Sunday, 1 May 2016

Modi’s Faux Pas on Ambedkar

Modi’s Faux Pas on Ambedkar
EPW : Vol. 51, Issue No. 16, 16 Apr, 2016
Narendra Modi
recently described himself as an Ambedkar bhakt and also assured Dalits that he
would never dilute reservations even if B R Ambedkar himself were to come back
to life and demand their revocation. The faux pas reveals the desperation of
the Hindutva forces to woo Dalits by misrepresenting Ambedkar and the critical
role reservation plays in the political schema of the ruling classes.
Reservations, which are assumed to be a boon for Dalits, have actually been the
tool of their enslavement. 
I am no
worshipper of idols.
 I believe in
breaking them.
—B R Ambedkar1
Prime Minister
Narendra Modi while delivering the sixth Ambedkar Memorial Lecture on 22 March
at Vigyan Bhavan made many interesting points. Two of them, however, are
particularly important insofar that they expose him as a representative of the
ruling classes, in deliberately misrepresenting B R Ambedkar. The first point
was his proclamation that he is an Ambedkar bhakt (devotee). The second
was his assertion that the reservation policy for the Dalits and the tribals
will not be diluted even if Ambedkar himself were to come back to life and
demand its revocation. Of course, both these statements, as indeed all his
utterances and displays of Ambedkar-love, are simply meant to woo Dalits into
the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) fold.
behind Ambedkar-love
Dalits constitute
an important part of the Sangh Parivar’s game plan. Its strategic apple cart of
polarisation of the Indian population into Hindus versus others and communists
(those who do not agree with it) can be potentially toppled by Dalits. With
their historical, social, ideological and cultural profile, Dalits can indeed
be a big spoilsport. It cannot be taken for granted that Dalits would identify
themselves as Hindus anymore.
Way back in 1909,
the issue had naturally surfaced in the wake of the colonial plan to seed
Indian politics along communal lines. During the negotiations for the
Morley–Minto Reforms (Indian Councils Act, 1909) the Muslim League had
challenged the Congress that the Dalits and the Adivasis were not part of
Hinduism. The incipient Dalit movement, which was still focused on the
rudimentary right of Dalits to be treated as humans, had not yet taken the form
of independent political articulation. Nonetheless, the Congress was compelled
to take note of the Dalits after it entered into the Lucknow Pact with the
Muslim League in the wake of the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms for promulgation of
the Government of India Act, 1919. This was the first time in history that the
Hindus took political note of the Dalits. Symbolically, it was M K Gandhi, who
spoke in Ahmedabad against the evil practice of untouchability in June 1916,
and showed concern for the Dalits.
The Congress
organised at least four conferences in 1916 to seek the support of the Dalits
in Bombay province alone. Ambedkar, after his disillusionment with the Hindus
in the Mahad struggle in 1927, used this space to create an independent
political identity for Dalits. His attacks on the Hindus and their religion,
which culminated in his renouncing Hinduism and embracing Buddhism barely two
months before his death, permanently stamped a separate religio–cultural
identity on Dalits. It is this history that comes in the way of the Sangh
Parivar in accomplishing its goal of making India a Hindu rashtra, the
euphemism for restoring the old Brahminic structural paradigm of the
totalitarian rule of high-bred elites with a unitary command of a supreme
leader, the equivalent of ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer (one people,
one nation, one leader) of Nazism.
It is for this
reason that Ambedkar assumes critical importance in the Sangh Parivar’s
strategy. Unless it saffronised Ambedkar adequately, this history would haunt
them. The new-found love for Ambedkar stems from this political expediency. The
ideological weakness of the Dalit movement, the bankruptcy of Dalit leadership,
the self-centred Dalit middle class and Dalit masses’ deification of Ambedkar
in place of the Hindu gods, whom they had discarded at his instance, makes it
so much easier for the Sangh Parivar to accomplish the seemingly impossible
task of saffronising Ambedkar.
It was actually
during the tenure of Balasaheb Deoras (Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras), perhaps the
most low-profile sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
(RSS), that many such strategic moves were initiated. It was during his tenure
that the conscious work by the Sangh among Dalits had begun under the
non-governmental organisation Seva Bharati, devoted to uplifting the Dalits.
This included placing Ambedkar among the Sangh’s pratahsmaraniya, and
floating of a special purpose vehicle, the samrasata manch, to woo
middle-class Dalits who yearned for social recognition of the upper castes.
Until then, Ambedkar had been an anathema for the Sangh Parivar, for his
vitriolic attack on what they held sacred. With this strategic shift, it began
projecting him as the friend of K B Hedgewar, as the greatest benefactor of the
Hindus, admirer of the RSS, one opposed to Muslims and communists, one
supportive of the ghar wapsi, an advocate of the saffron flag as the
national flag, a great nationalist, and so on. No doubt, these were white lies,
at best having tenuous links to the issues, but they were projected as truths
with Goebbelsque zeal.
Howsoever one may
dismiss these gimmicks, they cannot be ignored. They created a solid ground for
co-opting Dalit leaders. In the last couple of elections, the BJP has been
having more reserved seats in its fold than all parties together. But, just the
reserved seats are not enough. Their polarisation strategy is contingent on
deradicalising Dalits and winning them over. It is only then that their
strategy of polarisation is viable. Because its converse is the alienation of
the minorities—which with Dalits could make up to 30% of the votes—it would
seriously impede their plans for a Hindu rashtra. The strategy subsumes
isolation of Dalit radicals like Rohith Vemula; it is similar to tagging
Adivasis as Maoists.
Disliked Bhakts
Modi should know
that Ambedkar disliked bhakts. He disliked being worshipped like a hero. He was
totally against it in the political life, because it prevented a spirit of
inquiry, a sense of creativity and an independent attitude of the mind. His
biographer Dhananjay Keer writes,
At another meeting
held in Bombay to present him with an address, in the first week of March 1933,
he said, ‘This address is full of superlatives about my work and qualities. It
means you are deifying a common man like you. These ideas of hero worship will
bring ruin on you if you do not nip them in the bud. By deifying an individual,
you repose faith for your safety and salvation in one single individual with
the result that you get into the habit of dependence and grow indifferent to
your duty. If you fall a victim to these ideas, your fate will be no better
than logs of wood in the national stream of life. Your struggle will come to
naught’ (2005: 234).
In 1943, in a
lecture delivered on the 101st birthday of Mahadev Govind Ranade, he further
explained why he was against hero-worship. It is said that in Nagpur on the eve
of the conversion ceremony in 1956, people came to greet him and began falling
on his feet in reverence. Ambedkar, although not well, took his stick and hit
one of them and shouted that he did not like their servile behaviour. If he had
been alive, even Modi would have faced admonition. Ambedkar would have advised
him to focus on his constitutional duty to protect Dalits from societal
Modi, in curtailing
allocation of funds for development of Dalits, is allowing a free hand in
crushing radical expression of Dalit students and creating conditions that lead
to the institutional murders of promising Dalit scholars like Rohith Vemula.
They are being thrashed black and blue by the police on demanding justice—as
what happened on 22 March at the University of Hyderabad. He is simultaneously
singing paeans to Ambedkar. Modi should know that Ambedkar was not a petty
politician to be pleased by sycophants. Painting him as one is insulting him.
Ambedkar would have
certainly detested his deification. Unfortunately, his so-called followers have
also fallen prey to the machinations of the ruling classes to iconise him into
his antithesis. Instead of understanding their intrigues, the Dalits too take
pride in the state conferring honours on him and showering him with praises.
Ambedkar would have never approved of building grand memorials for politicians
or for himself. He would have rather questioned the priorities of squandering
public resources over dead men when millions did not have basic necessities for
survival. The manner in which the BJP government grabbed the opportunity to
build memorials after Ambedkar in an act of one-upmanship over the Congress
should have made Dalits wary. Unfortunately, a majority of them celebrated it,
took pride in the state honouring their icon and willingly got into the BJP’s
Trap of Reservations
The second point
Modi made is more intricate as it is important. The reservations for the Dalits
have been an emotional issue and hence were never viewed objectively by anyone.
When Modi said in a reassuring tone that the reservations would not be touched
even if Ambedkar came and demanded their revocation, he inadvertently revealed
their importance to his class.
Ambedkar is
singularly responsible for reservations; initially for political
representation, and later for reservations in public employment and in
educational institutions. The intent behind the former measure was defeated at
the outset. The intent was to send Dalit representatives to legislative bodies
so as to promote their interests. Ambedkar conceived of separate electorates
for Dalits in order to ensure they elect their true representative. He had
managed to secure this in the Round Table Conferences (1930–32), despite fierce
opposition from Gandhi. But, soon after their announcement, Gandhi blackmailed
him with his fast unto death. Ambedkar gave up separate electorates and
accepted joint electorates instead, through what came to be known as the Poona Pact
As against the
separate electorates, which could ensure independent representation of Dalits,
the joint electorates guaranteed the election of such Scheduled Castes as would
be admissible for the majority of non-Dalits, thereby producing stooges, to use
Kanshi Ram’s (1982) language. There remained no theoretical possibility of a
true protagonist of Dalit masses getting elected. The earliest proof is
provided by the fact that none other than Ambedkar himself could never win an
election in post-independence India—even against non-entities.
Ambedkar was
uncomfortable with these reservations, but could do nothing when they were
incorporated into the Constitution, except putting a time limit of 10 years. It
is testimony to their utility to the ruling classes that the 10-year limit has
been extended, every time it lapsed, without anyone ever asking for it. These
reservations have been clearly detrimental to the interest of Dalits as they
have decimated the independent Dalit movement and created a class of brokers
masquerading as Dalit leaders.
The reservations in
public employment and educational institutions came into being initially as a
preferential system and became a quota system in 1943 at the behest of Ambedkar
when he was a member of the viceroy’s executive council. They surely proved
quite beneficial initially, to the extent that the sizeable Dalit middle class
that we see in urban areas is largely attributable to them. But, thereafter,
their limitation and adverse effects began surfacing. Reservations became a
powerful alibi to preserve castes as a weapon in the hands of the ruling
classes to keep the Indian masses divided perennially.
The entire social
justice issue could have been handled very differently during the making of the
Constitution, but it was systematically driven towards not only preserving
castes, but fortifying them. Since reservations, even in its quota form, had
been instituted during the colonial times, and were provided for the people
with an administrative identity of “Scheduled Caste,” snapping their umbilical
cord with Hinduism, the Constitution could have easily done away with castes
too when it pompously outlawed untouchability.
reservations could have been conceived as an exceptional policy for exceptional
people due to the larger society’s inability to treat them as equals. With this
conception of reservation there could have been an intrinsic motivation for
society to do away with its inability, which, besides becoming a terminal
condition as desired for the public policy of such nature, would have been a
powerful force in the annihilation of castes. It is only the larger society
that could annihilate castes. The premise of backwardness implicit in the
reservation system, which unfortunately remains unnoticed, reinforced the basic
notion prevailing in society of the inferiority of lower castes.
Not an
Innocent Act
Missing this
crucial conception of policy was unfortunately not an innocent act or the
imagination deficit of the Constituent Assembly, but a deliberate plan to forge
reservations into a powerful weapon to make it impossible for people to
threaten the monopoly of political power of the ruling classes. In its
mechanics, reservations have again ensured that they would progressively keep
benefiting the beneficiaries, creating thereby potential class of allies from
among these masses.
Leave aside the
public sector jobs, which have been consistently reducing since 1997 under the
pressure of neo-liberal policies, thereby effectively bringing reservations in
public employment to an end, the reserved seats in our premier educational
institutions have been supply-starved. The reserved seats in IITs and IIMs have
not been filled for the past many years because of the narrow supply base of
Dalits and Adivasis. There are numerous anomalies, moreover, with serious
implications to social amity. Reservations benefit the family of a beneficiary,
but are given in the name of caste, making the latter bear the brunt of
prejudice. They could, thus, be seen as directly responsible for the increasing
atrocities on Dalits in rural areas.
Reservations may be
seen as hugely detrimental to the Dalit masses inasmuch as they are perennially
blocked by their urban counterparts. Reservations are unquestioningly seen as
benefits without reckoning the huge social and psychological costs they entail.
The biggest cost of reservations is survival of castes and the decimation of
Ambedkar’s project of “Annihilation of Caste.” The psychological havoc it plays
on the minds of Dalit children early on in schools, that they belong to some
inferior species, reduces them to conform to the self-fulfilling prophesy of
their inferiority. Reservations also have provided a cover for the ruling
classes’ neglect of their obligation to provide for basic needs of the
population, namely, basic public healthcare, education and employment.
Ambedkar had sensed
the shortcomings of his vision, which had created an island of higher-educated
Dalits. He publicly expressed his displeasure in his speech in Agra in 1953, saying
that the educated Dalits had cheated him. He had imagined, from his own
example, that a few well-educated Dalits would occupy crucial administrative
positions and support the Dalit cause. He saw during his lifetime that instead
of caring for the Dalit masses, these educated Dalits were getting disconnected
from them. Unfortunately, he could not fathom the causal linkage that the class
transformation of these higher-educated Dalits would prevent them from
identifying with the Dalit masses.
If he had been
alive today to see the full unfolding of these policies, Ambedkar would have
certainly demanded their revocation as Modi insinuated. The real meaning of
reservations should be seen in terms of who benefits from them and who pays the
cost for them.
1 In “Ranade,
Gandhi & Jinnah,” address delivered on the 101st Birthday Celebration of
Mahadev Govind Ranade, held on 18 January 1943 in Gokhale Memorial Hall, Poona.
Keer, Dhananjay
(2005): Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.
Ram, Kanshi (1982):
The Chamcha Age (An Era of the Stooges), published on 24 September 1982
on the occasion of 50th anniversary of the Poona Pact, pamphlet, published by
Kanshi Ram, New Delhi.
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