A half century after BR Ambedkar’s death, his home state of Maharashtra has burst into flames, with rioting following the desecration of a statue in far-away Kanpur and the atrocious rape, mutilation and murder of four people at Khairlanji near Nagpur. “The politics of flags and statues” is what one woman Dalit activist had once called the tendency to put up statues and riot over them. And true enough, ‘politics’, in the negative sense, had been involved.
Yet, there are serious issues underlying the recent Dalit upsurge, issues which cut to the heart of the Dalit condition in India today. These have to do not only with Dalits themselves, but also with today’s politics, today’s economy — especially its neglected agrarian side — and with the economic condition and psychology of the OBCs.
Ambedkar’s legacy was a multi-faceted one: Buddhism, constitutional politics, human rights for oppressed castes and women, and more. Politically, his movement was a drive for power, but not one for solely Dalits alone. He had the broader vision of transforming India.
He also knew that Dalits need allies. His first political party, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), was an effort to bring together workers and peasants of all castes with Dalits. This was successful in Maharashtra but had no presence elsewhere, and he transformed it in 1942 into the purely Dalit (but all-India) Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF).
Just before his death, however, he took two major steps. First, he transformed the SCF into the Republican Party — named after the party of Abraham Lincoln. This, like the earlier ILP, was intended to be a party of all the oppressed, and to signify this, it joined the first broad Left Front in Maharashtra, the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. A new, hopeful politics was being forecast.
Underlying this was Ambedkar’s awareness of the realities of caste: Dalits were a minority and needed allies. These could be found (if he wanted to maintain the anti-caste perspective) only in the shudras, or ‘bahujans’, what were to be known as OBCs. There were atrocities in Ambedkar’s time as severe as in ours; and he fought them just as fiercely (and with more wisdom) as Dalits are fighting them today.
Yet, he constantly sought the ‘OBC alliance’, urging non-Brahmins not to join with the Congress, discussing with the likes of Swami Sahajanand of Bihar and Periyar, and urging the desirability of transforming the SCF itself into a ‘Backward Caste Federation’.
His cultural and religious politics were similarly broad. Brahmanism, not caste Hindus (not even Brahmans as such), was the foe. “There are two enemies which the workers of this country have to deal with… Brahmanism and capitalism. By Brahmanism, I do not mean the power, privilege and interest of Brahmans as a community.
By Brahmanism I mean the negation of the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity,” he told Dalit workers in 1932. This formed the constant base of his politics. Brahmanism as a social phenomenon was destructive, not only to Dalits, but also to India as a whole, and he became increasingly convinced that to destroy it, Hinduism as such had to be renounced.
It was following his famous debate with Gandhi that he wrote Annihilation of Caste in 1936, arguing both for inter-caste marriage and the rejection of the basic Brahmanic scriptures. He finally accepted diksha of Buddhism in the massive conversion ceremony of October 1956. But Buddhism was never seen as being an option for Dalits only. He instead talked of a “prabuddha Bharat” — a Buddhist India, an enlightened India.
Economically, his position varied — from his conventional, if brilliant, writings of the Twenties on liberal economics; through his Marxist phase in the Thirties, which culminated in the call for ‘State socialism’ in the tract States and Minorities in 1946; to his version of social democracy after the disillusionment with Communism provoked by the Tibetan and East European invasions.
Thus, the election manifesto of the Scheduled Caste Federation in 1952 called for pragmatic politics. Yet, the constant features underlying this were a drive for economic development and prosperity, and a concern for the caste-oppressed and the toilers.
The SCF manifesto argued for pragmatism (which would provide the best development) in terms of public versus private enterprise, but noted: “One reservation the Scheduled Castes Federation must however make. Any scheme of production must in the view of the Scheduled Caste Federation remain subject to one over-riding consideration — namely, that there should be no exploitation of the working classes.”
Developments since Independence have left such hopes unfulfilled. Buddhism in India has remained a Dalit Buddhism and the Republican Party has remained a Dalit-only party. Buddhism has even been a feature of specific Dalit castes — Mahars in Maharashtra, Chamars to some extent in Uttar Pradesh. The second major regional Dalit castes (Matangs, Madigas, etc) often stress their Hindu identity in reaction.
Culturally, Brahmanic Hinduism has had something of a resurgence, backing the challenging political party, becoming aggressive in many areas against minorities, and Buddhists are often caught socially in a Brahmanic framework: Lakshmi and Ganapati along with Buddha and Ambedkar. In Maharashtra, except for stray individuals, only a small section of nomadic tribes in Maharashtra have joined the former Mahars in accepting Buddhism.
Politically, it took Kanshi Ram, starting in northern India, to carry the movement forward by building a party with Dalit leadership but appealing to enough OBCs (or MBCs, ‘most backward castes’) to capture power in the largest state in India. The Prakash Ambedkar-led Republican Party in Maharashtra imitated this success by encouraging the formation of an allied Bahujan Mahasangh. But this effort never took off.
Maharashtra Dalit politics remained split and stagnant. The BSP itself suffered from the tensions with the OBC-based Samajwadi Party and could never successfully move beyond UP or project a vision similar to that of Ambedkar. Its early days saw the proclamation of militancy, with slogans such as “Brahman, Bania, Thakur chor, baki sab DS4”. But these vanished. Economics and politics were not joined.
Economic developments provided prosperity, but not a widespread one. It cannot be said that exploitation of the working class has vanished. And finally, the efforts to form a solid Dalit-Bahujan alliance failed. Tensions rose, especially in states such as Tamil Nadu and UP, where it broke out into sporadic and widespread rioting. But the split was evident everywhere. Behind it lay the other great failure of Ambedkar’s dreams — this time on the economic front.
India did achieve prosperity, especially after the reforms in the Nineties. But this ‘India Shining’ proved to ignore Ambedkar’s “overriding consideration” about exploitation of the working classes. And the most neglected sector was agriculture, where a large section of OBCs worked as marginal farmers, and artisans bound to stagnating traditional occupations.
Caught in the new aspirations, yearning for a prosperity that they could never share, bound to TV serials that pictured every aspect of the new bright upper-middle class, their resentment kept turning against the Dalits who appeared to them to be a favoured and pampered minority. All they had left, as long as they remained caught in the Brahmanic mindset, was status.
And Dalits did gain something after Independence: bold aspirations and a new self-confidence, a readiness to defy the hallowed traditions that had kept them down. Clashes became more brutal, sometimes becoming widespread conflagrations, sometimes individual atrocities. The Dalit-Bahujan alliance that Ambedkar had hoped for is lying in tatters.
A final area of Ambedkar’s concern was women. He was a minister at the time when the Hindu Code Bill, the first attempt to remedy women’s ‘manuwadi’ exclusion from property rights, was made. Ambedkar resigned in 1951 when the Bill failed to be passed. In his resignation he stated memorably, “The Hindu code was the greatest social reform measure ever undertaken by the legislature in this country… To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”
And what is the condition today? Laws exist, and women are making their mark in many fields, but women remain property-less and powerless. The widespread phenomenon of “deserted women” — women abandoned by husbands and left to go back to their marital homes where they remain labouring dependents on the family of their birth — shows their real condition. Manu reigns at the social level in the field of gender as well as caste.
Ambedkar’s legacy is one of hope — for a prosperous, exploitation-free casteless society. But 50 years after his death, in the land that still swears by Nehru and ‘Gandhigiri’, that hope remains to be fulfilled.
Gail Omvedt is a social scientist and author of Dalits and Democratic Revolution (Sage) and Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (Viking)