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Bhagwan Das: A True Inheritor Of Ambedkar’s Mission

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

23 November, 2010

The passing away of veteran Ambedkarite Bhagwan Das is closure of a great chapter in the contemporary Dalit movement. A close associate of Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Bhagwan Das in every sense of life lived a life of true follower of Baba Saheb. I had opportunities to meet on several occasions and would vouch that I remained highly impressed and in awe with his simplicity and the library of knowledge that he had on Ambedkar’s work and writing. He was not a rebel rouser but proved through his meticulous writings that he was much more concerned and his views were immensely important to the growth of Ambedkarite movement. Those narratives and documented work on the life and mission of Ambedkar are inalienable part of the Dalit movement.

It was a great opportunity for me to have heard his counseling on various occasions. For me, just an association with Dr Ambedkar made him a legend in my eyes. But that was not enough; his association with people’s movement particularly with those who believed in Ambedkarite perspective gave him credibility. He has tremendous knowledge about different caste and their issues. I can say that after Dr Ambedkar, he was the most read person in the community who spoke on the contemporary issues with great passion and with a command and conviction of ideas. Though, he was the most respected Ambedkarite of his time, one does not know why the politicians claiming Ambedkar’s legacy kept away from him. It is ironical that the tallest ambedkarite became victim of his caste identity. Though, he was most concerned about the schedule castes yet he often spoke about the marginalization of ‘Bhangis’. Yet, just usage of the term Bhangi made him unpopular among many of his own folks who started using Balmiki which according to Bhagwan Dasji was a term cleverly used to Hinduise the community. His book ‘ Main Bhangi Hoon’, became popular among people yet the community leaders never ever thought of involving him in their issues. I had put this question to him many times as why there is a perception that Balmikis did not join hand with Baba Saheb Ambedkar. But, Bhagwan Das ji was very clear about this and said that the myth that the Balmikis not being part of Ambedkarite movement was absolutely an attempt to divide Ambedkar’s struggle. . He referred to Baba Saheb and his support to the cause of scavengers in Punjab. According to him, it was the Bhangis who invited Baba Saheb to Punjab. But because of politicization of castes, many among his caste felt otherwise. Similarly, the other communities who felt that he was not from them alienated him. It was most tragic thing that I felt and that Bhagwan Dasji knew but Ambedkarism and Buddhism were his two commitments and he never dithered from that.

The 1990s were turbulent years in contemporary Indian political history. The forces of Hindutva were gaining ground with growing assertion of Dalits and backward communities. The Mandal commission report and its aftermath show how the Indian middle classes and caste Hindus did every dirty trick to thwart the implementation of the report. It also showed how the struggle for implementation of Mandal Commission Report was more carried forward by the Dalits and not by the so-called other backward communities for whom the entire exercise was meant. They bore the brunt of the contempt and violence of these reactionary forces. It was also a period of ascendancy of the Bahujan Samaj Party and its politics. They were becoming a force to reckon with yet Bhagwan Das and many other veteran Ambedkarites kept away from it. One does not know whether they kept away from it or were unwanted in the BSP kind of politics. He always focused to develop an enlightened Dalit community which can respond to the upper caste lies and manipulations through knowledge and arguments. He would go to different parts of the country particularly in organizations like Samta Sainik Dal to strengthen the movement.

It was tragic that the person who was an embodiment of a true Ambedkarite did not get the respect that he deserved. It is an undeniable fact that Bhagwan Das was perhaps the tallest Ambedkarite in the post Ambedkar era. The amount of work that he contributed to explore Ambedkar and his writings is unparallel. He was a living encyclopedia of Ambedkarite perspective on various contemporary issues. I can say without any doubt in my mind that whenever I had any doubt about anything about Baba Saheb’s writing and work, I would first speak to him and try to find the factual position. He had numerous anecdotes about Baba Saheb Ambedkar and how he got influenced with his life and action. Each time, I visited him; I would just listen to his arguments and narratives. With his personal warmth, each narrative was important and that is why I felt that I should record his views and one day I went with my camera to record his views on contemporary issues. It was a seer pleasure to listen his enlightened views.

It was always a sense of deep enlightenment to have met Bhagwan Dasji. A man who saw and worked with Ambedkar was so simple in his personal life. I was fortunate enough to have met him so many times and in our small association he too developed respect of the work that I was doing and hence was always available for the seminars and conferences that we organized on contemporary issues related to Dalits and marginalized. In those days, I was regular in these meetings and listening to him always gave a great pleasure. Anyone, who heard him for one or two hours, could never say that his grasp over the subject was not increased. His understanding of Indian caste system was tremendous. A widely traveled person, Bhagwan Dasji would inform you about the caste and sub caste issues with impeccable knowledge on the issue. That also showed that he was not just a book worm but a widely accessible person to people who understood their feelings and issues.

There was no difference in his personal life and beliefs. I knew many veteran Ambedkarites for whom Ambedkarism was just a political thought but Bhagwan Dasji proved through his life and mission how one can live a life of true Ambedkarite. It is difficult to see that kind of warmth that he possessed when we become machines without emotions and solidarity. As a young activist, I learnt from him so many things that it is difficult to narrate but every time when I would visit him, the first thing he would ask me to relax or take a cup of tea of coffee prepared by him. He would bring himself the tea and ask me to first have it and then discuss any other thing. He would inquire how am coming from a far away place to meet him and he always encouraged my deep sense of commitment to Ambedkarite thought.

Bhagwan Das was the first person who brought the issue untouchables ( I am using his term only as he refused to use the word Dalit) or Scheduled Castes at the international forums, at the United Nations and at various international human rights forums. Today, the Dalit issues have got international recognition and many may claim to have done it but the ground work for it was done by Bhagwan Das when there were not many civil society organizations working for human rights of the Dalits.

It is equally important to know that these Dalit rights organizations never felt to honor him or take his guidance on the issues of the Dalits in contemporary India. Of course, last year a Hindi literary journal devoted to Ambedkarite philosophy carried a special issue on him. It is tragic that a man of his stature remained a person non grata in his own community because he embraced Buddhism and was a true Ambedkarite. He was concerned about the manual scavenging practices in our society and was worried about their conditions and isolation with in the Dalit movement yet he never really supported the sub-caste identities. For him, being Ambedkarite was the most important part of a person life and that is where I felt that he was far above than many of his contemporaries. I understood the politics going in the name of Dalit Bahujan and had his own reservation about them. There were very few like him who could speak of conviction despite the emotional feelings of many. His commitment was to Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s thought and he traveled to nook and corner of the country to spread the message of Dr Ambedkar in true sense.

Today, when the media has been highlighting the ‘Dalit issues’ and some of them have given some ‘space’ to new ‘Dalit’ ‘movement’, yet the harsh reality is that none ever thought to approach him to speak on the contemporary issues. Was it because he did not have JNU tag which our media wants? Was it because he equally condemned the globalization and knew the international instruments of human rights much better and hence would not speak the language of the corporate media for the sake of appearing in their programme? It is shocking that none in the mainstream media thought of writing about the man who was undoubtedly the tallest Ambedkarite amongst us. Like Baba Saheb he reminded us the power of knowledge and self change. That cultural change in self made Bhagwan Das is much bigger than others but alas our political class, self proclaimed messiahs and so-called international activists would have taken a few things from him for the benefit of masses. He never resorted to rhetoric which are the hall mark of today’s literature and politics. He shined through his knowledge, his humility and his convictions. Whether corporatised brahmanical media remember him or not, Bhagwan Das remain am icon for all those who have not compromised on their basic principals and adhered to original philosophy of Baba Saheb Ambedkar of enlightenment through passion and participation. Like Baba Saheb Ambedkar, he left with a rich legacy of enormous material on Ambedkarism, Caste particularly related to Scheduled castes and on Buddhism. Generations will benefit from his work on caste and religion in India particularly those who are the most marginalized and how Dr Ambedkar fought his battle against the status quoits forces. As we grow and face so many challenges of caste, class, imperialism and communalism, Bhagwan Dasji’s writings will be the guide for us to understand Baba Saheb Ambedkar and how Ambedkar could have responded to current crisis. We remain indebted to him for his path breaking work on Baba Saheb Ambedkar and his unquestionable integrity to strengthen an Ambedkarite India where each one of us can live with equality, dignity and self esteem.