(A Speech delivered in the seminar on “Dr Ambedkar’s Relevance today and in the future” on 16 June 2016 to mark the centenary of Dr Bhimroa Ramji Ambedkar’s arrival at the London School of Economics)
Mahatma Gandhi once observed that Dr Ambedkar would never let history ignore him. For nearly a decade after his death, history did try ignoring him. There was virtually no memorial for him until his son, Yashwantrao Ambedkar, had taken a march from Mhow to Mumbai collecting small change from poor Dalits along the route and with that money built a small stupa-like structure over the site of his cremation that has become the Chaitya Bhumi. His people had to perform a country-wide land satyagraha in 1964-65, one of the demands of which was to have his statue in Parliament. It was the first ever demonstration of the prowess of Dalits that shook the ruling establishment to accept those demands. As a process however, it is only by the end of 1960s, when the electoral politics became increasingly competitive, as a byproduct of the political economic policies followed by the post-colonial rulers, that Babasaheb Ambedkar as an icon of the Dalits began gaining in importance. The nostalgia of Dalit masses for him in the face of betrayal by their leaders also hugely contributed to this process. This process has grwon to such an extent that today the BJP government is desperate in grabbing places to erect memorials to him. There is no question about history ignoring Ambedkar. It is Ambedkar who virtually rides history today. After all, whose enrolment in school or college was ever commemorated in the manner we are doing here? History helplessly digs up dates and places associated with him to monumentalize them. It is a unique phenomenon that as he is getting distant from us, his greatness is scaling new highs.
Indeed, phenomenon is the word that best describes Babasaheb Ambedkar. Sometimes it appears all historical and environmental forces conspired to construct this phenomenon called Ambedkar. Right from his birth in a Mahar military family to his getting timely royal patronages, to the colonial context, to the unfolding circumstances that constituted political environment for his struggles to his taking refuge in Buddhism and even to his last breath soon thereafter, all the constituent factors appear to have special constellation to construct him. Before coming here (to LSE) in June 2016, he had already an MA and a Ph D from Columbia, good enough degrees even by today’s standard. For one in his place, when he entered Columbia University on a scholarship for four years, it would have been logical to ensure one passed the exams well to get these degrees. But instead he had taken almost all subjects that could be taken in humanities stream; amassing over 50 per cent more credits than what was required. Still he did his MA in two years and thereafter Ph D in just less than a year. The topic for his research also could be taken quite unlikely for his background. The contract for the scholarship broadly specified the subjects for his study but the specific area of public finance that he chose should puzzle anyone. What was his motivation in choosing state craft-related topics throughout his academics? There are many such enigmatic instances in his life that despite huge scholarly interest in him may remain unexplained. It is in this sense; he could be left as a phenomenon.
Not waiting for the conferment of the Ph D degree by the Columbia University, he rushes to London and enrolls here in LSE as a graduate student to again do the masters (M Sc). As though that was not enough, he goes to Bonn and enrolls him to study economics there. He knew his scholarship was coming to an end. All these things are nothing short of fairy tales. Even in his public life it becomes quizzical to fathom his strategies, presenting every time a new logic, reflecting outwardly inconsistency. He would just dismiss it by saying that consistency was a virtue of an ass. Ambedkar was learning, evolving, expanding all the time and hence I fault conventional approaches of understanding him by his discrete statements or actions. It is this method that lends him vulnerable to be misappropriated by the enemy forces. His followers are blissfully unaware and get easily into their trap. There is a need to understand that no snapshot of Ambedkar, howsoever carefully taken, is likely to be right in projecting him in his essence. To us and the future generations, Ambedkar stands as an idea, a powerful idea that beacons people to work for emancipation of human beings, nay all sentient beings as a Buddhist he would claim.
The theme of this seminar is the relevance of Ambedkar for the present and the future. I don’t think the organizers, Ambedkarites as they call themselves, have made it into a question. As I see, there is no question mark. How does one assess relevance of a historical personality? Relevance is proxied by the public interests in him, which in turn may be discerned in terms of some objective evidence. If one adopts this understanding and looks at Ambedkar, one may easily find that he is relevant in the present and perhaps to the future because this evidence is continually growing. Take for instance this evidence in terms of number of statues, pictures and posters; hymns and songs; seminars and conferences; literary production, and the number and sizes of congregations in memory of a person, it would be difficult to find another great person in modern history, who can come closer in relevance to Babasaheb Ambedkar. Paradoxically, he is relevant to both, the ruling classes as well as the ruled ones: the former wants this identity project promoted and for the latter it serves as psychological kick, a la intoxicant.
It is time for the Ambedkarite scholars not only to guard off themselves from slipping into this trap but also to extricate masses from this identitarian drain. Babasaheb Ambedkar needs to be commemorated but to remind ourselves of his unfinished tasks. He needs to be celebrated to project his role model before our younger generation – his hard work, his determination, his steadfastness, his confidence, his dedication, etc. It should not be to replace him in the places of the Hindu gods, making himself a godhead. It should be to remind ourselves that he was the biggest iconoclast. It should be to imbibe his critical spirit to work out our strategies and tactics. To me his relevance is more in what he could not do than what he has done. Unfortunately, we exhibit our scholarship in painting the past, what Babasaheb Ambedkar had done but forget in process what we are doing to fulfill our obligations towards him. He expected quite a lot from the intellectuals of Dalits. The prime function of the intellectual class is to understand the things and make others understand them with courage of conviction to pave the way for the betterment of humanity. At this scholarly instance, we must ask ourselves whether we are doing that.
To me, the relevance of Babasaheb Ambedkar lies in his prophetic warnings, which alarmingly haunt India. A warning for instance he sounded in his last speech in the constituent assembly (CA) that if the rulers did not achieve social and economic democracies soonest, the people would blast off the structure of political democracy the CA had laboriously constructed. Six decades after he spoke these words, the social and political democracies, have been completely obliterated from the agenda of the ruling classes. Contrary to his prophesy, Indian democracy has neither flourished nor perished and rather survives with its gangrenous bosom. There are no takers among the self-proclaimed Ambedkarites for his annihilation of castes. Many of them even argue that castes cannot be annihilated and so they should be strengthened. Even to the revolutionists he warned against doctrinaire approach and exhorted them to pay attention to castes. Communists, in habit of missing the bus, today have come closer to transcend their ideological obsession with Marxian metaphor of ‘base and superstructure’ and have nearly accepted my dictum in one of my books: “No revolution without annihilation of castes, and no annihilation of castes without a revolution”. Ambedkar’s relevance thus would stay as long as castes live and revolution dodges India. Unfortunately, that appears light years long.
The reality is horrific. The majority of Dalits languish with every kind of disability that he fought against. Barring just the ten percent of us who have reached somewhere over the last six decades, the ninety percent of Dalits relatively are either at the same place as they were when Babasaheb Ambedkar launched his movement or even worse off on certain parameters. Then, they had a hope; today they do not have any. Their plight is better depicted by the rising atrocity numbers that hover over 47,000 going by the latest statistics released by the National Crime Research Bureau. It has become a song that daily two Dalits are murdered and five Dalit women are raped. It is an unfortunate paradox that scarcely such things figure in our speeches. We never talk about the basic inputs for the empowerment of our people in terms of equal quality education through neighborhood schools, basic healthcare, basic sureties of life through jobs and land, etc. and rather run after the mirage of reservations, as the ruling classes want us to. We are blissfully unaware that these hapless people in villages have paid the cost of our progress and they are still paying it with their flesh and blood.
The best tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar would be to reorient ourselves to see this stark reality.
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer and civil rights activist with Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights.