'Political parties have worked to strengthen caste system'
Bhagwan Das, a research associate of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, is best known as compiler and editor of the four volumes of Thus
Spoke Ambedkar. He spoke to Prasanna Raghav about his meetings with Ambedkar and the trajectory of Dalit politics in India: When did you first meet Ambedkar? My father, who was politically and socially aware through his readings, was a great admirer of Dr Ambedkar, referring to him as Ummeedkar, the one who brings hope. I used to read every newspaper article about Babasaheb with great interest. When i first went to meet him in Simla in 1943 with a request for a job, i had to wait for seven hours. Impressed with me, he promised me a job and i got my appointment letter in 15 days. Mahatma Gandhi was also against discrimination of Dalits. How were the two leaders different? Gandhi was no friend of untouchables. Though Gandhi sensitised the people of India towards the evils of untouchability, it was only due to Gandhi's fast-unto-death that the right of untouchables to choose their own representatives was snatched away from them in elections. He included and excluded us at the same time. What changes have you witnessed in Dalit politics since independence? It has deteriorated. In the pre-independence days, Dalit leaders used to be well educated and informed about issues regarding their community and the society as a whole. The movement was vibrant. Unlike today it wasn't only lip service and vote-bank politics. They encouraged untouchables to take up education. For example, Babasaheb started three colleges across Maharashtra and a school in Mumbai. Ambedkar didn't only talk about fight against exploitation but also against the caste system. But today, everybody uses Babasaheb's name only for political gains. No present-day politician can ever come close to following what the great Dalit leader preached. They don't even know about his teachings and principles. No Dalit leader can ever acquire a pan-Indian identity like Ambedkar. And that's why Dalits continue to wallow in poverty and illiteracy. Do you think that proliferation of Dalit parties and leaders has changed the course of Indian politics? It has certainly, but only for the worse. Instead of abolishing discrimination, Dalit parties have worked to strengthen the caste system, by further driving a wedge between scheduled castes and other groups. Their method of assertion is wrong. Only a few people in the corridors of power have benefited from the ascendancy of some Dalit leaders. For example, a chamar leader will only work for his community since Dalits as a whole are not united. Has reservation in jobs, education and legislature helped to improve the lot of Dalits? Quota has helped but it has not been implemented properly. Prejudice against us is very strong and officers from our community are still humiliated at the workplace.