Can Ambedkar’s legacy be reduced to a political totem?
The Delhi address 15 Janpath Road is a site of frenzied construction activity, a kind that is rather uncommon for the languid Lutyens Bungalow Zone. Cranes, trucks, iron rods and mounds of sand are everywhere. Large masses of workers have been putting in long hours. A contractor is heard telling a man that he has been working more than 15 hours a day, but he does not grudge it, he says. “Bahut khushi hai ki Babasaheb ke liye kuchh banaa rahe hain.” The man he addresses is a bureaucrat from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. He is here to inspect the pace of construction of the ambitious Ambedkar International Centre.
The office of Dr Ambedkar Foundation, responsible for overseeing the project, is located on site—a cramped space with the sterile air common to sarkari premises. Sudhir Hilsayan, editor of Samajik Nyay Sandesh, a monthly magazine on Ambedkar brought out by the Foundation, is the only person present in the office on a Friday evening. He summarises the purpose of the new centre. “On every street corner in every city, you will find Ambedkar. He must be the most garlanded man in this country. But, we need to move beyond ceremonial tributes. The AIC will have a discourse on social justice and action-oriented research on Ambedkar.” A modern stone building that will incorporate elements of Buddhist architecture, it will have a public library, a research centre, a convention centre, and will be made at an estimated cost of Rs 195 crore.
Some distance away, at 26 Alipur Road in Civil Lines, a grand new memorial is being built. It was once a mansion that belonged to the Raja of Sirohi who invited Ambedkar to live here in 1952, when he had to vacate his official residence after resigning from the Cabinet. Located opposite the old Vidhan Sabha, the original structure was torn down by its subsequent owners (the Jindal family), and was turned into a makeshift memorial in 2003 by the NDA Government of the time. The only memorial to Ambedkar in Delhi, which had some photographs and books stacked in a desultory fashion, hardly received any visitors. Once again, the building at that site has been demolished. Heaps of rubble is all that can be found there now. The new memorial will be built in the shape of an open book, representing the Constitution, and will have a budget of Rs 99 crore.
In November 1949, BR Ambedkar made a stirring speech on the day before the Constituent Assembly formally finished its work. “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country,” he said, “But there are limits to gratefulness.” Ambedkar drew the line at hero-worship. The irony is that his own followers did not heed him. He remains the most deified of all national leaders. In the run-up to 14 April 2016, the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar, every political party of every hue is out to demonstrate how grateful it is to him. The Congress and BJP have announced year-long celebrations beginning from April this year. Rahul Gandhi registered his presence at Ambedkar’s birthplace at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh with a rally. The Centre, in turn, announced an elaborate commemorative programme. As a sideshow, the two parties have been bickering over who can rightfully claim Ambedkar. The BJP alleges that the Congress has never given Ambedkar his due. The Congress denies this and says that it facilitated his entry to the Constituent Assembly and has always portrayed him as a statesman. For the current Government, as it promotes a new iconography of modern India that features leaders like Patel, Bose, Shastri, Jayaprakash Narayan and many others to correct what it sees as an overbalance towards the Nehru dynasty, Ambedkar is the obvious trump card, the one who has the most currency as a socio-political icon with pan-India appeal.
Last week, the biggest bid for his legacy so far was made. On a whistle-stop tour of Mumbai, Narendra Modi visited Chaitya Bhoomi, where Ambedkar was cremated in 1956, and which draws crowds from across the country. Located not far away from here is the Indu Mills compound, where the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for a long-delayed memorial to him. It will be collosal in scope, spread over an area of 12.5 acre with a budget of Rs 400 crore. A 150-foot statue of Ambedkar is planned, along with a 140-foot stupa. In the week preceding the inauguration, a Bhim Rath campaign was launched in the city to rouse support.
At the pageantry that accompanied the inauguration at Indu Mills, Modi laid his claim thus: “If Babasaheb Ambedkar wasn’t there, where would Modi be? Where would ordinary people like us be without Dr Ambedkar?” He urged followers to visit ‘Panch Teerth’, developed by the Government, five sites that commemorate his memory. Apart from sites in Delhi and Mumbai, these include his ancestral village in Maharashtra, a memorial at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, his birthplace, which was built by Shivraj Singh Chouhan in 2008, and a new memorial in London, which was acquired in August by the Maharashtra government.
The London property, bought for Rs 40 crore, is the latest in the growing cache of places that are being turned into Ambedkar memorials, the bigger, the better. The house on King Henry Road in London where Ambedkar lived in 1920s as a student of the London School of Economics will be an international study centre. Not since Mayawati has such a rage for memorials been witnessed. Both Ambedkar International Centre and the memorial at Indu Mills, though, were projects of the previous regime that were stuck in red tape and have been pushed forward by the NDA Government. “There is a spirit of one-upmanship that defines the political mood, a way of saying, ‘What you can do, I can do better.’ So everything is larger, grander, like the Patel statue and now the Ambedkar statue and memorials,” says Balveer Arora, political scientist and former rector at Jawaharlal Nehru College.
Until recently, the modest structure at Chaitya Bhoomi where Ambedkar’s ashes are interred was the only major memorial to him. The co- opting of Ambedkar was started by the Congress in the 1960s, writes Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde, as a way of mobilising the emergent Dalit vote bank. That is when Ambedkar statues began dotting cities, and roads and institutions were named after him. The new Government has only raised the stakes.
Chandra Bhan Prasad, political commentator, says that the current political scenario reflects the absurdity of offering tea to a thirsty person who has walked for miles and miles and is asking for water. Prasad is an advisor to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI). He outlines the aspirations of young Dalits. “The BJP is taking the same road that the Congress has walked for decades and has since lost the support of Dalits. They do not need symbolism. They need affirmative action. Why not pay tribute to Ambedkar by investing in Dalit enterprises and industries, by helping create jobs, a larger middle class? When young Dalits voted for the present Government, it was on the promise of better lives, development, just like everyone else.” As part of the ‘Start-up India’ initiative, Modi has encouraged banks to provide financial assistance to Dalits.
Ananya Vajpeyi of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, who is researching a book on the life of Ambedkar, points out the inherent contradictions in the political battle for his legacy. Ambedkar, in his lifetime, had differences with both the Congress and the Sangh ideology. “The BJP ideology does not have anything in common with Ambedkar’s thought, and the Sangh’s current bid to appropriate his legacy is purely opportunistic, with an eye on Dalit vote banks.” After his death in 1956, the Congress forgot about Ambedkar throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Things turned after Mandal, which brought Ambedkar back into the picture as an important source of ideas and politics relating to caste and social inequality. “If Dalit leaders fail to see the instrumentalism and opportunism in the overtures of these two political parties, and in their symbolic but empty sloganeering around the 125th anniversary of Ambedkar, then perhaps they too have their reasons to enter alliances of convenience.”
The complete catastrophe that marks Ambedkarite politics in Maharashtra, and a growing crisis in the BSP, has left a void which is easily claimed by national parties. “Observing anniversaries is one way of paying tribute to him, but it should be accompanied by an acceptance of his thoughts on equality and rights,” says Avinash Mahatekar of the RPI (A), the Athawale-led faction of the Republican Party of India, which is an NDA ally. In Maharashtra, where Dalit social activism has inspired movements in literature, theatre, art and film, it has failed to find roots in politics and is represented by a few leaders who seek the patronage of ruling parties. “In the situation that is prevalent, we have to go with bigger parties, but we are always seeking to rebuild ourselves,” says Mahatekar. For the BJP, which has the largest number of reserved Lok Sabha seats (66 of 131), Dalits are a critical constituency.
In itself, appropriation of a leader’s legacy is fair game in a democracy, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in an opinion piece. And yet. ‘Neither was caste annihilated, nor were constitutional values established. Ambedkar as a mirror of our failings would evoke more credibility than Ambedkar as another occasion for self- congratulation.’
It is as the mirror of our failings that we need him most. Given the extremities of the recent past, from the lynching at Dadri to the attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni, it is Ambedkar’s words that come back to remind us, to “abandon the bloody methods of revolution” from his speech of 1949. Ambedkar, in his prescience, did not trust Indians to fully adopt constitutional methods, to which he said, “There can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the grammar of anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”
‘History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First it contained him, and then it glorified him. It has made him India’s Leader of the Untouchables, the king of the ghetto. It has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence,’ wrote Arundhati Roy in her essay, ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, on the Gandhi-Ambedkar conflict published with a reprint of Ambedkar’s speech of 1936, ‘Annihilation of Caste.’
While anniversary celebrations can offer ways for remembering, they can equally often become instruments for forgetting. If we go by sheer presence, then Ambedkar is everywhere. Roy writes of the many ways in which his legacy has been kept alive, the most creative of which are the millions of Ambedkar statues all over the country that have stood for political mobilisation and as symbols for Dalit rights. We see the many Ambedkars—Dalit icon, architect of the Constitution, legal scholar and economist, social reformer, nationalist leader, statesman. But the Ambedkar we don’t see is the critic, the rebel, the opponent, the modernist, the author of searing texts.
As Upendra Baxi, Ambedkar scholar and professor at University of Warwick, has theorised, we have settled for “a deradicalised Ambedkar”. “The real Ambedkar is too hot to handle. You can’t hold him for five minutes. He did not want slow change. He knew there wasn’t time. He wanted to root out a system—of caste, of untouchability—which flies in the face of capitalist and Hindu logic. He knew that you cannot develop or govern if you leave a large mass of people in utter squalor,” he says. Baxi feels if Ambedkar had been given the portfolio of Finance rather than Law, India’s economy could have had a different shape. Ambedkar trained in Economics at Columbia University. Eleanor Zelliot, one of his biographers, has written of how very few Indian leaders were educated in America, and perhaps Ambedkar got his pragmatism and optimism from the country where he was educated. In 1952, he went back to Columbia to receive an honorary degree.
The man who anticipated Indian political thought and theory, the most complex figure of our times, a polymath and a revolutionary, remains greatly understudied. Though there are many institutions that bear his name, research on Ambedkar and his writings are not a part of the regular curricula. As Baxi says, “It is time to recall Ambedkar. He has the answers to many questions that riddle India. We just need more people to nurture him and his vision. We need a quest for an Ambedkarite India, to know what India would look like if we were to wear his glasses.”