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The Spurious Celebrations Of Ambedkar's Life

17/06/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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INDRANIL MUKHERJEE via Getty Images
A man inspects a locket with an image of Bhimrao Ambedkar for sale on Ambedkar's 124th birth anniversary near the historic Chaitya Bhoomi memorial in Mumbai on April 14, 2015. Ambedkar known as the messiah of the Dalits and one of the key authors of India's constitution, fought for equal rights for the low-caste during and after British colonial rule, which ended in 1947. Dalits, once known as 'untouchables,' is the term used for those on the lowest rung of India's rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. In recent years things have started to change with the government taking steps to improve the livelihood of the Dalits by improving education and creating job opportunities. AFP PHOTO/ Indranil MUKHERJEE (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, there have been a number of actions undertaken by the Government and the Opposition to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar. However, I would like to point out some of the contradictions in these political manoeuvrings.

On 14 April this year, we observed the 125th birth anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, the emancipator of more than a million Dalits and arguably one of the finest intellectuals of the 20th century. Both the BJP and the Congress took full advantage of this occasion to indulge in unparalleled tokenism. While PM Narendra Modi unveiled plans to construct an Ambedkar International Centre, Rahul Gandhi set off to Mhow village where he called for the "annihilation of caste".

Had Rahul Gandhi spent some time during his mysterious sabbatical reading some of Babasaheb's works, he would have been in for an unpleasant surprise. The ideological predilections of most of India's parties sit directly opposite to that of Dr Ambedkar's. In a book titled What Congress And Gandhi Have Done To The Untouchables Ambedkar lashes out at the Congress's inherent antipathy towards the untouchables, thereby rendering them more helpless. The haphazard commitment of India's polity to the "annihilation of caste" underpins the persistent efforts by casteist and other upper class groups to ensure that this inhumane social set up flourishes and evolves along with time.

" The ideological predilections of most of India's parties sit directly opposite to that of Dr Ambedkar's."

Throughout the independence movement, the caste conundrum was held in abeyance due to the lack of support for its eradication. The Left of the time saw the end of British imperialism as the ultimate solution to the class struggle and was unwilling to intertwine it with the issue of caste. Thus it was an uphill battle for Ambedkar, for his fervent criticism of Gandhism made matters worse (for an account of the Ambedkar- Gandhi feud, this piece by Arundhati Roy).

Moreover, it was not in the interest of the upper castes to do away with the evil they gained so much from. Ambedkar had severe misgivings about the mainstream political attitude towards caste, but his assertion that it was imperative for social reform to precede political reform went largely unheeded by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel - a testimony to how deeply rooted caste is in the Indian psyche Ultimately, Ambedkar resigned from the first Cabinet of India, making his disillusionment known in his resignation letter.

In hindsight, perhaps it wasn't so outlandish for him to demand a separate electorate (see his debate on the subject with Mahatma Gandhi here) for the upliftment of the depressed classes.

What is striking is the perpetuation of the caste system to this day. Despite the introduction of buzzwords such as "positive discrimination", "affirmative action" and "educational upliftment", Dalits continue to be subjected to the ignominy they have endured since time immemorial. The condition of India's most downtrodden seems unchanged despite the seemingly progressive policy steps enacted since independence. In an inchoate democracy, the order of the day should have been the reshaping of society so that the dangers of trickle-down capitalism coupled with religious jingoism are avoided.

"[I]t is pertinent to ask if Ambedkar would have welcomed this jubilation considering the present condition of his people."

Instead, as we witness the veneration of Ambedkar, the unabated rape, killing and extortion of thousands of Dalits every year are strategically swept under the carpet. Many sections of the privileged middle class believe caste as a societal barrier no longer exists. However, nothing can be further from the truth. As several authors and activists have pointed out, unlike racism, caste has no coherent form of discrimination. It isn't visible to the naked eye. It is evolutionary and is compatible with the capitalist system. Ambedkar famously remarked, "Caste is not a division of labour, it is a division of labourers". The psychological sanction it receives by the bourgeoisie makes it even harder to overcome. The fact that 37% of Dalits live below the poverty line or more than half of their children are undernourished gives us an account of the ongoing misery.

Therefore, it is pertinent to ask if Ambedkar would have welcomed this jubilation considering the present condition of his people. The need of the hour isn't a phony celebration of the life and times of a man who spent most of his political life opposing the mentality and actions of people who claimed to be harbingers of change.

Ambedkar delivered one of his most memorable speeches on the occasion of the 101st birth anniversary of Mahadev Govind Ranade, wherein he described what it takes for one to be truly great:

"Who can be called a Great Man? If asked of military heroes such as Alexander, Attila, Caesar and Tamerlane, the question is not difficult to answer. The answer becomes difficult when the question is asked about a person who is not a military general. For, it then becomes a question of tests, and different people have different tests. A man is Great because he finds a way to save Society in its hours of crisis. A Great Man must have something more than what a merely eminent individual has. What must be that thing? Here comes the importance of the philosopher's definition of a Great Man. A Great Man must be motivated by the dynamics of a social purpose and must act as the scourge and the scavenger of society."

If a societal revolution were to be initiated and given momentum by the political class, we might still stand a chance at achieving Ambedkar's dream of a casteless, free society committed to the principles of equality and fraternity. If not, we will continue to misappropriate and do injustice to his legacy.

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