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Ambedkar's legacy


Fifty years after his death, have Ambedkar's inheritors embalmed his ideas in dogma, or extended them while confronting new predicaments?

Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Quest for dignity: Ambedkar successfully activated a political consciousness among the oppressed.

IF the reactions of many articulate urban Indians in the afternoon papers and on the television channels are any index, the violence that rocked Maharashtra in the last week of November was no more than an intolerable disruption of the public peace by a `minority' community.

No matter that the Dalits who came out on the streets in large numbers represent a significant majority of India's oppressed masses; and that they were protesting, not only the desecration of a statue of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in Kanpur, but also the official apathy towards the public humiliation and murder of a Dalit family in the village of Khairlanji in eastern Maharashtra, followed by the brutal police repression of the protests that met this apathy.

Invoking a spectre

The same voice of public opinion that maintains a tactful silence when the right-wing Shiv Sena burns buses, wrecks cars and snarls the traffic in Maharashtra was shrill with indignation at the manner in which the Dalits had burned compartments of the Deccan Queen. The same TV anchors, who have never dared to ask Bal Thackeray why his goon squads have held Mumbai to ransom for decades until their recent eclipse, rebuked Dalit spokespersons with leading questions on the impropriety and intransigence of their outrage. Some media commentators have invoked the spectre of `Dalit violence' in print and on screen, citing the urban warfare of the Dalit Panthers in the 1970s and the conflicts surrounding the renaming of Marathwada University after Dr. Ambedkar in the 1980s. As though, in each decade, the Dalits had manifested their `natural' propensity for violence in some imaginative way.

Curiously, these wise observers glossed the stridently anti-Dalit mobilisations of the Shiv Sena, which had, in each case, provoked these Dalit responses; few wish to recall the absolute refusal of upper-and middle-caste forces in Maharashtra, between the 1970s and the 1990s, to allow Dalits any share in the region's symbolic capital.

While this writer would in no way condone the November violence, this climate of misinformation and non-debate once again demonstrates the extent to which Dalits remain the intractable, feared and hated `Other' for articulate, bourgeois, overwhelmingly upper-and middle-caste India. The situation is not improved by the fact that the reportage of Dalit issues is regarded as a specialist interest in large sectors of the mainstream media — somewhat like ornithology or marine biology, as though one were studying another species altogether.

What imparts a deeper shade of the tragic to these observations is the fact that this sequence of events — official apathy towards the Khairlanji massacre, the Kanpur desecration, the overzealousness of the police, and the mass violence — has been staged in the interval between two grand celebrations associated with Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the scholar-activist who propelled the Dalits from feudal abjection into modernity. Vijaya Dashami, this October, marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar's formal acceptance of the Buddha's Dhamma; December 6 marks his 50th death anniversary, commemorated by his millions of followers as the occasion of his maha-parinirvana.

* * *

Educated at the London School of Economics and Columbia University, New York, and called to the Bar, Dr. Ambedkar was one of the most highly educated members of his generation. Heir to the traditions of rationalism and liberalism, he was a believer in constitutional means but also deployed the theatre of public protest to considerable strategic effect. While he lived, he wrote analytically and polemically, organised assemblies of political activity and platforms for debate, planned and executed movements of social reform and political protest, designed far-reaching legal reforms, and pondered over the civilisational problem of reconciling a progressive and rationalist outlook with the apparent inability of the Indian mind, across castes, to abandon religious practice and a sense of the sacred.

Such were the preoccupations that exercised him; those unfamiliar with the depth, range and complexity of his thought would not guess at these qualities from the clichés of public representation through which we know him today. He is described, in a rather tokenist fashion, as the .Father of the Constitution'; sculpturally, he is represented in the pink skin and blue suit that has become almost canonical of his iconography among his followers, the skin a challenge to the `Aryan' upper castes, the suit an insistence on the modernity of his enterprise.

Unfortunately, in keeping with the general perception that Dalit issues, themes and figures are somehow not part of the imagined `mainstream' of Indian life, articulate India has been slow to recognise Dr. Ambedkar as more than a messiah of the Dalits. He was a national leader of the stature of Gandhi and Nehru, who was one of postcolonial India's foundational figures. In this momentous year, it might be useful to reflect on Dr. Ambedkar's legacy in his various roles as Dalit messiah, utopian visionary, and religious thinker. Have his projects shaped out, as he would have wished? Has India moved in the directions that he thought optimal? Have his inheritors embalmed his ideas in dogma, or extended them while confronting new predicaments?

Splintered movement

Dr. Ambedkar's project of activating a political consciousness among the oppressed has certainly borne fruit: he intended to nurture a proletarian selfhood based on resistance to the structures of caste and class, which would emancipate itself of caste. But, somewhat ironically, Ambedkarite rhetoric has become an instrument of expediency for elites that have emerged from the middle castes, the peasant-cultivator groups empowered by the Green Revolution and the vote-block calculations of electoral democracy in a society unpurged of its caste mentality. The irony lies in the fact that, in many regions, the middle castes excel in the oppression of Dalits. The Ambedkarite movement proper has become splintered among factions that are allied to various national parties, although their leaders are discredited in the eyes of the young, educated, politically aware Dalit middle class.

But Dr. Ambedkar's vision did not end at the horizon of Dalit power; rather, he envisaged an India liberated from caste consciousness, a futuristic society no longer trapped in the feudal binaries of master and slave, privilege and privation. Ironically, again, this vision has been negated by the perpetuation of caste attitudes in an electoral democracy whose political dynamics are fuelled by group antagonisms. With group identity and interest raised to a cornerstone of political struggle, India now faces the long-running scenario of a caste war fought out on various social and economic fronts, at varying intensities.

Acceptance of Buddhism

Dr. Ambedkar's acceptance of the Dhamma incarnated his belief that the widespread revival of Buddhism in India would unite this country's people in an acceptance of their common humanity and their shared good. Unfortunately, death claimed him before he could give practical expression to his religious ideas. As a pragmatic rationalist grappling with the popular need for a religious dimension to life, and a sustaining symbolism, he chose Buddhism for its embeddedness in Indic tradition. It marked an ideal retrieved from the subcontinent's cultural past; its appeal, certainly in the Hinayana version that he favoured, lay in its insistence on ethical conduct, on the refinement of the individual self, and on the interrelationship of self with others as elaborated through mutuality of concern and action.

Unfortunately, Dr. Ambedkar's political successors have been unable to provide his followers with a grounding in the Dhamma; this situation is being increasingly redressed by groups of Buddhist activists who work with Ambedkarite communities across the country, sustaining them in a spiritual practice that enables them to cope with the many obstacles they face in their quest for independence, dignity and self-fulfillment. What is clear is that Dr. Ambedkar's legacy will have to be retrieved and extended by activists committed to the social and cultural renaissance he had envisioned; and not by the political purveyors of an exhausted rhetoric who claim to speak in his name.

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