Ambedkar’s Buddhism suggests ways to tackle both the politics and metaphysics of identity.

A conference on “Phule-Ambedkar Ideology” and its influence on literature took me to Nasik, Maharashtra, in late January 2013. Hosted at a small local college, the conference drew speakers mostly from universities within Maharashtra, but also a few outsiders like me. Besides a number of academics from the region, poets Vaharu Sonawane and Lakshman Gaekwad, and politicians Udit Raj and Raja Dhale also attended, and made impassioned speeches. The focus was supposed to be on literature — autobiographies, biographies, novels, plays, poetry, literary criticism and aesthetic theories — but perhaps inevitably the discussion, proceeding mostly in Marathi, included all aspects of Dalit life, politics, history and writing. Outside in the college courtyard, a book display included not just a sample of literary works in Marathi and Hindi by Dalit writers, but also an assortment of books by or to do with Gautama Buddha, Kabir, Mahatma Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Vinayak Savarkar, Chatrapati Shivaji, and, oddly, Adolf Hitler and Barack Obama. Some pamphlets on reservations policy, human rights and constitutional law were also on sale. Radical and reactionary works sat side-by-side on tables laid out in the winter sun; the uncomfortable assemblage mirrored quite precisely the contradictory tendencies at play in Dalit discourse in Maharashtra today.

Later, whilst speaking with some of the conference participants as well as with activists outside the academy who happened to be living in Nasik, I discovered for the first time that among groups that self-identify as Ambedkarite Buddhist or Neo-Buddhist, the term “Dalit” is no longer favoured.

Why is this? I asked. Because it connotes humiliation, was one reply, and because it is still tied to the Hindu caste system. But isn’t the humiliation productive of righteous anger and defiant energy, and hadn’t the Hindu caste system been left behind through the outright rejection of terms like “Untouchable”, “Mahar”, “antyaja”, “panchama” and even the Gandhian “Harijan”? My informants disagreed. “We are Buddhists,” they said, “and we are followers of Babasaheb. These terminologies are now redundant. We have nothing to do with Hinduism or its hierarchies.”

But how do you build solidarities with other followers of Ambedkar who are not Buddhists (like in north India or south India), and who do use names like “Dalit” or “Dalit-Bahujan” to describe their socio-political identity? I did not receive any clear response to this question, despite posing it in myriad ways. Perhaps there is a genuine impasse in the building of an all-India Dalit movement precisely for this reason; that at a fundamental level different segments do not have similar ways of constructing identity or of situating evolving identities with regard to either recent or deep history.

Economically and educationally advancing Maharashtrian Buddhists, whom I encountered in Nasik, expressed their discomfort not just with “Dalit” but also with “Scheduled Caste” as an appellation. They regarded “SC/ST” certificates as useful instruments in terms of accessing certain forms of social justice and political representation, but also seemed resentful of the connotations of inequality and lack of ability, the smell of being “undeserving” of a rightful place alongside others that sneak in along with the Trojan horse of reservation. Buddhism seemed then to be a provisional solution to the problem of identity. It makes a clear break from the Hindu caste system, but also brackets the subtly humiliating baggage of modern forms of compensatory discrimination. Not that the actual problems go away if we do not take their name, but at least Buddhism provides some sort of breathing room away from the entire dynamic of caste and the annihilation of caste in which generations of people have been trapped for nearly three quarters of a century now.

More recently at my place of work, in a special meeting to mark 30 years of Ranajit Guha’s foundational work of Subaltern Studies, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), poet and scholar Professor Badri Narayan, associated with the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, spoke about Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh. Not only did he use terms like “Dalit” and “Dalit-Bahujan”, he also described how particular jatis like the Chamars — because of the direct patronage of leaders like the late Kanshi Ram and former UP Chief Minister Mayawati — seemed to enjoy prominence and privileges far in excess of well over 60 other Dalit groups in the state. This has created new inequalities and imbalances within the Dalit community, adding to the already existing distortions in the relations between upper castes and backward castes, the majority community and the minority Muslims, and other problems of UP’s social landscape with which we are all familiar.

Professor Narayan suggested that elements like widespread education, the formation of an elite class, the activities of intellectuals, the awareness of caste histories and their availability in written form — all of these provide value and visibility to the Chamars, while other communities lag behind. He too reported that the increasing use of Buddhist imagery, concepts and vocabulary when addressing the most backward of the Dalit groups in UP was proving to be a somewhat effective antidote to persistent feelings of low status, lack of self-worth and self-confidence, and the sense of being stuck in a centuries-old rut inside traditional caste politics.

Badri Narayan did not develop this point extensively, but there might be a way in which it is not just the overt politics of Buddhist identification that proves to be empowering (Buddhists are not Hindus), but also the very nature of Buddhist epistemology that could be emancipatory (managing and overcoming perceptions in order to grasp reality, the negation of appearances in order to approach actuality). As Neo-Buddhists and non-Buddhist Dalits evolve various strategies of self, sovereignty and empowerment, and figure out the common goals of their distinct practices of identity-formation, B.R. Ambedkar’s far-sightedness in embracing Buddhism will surely become more clear to us than it might be today.