successfully played the Chamar card, pitting leaders of the traditional cobbler community (which did not convert to Buddhism) against him. Later, other parties followed suit.
Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray, for instance, had organised a long march of Hindu Dalits from Nashik’s Kalaram temple to Mumbai in 1996 accusing Buddhists of garnering a larger share of the quota pie. Organisations like the Sena have successfully moored the Shudras and Hindu Dalits to the wider Hindutva crusade.
Over the years, communists have attempted to rope in Ambedkarites, but in vain. When Ambedkarite litterateurs formed “Dalit Panthers” in 1972 and changed the lexicon of Marathi literature, communists intruded in framing the manifesto that drove a wedge between Raja Dhale and Namdeo Dhasal, thereby ultimately splitting the Panthers and spelling doom for the Dalit Panther movement.
Some younger generation of leaders from erstwhile Shudra communities, who use Ambedkar as their icon, veer towards the left and seek to amalgamate “Lal Salaam” with “Jai Bhim”. Attempts are being made by them to win over Buddhists as foot-soldiers, ignoring the fact that for Ambedkar’s followers, the constitution is supreme and change has to be brought about through peaceful democratic means, not through an armed revolt or violence.
Consider this: though Ambedkar had serious differences with Mahatma Gandhi, both believed in non-violence. During the satyagraha for entry of Dalits into the Ram temple in Nashik (1930-35), Ambedkar restrained his followers from responding violently to orthodox Hindus. When Gandhi criticised Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar incorporated his criticism in the second edition of the book, alongwith his own comments rejecting Gandhi’s views. It was an example of discussing contentious issues publicly in a civilised manner, unlike Nathuram Godse who killed Gandhi.
Incidentally, Ambedkar’s formula of annihilating caste, which goes beyond inter-caste marriages and dining, has still remained within the covers of the book. No political party or organisation has shown the courage of accepting and implementing it, to end casteism. The praise for Ambedkar is only to be politically correct.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Mumbai