Owning Ambedkar sans his views

The Gujarat government cannot selectively impart the ideas and legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Updated - March 29, 2016 05:37 pm IST

Published - August 27, 2015 01:06 am IST

Earlier this month, on August 12, several media outlets reported that the Gujarat government’s Department of Social Justice and Empowerment withdrew four lakh copies of a Gujarati textbook meant for students of classes VI to VIII, titled Rashtriya Mahapurush Bharat Ratna Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The book, authored by Dalit scholar P.A. Parmar and published by Surya Prakashan, Ahmedabad, was selected and assigned by the same government department to mark the 125th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar (1891-1956), starting from his birthday on April 14, 2015 and continuing for one year.

According to a statement given to members of the press by K.D. Kapadia, the Director of Scheduled Caste Welfare, “The publisher added some things in the book that were seen as sending a wrong message to the impressionable mind of primary school students… Some matters pertaining to religious conversion that are there in the 22 vows of Dr. Ambedkar were added by the publisher, which were seen as going against the message of national integration. Government’s action will be in the interest of the public.”

The withdrawal of this book — which had been printed in huge numbers and had arrived at various district headquarters for further distribution — raises the obvious issue of the necessity and propriety of book bans in a democratic culture. It also reminds us of the unwarranted interference by government bodies that are, strictly speaking, not meant to be dealing with education policy or implementation, in matters of syllabus creation, textbook content and socio-political “messaging” that targets young students, to use Mr. Kapadia’s language.

Conflict over textbooks

The banning of books and the continuous conflict over school and college textbooks are problems that have come up repeatedly in Indian public life, across States, and political parties, from the Left through the Centre to the Right. These actions are not “in the interest of the public”, although they are invariably sought to be justified on these grounds.

More worrying in this case is the stated reason for the withdrawal of the book. Dr. Ambedkar announced his decision to convert to Buddhism, took a formal diksha from Buddhist monks and, in turn, led the conversion of close to half a million people on October 14, 1956, in Nagpur.

He called the faith Navayana or the New Way, a protestant Buddhism based on his reinterpretation of classical Buddhism, his re-reading of its canonical texts, as well as his reorganisation of its central doctrines, tenets, practices and institutions. In the last year of his life, he wrote a massive work titled The Buddha and His Dhamma, to make the teachings of the Buddha accessible to modern readers. As part of the public ceremony of joining this new religion, followers collectively took 22 vows, written by Babasaheb himself.

In the weeks following the Nagpur initiation, and the months following Dr. Ambedkar’s death on December 6, 1956, close to four million people, mostly Dalits, (predominantly Mahars from Maharashtra), adopted this faith.

The purpose of Ambedkarite Buddhism is to liberate Dalits from untouchability and other forms of social exclusion and humiliation, all of which flow from the low status assigned to them in the orthodox Hindu caste system. Dr. Ambedkar’s vows are meant to both induct converts into a genuinely egalitarian society and enable them to leave behind modes of living, thinking and believing that were hierarchical, violent and humiliating.

It is clear that the vows serve the dual purpose of discarding the old and adopting the new. They help Neo-Buddhists reject the Hindu way of life that had oppressed them for centuries, and, at the same time, assert their adherence to an emancipatory creed.

Dr. Ambedkar’s Buddhism was as much an indictment of Hindu varna dharma as it was a modern statement of equality, intended to deepen the vision of the Constitution while also recalling the original critique of the Buddha against Vedic orthodoxy. When the laws and promises contained in the liberal statute books proved inadequate, he tried to place vulnerable communities on an equal footing by endowing them with a positive identity and a separate programme of action.

Left to himself, Dr. Ambedkar might have preferred a “civic religion”. For him, Buddhism supplemented the new republic’s guarantees of equal citizenship, universal adult franchise, fundamental rights, reservations, freedom of religion and a secular state that he had struggled to establish. But the main difficulties of Dalits stemmed from the very structure of Hindu society, which did not change much despite Independence and the Constitution. As he said in a speech to the Constituent Assembly, the political revolution was not accompanied by a social revolution. He also recognised that ordinary people in India, across castes and communities, drew strength from traditional religious faiths of various kinds. Babasaheb hoped that the Navayana would have the two-pronged effect of addressing both the problem of inequality and the desire for a religion — one that generated self-respect and a distinct identity — among his followers.

Distinct purpose

In arranging the vows in a particular order, Dr. Ambedkar seems to have wanted to first clear the ground, ensuring that ample distance is created between the Hindu faith (and along with it, the outcaste status) that the seeker was born into and the new Dhamma that is going to be embraced. The condemnation of Hinduism is unequivocal, and takes precedence over the utterance of Buddhist vows.

The break amounts to a “rebirth”, as is stated in no uncertain terms in the penultimate vow (Vow 21: “I believe that I am having a re-birth”). The Gujarat government official’s words call this “going against the message of national integration”, but obviously, it’s the rather more forceful refusal of the Ambedkarite Buddhist to remain integrated within the Hindu fold that has caused the discomfort and led to a withdrawal of the textbook in question.

The government in Gujarat and the Centre want to appropriate the legacies of modern historical figures like Sardar Patel and Dr. Ambedkar even though this makes little ideological sense, given the values these stalwarts espoused and their lack of congruence with Hindutva politics. The BJP also has cynical designs on Dr. Ambedkar with the aim of capturing a share of Dalit votes. The government-sponsored celebration of his 125th anniversary — but the inability to actually stomach his critical views on the caste system or on Hindu deities, rituals and beliefs — is an excellent illustration of the hollowness of the Hindu Right’s claims to speak in favour of Dalit rights, national integration or the public interest.

Mr. Parmar, the book’s author, went on to tell journalists that he would rather that the textbook have a few blank pages or contain more photographs of Dr. Ambedkar, than that the publisher, one Dharmesh Kothari, include the vows of his own accord, without consulting with him. Withdrawing the book seems like a defensive ploy on the part of an implicitly Hindu — and Hindu majoritarian — government to shield what Mr. Kapadia called “the impressionable mind” of the student reader just as it is about to encounter the radical force and fiercely anti-assimilationist tendency of the Navayana doctrine.

This is unacceptable. Students in Gujarat and elsewhere must be allowed to learn how Babasaheb sought to make a better, more equitable India. If to achieve this goal, he had to attack the worst aspects of society, religion and politics, whether “Hindu” or Indian, so be it. Our young, the future citizens of this country, have to be made aware of the courage it took Dr. Ambedkar to seek to annihilate caste.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.)

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