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Where does Jagjivan Ram belong?

Both the BSP and BJP are trying to appropriate him as they compete for Dalit votes.

Written by Badri Narayan | Published: October 29, 2013 12:26:21 am

Both the BSP and BJP are trying to appropriate him as they compete for Dalit votes.

Money,muscle power,populist measures and gift politics all play an important role in electoral politics. Another thing that plays a prominent role — and which escapes the notice of political analysts — is the creation of new symbols that build on the old,based on the memory of leading heroes. I dwell on one such issue for the 2014 election. It is ironic that though Babu Jagjivan Ram was irrelevant during his last days,he is once again emerging as a powerful symbol in Dalit politics. The discourse of Ambedkarite politics that emerged in the 1980s in the Hindi heartland had consigned him to a mere footnote in history,especially after his demise. Jagjivan Ram’s politics was depicted as anti-Ambedkar,and he was cast in a poor light.

According to a news item published in Amar Ujala on October 13,“Congress Ko Dalit Virodhi Batane Ki Muhim Chalayegi Baspa”,the BSP instructed its coordinators in Lucknow to launch a campaign in Uttar Pradesh to uncover the Congress’s “anti-Dalit face”. BSP leaders would march from village to village and tell people that the Congress is an anti-Dalit party because it failed to elevate Jagjivan Ram to prime minister,and created problems for Ambedkar. According to another report in Hindustan,BJP leader Amit Shah,in his various speeches in different parts of UP,alleged that the Congress is an anti-Dalit party. He was of the opinion that no Dalit leader could ever rise in the Congress.

In the 1990s,the BSP,in order to rise in UP,termed Jagjivan Ram’s leadership “Chamcha Yug (Sycophant’s Era)”. The party was strongly critical of him and other Congress Dalits. Jagjivan Babu was depicted as a top Dalit leader — before the advent of bahujan politics and the rise of Kanshi Ram,he was the topmost Dalit leader in India,particularly the Hindi belt — who was a mere flatterer and minion of sarvajan politics and the Manuwadi system. He was portrayed as the main cause of Dalit backwardness.

Today,he is remembered as a powerful icon among Dalits in villages. The BSP now intends to use that powerful image to attack the Congress in the 2014 election. The BSP appears to be apprehensive that the Dalits might abandon the party for the Congress,in part due to Rahul Gandhi’s efforts. As a contingency,BSP coordinators in Lucknow were supposedly told at a recent meeting to fan out into every village and promote the Congress’s anti-Dalit image. They were directed to remind Dalits of how the Congress ignored and isolated Jagjivan Ram,and denied him the PM’s post.

That the Congress did not anoint Jagjivan Ram as PM is irksome for Dalits,and creates disillusionment against the Congress. So,to counter a Congress which is threatening to gain some ground in UP,the BSP seems to be making an all-out effort to appropriate Jagjivan Ram’s image. This is despite the fact that it has been extremely critical of him in the past. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Congress,which demolished the image of Jagjivan Ram in the 1980s,has brought him to the centrestage of Dalit politics.

The BJP too wants a major share in Dalit votes. It is trying to link the Dalits in north India through its Samajik Samrasta Abhiyan (social harmony movement). It,too,wants to use the image of Jagjivan Ram and make him a part of the electoral discourse in 2014. It also wants to remind Dalits that the Congress never gave him due respect,coordinating the humiliating attacks on him arising from within both Ambedkar politics and bahujan politics. In so doing,the party perhaps wishes to bring Jagjivan Ram closer to Hindutva politics,particularly since it is collecting saints like Ravidas and Shivnarayani,who influenced Jagjivan Ram. There appears to be an attempt to saffronise him,forgetting that the Ravidasi and Shivnarayani sects clashed with the Brahminical system that the BJP and RSS represent. In fact,the sects emerged as a reaction to the Manuwadi form of Hinduism.

And so,at a time when Jagjivan Ram’s daughter,Meira Kumar,is Lok Sabha speaker and a top Congress leader,one of the greatest icons of Nehruvian politics is being used against the party. At this juncture,I am reminded of Bhullar,a Dalit of Sahabpur village. On a field study,he told us of the tremendous contribution of Jagjivan Ram,whose presence was an inspiration to Dalits. He said that they were sad when he was not made PM,and felt that he was overlooked possibly because he was an untouchable. It was then that they decided to pursue an education.

Perhaps the decision to not appoint Jagjivan Ram to the post of the PM owed itself more to the exigencies of government formation than any conscious discrimination. Yet,it is perceived differently in Dalit memory. It has left a deep sense of anguish. Opposing Dalit groups capitalise on this agony and use it to their gain. It remains to be seen whether Rahul Gandhi can stop his political opponents from appropriating an important Dalit icon of the Congress.

The writer is professor,G.B. Pant Social Science Institute,University of Allahabad.

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