In Thy Name, Ambedkar
Anand Teltumbe (email@example.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.
Now, there shall be an international memorial to Babasaheb Ambedkar in London. Ambedkar used to live in this house in the early 1920s, when he was a student at the London School of Economics. Bureaucratic bungling over the issue was revealed in the third week of August when the current owner of the house issued an angry ultimatum. This was too embarrassing for the braggart ministers of Maharashtra, who had declared, months ago, that they had acquired this house. Things moved fast after the ultimatum and it appears that the deal is clinched so far as the acquisition of the 2,050 sq ft house for £3.1 million is concerned.
In India, Narendra Modi has already laid the foundation stone for a grand Ambedkarinternational convention centre at Janpath in Lutyen'sDelhi. Another memorial would be constructed at 26, Alipur Road in Outer Delhi, Ambedkar's residence when he was heading the constitution drafting committee. The memorial is touted to be grand enough to thrill aerial viewers. Still another memorial is slated to come up at Mahu, where he was born when his father was in the British army. In Mumbai, yet another, and perhaps the grandest of all memorials is planned at the premises of Indu Mills. This is where the Republican Sena had erected a makeshift memorial after forcefully occupying the premises on 6 December 2011, unleashing a competitive spurt of Ambedkar- bhakti.
The Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot has already declared the Modi government's resolve to develop all important places related to Ambedkar's life. So, there could be a memorial in New York, if not in Bonn, and perhaps at all the places—if one could discover them—where Ambedkar stayed while he was living on a paltry scholarship from the Baroda state.
Beyond memorials, the government has already declared that the entire year that brings up his 125th birth anniversary shall be celebrated with several programmes, provoking the rival Congress to launch a grand rally in Mahu, along with a conference of Dalit intellectuals, to celebrate the centenary of Ambedkar's graduation from Columbia University. The "three Dalit Rams" who played Hanuman to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the last elections can rightly claim credit for all this. Indeed, what more could Ambedkarites ask for? The only person who would be sad at these developments, however, is Ambedkar himself. Sadly, his followers, intoxicated with identitarian pride, will never understand this ruling class ploy to blind them to their own reality.
Mystery behind Memorials
There is no issue about Ambedkar deserving these memorials and perhaps many more, notwithstanding he himself was against hero worship. Memorials symbolise gratitude of people and also serve as beacon for future generations to emulate people who worked beyond their selves for others. Even communists who vehemently hold people to be the creator of history have memorialised their heroes. In the case of Ambedkar, right after his death in 1956, his disciples erected a modest structure in Mumbai at Dadar Chowpatty at the place where he was cremated with their humble donations. The structure in the shape of a Buddhist stupa symbolised the culmination of his life-long struggle for annihilation of caste and was named Chaitya Bhoomi. That small structure attracts a stream of people from all over the country. The crowd swells to over 2 million on 6 December, his death anniversary. Beyond it, there was no memorial to Ambedkar until recently. No political party or the state showed even sympathy when Dalits struggled for one.
It is only after the mid-1960s, when electoral politics became competitive with the emergence of regional parties floated by the newly empowered populous middle castes that the political parties began realising the power of Ambedkar as an icon to mobilise Dalits to vote for them. The first-past-the-post type of election that we adopted amplified the importance of even a small vote block beyond proportion. With 84 reserved seats in Lok Sabha (and reserved seats in state assemblies and local bodies) and being relatively more organised than other castes, Dalits became a cost-effective target for all parties to woo.
The first party to reflect this attitudinal change was, of course, the Congress which unleashed its co-optation strategy in 1965. The construction of Ambedkar iconography became a part of this strategy. Suddenly Ambedkar statues began dotting cities, and towns and roads were named after him. Even then, there was no memorial to Ambedkar. After Chaitya Bhoomi, the most important places to commemorate Ambedkar should have been his two rooms in Dabak Chawl in Parel where he lived until 1931 and Rajgruha which was his home—and also houses his library—until he shifted to Delhi in 1942. The former is largely forgotten but Rajgruha should have been made a memorial. But it got caught in the cobwebs of Maharashtra politics and stands ignored although Dalits visit it every day. One day, this important monument is going to be lost forever to the people. With the ascendance of BJP to power, the competition to claim Ambedkar has intensified and this clamour for memorials is a mere manifestation of this comedy.
Erect Memorials, Bury the Mission
Memorials may make sense if the mission of the man also is respected and progressed. Ambedkar's mission was annihilation of caste, so as to usher in a society based on "liberty, equality, fraternity." However, the display of love for Ambedkar appears directly proportional to the disdain for his dreams. Forget castes, untouchability, outlawed by the Constitution, lingers—in even its crudest form. From the dawn of the 21st century, three major surveys, the Action Aid survey (2001–02) of 565 villages in 11 states, Navsarjan survey of 1,589 villages in Gujarat (2007–10) and the recent National Council of Applied Economic Research report of November 2014 reveal shocking incidences of untouchability. Untouchability is an aspect of castes. With caste surviving, untouchability can never disappear. Ambedkar's ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity is of course light years away, and is getting distant with each passing day. Liberty has been a chimera for a vast majority of people, gripped with basic livelihood concerns and additionally fettered by the police state that has effectively stifled their voice. Equality no more survives even in public discourse; its place has been usurped by the World Bank's concept of inclusion and the Hindutva brigade's notion of samarasata. India today ranks among the most unequal societies in the world! Fraternity anyway was inconceivable in the caste society; it is much so in the newly casteised post-1991 India.
The state of Dalits for whom Ambedkar worked his entire life could be another parameter to assess the love of memorial makers for Ambedkar. There is no development parameter on which the gap between Dalits and non-Dalits (unfortunately it includes Muslims whose state also is as pathetic as Dalits thereby dampening the statistics) is not significant. Take any yardstick—poverty, urbanisation, employment, mortality rates (infant, neonatal, child), occupational distribution, anaemia (children, pregnant women), body-mass index, literacy, enrolment (at various levels of education), dropout rates, and access to various public amenities—Dalits are way behind the non-Dalit population.
The most worrying feature of this gap is that it appeared to be reducing, albeit slowly, in the first four decades after independence. But after the adoption of the Social Darwinist neo-liberal reforms, the gap has been widening rapidly. These policies have hit Dalits hard and marginalised them on every possible front. If atrocities are taken as the proxy for caste consciousness, then one can hardly escape the conclusion that the latter has risen with unprecedented pace and intensity during the past nearly two-and-a-half decads of neo-liberalism. Around 40,000 cases of atrocities against Dalits are registered every year. The persistent trend of acquitting the perpetrators of atrocities—Kilvenmani (1968) where 44 Dalit women and children were burnt alive, massacre of Dalits in Karamchedu (1985) and Chunduru (1991) in Andhra Pradesh and the Dalit massacre cases in Bihar (Bathani Tola in 1996 where 21 Dalits were killed, Lakshamanpur–Bathe in 1997 where 61 people were butchered, Miyanpur in 2000 where 32 people were killed, Nagari Bazaar where 10 people were killed in 1998, and Shankar Bigha where 22 Dalits were massacred in 1999)—has clearly established that casteist criminals enjoy state backing against Dalits.
Defiling Legacy, Disfiguring Icon
It is interesting to note that on one hand the Sangh Parivar and its BJP government are waxing eloquent over Ambedkar but on the other hand they are systematically defiling his secular legacy. His vitriolic comments on Hinduism and Hindutva should make Ambedkar the greatest enemy of the Parivar. But tragically, thanks to the ideological disorientation of Dalits, it converted this threat into a golden opportunity. They made him theirpratahsmaraniya (literally, one who is venerated in the morning prayer). By inducting him into their pantheon, the Parivar has been slowly but systematically disfiguring Ambedkar. Weaving a cobweb of lies around a strand of tenuous truth in Ambedkar's life they have been propagating, with Goebbelsque zeal, a saffron Ambedkar.
This Ambedkar is shamelessly projected in favour of ghar wapsi. He is the greatest benefactor of the Hindus. Why? Because, he accepted Buddhism, which was just a sect of Hinduism! What a monumental lie. He was against Muslims. He was friends with Hedgewar and that guru of poisonous ideology, Golwalkar. He was praise for the Sangh and so on. Yes, it is true that Hedgewar, Golwalkar, Savarkar and others in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh met Ambedkar (not vice versa) but that did not amount to his being friends with them. He never praised their creed. It is true that B S Munje, along with his friends, met Ambedkar at the Bombay airport, when he was a member of the flag committee, and handed over a saffron flag to him with a plea to make it the national flag. Does it mean that Ambedkar really supported their cause? Does that mean he proposed Sanskrit to be the national language? They are dwarfing Ambedkar to their own pigmy stature as a petty communalist.
Such appropriation is a direct insult to Ambedkar. But pity, the Ambedkarites are too inebriated with memorials to notice it.
First published in Economic and Political weekly and it is so relevant that we post it on our blogs to circulate this EPW artcle!Thanks EPW!