An Ambedkar for our times

Today, Ambedkar certainly outshines every other leader in terms of public acceptance. However, the incidences of casteism also show parallel growth. This paradoxical phenomenon can be explained only by separating the real Ambedkar from the unreal one

April 02, 2014 02:24 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

In an interview published in Outlook (March 10, 2014), Arundhati Roy says, “We need Ambedkar — now, urgently” — it was in connection with the publication of a new annotated edition of Ambedkar’s text, TheAnnihilation of Caste , brought out by Navayana, a New Delhi-based publishing house. Ms. Roy wrote a 164-page essay titled “The Doctor and the Saint” as an introduction to the book, which has now become 415 pages thick, expanding the core text of just about 100 pages.

Behind the controversy

Her introduction has already created an unseemly controversy in Dalit circles, reminiscent of the debate in the 1970s in the wake of incipient Dalit literature, about who could produce Dalit literature. The protagonists of Dalits insisted that one had to be born a Dalit to do that. The controversy now reflects a similar identitarian obsession that one had to produce a caste certificate (Scheduled Caste) to introduce either Ambedkar or his text. It is intriguing however why such a controversy has cropped up only in the case of Ms. Roy especially when scores of non-Dalits have written on Ambedkar and his writings earlier. Is it because of her celebrity status or of her infamy as a Maoist sympathiser as perceived by middle class Dalits? The latter is more probable. For them, anything even remotely connected with communism is enough to evoke despisal and disapproval.

Whatever be the motivation behind this uproar, it is surely unwarranted. Ignoring the outpouring of nasty “one-liners” in social media, the main objections, at a reasonable level, to her writing this piece appear to be her undue projection of Gandhiji to introduce Ambedkar or to her being qualified to do the job in the first place or even her purported introduction not being an introduction to the text that followed. Even if one concedes the validity of these viewpoints, they need not have been expressed with such vehemence and negativity. As a matter of fact, the creative writer in Ms. Roy chose not the text per se but the stand-off between Ambedkar and Gandhiji in the context of Gandhiji’s reaction to the text in his magazine Harijan . She imagined that she could bring forth the problem of castes far more effectively if she used the contrast between Ambedkar and Gandhiji, who best represented moderate Hindu society, than dealing with the subject matter in a dry and mechanical manner. As for the qualification, while she took great pains to understand the issue she wrote on, her writings never reflected any aura of authority beyond a commonsensical objectivity necessitated by her style. Perhaps, and therefore, they appeal more to common people than to the so-called intellectuals.

Ambedkar, real and unreal

The most interesting argument however came not from Dalits but, paradoxically, an upper caste journalist (“B.R. Ambedkar, Arundhati Roy, and the politics of appropriation” by G. Sampath, Livemint , March 18, 2014). Challenging Ms. Roy, it said that if she wanted the bauxite under the Niyamgiri hills to be left to the Adivasis, why did she not leave Ambedkar who has been the only possession of Dalits to Dalits themselves? Interestingly though, the implication of the argument can be dangerous insofar as any engagement of the “other” defined as such on the basis of caste can be dismissed as illegitimate. May be, Ambedkar symbolises the cultural good of Dalits, but still, to ghettoise him to Dalits alone will mean downright disrespect to him and incalculable harm to the cause of Dalits. Niyamgiri left to the Adivasis implies a progressive interrogation of the prevailing developmental paradigm, while leaving Ambedkar to Dalits will mean retrogressive destruction of the annihilation-agenda of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

The controversy has surprisingly gone past the main point — that it is the bland business logic of the publisher that has fundamentally drawn Ms. Roy into writing the introduction. With her stature as a Booker Prize awardee, later amplified by her fearless pro-people stands on various issues on various occasions, the book was sure to go global. Moreover, it can well be imagined that her writing would certainly create a controversy, as has happened before. All this would mean a bonanza for any publisher in boosting sales of the book. Whether Navayana had consciously thought it out this way or not, these established product strategies of a publisher cannot be grudged by anyone as, after all, s/he has to follow the grammar of business. Notwithstanding the “anti-caste” tag Navayana tends to wear of late, publishing adulatory and cultish literature on Ambedkar is not the same thing as supporting the annihilation of castes. Once this controversy raked up by a few dies down, the vast majority of Dalits would rather take pride in the point that even Arundhati Roy joined them in worshipping their god. Every such form of Ambedkar adulation has indeed been reinforcing the caste identity and directly distances the annihilation project.

The acceptance of Ambedkar does not necessarily equate itself with the spread of an anti-caste ethos. Today, Ambedkar certainly outshines every other leader in terms of public acceptance. No other leader can rival him in the number of statues, pictures, congregations, books, research, organisations, songs, or any other marker of popularity of/on him. Curiously, his picture has become a fixture even in movies and television episodes. However, the incidences of casteism as indicated by cases of caste discrimination, caste atrocities, caste associations and caste discourses, etc. also show parallel growth. This paradoxical phenomenon can be explained only by separating the real Ambedkar from the unreal one, cast into the icons constructed by vested interests to thwart the consciousness of radical change ever germinating in Dalit masses. These icons package the enigmatic real Ambedkar into a simplistic symbol: an architect of the Constitution, a great nationalist, the father of reservations, a staunch anti-communist, a liberal democrat, a great parliamentarian, a saviour of Dalits, a bodhisattva, etc. These icons of the harmless, status quo-ist Ambedkar have been proliferated all over and overshadow a possible, radical view of the real Ambedkar.

Which Ambedkar?

Notwithstanding the intrigues behind the promotion of such icons by vested interests with active support from the state, the evolution of Ambedkar, the pragmatist sans any ideological fixation, all through his life, makes him intrinsically difficult to understand. A young Ambedkar who theorised castes as the enclosed classes, the enclosure being provided by the system of endogamy and exogamy, expecting the larger Hindu society to wake up and undertake social reforms like intermarriage in order to open up castes into classes is in contrast to the post-Mahad Ambedkar, disillusioned by the rabid reactions from caste Hindus, turning his sights to politics to accomplish his objective. Were his threats of conversion to Islam for a separate political identity for Dalits, or to force caste Hindus to consider social reforms? Then there is the Ambedkar of the 1930s, anxious to expand his constituency to the working classes sans castes, who founded the Independent Labour Party (ILP), arguably the first Left party in India, and walked with the communists but at the same time one who declared his resolve to convert to some other religion to escape castes. What about the Ambedkar of the 1940s, who returns to the caste, dissolves the ILP and forms the Scheduled Castes Federation, shuns agitational politics and joins the colonial government as labour minister or the one who wrote States and Minorities , propounding state socialism be hardcoded into the proposed Constitution of free India? Or Ambedkar, the staunchest opponent of the Congress or the one who cooperated with the Congress in joining the all-party government and accepted its support to get into the Constituent Assembly? Or even the Ambedkar who developed the representation logic culminating in reservations, expecting that a few advanced elements from among Dalits would help the community progress or the one who publicly lamented that educated Dalits had let him down? Or the Ambedkar who was the architect of the Constitution and advised Dalits to adopt only constitutional methods for a resolution of their problems or the one who disowned it in the harshest possible terms and spoke of being the first person to burn it down? And finally, the Ambedkar who kept referring to Marx as a quasi benchmark to assess his decisions? Or the one who embraced Buddhism and created the ultimate bulwark against communism in India to use the words of one of his scholars, Eleanor Zelliot, or even the one who would favourably compare Buddha and Marx just a few days before bidding adieu to the world, saying their goal was the same but that they differed in the ways of achieving them — Buddha’s being better than Marx’s? These are just a few broad vignettes of him, problematic in typifying him in a simplistic manner. If one goes deeper, one is bound to face far more serious problems.

Ambedkar is surely needed as long as the virus of caste lingers in this land but not as a reincarnation of the old one as most Dalits emotionally reflect on. Not even in the way Ms. Roy would want him to come now and urgently. He will have to be necessarily constructed to confront the far messier problem of contemporary castes than that obtained in his times.

(Anand Teltumbde is a civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai.)

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