Ambedkar: Reimagining The Image
23 March, 2015
Every period of time Ambedkar become ‘Bold Face’ news “object” for serious discussion. In the recent past, half year alone, the name and persona of Ambedkar has been implicated into intense controversies; starting from whether Arundhathi Roy has a right to pen an introduction for Annihilation of caste or not; Navayana or any other publication have a right to bring out Ambedkar’s writings and speeches; installing a statue of Ambedkar at the EFLU campus and the angry responses from the university administration; a judge ordering removal of Ambedkar’s photograph in the local court of Tindivanam in Tamilnadu; and recently a group of caste Hindu students trying to prevent the class teacher from teaching a lesson about Ambedkar. The list goes on.
Incident one: Some months back in Tindivanam, Tamilnadu, Ambedkar’s photograph has been removed from the local court by the order of the principal subordinate judge as he was not willing to work in the court where the photograph of Ambedkar hung (not festooned) along with Gandhi and Thiruvalluvar. As the judge belongs to vanniyar caste apparently vanniyar political party PMK (Pattali Makkal katchi – Literally Toilers party) shored up the issue in favour of the judge, besides they tried to mollify the hotheads. The party head, Ramadoss, rationalized the issue from his standpoint saying all three of those pictures were taken off for renovating the court building, and then put back in the respective places. On the other hand, lawyers of Dalit panther of Tamilnadu party claimed that the photos were taken out for renovation, that is true, but the picture of Ambedkar was not placed back. A case has been filed in the court now.
Incident two: In the month of October, Tiruthangal, a village in Virudunagar district of Tamil Nadu, a group of government higher secondary school students, studying tenth standard, from Thevar – an intermediate Hindu caste - community obstructed the class teacher from teaching a lesson about Ambedkar by making rabble-rousing arguments and pelting stones even in the class hours. Dalit students were assaulted when they questioned caste Hindu students’ act. The district education officer has not taken any action against students in this regard even though a complaint was filed. Police protection was given to school premises for the next two days after the assault on Dalit Students. .
Who is accountable or to censure is open for discussion. These recent two incidents not only make us bewildered but also question our political stand towards social transformation. Some years back Gopal guru (2008) wrote an article on how Dalits especially lower middleclass and middle class Dalits have understood Ambedkar and in what form have they established him. With this background of spate of recent attacks, equally important and pertinent question to ask now would be how Ambedkar has been understood in the larger social arena and what he really means to them?
Experiencing the Image
Scholars agree that humans are interacting through symbols. (Blummer 1986; Dougles 2002). Speaking from Social psychologist Herbert Blummer’s (1986) viewpoint humans interact on the basis of meaning which they give to the symbol or an event. Meanings are constructed, defined and redefined all the way through everyday interactions and the ‘actors’ involved in the interaction constantly interpret the symbols. So the everyday interactions among humans create social meanings and construct a notion about symbols - as public image/ private image, insider/outsider and native / alien.
In the phenomenological (Husserl 1967) sense knowledge begins with experience and remains within experience, which consists of thought and action grounded in an ideology, in a specific socio politico and cultural context. Apparently every symbol is coupled together with some status about that symbol in society. This status is defined or redefined through interpretation or meaning given to these symbols. Once the association between the symbol and status is established the actors do not need to endorse it every time. Any person’s, gesture, object etc. symbolic status is interpreted through ideological meanings constructed around it. Experience operates within established notions of status and symbols. The ideological meaning given to symbols is defined through established local traditions (in this case being prejudiced against Dalits) and constantly re-defined through existing dominant values of the society. Thus (de)legitimizing or reinforcing his or her status in the society. Besides, these status attributed to certain figures are internalized by the younger generation through socialization. The need of the hour is to define and re-define the symbolic status of person like Ambedkar as emancipatory social transformative figure rather than only as icon of Dalits. But this is what has actually not happened in the public sphere which has actually worked against Ambedkar’s potentially inclusive universal image.
The ‘school’ Ambedkar
The disagreement of school students on Ambedkar is not merely an event occurring in a remote village; rather it is a logical yet horrendous result of the caste order. Age long resentment of non- Dalits towards oppressed and the upturn of dalits in higher education, employment, social mobility and mobilization against caste oppression incite non- dalits to downgrade every step of dalits in reinstating their humanness and neglect Ambedkar’s diverse contribution to society. The above delineated confrontation also exposes how children are being exploited by the society and the limitations of our educational system.
Education is influential mechanism to discuss society and enrich the young minds, but the system has not really lived up to its expectations. Education supposes to preserve the good in the past and to prepare for the future. Ironically it has been understood by teachers as well students as preparing students to imitate, so students end up imitating what they imbibe from the society. At this juncture students are not perpetrators but the victims of this system. The school system never gives the space to question the structure,, the system itself ( with exceptions) of observing caste for example, separate lines for mid-day meals, not allowing Dalit cooks to prepare mid-day meal scheme keeping plates separately, children of manual scavengers being forced to clean toilets, calling students by caste names are widespread in schools. The recent tendencies of glorifying regional buried images of caste leaders / personalities as their heroes or God-like by the politicians and caste associations are being instilled among children too, which results in intensifying hatred towards other communities especially Dalits.
Very often, teachers interpret Ambedkar from his/her experience or the experiences derived from ‘others’. School syllabi and textbook written by Professors also project Ambedkar in narrow way and taught by teachers who have never read Ambedkar or are not even aware about his life long battle against caste and liberation of women. In doing so, the education system constructs their version of Ambedkar as regional untouchable leader. On the other hand, the writers and mass media consistently project Ambedkar as only constitution maker and law minister ignoring scholars continued attempt to sketch the many liberative aspects of Ambedkar. In order to understand the comprehensive image of Ambedkar the school and other social institutions must educate students about what he did really for this country like his contribution with regard to labour issues, women’s right, Hindu code bill, annihilation of caste etc.
In the context of increasing voices on child rights, child labour, child sexual abuse and corporal punishment in academia and popular writings, it is imperative to reframe our curricula and pedagogical mode. The school system therefore needs to have workshops and short discussions, which covers broad spectrum of issues related to caste, untouchability, caste related pre-judices, caste as graded inequality and also crimes against women and children. It should not just end with printing ‘Untouchability as crime and sin’ in the cover pages of school text books. Besides, the teacher should be trained to encourage all the students to respect human values of divergent social groups. It is the only mode to liberate the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
A handful of Scholars, in the past, have tried to unfold the multiple images of Ambedkar with systematic analysis. (Zelliot 2001; Guru 2008; Baxi 1992) Zelliot provides three different Ambedkar which centered on the positions he took in his lifetime as a leader, Spokesperson and statesperson, along with symbol of achievement and protection. Like Zelliot, Gopal guru illustrates three Ambedkar which he set up from the cultural background of dalits as a great man, the messiah and modernist. Baxi’s reflections on Ambedkar’s images mainly focus on his identity and career.
Nevertheless these portrayals are accurate in some extent, in every caste violence/atrocities against Dalits at least one photograph of Ambedkar or a statue being marred, beheaded by caste Hindus in order to depreciate Ambedkar and attacking Dalits as a subordinate community in tandem. Alike there were incidents where the statues and photograph of Ambedkar have played as a positive weapon to affirm Dalit rights. For instance, panchami land issue in a village of karani in northern Tamilnadu, Ambedkar’s birthday procession in Agra and the temple festival clash in southern Tamilnadu. In karani village of Tamilnadu by installing Ambedkar statue dalits could protect their panchama land from their dominant caste Hindu occupants (Moses 1995), in Agra Ambedkar’s birth anniversary procession had replaced the celebration of lord Krishna and become new identity for dalits. (Lynch 2002) in southern Tamilnadu, dalits were being denied their rights, opportunity and position in the local temple festival by caste Hindus. Local Dalits, in that condition, have brought two photographs of Ambedkar, very first time in the temple festival, as a symbol of their ‘existence’ in the village. (Mines 2002) Here, in these incidents the powerful image of Dalit iconography – Ambedkar redefine the meanings in the religio- political and cultural context as a sign of their rights and strategy for attaining denied opportunities.
On the contrary in the recent occurrences, the image and persona of Ambedkar has been denied completely. For the caste Hindus the photograph of Ambedkar is nothing but the image of an untouchable. So they start humiliating while the image comes into the public sphere of school and court premises. It shows yet the public sphere has been dominated by caste Hindus and the place of dalits in it. Even in the universities Ambedkar regarded as an untouchable leader. Despite the upsurge on Ambedkar in academia, most of which focuses on caste and Hinduism, and not on unexplored subjects like Nationalism, Feminism, Civil society, Muslims or language Policies etc. Ambedkar’s analysis on Indian society and critical inquiry of his social stratification was much earlier than Indian sociologists, but it has never been discussed in our social sciences. The historical places related to Ambedkar’s struggle against annihilating caste has been unprotected, understaffed and in the derelict conditions though thronged on his birth and death anniversaries every year.
Even today no photograph of Ambedkar finds a place in the public areas where all walks of people gather or to shop. i.e. medical shops, hotels, restaurants, fruit stalls, etc. In contrast, Dalits willingly accept the image and receive the identity as a resisting act. The image of Ambedkar thus has been an adorable maverick for dalits and most hatred man for non Dalits. In view of that, a living - universal image of Ambedkar is not possible without making known an unknown image of him. Earlier Ambedkar was being ignored and discriminated by the school authorities, the cart driver, the office peon and many others also had to struggle to the bitter end. The kernel of the incident shows even in the 21st century Ambedkar has to struggle for acceptance in the society.
B.Prabakaran (Prabakar.firstname.lastname@example.org) is Doctoral fellow at Madras Institute of Development studies, Chennai.
Baxi, Upendra (1992): “Emancipation as Justice: Babasaheb Ambedkar’s: Legacy and Vision” in Ambedkar and Social Justice. Vol.1 (New Delhi: Publication Division, Govt of India)
Blummer, Herbert (1986): Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Methods (Berkely: University of California).
Douglas, Mary (2002): Purity and Danger (London: Routledge).
Guru, Gopal (2008): “Understanding Multiple Images of B.R.Ambedkar” in Manu Bhagavan and Anne Feldhans (ed.), Speaking Truth to Power (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Husserl, Edmund (1967): Ideas: General Introduction to pure Phenomenology (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd).
Lynch, Owen (2002): “Dalit Reritualization in Agra”, The Eastern Anthropology, Vol.55, No.2-3, Apr-Sep, pp 115-132.
Mines, Diane P (2002): “Hindu Nationalism, Untouchable Reform and The Ritual Production of a South Indian Village”, American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No.1.Feb, pp 58-85.
Moses, Brindavan C (1995): “Struggle for Panchama Lands: Dalit assertion in Tamilnadu”, Economic and Political Weekly, February 4, pp 247-248.
Zelliot, Eleanor (2001): The Meaning of Ambedkar. in Ghanshayam Shah(ed.), Dalit Identity and Politics (New Delhi: Sage Publications).
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