Celebrating Babasaheb Ambedkar In Lahore
By Dr Anand Teltumbde
01 May, 2011
Speech in the Ambedkar Day Seminar organized by Sir Ganga Ram Heritage Foundation in Pearl Continental, Lahore on 26. April, 2011
At the outset let me thank Sir Ganga Ram Heritage Foundation for inviting me to Lahore and giving this opportunity to share my thoughts with you. This is my second visit to this beautiful city, which was eulogized by the people as the must see for every human being that comes on the earth. When I received the first invitation from the Foundation in 2009, I was curiously surprised at the connection between Sir Ganga Ram and Dr Ambedkar, whom India affectionately calls Babasaheb. Sir Gangaram was a remarkable man, who contributed to undivided India in immense measure in terms of its physical infrastructure. I feel proud to belong to his biradari as an engineer, although not quite the same discipline as he practiced. Dr Ambedkar’s contributions may be rivaled by few in the spheres of socio-political and spiritual infrastructure of Indian subcontinent and in the nation building of India. There was no direct connection or commonality between Sir Ganga Ram and Dr Ambedkar except for the fact that both contributed to the betterment of people of this subcontinent without consideration of caste, creed, or community. I must complement the foundation for taking the noble initiative to commemorate Dr Ambedkar in Pakistan who notwithstanding the dividing line between the two countries, is as much revered by over 2.5 million of Dalits in Pakistan as the Dalits in India. In a symbolic manner, this initiative marks the concern of the foundation and to the extent the Government of Pakistan supports the Foundation, it’s own concerns to these teeming millions. One hopes, through this initiative and the exchanges with the people like us from other countries in the subcontinent, the government would be sensitized to appreciate the demands of Dalits in Pakistan and take a lead in the spirit of Islam to ameliorate their woes. In fact, it could set an example for other countries to emulate by completely annihilating castes from Pakistan.
This seminar is basically in celebration of the 118th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Although, his birth anniversary is celebrated world over by the spreading Dalit Diaspora and even by the non-Dalits, who are impressed by the humanist import of his contributions, the people from Lahore must know that there is an important connection between this city and Dr Ambedkar. In 1936, the Jat Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore, which was an organization of the Arya Samaj, had invited him to preside over their conference. Babasaheb Ambedkar had prepared his presidential speech and sent it to the Mandal as per their request. The Mandal found the speech to be too critical of the Hindu religion and requested him to soften it. Dr Ambedkar refused to comply and instead declined the invitation. This undelivered speech in the conference that did not take place was published with an ominous title “Annihilation of Castes”, which would become a war cry of his movement. This book is likened by some scholars to the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. Although Dr Ambedkar did not visit this city, it got permanently associated with his schema of Dalit emancipation.
I might indicate a few more connections between you and Dr Ambedkar, so that Pakistani people have better appreciation of his contributions. This connection spans across his deep appreciation of egalitarian and humanist spirit of Islam, sense of cordiality and fraternity in Muslim community, as well as his scholarly illumination of the idea of Pakistan, which in some degree may have contributed to making of your nation.
Islam came to India as the invaders’ religion but had catalyzed creation of emancipatory vision among the low caste people, particularly the non-caste Dalits, who were denied their humanity by the Hindu religion. It provided them the first escape route from the bondage of hindu social order. The egalitarian Islam naturally appealed to them. As a result, whosoever could manage had embraced Islam and became Muslalmans. There was an exodus of sorts of these people from Hinduism, which the right wing-Hindus attribute to the force of sword used by the Muslim rulers. Although the Islamic marauders did use sword, the conversion of Dalits, who existed only on the margins of the society, could not be their target. Their attack was basically on the Hindu temples, which were not just the abodes of gods or the places of prayer, but also the warehouses of enormous wealth. History testifies that all the warring kings, including the Hindus, often attacked Hindu temples for this wealth. As for the conversion of Hindus to Islam, none other than the great Hindu seer, Swamy Vivekanand, has written that almost one-fifth of the Hindu population was lost to Islam and not because of the force of sword as commonly believed but because of its egalitarian appeal.
This appeal had become palpable when Babasaheb Ambedkar began exploring alternate religious options after having realized that there was no possibility of reforms from within the Hindu society. As you may know, after returning from New York and London, laced with two doctoral degrees and a barristership from the prestigious universities/institutions, he began his public life by leading an epic struggle at Mahad, some 100 odd kilometers away from Mumbai. This struggle began in the form of an innocuous conference on 19 and 20 March 1927, ended with a collective march to the chavadar tank, which was hitherto proscribed for Dalits, to draw its water. The caste Hindus reacted with their cowardly attack on Dalits, who were returning to their homes. Provoked by the incidents, Dr Ambedkar decided to launch a satyagraha at the same place in the month of December, the same year, exclusively targeting the chavadar tank. However, just on the eve of the satyagraha, some caste Hindus had fraudulently obtained an injunction from the court that since the tank was a private property, sDalits could not trespass it. The case dragged on for the next 10 years, disillusioning Dr Ambedkar completely about the possibility of bringing about reforms from within. The main thrust of these struggle was to sensitize the Hindus about their evil customs and traditions so that they would be motivated to undertake due reforms. Far from this happening, the caste Hindus rather played all kinds of tricks in their store to frustrate Dalits.
Just after the Mahad satyagraha, in 1928, in a public meeting at Jalgaon, he had given an ultimatum to the Hindus that if they had not come forward for reforms the Untouchables would renounce Hinduism and become Musalmans. This might have been a passing threat but some 20 odd people from his followers took it literally and became Muslims. The appeal of egalitarian Islam in the project of Dalit emancipation would surface off and on in Ambedkar’s early considerations.
Dr Ambedkar gave up the path of satyagraha although he did not discourage his disciples from undertaking them. He shifted his attention to the opportunities opening up with the British thinking to involve the natives in the governance of the country. Already there had been Morley-Minto reforms which led to promulgation of the India Act, 1909 and Montagu-Chelmsford reforms and the Southborough Commission leading to the India Act, 1919. When the all European Simon Commission visited India, the Congress had boycotted it but Dr Ambedkar and Muslim League cooperated with it. These efforts culminated in his invitation to the three Round Table Conferences in 1930-32. He came in contention with Mahatma Gandhi in the RTC over the issue of representation of the Untouchables. Gandhi claimed that he represented all the Hindus, the Untouchables included. Dr Ambedkar successfully refuted it, and as the representative of the Untouchables, forcefully advocated separate electorates for them. When the award was declared by the Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald conceding the demand of Dr Ambedkar for separate electorates, Gandhi went on his fast unto death protesting against it. The situation became threatening to Dalits, which impelled Ambedkar to compromise by giving up the separate electorates in exchange of increased numbers of reserved seats in joint electorates.
With the accumulated bitter experience with the caste Hindus and their leaders, he saw no hope in staying in Hinduism and declared in 1935 in Yewale (near Nashik, a prominent town in Maharashtra State) that he would renounce Hinduism. He said, it was not in his power to be born as Hindu, but it is squarely in his not to die as one. This vow created huge ripples across the country because if the 16 percent untouchables of whom Ambedkar had emerged as the sole leader followed him, the entire communal configuration of the country would change. Religious heads of various religions began hobnobbing with him with allurements. It created confusion among the Untouchables too. And hence to explain his decision to the leaders of his movement, he had called a meeting in Mumbai in 1936. The longish speech that he made in that meeting is considered very important and is aptly titled as Mukti Kon Pathe in Marathi (“Which way the Deliverance?”, in English). He started his speech with the commonplace issue of atrocities on Dalits. He asked, why the caste Hindus inflict atrocities on Dalits with impunity? The answer he himself gave was that they were weak. They lacked all the strengths: the strength of numbers, strength of finance, and strength of spirit. They were a minority in every village and thus they lacked the strength of numbers. It was obvious that they did not have any financial strength. But having internalized their inferior status in the society for a long time, they were completely sapped of even the spiritual strength. In contrast, he offered the example of Muslims in India, who also were numerical minority in most parts but no Hindu dared to raise hand on any of them. Because they knew if they did it, the entire Muslim community from Kashmir to Kanyakumari would rush in support of the victim. According to him the solution therefore lay in overcoming their weakness and the way to accomplish it was by merging with some existing religious community. The existing religious communities that existed in India with significant strength were Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. Since he had always invoked example of the Muslim community with admiration, Islam appeared to many as his imminent choice. But when he actually implemented his vow in 1956, it was Buddhism, which did not have an existing community in India.
The main thrust of Dr Ambedkar after 1935 has been on securing rights for Dalits through politics. While doing so, he was not a wee bit sectarian. Dalits were targeted not merely because they were his own people, but because they comprised the lowliest of the lowly. Society in a systems view could be as strong as its weakest link and hence it was imperative for anyone aiming at the development of Indian society to focus his/her attention on Dalits. In fact his vision was not even bounded by national consideration; it went far beyond in imagining a human society based on the principle of liberty, equality and fraternity. Since it was known to the world that this principle emerged from the French Revolution, imbued with bourgeois aspiration, he insisted that he had taken it from Buddhism. His insistence was to have harmonious balance between these three aspects, which was not indicated by the French revolution. It was the vision of an ideal society, a veritable utopia, characterized by all those ideals in fullest measure. The real import of his ideology lay in this and not in what he did as expedient measures in those turbulent times.
In India, it is not easy to transcend caste identity, especially if you are a Dalit. Even though Dr Ambedkar had never practiced caste politics, he was identified as a caste leader. It may be appropriate just to recall his advent into politics to appreciate this point. As the British promulgated the India Act 1935, according to which it was decided to hold elections for provincial assemblies, Dr Ambedkar launched his first political party, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936. He declared it to be the workers’ party. It may be noted that this was the first left party of India, the Communist Party although founded in 1920, having operated clandestinely and then existed as a part of the socialist block of the Congress party. The historical importance of this party lies in the fact that it has for the first time demonstrated on the roads of Konkan (One of the most backward and hence caste ridden region of the present Maharashtra State) and Mumbai how a struggle can be articulated combining class and caste issues. The most obnoxious duality of caste and class, the communists created with their Brahmanist approach has been the main obstacle in radical politics today in India.
In 1942, because of the Cripps Mission report, which had met most demands of all communal parties but completely ignored the class based ILP, Dr Ambedkar had to dissolve the ILP and form a caste based party - the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF). Almost at the same time he was inducted into the viceroy’s executive council. Even during the SCF phase, his politics often transcended the caste boundaries. When the viceroy’s council was dissolved in 1946, he found himself utterly excluded in the political parleys for the transfer of power. He was desperately aimed at entering the Constituent Assembly, which was to shape up the future of India. But there was no possibility of his getting elected to it. In such a situation, he prepared a memorandum on behalf of the SCF to the Constituent Assembly in 1946, proposing hardcoding the structure of state socialism into the Constitution of India. It was here that the Muslim League with the mediation of Jogendranath Mandal, the SCF leader, got him elected from East Bengal. After 1947, due to the partition, his membership expired and the Congress strategists got him elected from Bombay. He was made the chairman of the most important of its committees, the drafting committee. But interestingly, the radical agenda of state socialism, which he was so keen to be made as the basic structure of the Constitution even was not mentioned before the Constituent Assembly. Just to recall the contents of the ‘States and Minorities’, the title with which this memorandum was published, were so radical that if there had been a socialist revolution in India, the post revolutionary structure of the society would have not been much different than what it proposed.
Nonetheless, he could manage to incorporate comprehensive measures in favour of the oppressed sections of the society, viz., Dalits and tribals in the Constitution. They comprised protective measures, mainly the legal provisions stressing equality, abolishing the practice of untouchability and punitive provisions for transgressing those; affirmative measures in their favour in politics, education and public employment, popularly known as reservations; and the developmental measures such as many targeted schemes which would progressively bring them on par with the rest. The extension of latter has manifested from 1979 into instituting the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan (SCSP), which mandates provision of the budget in proportion equivalent to the ratio of population of Dalits to the total population to be used exclusively for the development of the Scheduled Castes. Although like any other thing, this scheme, which has been in operation in 27 states and union territories, also suffers in implementation, the positive aspect of it is that the percentage allocation has been consistently rising over the recent years: In 2004-05 the allocation of 11.06 percent had gone up to 12.05 percent in 2005-06, to 14.11 percent in 2006-07 and to 14.80 percent in 2007-08 against the mandated over 16 percent.
Indian Constitution in this regard may appear to be the beacon of social justice for the entire world. However, Ambedkar during his life time itself saw what would happen of the Constitution in practice. In his enthusiasm when the Constitution was adopted, he had advised his followers that they could shun agitational politics and adopt the constitutional methods to secure their demands. But soon he was disillusioned with the Constitution itself and variously disowned it. He famously said that although they built a beautiful temple (Constitution), before they could install gods, devils have occupied it.
Notwithstanding the implementation deficit, the Constitution has still accomplished a good deal of gain for the oppressed communities. There is no sphere and no echelon today where Dalits are not to be found. There have been president, chief justice, chief ministers, secretaries, CEOs, and scores of people in academics, frontier technologies, and professions in India. The political nexus through which huge political tribute from the ruling classes flows also have enriched a sizable political class of Dalits. And through combination of these processes, some Dalits have entered business to inspire some misinformed Dalits to coin the terms like dalit bourgeois or dalit capitalism. Taken all of these together, along with their family members, the number of upwardly mobile Dalits do not however exceed 10 percent. The 90 percent population of Dalits still languishes in villages and suffers from all kinds of discrimination and oppression. Although it may not be visible in the urban settings, the caste system operates as a system of premium and discounts and can well thrive in the most modern corporate establishments of in India.
There is a notion, carried through Dr Ambedkar’s analysis that the caste system is sourced from the Hindu religion. This notion has misled much of the Dalit movement. The modern developmental paradigm in India has probably become the major prop of the castes than religion. For example, the Shudra Castes, which used to be clubbed with the Untouchables in earlier phases of the non-Brahman struggle, have become the main tormentors of Dalits in villages. The ritualistic castes have been weakening under the thrust of capitalist development and have almost transformed the caste system to be the divide between Dalits and non-Dalits. This divide is as much rooted in the traditional prejudices as it is in the dynamics of India’s modern institution. I have explained this dynamics of political economy in my book – The Persistence of Caste, which may be available in Pakistan. To continue with the stereotype treating Hindu religion as the sole culprit would be like whipping the dead snake and letting the real snakes to sneak past.
The caste system has been a dynamic system, which has been evolving either to mould the situation to its requirements or to mould itself if the former was not possible. Therefore to search its root is methodologically futile exercise and one should rather focus on its contemporary manifestation. The contemporary caste system manifests itself through the incidence of atrocities. In India, these atrocities are neatly tabulated by an organization of the government of India, National Crime Research Bureau, which publishes its reports annually, accessible to all. (see its website ncrb.org). Going by this proxy for caste, the caste system appeared weakening through the decades of 1970s through 1980s. But from the adoption of the neoliberal economic reforms by the government, the trend has reversed. I had analyzed the time series data on atrocities and found that the post-reform period presents a clear secular increasing trend in atrocity numbers. Just taking two major categories of crime, viz., murder and rape, we can see this trend. During the decade of 1981 to 1990, the annual average of the number of murders of Dalits was 535, which went up to 546 during the 1991-2000 and rose further to 681 during the next five years, i.e., 2001-2005. The corresponding figures for the rape of Dalit women are 714, 992 and 1213. Although these figures are not normalized for the population increase, nobody will fail to note their significance. Insofar as atrocities are the product of the power asymmetry between Dalits and non-Dalits in villages, it is clear that neoliberal policies have been accentuating this asymmetry. These policies have unleashed various crises on Dalits and their condition has been certainly worsening fast vis-à-vis others.
Lastly, I would like to again congratulate Sir Ganga Ram Heritage Foundation for taking this initiative to set up a dialogue between the South Asian activists-scholars who have been working for the annihilation of the caste system in their respective countries. It is a reflection that the caste system is a pan South Asian problem and not confined to India alone. There is strong pride in Pakistan that there is no caste system followed here. They reason out that Islam does not permit any caste system. While it is very true of Islam, there should be appreciation that practice does not necessarily confirm to the ideals. You may know that even the same argument is proffered by the right-wing Hindus that caste system in its evil form is not a part of Hinduism and they coolly attribute it to the outside aggressors, particularly the Muslims and the machinations of the colonialists. The delusion into believing that caste system is not our problem, effectively shuts us from seeing the problem. This attitude has already allowed the condition of Dalits in Pakistan to worsen. It is not only the miniscule minority of Ranas (the feudal Hindu landlords), that oppress Dalits, it is also the Muslim feudality which treats them no better. When Pakistan came into existence, the Quaid-e-Azam Jinnha had assured the Dalits and other minorities that they would be given much better treatment than that in India. After the Scheduled caste Declaration Act of 1957, Dalits were given reservations of 6 percent. These reservations have been transformed into minority reservations in 1997 by the Nawaz Sharif government, resulting into strengthening the already exploitative elements in the minority community. If I may remind you, there are more than 50 organizations working for the interests of Dalits in Pakistan and they have organized themselves into Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network. They have put forth their demand, which I think read very reasonable. For instance they demand caste wise census; reserved seats for themselves in Parliament, and provincial assemblies; setting up a national commission for the SCs; allotment of land to the landless; and some protective measures. Now such measures being extant in India for 166 million Dalits, why should Pakistan be hesitant in extending them to its 2.5 million Dalits. I would urge the Pakistan government through the minister sahib Sardar Ali Khosa, the chairman of this seminar, to consider them favourably. I would go further and say that since the size of the problem is small, 2.5 million as against India’s 166 million, Pakistan should take due steps to demonstrate to the world that they have effectively annihilated the caste system. It would prove to be the great motivator for other countries to follow suit.
I would like to end with a hope that this initiative will flourish into a better coordination between the activists and accelerate the pace of annihilation of castes. That will be the best tribute to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and also to Sir Ganga Ram.
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst, and a civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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