When Ambedkar’s legacy is politically and commercially pawned

  • Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Aug 06, 2016 18:57 IST
The historic Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar was demolished by the People’s Improvement Trust. (Vijayanand / Hindustan Times)

The legacy of Dr BR Ambedkar has had many claimants. Idealistic students, the depressed classes, protest movement leaders, intellectuals and scholars, politicians, political parties, administrators and managers of the institutions he had started, and the Ambedkar family.

The Hindu right was not in this rather disparate list. If anything, Ambedkar and the Hindu right-wing organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha nursed a deep animosity and disgust towards the other. Until now. Driven by cynical political calculations and eager to fill an embarrassing vacuum in its political legacy, the BJP that draws its worldview from the RSS has sought to embrace Ambedkar’s legacy.

The controversial demolition of the historic Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar is a part of this design. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had unveiled a plaque on April 14 this year, Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, to mark the reconstruction of the Bhavan which was the epicentre of Ambedkar’s work and political mobilisation. In effect, Fadnavis had endorsed the demolition.

Owned and managed by the People’s Improvement Trust set up by Ambedkar, the Bhavan housed his books, manuscripts, the printing press he had used, and more lately a bookshop, political party offices and meeting halls. Here, from the 1940s, he had printed protest literature and books against the pernicious and oppressive caste system in Hinduism. As a living legacy of his life, the Ambedkar Bhavan premises should have been notified and preserved as a heritage precinct.

But, Ambedkar Bhavan like the Siddharth Vihar hostel which he had started for Dalits, is now dust. The Raj Griha, where Ambedkar lived, a few minutes’ walk from the Bhavan, has so far survived. How ironical that the spaces and things that Ambedkar used in his lifetime carry such little value for a government which plans to spend Rs 425 crore on a grand memorial to Ambedkar across 2.5 lakh square feet at the old Indu Mill compound.

The Trust, not managed by his family because he did not want dynastic succession, had the Bhavan demolished in the middle of a rainy night last week. The trustees want a 17-storey modern tower in its place. Commerce carries its own attractions. Prakash Ambedkar, Dalit political leader who used a section of the premises, is furious both at the dismembering of his grandfather’s tangible legacy, and at having to scramble to hold on to his own part of it.

In this ugly spat, the BJP is on the side of the Trust – and the annihilation of Ambedkar’s belongings and spaces. How else can it redesign and revise Ambedkar to fit into its pantheon? Ambedkar’s lived history and socio-political legacy negates, even dares, all that the party stands for, including Hindu rashtra.

Based on his rigorous research of Hinduism, Ambedkar had expressed his revulsion in a number of books. In ‘Riddles in Hinduism’, he wrote: “…the Brahmans have made religion a matter of trade and commerce”. He had stated that it was his misfortune to have been born a Hindu and had been critical of the Vedas. As Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah noted in a recent annotated edition of ‘Riddles in Hinduism’, “The entire corpus of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches bear testimony that he bristled with anger against Hinduism. ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ makes it abundantly clear that Ambedkar can never be drawn into the Hindu fold”.

Meanwhile, the self-confessed Ambedkarite, Ramdas Athawale, who never fails to invoke Babasaheb’s political legacy, joined the BJP-led central government on Tuesday. It was Athawale’s moment of political triumph – and cynically the BJP’s too. But in thought and deed, he was eons away from the principled Ambedkar who had resigned from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet over the Hindu Code Bill in September 1951. Incidentally, Athawale spent the last decade in the Shiv Sena, which had violently protested against ‘Riddles’ in the late 1980s.

Ambedkar’s writing remains the best resistance against the design to draw him into the Hindu fold, despite the Athawales of this world and the likes of myopic trustees overseeing Ambedkar Bhavan.

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