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Ambedkar's orphans

BySagarika Ghose

Indian Express
04 September, 2003

In UP, the dalit queen is gone, and the OBC chieftain rules. Yadav masses and the cocktail circuit are both dancing attendance on Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The Sahara parivar, via that feisty event-manager Amar Singh, conquered Delhi and Mumbai a long time ago, so no wonder Mulayam's guest list is far more glamorous than Mayawati's could ever hope to be.

As far as Parmeshwar Godrej and Tina Ambani are concerned, the Yadav wrestler is obviously a Lovely Lohia. He is best buddies with Subrata Roy Sahara and Amitabh Bachchan. He basks in the relentless approval of Sahmat. He has won macho approval with his energetic opposition to the Women's Representation Bill.

And although the scruffy moustache is a bit of a turn-off, Mulayam's fox-faced charm appeals to rival political opportunists like Kalyan Singh and Ajit Singh, and even some of the thakurs of the BJP. Mulayam is clearly far more generally acceptable than the unsmiling tyrant of the Untouchables. But is it love for Mulayam or hatred for Maya that is responsible for the big party in UP?

Mayawati remains the perpetual outsider. She may sport a crew cut, be as vulnerable to charges of corruption as anyone else and bear an astonishing resemblance to celebrity TV journalists, yet Ambedkar's legatees are tragically trapped. Ambedkar, the brilliant theorist of pre-Independent India is a millstone (or a statue) around the necks of the contemporary dalit and his teachings are not being reinterpreted as vigorously as they should be. To be a "dalit" is to remain a "dalit", the eternally angry, rebellious and unreasonable "pariah", with little scope of staking a claim of being a leader of every Indian. To take on the "dalit" identity is to be a radical soldier of empowerment.

Yet as soon as you become a "dalit leader" it becomes difficult to be anything else. Mayawati set up Ambedkar villages, handed over land pattas to dalits and arrested upper castes under the Harijan Act only to become the undisputed leader of 15 per cent of the state's population. In spite of election tickets to a few upper castes, the rest of her state's people hardly interested her. Mayawati, the dalit leader failed to become chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Notwithstanding landlords like Dumpy Ahmed or local aristos like Rashid Alvi, the BSP has failed to attract non-dalits in large enough numbers, precisely because BSP's caste hatred puts a limit on its appeal. And there is little alternative to caste hatred. After all, there is still something about the word "Achhut", isn't there? It's a grimy-sounding word. A word that summons up, in the mind's eye, the image of those who have been untouchable for three millennia.

Gandhi substituted "Achhut" with "Harijan" and there is no doubt how enormously successful Gandhian anti-untouchability campaigns were. But Ambedkar wrote: "There have been many mahatmas in India whose sole object was to remove Untouchability and to elevate and absorb the depressed classes, but every one of them has failed in his mission. Mahatmas have come and mahatmas have gone but the Untouchables have remained Untouchables." Should Mayawati in the 21st century continue to bristle with Ambedkarite anger?

Anger is easy. Negotiation is more difficult. The UN Conference at Durban equated "casteism" with "racism"and if the parallel was applied to India we would find a fairly rigid caste apartheid. As the Bhopal Declaration of 2002 points out, there is not a single dalit billionaire, businessmen or industrialist. In a recent article, Virginus Xaxa, writes that in Delhi only 6 of 311 professors are dalits. Unlike African-Americans in the US who play a significant role in culture, here the cultural hegemony of the dvija is intact and there are hardly any dalit actors, dalit musicians, or dalit artists.The party-going elite which angrily insists that caste is dead fails to realise how uniformly upper caste its own social milieu is.

There is also the argument that the stigma of "Scheduled Caste" will never be totally removed unless Hindu sacred texts are re-written. Unlike Jesus and Mohammed, Hindu gods and goddesses (except Krishna) are mostly aristocrats and the Hindu pantheon has no god "of the poor". Ambedkar writes: "Examine the Gandhian attitude to strikes, the Gandhian reverence for caste and the Gandhian doctrine of trustee-ship of the rich... Gandhism is the philosophy of the well-to do and leisured class."

But the irony is that in spite of his critiques, Ambedkar himself struggled to build an electable political constituency and major sections of Untouchables opted to align with the Gandhian Congress. Ambedkar's critique of Gandhi was made at a different time under different conditions of political competitiveness and his mass popularity must be reviewed. Today, instead of being champions only for their own caste, dalit leaders should become champions of general democratisation.

As the UP crisis shows, the central dilemma of a dalit leader today is that advancing the "dalit agenda" brings with it almost total social isolation. Live because of your vote bank but also die because of your vote bank. This is exemplified by the manner in which an entire range of politicians ganged up on Mayawati, precisely because Mayawati is perhaps the first dalit to break the Jagjivan Ram pattern of the loyal Congress dalit. She was able to do this and win a large constituency for herself by pushing a narrow, aggressive line on justice-only-for-dalits. In this sense Mayawati's trap is similar to the trap that a "Muslim leader" might find himself in. The "Muslim leader" like the "dalit leader" succeeds because of his vote bank but also fails because of it.

"It's all one skin and bone, one piss and shit, one blood, one meat, from one drop a universe, who's a Brahmin, who's Shudra?" sang Kabir in the 15th century. The Bhakti saint would be lost not only in UP but even in MP and parts of Rajasthan and Maharashtra where increasing dalit votebanks have struck fear in the hearts of many dvija politicians such as Diggy and Gehlot. Mayawati may no longer be UP chief minister but there is no reason to believe that the BSP may not make larger gains in the coming polls.

If and when the BSP wave rises again, Mayawati may like to shrug off the burdens of Ambedkar. Now that she has been the first autonomous "dalit politician", she might take a shot at being the first dalit stateswoman. To do this, she may have to use caste, but not remain its prisoner.