The leaderless Dalit uprising in Gujarat has come as a surprise to many but no one has been more stunned than Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Dr B R Ambedkar, the Dalit icon and father of the Constitution.
Speaking exclusively to Hindustan Times, Prakash said, “Our experience with Dalits in Gujarat from the times of my grandfather was that they are passive and unmoved by calls to agitate. Babasaheb and even my father (Yashwant Ambedkar) held many meetings in Gujarat and tried desperately to organise them into one unit. But while they would attend their meetings, they would just quietly go back and do nothing.”
But now, ever since cow vigilantism victimised four Dalits who were skinning a dead cow in Gir Somnath district, there has been an upsurge of anger that culminated in a huge demonstration in Ahmedabad on July 31 and a unique protest by either dumping cow carcasses in front of government offices or refusal to lift those carcasses at all.
Prakash is now stunned by the larger social churning in Hindu society that is being unleashed in Gujarat. He believes that churning will spread across India and lead to a religious realignment of sorts.
For when he travelled across Una and other parts of Gujarat where Dalits are up in arms against dominant castes, he discovered the beginnings of a movement to render Hinduism a more peaceful religion and society than is visible now. “They are organising themselves to give up Hindu gods who are traditionally weapon wielding – like Rama, Shiva, Krishna and Durga among others. They will henceforth only worship the non-weapon wielding peaceful gods like Ganesha, Laxmi, Saraswati, Kuber and their own local gods and saints who do not hold weapons in their hands.’’
Prakash stresses this by no quarter means that Dalits in Gujarat are finally ready for a conversion to other religions– like Buddhism, to which Dalits in Maharashtra took in a big way in the footsteps of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Dalits in Gujarat had resisted such conversions even then and they are still not ready to quit the Hindu fold now. “But they wish to redefine Hinduism as a religion of peace rather than violence.”
Consequently, temples in Gujarat will shortly begin to see thousands of Dalits collect the idols of all weapon-wielding gods from their homes and dump those images in temples across the state. They were already preparing to do it randomly but Prakash Ambedkar says he stopped them from undertaking a ragtag movement. “This has to be properly organised to make the desired impact. So we are working towards a specific date (perhaps during Navratri which is big in Gujarat in terms of religious events) when Dalits from all over will gather at one particular temple in every town and village in each district and abandon their household idols there.”
Prakash says the movement is likely to spread to states such as Uttar Pradesh where there is a rich Ramlila tradition that leads to worship of arms, Rajasthan that is traditionally a weapon-worshipping state, Bihar where huge sections of Asur adivasis are already reacting to the depiction of their god Mahishasur as a demon and Bengal where celebration of the weapon-wielding goddess Durga is also a major religious event.
“Dalits in all these states are also exploited and mistreated in many ways. There are a lot of Dalits in Punjab but Sikhism being the dominant religion there is less exploitation and although they do carry some weapons, atrocities there are fewer because of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. But Haryana could also see this movement because the weapon wielding Jats there are dominant and very exploitative of the lower castes.”
But south of the Vindhyas, Maharashtra is unlikely to see the movement catching on for two reasons – Dalits are open to conversion to Buddhism to escape humiliation at the hands of caste Hindus, “and then there is the Varkari tradition which takes care of the rest.”
Varkari was a traditional movement begun in the medieval centuries, starting with the reign of Chattrapati Shivaji--not unlike the Bhakti movement in other parts of India--wherein there was a duty-based approach to life rooted in worship of Vithoba, the Maharashtrian avatar of Lord Krishna wherein the teachings of the Geeta were taken seriously. After Shivaji, the Peshwas who took control of the Maratha empire attempted to return Hindu society to the traditional varnashrama and seize the state’s rich `sant ‘ (saints) tradition for their own patronage. These sants – like Namdeo, Dyaneshwar, Tukaram, etc – had preached a more equal society whose traditions took root, the Peshwas attempted to Brahminise the tradition but did not quite succeed.
That has worked as a safeguard for lower castes in Maharashtra leading to an overall socialist ethos in the state which is why cow vigilantism has not taken root in Maharashtra like in other states, despite the fact that the beef ban unthinkingly originated from the Maharashtra government.
Other states of South India too might escape this new movement, Prakash Ambedkar says, for despite worship of weapon wielding gods and untouchability, violence against Dalits is not as extreme as in the northern states (perhaps because of a strong Left and Perriyar movements in those states).
Prakash Ambedkar has for long been needling the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh about its shastra pujas (weapons’ worship) on Dussehra day. It is a tradition the RSS has borrowed from the Peshwas who used to go to war against the marauding invaders on this day every time. But now, asks Prakash Ambedkar, ``Who are we at war with?’’
``That tradition was ok for those times but here and now everyone is our own. Neither are there any demons to slay as the weapon wielding gods needed to do nor are there any enemies within the society. This kind of weapon worship by the RSS sends out a wrong message to the people, particularly the upper castes. And they then use those weapons against the nation’s own people.’’
But now if this new Dalit movement from Gujarat takes root, the message will be clear, he says, – there is no room for violence in Hindu society. A new religious order of peace is the need of the times today.