Terms of Trade | The possibilities and limits of Ambedkarite politics

Published on Oct 14, 2022 01:12 PM IST

Criticising Ambedkar is politically counterproductive. But challenging Ambedkarite politics, while paying him respect and becoming more inclusive of Dalits, is possible.

Since Ambedkar played a crucial role in imparting political agency to the Dalits and de jure codification of their constitutional rights, he is by far the most important symbol of emancipation (and rightly so) for India’s socially oppressed groups. (HT Graphics) PREMIUM
Since Ambedkar played a crucial role in imparting political agency to the Dalits and de jure codification of their constitutional rights, he is by far the most important symbol of emancipation (and rightly so) for India’s socially oppressed groups. (HT Graphics)

If there is one political figure in post-Independence India who is revered by all political parties, it is Bhimrao Ambedkar.

At the risk of sounding like a cynic, one can say that the universal reverence towards Ambedkar is driven more by realpolitik concerns of not alienating the historically oppressed castes, especially the Scheduled Caste (SC) or Dalit population which has a share of 17% in India, than an ideological alignment to all things Ambedkar stood for.

Since Ambedkar played a crucial role in imparting political agency to the Dalits and de jure codification of their constitutional rights, he is by far the most important symbol of emancipation (and rightly so) for India’s socially oppressed groups. This also means that any political force which is even seen as being disrespectful towards Ambedkar, risks a huge political backlash from these communities.

Given this background, it is rather perplexing that an Ambedkarite programme has been at the centre of political controversy in the national capital in the past week.

On October 5, Rajendra Pal Gautam, a Dalit and then a minister in the Aam Admi Party (AAP) government in Delhi attended what is perhaps an annual ritual in Delhi’s Ambedkar Bhawan. A brief digression to provide the historical context is useful here.

What Babasaheb did

B R Ambedkar along with around 500,000 followers converted to Buddhism on October 14, 1956 (it was Vijayadashmi day) in what is now known as the Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, Maharashtra. Ambedkar’s abdication of Hinduism was a revolt against a social order which was unwilling to let go of its entrenched discriminative practices.

To be sure, it took almost two decades for Ambedkar to implement the idea and decide on the choice of religion to convert to.

“A large majority of Untouchables who have reached a capacity to think out their problem believe that one way to solve the problem of the Untouchables is for them to abandon Hinduism and be converted to some other religion. At a Conference of the Mahars held in Bombay on 31st May 1936, a resolution to this effect was unanimously passed. Although the Conference was a Conference of the Mahars, the resolution had the support of a very large body of Untouchables throughout India”, Ambedkar writes in his essay Away from the Hindus.

The neo-Buddhists, as Dalit converts to Buddhism, are now known, to have an overwhelming share in the total Buddhist population (which is a total of 0.7% according to the 2011 census) in India.

Every year, on Vijayadashmi, or Ashoka Vijaya Dashmi, as it is called by the neo-Buddhists, it is common for neo-Buddhists to organise commemorative programmes and reiterate Ambedkar’s twenty-two vows, some of which are an explicit rejection of Hindu gods and religious practices.

Decoding the politics of the Delhi controversy

It was this reiteration of Ambedkar’s vows by Gautam which has been used by some leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to brand the AAP and its leader Arvind Kejriwal as anti-Hindu. That Kejriwal or AAP did not make any serious effort to defend Gautam and he has tendered his resignation is clear proof that the attack did hurt the AAP which is in the middle of the election campaign in the state of Gujarat, political Hindutva’s strongest bastion in India.

To be sure, there is nothing new about political parties bending over backwards to prevent being branded anti-Hindu by the BJP and its fellow travellers these days. In fact, parties walk an extra mile (or visit an extra temple) to brandish their Hindutva credentials.

However, the Rajendra Pal Gautam episode is a rare instance of the BJP explicitly attacking a Dalit leader for literally reiterating Ambedkar’s publicly stated ideas. While the highest leadership of the party has stayed away from the polemics, it is unlikely that the decision was taken without the approval of the highest leadership.

What is one to make of the BJP’s attack and the AAP’s almost immediate surrender on this question? The convenient answer, especially in the left-liberal ecosystem, is that by sacrificing Gautam, the AAP has once again proved its ideological meekness vis-à-vis Hindutva. Many others, including Dalit voices, have accused the AAP of being a hypocritical champion of Ambedkar’s legacy — AAP government’s offices display portraits of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. While Dalit voices criticising the AAP have a theoretical point in the allegation of the party not standing up to defend the commemoration of Ambedkar’s act, they must confront a more important question.

Why did the BJP let go of the quintessential do not attack Ambedkar rule in Indian politics while choosing to use an Ashoka Vijaya Dashmi event to attack AAP and why did the AAP not attack the BJP over what is being described as an attack on Ambedkarite ideology?

The only logical answer to this question can be that neither the BJP nor the AAP believes that the issue has larger traction among Dalits – neo-Buddhists are only a small part of the overall Dalit population in India – and therefore will not damage their political prospects within the larger Dalit community.

The AAP must also have calculated that the cost of letting Gautam continue in his position would have been significantly large in terms of loss of Hindu votes.

What’s changed, what hasn’t

Does this negate the political-ideological importance of Ambedkar’s social-reform agenda? Not necessarily, if one were to take a broad-based historical view of Ambedkar’s views on religion and caste.

At the time when Ambedkar proposed and acted on his idea of conversion from Hinduism to put an end to social discrimination, Hinduism was indeed a socially oppressive religious system.

Hindutva has, of course, not let go of all its oppressive features, more so in terms of religious codes than social life, though to be sure the latter is still not completely free of acts of social oppression. But it will be equally wrong to argue that there has been no progressive change in the Hindu socio-economic order in the 75 years since India attained political independence.

The handmaiden of this progressive change has been India’s universal suffrage-based democracy where the numerically dominant Dalits, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), often described as the Bahujan have made sure that the traditionally well-endowed and oppressive upper castes had to cede not just political but also economic and social representation to them in order to protect their political fortunes. While this subaltern assertion has led to the growth of a large number of political parties in India, many others, especially the Congress and the Communists (except in the state of Kerala) have paid for their failure to address the caste question properly.

Hindutva, Ambedkar and Dalits

The most interesting and often unnoticed political transformation on this question has been the one in India’s Hindu Right, which is represented by the larger ecosystem of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP.

While most left-liberal voices think of the RSS-BJP as upholders of the caste-ridden ancient Hindu order as enshrined in the Manusmriti, such views are, to put it politely, ahistorical and divorced from reality. A 1974 speech — it was the centenary Vasant Vyakhyanamala lecture in Pune — given by former RSS Sarsanghsanchalak Balasahab Deoras is the best place to begin this argument.

“In the past, some eminent leaders of the oppressed communities have severely criticised certain castes and certain religious texts. That was necessary at that time. In order to draw the attention of the people to a certain point and rouse public opinion, an individual may employ biting language in the beginning stages. But it is not necessary that such tirades should continue forever. Now the times have changed”, Deoras said, before going on to defend affirmative action policies.

“I believe that the 'backward' brethren of ours do not ask for the mercy of anybody. They only desire an equal status with others and that too on their own merits. Since they have been backward all these days, they only want that facilities and opportunities should be provided to them to advance. This desire of theirs is quite legitimate”, he added.

To be sure, the endorsement of such policies and admission of the Hindu social order being discriminatory in the past for the RSS was only a means towards an end.

"May all of us feel that the Hindus must unite and that for their unity the basis can only be social equality. With this conviction may all of us come forward to make our society united and strong. This is my fervent appeal to one and all”, Deoras concludes in his speech.

Of course, the RSS chief saying these things in a sanitised environment did not put an end to religious disenchantment of the socially oppressed within the Hindu fold immediately. The watershed moment for conversion in India perhaps came in 1981, when hundreds of Dalits embraced Islam in Meenakshipuram village of Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu.

However, there is more than enough documentary evidence to show that the RSS and its affiliates have consistently worked on their outreach to the socially oppressed communities, especially Dalits and Tribals since Deoras made that watershed speech.

Political scientist Tariq Tachil’s book Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India in an excellent documentation and analysis of the RSS’s concerted outreach among these communities and how it has helped the BJP politically without compromising the RSS’s ideological agenda.

This kind of quiet outreach by the Hindu Right has been accompanied by visible demonstrations of social inclusiveness in religious activities such as the act of getting a Dalit to do the shilanyas (foundation stone laying ceremony) for the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya in 1989. The person who did this act, Kameshwar Chaupal, is now a member of the trust which is responsible for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Of course, such symbolism has been accompanied by political symbolism such as the BJP appointing first a Dalit and then a tribal to the highest constitutional post in the country in 2017 and 2022.

While these acts have a symbolic importance, it will be naive to argue that the BJP’s appeal within the subalterns is purely cosmetic. That the Prime Minister himself comes from an OBC sub-caste and is the undisputed leader within not just the BJP but the biggest mass leader in the country at the moment, and non-dominant OBCs and Dalits are an important constituency of the BJP’s core support base, speaks volumes about the BJP’s success in gaining acceptability among the historically socially oppressed communities in India. The upper castes, whether or not they are happy about this turning of tables in what was once described as a “Brahmin-Baniya” party, have reconciled themselves to this change to prevent ending up as pariahs in the larger realpolitik game.

In fact, one can take argue that the BJP has used social inclusion to not just pre-empt dissatisfaction among the subalterns towards Hindutva but actually make them frontline soldiers in its political design of othering India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims. This has been achieved by cherry-picking history to create subaltern heroes against Muslim oppressors to mobilise specific caste groups. The legend of Suheldev and his exploits against Ghazi Miyan in eastern Uttar Pradesh is a good example of such politics.

Such attempts have gone hand in hand with what many scholars have described as a new kind of religiosity – to be sure, this has deeper sociological roots than just the result of the BJP-RSS designs – where the old-style (caste-infested) religious practices have been replaced by a more caste agnostic but community-oriented, and therefore politically convenient, form of religious assertion such as celebration of Kanwar Yatras or Jagrans, most of which see a large participation from subaltern ranks.

Ambedkarite politics in contemporary India

What does all this mean for the original question which this column tried to pose in the beginning, namely whether or not the AAP’s decision to sacrifice Rajendra Pal Gautam for reiterating Ambedkar’s vows necessarily negates Ambedkar’s political ideological importance in India?

Any sincere answer to this question must acknowledge the fact that India has had a significant progressive evolution on the social inclusion question compared to Ambedkar’s time, and contrary to what many believe, the Hindu Right which is best represented by the RSS-BJP eco-system has made a significant social contribution to this cause.

In fact, one can argue that the BJP’s contribution to this cause, if it follows up on the recent constitution of a committee to look at the question of granting SC status to certain sub-castes within Christians and Muslims, will likely be far bigger than that of any other previous regime in the country.

To be sure, none of this is to say that incidents of caste based atrocity do not take place anymore and when they happen the criminal justice system does not take the side of the oppressor rather than the oppressed. However, nobody can make the argument that things have turned worse on this question compared to what they were in Ambedkar’s times.

This progress notwithstanding, India is very far from two of Ambedkar’s most cherished ideals, namely annihilation of caste and achievement of the principle of one-man, one-vote and one-value. It can be argued that India’s political parties, by actively using caste as a basis for mobilisation and institutionalising a vastly unequal political finance regime, have actively worked against the realisation of these ideas.

On the “secularism” question, while it may sound unflattering to some people, Ambedkar himself was a bit ambivalent, having endorsed the two-nation theory of Hindus and Muslims being two separate nations, even if from a slightly academic perspective. “In the absence of common historical antecedents, the Hindu view that Hindus and Musalmans form one nation falls to the ground. To maintain it is to keep up a hallucinatioin. There is no such longing between the Hindus and Musalmans to belong together as there is among the Musalmans of India”, Ambedkar writes in his essay Is there a case for Pakistan. Of course, as the Chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly, he played an important role in building a secular constitution for India.

Perhaps it is this ambivalence of Ambedkar on the secularism question which has made the Hindu Right comfortable enough to appropriate his legacy while using it to discredit the Congress for its poor track record in furthering social inclusion. This is exactly what makes sole reliance on Ambedkarite politics a weak strategy to challenge the ideological hegemony of the Hindu right in Indian politics today. Rajendra Pal Gautam’s fate is only a real world example of this argument.

Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.

The views expressed are personal

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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