Appropriating Ambedkar’s legacy

In Babasaheb’s 125th birth anniversary, parties have found yet another opportunity to woo dalit voters – without bothering to respond to questions he raised

pankaj-srivastava

Pankaj Srivastava | May 4, 2015


#Dr BR Ambedkar   #Dr BR Ambedkar 125th anniversary   #Dr BR Ambedkar constitution  

April 14, 2016 will be the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, and the nation is paying tributes. Most political parties are trying to appropriate the iconic leader’s legacy with an eye on dalit votes.

There is no difference between the left and the right in this regard. The BJP organised a rally in Patna on April 14 to launch its election campaign in Bihar. The Congress has planned events for the whole year, under a committee chaired by its president Sonia Gandhi. While the RSS has released special editions of its mouthpieces, ‘Organiser’ and ‘Panchjanya’, on Ambedkar, the CPM began its 21st party congress in Vishakhapatnam on April 14.

All this clearly shows the continued relevance of Ambedkar in Indian polity. For dalits, Ambedkar’s status is no less than that of god, for he struggled to get for them political and constitutional rights. It is largely thanks to him that dalits have come to enjoy a degree of freedom for the first time in history.

Every party knows it well that without invoking Babasaheb’s legacy, it is impossible to get the support of the dalit community which has close to one-fourth share in the votes in many states. Indeed, Ambedkar’s ideology is so appealing to the dalits that Kanshiram successfully converted it into a vibrant political force in Uttar Pradesh in the form of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

But there are other reasons, beyond the vote share and numbers, behind Ambedkar’s growing popularity. Some years ago, he was named ‘the greatest Indian after Gandhi’ in an online survey. That cannot be because of only dalits. A sizeable number of non-dalits have come to see Ambedkar as a great, modern, visionary and democrat, leader of 20th century India whose ideology goes beyond dalit rights. He, for example, also stood for women’s rights. He resigned as law minister when the Nehru government was not ready to pass the Hindu code bill, granting women rights to ancestral property, as it was seen as an attack on Hindu traditions. Also, he is being recognised as an original economic thinker. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said in a 2007 lecture that Ambedkar’s writings had inspired his work.

Appropriating the legacy of such a towering giant is not an easy task, especially for our political parties with their short-term visions. Also, it cannot be done without answering the questions Ambedkar raised.

The RSS is busy highlighting some of his views on Islam, claiming that he had supported ‘ghar wapsi’. But it will not discuss Ambedkar’s famous lecture on ‘Annihilation of Caste’ in its daily shakhas. It is no secret that the RSS is committed to a vision of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, whereas Ambedkar had said, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to the liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”

Ambedkar had to suffer the exploitive nature of the caste system, which, in his views, was the essence of Hinduism. He equated Hinduism with ‘brahminism’, which he saw as hell for shudras. On October 13, 1935, at the historic Conversion Conference in Nashik, Ambedkar exhorted dalits to leave Hinduism and embrace another religion. A day after converting to Buddhism along with thousands of his followers on October 14, 1956 in Nagpur, he declared: “Even though I was born in the Hindu religion, I will not die in the Hindu religion – this oath I made earlier; yesterday I proved it true. I am happy; I am ecstatic! I have left hell – this is how I feel.”

Such views will always make it problematic for the RSS and BJP to appropriate the Ambedkar legacy, but that does not mean it is any easier for the Congress. The dalit community has been its support base for decades, but the Congress missed the opportunity when it excluded social issues from its political programme.

In spite of his acrimonious debate with Ambedkar, Gandhi in his own way was a champion of dalits. After Gandhi, there was no leader in the Congress to take up such social issues. Thanks to Gandhi, Ambedkar was made the chairman of the constitution drafting committee and Nehru made him the first law minister of the country. But before the first Lok Sabha elections, when the dispute arose over the Hindu code bill, Nehru did not stop Ambedkar from resigning and the party found its ‘dalit face’ in Babu Jagjivan Ram, who was not known for any radical and ideological stands.

The BJP and the Congress should realise that Ambedkar’s growing appeal has a strong ideological basis. His writings are gaining popularity, partly due to more literacy among the dalit community. Booklets of Ambedkar’s essays and speeches translated into regional languages are easily available in most parts of the country. An enlightened youth has a lot of questions for these parties regarding their social policies.

Even Left parties are in the dock as they have failed to understand caste and class complexities and are hesitant to take on Brahminism. In fighting for all workers in general, the Left imagines equality within the working class that does not exist.

Clearly, no party can appropriate Ambedkar. Merely garlanding his statues does not work. The parties are yet to come to terms with Ambedkar’s mission – to make India democratic and modern in the truest sense. In his last speech in the constituent assembly on November 25, 1949, he said, “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one-man, one-vote and one-value.

In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one-man one-value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this assembly has to laboriously build up.”

Removing this contradiction remains an impossible challenge for all parties.

(
The article appears in the May 1-15, 2015 issue)

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