Grappling with untouchability
Bhagwan Das is the last surviving research assistant of BR Ambedkar. For this chronicler of the Dalit movement, caste remains a tangible political entity as ever, writes Paramita Ghosh.Updated: Sep 12, 2008, 23:16 IST
Two people do not crowd a small flat. But when there are three? “Dr Ambedkar is god,” says Dr Rahul with a laugh, “So certainly you’ll see him everywhere in this house.” Rahul shares a room with his 81-year-old father, Bhagwan Das.
Ambedkar busts and wall art outnumber images of that other Dalit icon, Buddha, here. This morning, space is tight. Publisher S Anand is also here to film Das, the last surviving research assistant of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and author of 23 books on the Dalit struggle.
“Are you a PhD?” Ambedkar had asked his then young research assistant one day. Bhagwan, a 28-year-old radio operator who had just quit the Royal Air Force to join him, replied: “Never been to college, Sir. But I read.” The exchange on the subject became a private joke between the two men, recalls Bhagwan, who would buy books from the People’s Education Society set up by Ambedkar. “One day he caught me carrying a book on progressive thinking and Marxism, but I didn’t want to show it to him. He had a weakness for books. And I knew I wouldn’t get it back. Suddenly, he asked me again: ‘Are you a PhD?’”
The son of a sweeper, Bhagwan’s career was not in imitation of his boss, but built through reflection. His views on Gandhi, an ideological counterpoint to Dalit intellectuals, flow from the same source. “If Gandhi was Bapu, the father of a society in which he tried to inject quality while maintaining the Hindu framework, Ambedkar was Baba to his people and the great liberator from that framework,” he quotes from sociologist Gail Omvedt’s book. Das’s own four-volume Thus Spoke Ambedkar (New York’s Museum Library keeps a copy) was the most important reference book for 20 years on Ambedkar after his death in the 50s.
As the camera rolls, the Gandhi connection crops up again. Homer Jack of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi, had introduced Das to the Social Welfare Ministry and recommended that he present a paper at the UN in the 80s.“I was the first Dalit to speak at the UN. It was Dr Ambedkar’s dream... I presented a paper on the plight of untouchables all over the subcontinent. When I came out, they told me that they had thought that Gandhi had abolished untouchability.”
Independence, stresses Das, wasn’t liberation for everybody. “We don’t call it Independence. We call it a transfer of
power between upper castes. On August 15, we were afraid. We had no constituti-
Das is also no admirer of Mayawati. As a teacher at a Karol Bagh school, she would attend meetings at the Ambedkar Bhawan where Das would lecture. After joining politics she kept away. “The BSP does not want intellectuals. It wants crowds,” Das explains. “Kanshi Ram thought political power was everything.” Political organisations like the Republican Party of India started by Ambedkar were anyway divided. Its leaders lacked unity and stength. Mayawati took advantage of the vacuum. Her party had no agenda of social emancipation. Chamars — her base — put their numbers behind her and voted her into power, Das says.
Untouchability in Asia, Das believes, is his last task. He pores over the census of 1891 as the camera zooms in and talks of how the Lal Begis (untouchables) have, over the years, started calling themselves Balmikis. “When the lower castes started embracing Christianity, the Hindu Mahasabha tried to check their conversion and introduced the myth of Balmiki as the author of the Ramayana to uphold the caste structure.” he says. “The trouble with caste is that if you try to throw it out from the front door, it creeps back again through the window or the back door.”
The ‘set’ is Das’s study. The period is 61 years after Independence. Nothing has changed.