I owe my proficiency as a political journalist to one of my first editors who dismissed my journalism until then as ‘Sunday journalism’. If I wanted to be taken seriously I must choose either politics or business as my specialisation, he said.
Rather reluctantly, I trotted off to Nagpur, my home town, when he set me an assignment on the RSS and the Dalit movement — Nagpur is the confluence of both movements. I sought the help of my political science professor at Nagpur University — he was related to Balasaheb Deoras, the long reigning RSS sarsanghchalak at the time. When I asked him to brief me about the Dalit movement, he gave me the names and numbers of various leaders and experts in the field, “I do not think I am qualified to talk about the Dalit movement,” he said, even as I thought that was a strange confession for a professor of political science to make. Only years later did I realise he was only being circumspect, not wishing to invite allegations of influencing a young mind against Babasaheb Ambedkar who was really no favourite of the RSS at the time.
The word ‘Hindutva’ was yet to enter the Indian political lexicon but people in the RSS did not much care for the Dalit movement, not the least because Ambedkar succeeded in Nagpur as the RSS never had — he had converted lakhs of his followers to Buddhism there and that was reason enough. When I met some Dalit scholars, I realised why —Ambedkar had carefully chosen Buddhism instead of Islam or Christianity, which would have brought his followers more approbation but also a complete alienation from their roots. Choosing Buddhism was a masterstroke because it at once gave his followers room to observe Hindu rituals if they wished without having to submit to all its various restrictions. Ambedkar believed that Hinduism was not designed for liberty, equality and fraternity and that is why he stressed upon those ideals in the Preamble to our Constitution. One quote from Ambedkar that has since influenced my thinking is: “You cannot be liberal in politics and conservative in religion.”
It has shaped my own understanding of Indian politics.
That is why I find December 6 very poignant each year — it is the day the Babri masjid was demolished in Ayodhya but it is also Ambedkar’s punya tithi. He died a few weeks after converting his people to Buddhism in 1956. This year is the 125th anniversary of his birth but also the shashti poorti of his death. There is also a great irony in the fact that the BJP-led government at the Centre should commemorate him in Parliament by fishing out a new date as Constitution Day (to me November 26, though, will always be 26/11, the day of the worst attack by Pakistan on Bombay) but there is also a sort of poetic justice. In towns and villages across Maharashtra, upper caste Hindus hated Ambedkar because the conversion of his followers to Buddhism deprived them of scavengers and a major section of their ‘balutedars’ (village servants who rendered important community duties). Becoming Buddhist gave Dalits the right to refuse upper caste slavery and brought them a great sense of self-worth.
Dalit leaders since have betrayed many of his ideals but there is no one who did more to equalise Indian society than Ambedkar — and not just for his followers alone. The Constitution with all its guarantees is testimony enough. Even Narendra Modi today has described it as a “holy book”. What could be a greater tribute?