Skip to main content

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

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, The Annihilation 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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cloud seeding

Demonstrating the function of the flare rack that carries silver iodide for cloud-seeding through an aircraft. 
Water is essential for life on the earth. Precipitation from the skies is the only source for it. India and the rest of Asia are dependent on the monsoons for rains. While the South West Monsoon is the main source for India as a whole, Tamil Nadu and coastal areas of South Andhra Pradesh get the benefit of the North East Monsoon, which is just a less dependable beat on the reversal of the South West Monsoon winds.

SC asks Centre to strike a balance on Rohingya issue (.hindu)

Supreme Court orally indicates that the government should not deport Rohingya “now” as the Centre prevails over it to not record any such views in its formal order, citing “international ramifications”.

The Supreme Court on Friday came close to ordering the government not to deport the Rohingya.

It finally settled on merely observing that a balance should be struck between humanitarian concern for the community and the country's national security and economic interests.

The court was hearing a bunch of petitions, one filed by persons within the Rohingya community, against a proposed move to deport over 40,000 Rohingya refugees. A three-judge Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, began by orally indicating that the government should not deport Rohingya “now”, but the government prevailed on the court to not pass any formal order, citing “international ramifications”. With this, the status quo continues even though the court gave the community liberty to approach it in …

India’s criminal wastage: over 10 million works under MGNREGA incomplete or abandoned (hindu)

In the last three and half years, the rate of work completion under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has drastically declined, leading to wastage of public money and leaving villages more prone to drought. This could also be a reason for people moving out of the programme.

At a time when more than one-third of India’s districts are reeling under a drought-like situation due to deficit rainfall, here comes another bad news. The works started under the MGNREGA—close to 80 per cent related to water conservation, irrigation and land development—are increasingly not being completed or in practice, abandoned.

Going by the data (as on October 12) in the Ministry of Rural Development’s website, which tracks progress of MGNREGA through a comprehensive MIS, 10.4 million works have not been completed since April 2014. In the last three and half years, 39.7 million works were started under the programme. Going by the stipulation under the programme, close to 7…