Appropriating Ambedkar

While the Modi government moves him to the centre stage of national conversation, an effort is simultaneously underway to bring about a confluence of Left and Ambedkarite politics

April 21, 2016 12:10 am | Updated 04:04 am IST

The Modi government has sought to take over a number of modern political icons who do not have any historical connection with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or with Hindu right-wing ideology. This includes Mahatma Gandhi himself to begin with, Sardar Patel, and now Ambedkar.

The Modi government has sought to take over a number of modern political icons who do not have any historical connection with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or with Hindu right-wing ideology. This includes Mahatma Gandhi himself to begin with, Sardar Patel, and now Ambedkar.

The >125th birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (April 14) has occasioned commemoration, celebration and commentary over the past few days. Indian public life is filled with such anniversaries, but perhaps Ambedkar’s big birthday has attracted more attention than usual this year because at least four different political trends have converged upon him. Most noticeably, there is an aggressive bid to appropriate him on the part of the Hindu Right. Simultaneously, there is a newly awakened interest in him on the part of the parliamentary Left. Together with these two developments among mutually opposed political parties of the right and the left, there is the conflict over Ambedkar on university campuses such as that of the Hyderabad Central University and the >Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). In these academic settings, on the one hand, >student politics has increasingly embraced the figure of Ambedkar , and on the other hand, government and university authorities have targeted student leaders, activists and campus groups who profess Ambedkarite and Dalit ideology, in order to brand them “seditious” and “anti-national”. This combination of contradictory trends in both national politics as well as the microcosm of the university campus is bewildering, and calls for careful analysis.

Ambedkar, right and left The Modi government has sought to take over a number of modern political icons who do not have any historical connection with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or with Hindu right-wing ideology. This includes Mahatma Gandhi himself to begin with, Sardar Patel, and now Ambedkar. Rather than keep a distance from such figures who stood for ideas and values not just different from but also for the most part opposed to Hindutva, the Prime Minister and his party have adopted a strategy of appropriation as a means to neutralise the ideological threat posed by the legacy of such leaders. Gandhi and Patel hardly have any specific electoral constituency associated with them any longer, but in claiming Ambedkar as a hero for Hindus, the >BJP also has an eye on Dalit votes .

Thus we have seen frequent sentimental >references to Ambedkar in the PM’s speeches , expensive new museums being constructed in houses where Ambedkar lived in Delhi (Civil Lines) and >London (Primrose Hill) , and an eruption of Ambedkar signage, statuary and memorabilia in public spaces all across the country. This government has moved Ambedkar into the centre stage of the national conversation — at least in terms of superficial reminders and references, if not through actual policy and legislative reform — in a way that is quite unprecedented. More official attention and showy gestures of adulation can be expected in the coming months, since December 6, 2016 will also mark 60 years since Babasaheb’s death in 1956. (As anniversaries go, surely the BJP would prefer that December 6 be remembered as the day Ambedkar passed away rather than as the day the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya in 1992).

The Left, too, is not far behind. Senior communist leaders Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat, D. Raja and others have all recently spoken and written about Ambedkar’s commitment to equality, to the rights of Dalits and to social justice, and about his role in the making of India’s Constitution, with approval and newfound admiration. They have also criticised the BJP’s sudden love for Ambedkar, calling it politically expedient and motivated by a desire to tap into the Dalit vote (a charge that is not incorrect). Yet one wonders why the Left parties have allowed decades to pass before recognising their own natural affinities with Ambedkar, especially on questions of inequality, caste and class, reservations, labour, and Ambedkar’s scholarly interest in Karl Marx. The opportunities for debate and dialogue across the Left and Ambedkarite political traditions have existed, and been systematically wasted, since the 1930s (with brief exceptional interludes in Maharashtra in the 1970s and Karnataka in the 1980s). It may be a case today of too little, too late, or else it might be better late than never, for the Left to begin to engage with Ambedkar in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and ideologically daring.

But it is also interesting that both the Right and the Left are skating on thin ice in coming to grips with Ambedkar so long after the time when they really ought to have begun to take him seriously. And both may find, when (or if) they begin to read Ambedkar with a degree of fidelity to his ideas and respect for the actual text of his writings, that his positions on a range of significant issues — the caste system, minority identities, Brahminism, the Muslim question, religious conversion, working class politics, women’s rights — are in fact irreconcilable with their own. At the moment there are too many taboos, pieties and euphemisms in the handling of Ambedkar to permit a genuinely critical conversation between him and those eager to claim him on either end of the political spectrum. Everyone is too busy trying to recruit him into this or that political camp to acknowledge that he never belonged to the Left or Right, something he knew full well in his lifetime, even though it isolated him politically from his own historical context.

Babasaheb on campus>JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s rousing speech , soon after his release from jail in early March, made an elaborate reference to the solidarity that needs to be forged between Left-wing and Ambedkarite politics, calling them the “red” and the “blue” political traditions, and chanting both their slogans, ‘Lal Salaam!’ and ‘Jai Bhim!’, in a wonderful display of old-fashioned oratory that had the whole nation mesmerised for almost an hour on live television. To be fair, this is not entirely an original coinage by Mr. Kumar — on the contrary, it is a convergence that the Marx-Phule-Ambedkar strand of ideology in Maharashtra’s Dalit politics has long tried to popularise, and can be heard even today in the poetry, songs and speeches of local Maharashtrian activists such as Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali, associated with the radical Kabir Kala Manch that stands for the annihilation of caste. But Mr. Kumar brought it to the country’s attention in a big way, and put across the message in a vivid metaphor that people could relate to, a rhetorical-polemical accomplishment for which he deserves full credit.

Anyone who participated in the multiple marches, teach-ins and demonstrations that took place in Hyderabad, Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and elsewhere throughout January, February and March, following >Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the >arrest and subsequent release of JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar , >Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya , will recall immediately the visually arresting sight of red and blue flags raised, waved and carried by thousands of citizens, and the soaring chants of a coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution that rang out on the streets, in the squares and on university campuses for the first three months of 2016. The novelty and the idealism of these mass protests were clear for all to see; but as a participant in many of these events in Delhi, I can testify that they were also marked by uncertainty and a lack of direction: Who is leading this inchoate Indian Spring? Does it have a clear agenda? Will it develop into a real political alternative in the future? Can a student-led movement, which is by definition transient (like students who enter and pass through the university), acquire a staying power of its own, or will it be subsumed under the banners of existing political parties and held hostage to their failures and limitations?

The bespectacled figure of Ambedkar, with his copy of the Constitution held to his side, stands silently over this moment of popular tumult, rising over a sea of red flags like a lighthouse. But that ship is yet to set sail. Meanwhile, the Modi government, its Ministry of Human Resource Development, its Department of Higher Education, its vice-chancellors at central universities, and the BJP leadership, are busy harassing, silencing, jailing and disciplining Dalit and backward caste students, attacking politically outspoken — and especially Left-wing and Ambedkarite — faculty, trying to dismantle reservations policy and indeed the public university itself as an institution, cutting the budget of the University Grants Commission, rolling back stipends and bursaries for research scholars, curbing intellectual freedom and the right to dissent, and cracking down on student politics, particularly on campus groups that identify themselves with Ambedkarite activism, in ways never before seen in the history of independent India. It’s remarkable how the same administration that apparently spares no expense in “celebrating” Ambedkar’s 125th anniversary also does not spare anyone who actually follows Ambedkar in struggling to create genuine liberty, equality and fraternity.

In a suicide note that may yet become the warrant for a new political formation at the confluence of the Indian Left and the Dalit movement as these have conventionally been understood, Rohith Vemula lamented the inability of caste society to treat a human being humanely. He wrote, unforgettably: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.” To Rohith’s memory and to Babasaheb on his birthday are dedicated these lines from the poem “America”, by Langston Hughes:

Knowing / There are stains / On the beauty of my democracy / I want to be clean. / I want to grovel no longer / In the mire. / I want to reach always / After stars.

Ananya Vajpeyi, the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (2012), is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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