Ambedkar: A Personal Tribute
29 May, 2004
On January 27, 1919, Dr BR Ambedkar, then 28, submitted his written
evidence before Lord Southborough, Chairman of the Franchise Committee.
He argued that the distinction between "Untouchables" and
"Touchables" are more pronounced than those between Hindus
and Muslims, Hindus and Parsees and so on.
"Untouchables are a separate element in India's social life, and
hence (should) be treated so, and accorded as a minority, with all the
rights and privileges being offered to the religious minorities,"
was his line of argument. Ambedkar's presentation demanded not only
the power of articulation, but the ability to look at 3,000 years of
social tyranny in the eye. Something even his own father would not have
dared to do.
And, what was the force behind him? In 1917, just 6.63 lakh Dalits were
enrolled in schools. How many of them actually read newspapers, no one
knows. And when he was submitting the draft copy of India's Constitution,
which authoritatively declared illegal the practice of Untouchability,
in other words, exclusion, about 21.58 lakh Dalits were in education,
from Primary to University stage. Yet, he won the battle, and showed
Cut to 1996-1997. There are now 6.14 lakh Dalits enrolled for graduation
courses alone, just 48,000 less than the total enrolment in all schools
and colleges when Dr Ambedkar was appearing before the Southborough
Committee. By the late 19 90s, the number of Dalits in some educational
institution or the other had gone up to 4.08 crore.
Now to a key question. Did a Dalit middle class exist in 1950 when Dr
Ambedkar was dealing with the upper-caste dominated Constituent Assembly?
We don't have a clear picture on that. But, we do have an idea about
the early 1960s. According to the report of the Commissioner for SC&STs
of 1962, the total number of Grade III Dalit employees in the Central
Government was 7.9 lakh. The number of Grade I Dalit officers was just
211. But in 1995, the number of Grade I Dalit officers alone was more
than 67,000. Just think of the vast strides achieved in just a generation.
The credit for this goes to Dr Ambedkar. In his time, he had a very
small Dalit middle class and the Dalits were hardly present as an intellectual
force. Yet, he had the guts to launch a crusade without an intellectual
base or the backing of a strong middle class. Who has ever heard of
a revolution without these essential components? But Dr Ambedhar went
ahead with the force of conviction which more than made up these shortcomings.
Millions of Dalits are now enjoying the fruits of that.
For the record, Baba Saheb Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar has more ideological
followers than any leader born in the last 1,000 years. There are more
statues and busts of Dr Ambedkar than any individual born after Lord
Buddha and Jesus Christ. And, mind you, all this happened without state
support. This month, any Dalit, living in any part of the world, is
celebrating Dr Ambedkar's birth anniversary. But the largely ungrateful
society that is India may ignore Ambedkar, but for the multitudes of
the oppressed, he is Christ Plus.
But, Dalit history may always seek the most uncomfortable question:
"Why it is that post-Ambedkar, Dalits have not added even one chapter
to the saga of the great trailblazer? Why it is so that when more than
half the Dalit population is illiterate, the question of education is
not the prime issue this April? Why it is so that when half the Dalits
are landless agricultural labourers, the question of a new phase of
land reforms is beyond the pale of this month's election rhetoric? Why
it is so that, when Dalits have near-zero share in India's capital market,
the issue of democratisation of the capital market is not even casually
mentioned? Is anybody talking of the near zero share of Dalits in media,
which by extension means a place in India's opinion market.
This April, we celebrate Baba Saheb's 113th birth anniversary almost
like a ritual. I recall my school-going days. My father, the late Saleep
Ram, used to donate handsome sums of money for the local Republic day
parade. At that time, there was a custom, that, on August 15th, and
January 26th, primary school students, led by their teachers, would
organise a rally. Holding the tricolour, they would go around the village,
almost door to door, to spread the message of universalisation of education.
The head of every household was expected to dole out some money.
The money was used to distribute sweets and awards amongst students.
My father wanted to be the top donor, and hence, his generous contribution.
In the summer of 1973, my elder brother, Dhanai Ram, then a sub-inspector
of police who retired a couple of years back as a Deputy Superintendent
in UP Police, floated the idea of a Dr Ambedkar Kirti Club.
A notable member of the village, the late Munnoo Rai, a Bhumihar by
caste, and a dismissed constable from the Bombay Railway Police, gave
it a formal shape. Since 1973,that has been the enduring memory of Ambedkar
Jayanti. But, barring the great interventions by Kanshi Ramji, regarded
as "Ambedkar-2," nothing much has changed.