‘The Hindu Social Order is based upon a division of labour which reserves for the Hindus clean and respectable jobs and assigns to the untouchables dirty and mean jobs and thereby clothes the Hindus with dignity and heaps ignominy upon the untouchables.’
It was the year 1927 when the historic struggle for civil rights took place under the leadership of Dr B. R. Ambedkar in Mahad, then part of Bombay province, when thousands of Dalits and fellow travellers went to a public pond in Mahad and drank water from it. It was a rebellion against the Varna mind set as caste Hindus still prohibited Dalits from touching water to save it from ‘pollution’ – despite the fact that the Mahad municipality had passed a resolution to that effect.
It was only last year that the nation celebrated the ninetieth year of the ‘Mahad Kranti’, as it is termed in Dalit folklore , we were witness to a very disturbing spectacle. Billboards were put up at New Delhi railway station, where Ambedkar was presented as an icon for cleanliness. It showed a Ambedkar look alike leading a group of people towards a dustbin to throw garbage and the banner headline asked people to ‘Wake up the Spirit of Babasaheb Ambedkar and participate in this great campaign of cleaning rubbish’ ( Áap ke andar ke Babasaheb ko Aap Jagrut Karein . Gandagi ke khilaf is Mahan Abhiyan mein apna yogdan dein)
Kudos to the immediate intervention by Ambedkarite groups and concerned individuals, who lodged a strong protest against this act, these billboards exhibiting ‘’castiest mind set’ were removed, and an investigation was ordered.
Anybody can say that the billboards, which must have been vetted by a senior officials, gave vent to a thinking among the ruling elite that for them Dr Ambedkar was no more than a person belonging to one of those depressed castes whose members are ‘supposed’ to engage in the work of cleaning as per diktats of religion.
While the nation and its people make preparations to celebrate his 117th birth anniversary, as usual in a very big way, one witnesses another strange move by the UP government. It passed an order to add the word ‘Ramji’ as Dr Ambedkar’s middle name in all official documents. (Ramji happened to be Dr Ambedkar’s father”s name) This move to correct historical records, as it is being claimed, was met with furious criticism by Dalit activists and intellectuals. Even his two grandsons Prakash and Anandrao questioned the government’s move.
Reducing Dr. Ambedkar as an icon of cleanliness or adding ‘Ramji’ as his middle name can be seen as part of the same process where attempts are on, so that a much sanitised image of the great man lingers on in people’s memory and they gradually even forget his radical contributions challenging Brahminism and Capitalism.
The manner in which the then Anandiben Patel led government of Gujarat abruptly decided to dump a book on Dr. Ambedkar, which it itself had prepared for free distribution in government primary schools, presents another illustrative example of their ongoing search for a ‘suitable’ Ambedkar. The reason cited was that it contained writings which went against the message of “national integration.”
Remember the matter under consideration had been personally drafted by Dr Ambedkar himself and they were the “22 vows” Ambedkar himself prescribed during the mass religious conversion of 1956, in which thousands of his followers shed Hinduism and embraced Buddhism.
One can cite numerous such examples which exhibit reduction, distortion and appropriation of Dr Ambedkar’s image by the ruling elite for its own immediate interests but would it be correct to say that the image of Dr Ambedkar, which most of us carry, matches with his actual contributions as a great leader, scholar and renaissance thinker, all put together ?
Let us close our eyes and think of his image which emerges before our mind’s eye if somebody mentions his name.
Barring some exceptions, imagery around Ambedkar does not transcend these limits in most of the cases: “Dalit leader, social reformer, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, fought for the rights of Scheduled Castes’, ‘embraced Buddhism with lakhs of followers”.
The imagery does not include the historic Mahad Satyagrah, at the Chawdar Lake nor does it include the burning of Manusmriti in its second phase, which was compared to French revolution by Ambedkar in his speech. It also does not include details of the first political party formed under his leadership called Independent Labour Party, role of many non-dalits or even upper castes in the movement led by him or the historic march to Bombay assembly against the ‘Khot pratha’ where communists had participated in equal strength. His historic speech to the railway workers in Manmad where he asked them to fight the twin enemies of ‘Brahmninism’ and ‘Capitalism’ or his struggle for Hindu Code Bill, which ultimately became cause of his resignation from Nehru cabinet, all these details of his stormy life, never get mention in the imagery.
Why is it that most of us know so little of him, which is definitely not the case with other great leaders who emerged during the movements for political and social-cultural emancipation in the first half of 20th century?
Was it part of a deliberate process where leaders of the oppressed are either glossed over or it happened inadvertently or so?
This selective amnesia about Ambedkar is largely due to the way in which the ruling classes then dominated by the upper caste elite tried to belittle his image in a very surreptitious manner. Undoubtedly people or formations involved in the work of broader social transformation, which also included organisations claiming to be his legatees, cannot escape blame for the critical silences around his image, which either remained oblivious to the designs of the Varna elite or were not conscious enough to comprehend their game plan.
Any student of politics of the oppressed would vouch that it is rather a bane of most of the leaders of the exploited and oppressed who can no more be ignored by the dominant forces. In fact, we have been witness to a similar process which unfolded itself in USA itself where a much sanitised image of Martin Luther King, has been made popular. Instead of a radical Martin Luther King who opposed Vietnam War, looked at capitalism as source of all evils, who equally struggled for workers’ rights, we have before us an image of King which seems more amenable to the ruling classes there.
A ‘suitable’ King there and a ‘suitable’ Ambedkar here !
Similar game of appropriation in world’s strongest and biggest democracies in the world.