The late Kanshi Ram was the hell-raiser of the Nineties. His shirt always unbuttoned, hair uncombed, a towel around his neck, the Bahujan Samaj Party leader was keen to maintain his distinctive identity. “I am not like your Maharashtra Dalit leaders who spend their time building statues in the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar,” he told me. “When we come to power, we will bring genuine empowerment instead of renaming universities and building statues,” he claimed. Kanshi Ram’s legacy, 16 years on, has taken a rather different turn. Spread across Uttar Pradesh are districts, parks, auditoria named after Ambedkar while statues of the man dot virtually every village and town square in the state. The desecration of one such statue in Kanpur has already led to a conflagration in Maharashtra.
Why is it that there are more statues of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar in India than any other historical person of the last millennium? In her book Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India, social scientist Gail Omvedt has suggested that the statues have played a major role in political assertion in contemporary India. She writes: “The raising of the statues has represented a claim to pride and public space. Their opponents also take them as such and express their hostility to Dalit assertion by putting ‘garlands’ of chappals around such statues — actions which have often led to severe rioting and police firing. With all of this, it is clear that in the “politics of flags and statues, Dalits have placed Ambedkar at the top of the world”.
Ironically, Ambedkar himself would have hated being a statue. In 1943 he wrote, “India is still par excellence a land of idolatry. There is idolatry in religion and in politics. Heroes and hero worship is a hard, if unfortunate, fact in India’s political life. Hero worship is demoralising for the devotee and dangerous for the country.” The hero worship of Ambedkar has perhaps been the greatest failing of the modern Dalit movement.
As Arun Shourie writes in his controversial book, Worshipping False Gods: “Statues, dressed in garish blue, holding a copy of the Constitution — have been put up in city after city.” Not only does the writer seem to find them aesthetically repugnant, but also symbolic of the bankruptcy of the Dalit leadership.
Yet, critics like Shourie fail to realise that Ambedkar today is an enduring symbol of the most potent weapon in electoral politics: the politics of identity. While this may have reduced a multi-faceted personality to a caste leader (and in the context of Maharashtra’s Dalits, to even a Mahar leader at times), it has made him a reverential figure among his followers. For them, Ambedkar is more than just the Father of the Constitution, he is, in fact, the Father of the most politically powerful idea of our times: social justice.
Ambedkarism is seen as a genuine vehicle of social mobility. The demand for an equitable society — as exemplified in the clamour for reservations — is seen to be far more ‘real’ and ‘achievable’ at an individual and collective level than even Gandhi’s battle for a humane society. By invoking Ambedkar, his followers are seen to be asserting a more basic desire for a more ‘inclusive’ society, a demand that is fundamental to any social or economic change in contemporary India.
It’s a demand which is universal enough to ensure that no political party can afford to ignore it. Which is why every political party — from the Congress to the BJP to the BSP — has attempted to appropriate Ambedkar. Which is also why no party can dare to oppose the raising of an Ambedkar statue. Which is also why when a statue of Gandhi is garlanded with chappals in Gujarat, there is no major flare-up, but when an Ambedkar statue is desecrated, there is a near-spontaneous eruption.
But this is not just about identity politics. Ambedkarism today rules over the Republic of Rage, the angry Dalit street which feels it has been left out of development. To that extent, the mob violence that follows the damage to an Ambedkar statue is not simply Dalit anger at having their icon humiliated. It is also an attempt at ‘revenge’ by all those groups who feel alienated from a socio-economic system that still benefits only a limited few. Not surprising then that the violence has spread to those towns in Maharashtra where the pace of growth has been the most uneven, and where Dalits and other social groups feel they are being left behind by the newly dominant caste and class interests (Nasik with its ersatz shopping mall culture and real estate boom is a classic example).
At the same time, the emotionally surcharged responses to the statue demolition also reflect the weakness of the movement which his supporters claim to represent. Ambedkar spoke of the need to “organise, educate and agitate” as the three-pronged strategy that would ensure Dalit emancipation. Far from being organised, Dalits, especially in Ambedkar’s home state Maharashtra, are badly splintered.
Education has slowly created a creamy layer among a section of the Dalits without making a difference to the vast multitude. And it requires a ghastly incident like the Khairlanji rape and murder to get Dalit groups to revive their agitational spirit. And even this spirit rapidly descends into competitive lumpenism as can be evidenced by the incidents of arson and rioting in parts of Maharashtra.
Unfortunately, the statue cult is the obvious short-cut when you run out of real options to empowerment or refuse to engage in a genuine debate on Ambedkarism. The Gandhi-Godse ideological conflict as reflected in a play like ‘Mee Nathuram Godse boltoy’ can still be listened to and debated, but try and question Ambedkar’s philosophy and you risk immediate isolation. A Mayawati and Kanshi Ram could get away by abusing Gandhi, but could any national leader or public intellectual even question Ambedkar’s teachings and expect to survive?
Interestingly, in the entire fracas over the Kanpur incident only one politician, the BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh, Lalji Tandon, has had the courage to question the manner in which Ambedkar statues are mushrooming across the state. Speaking in the UP assembly, Tandon asked whether some of the statues are simply being put up as part of a land-grabbing exercise, and asked why no one was incensed when statues sprung up overnight next to garbage dumps? Dalit leaders will see these questions as an ‘upper caste conspiracy’ to tar Babasaheb’s name, but the fact is that not every statue is being built out of genuine veneration. Often, the motive is cynical vote catching.
Maybe those who truly believe in Ambedkar need to return to their leader’s teachings. Ambedkar’s dream was that simply exercising the vote was meaningless unless caste was totally eradicated. That politics was about acquiring power to change society, not acquiring power simply to rule. There is no doubt that there are daily Khairlanjis in India: savage, bestial attacks against Dalits continue. Yet sadly, Ambedkar’s intellectual legacy has been lost. The intellectual struggle for a just society through achievement, new ideas and a sustained critique of the Brahmanical order has been given up in favour of mob violence and the brute demonstration of electoral power. The leaders of today’s Dalits have forgotten Ambedkar’s vision even as they shout out his rallying cry. Priyanka Bhotmange is raped and killed and Bhaiyalal Bhotmange’s life is destroyed. But Ambedkar is powerless: he looks on simply as a mute statue.
The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN and Channel 7