A rule of votebanks has relegated Ambedkar to being an inert icon in Dalit politics
Teekaram, a 22-year-old Dalit from Ramgarh village’s Chamartoli, on the periphery of Delhi’s Gautambuddha Nagar, lies at the trauma centre of aiims. He lost both his legs on the day he was going to write Delhi University’s B.Ed entrance exam. Teekaram had the audacity to demand his share of land allotted to Dalits in Ramgarh. The local land mafia attacked and wounded him, before throwing him on the railway track. Though he is not the first victim of atrocity against Dalits in the region in recent months, the incident was ignored by the media. Even Dalit parties were unmoved. “Where is Ambedkar in our lives?” asks Teekaram hopelessly.
India has seven national parties, one of which is the avowedly Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party. Other Dalit parties can be identified by their leadership, names, symbols and banners. Eight parties have titles starting with ‘Ambedkar’, 14 with ‘Bahujan’, five with ‘Dalit’, while seven incorporate ‘Republican Party of India’ (a party with this name was formed by B.R. Ambedkar) in their names. Most of the Dalit representation in Parliament doesn’t come from these parties, except for Mayawati’s BSP, but from mainstream national parties like the Congress, BJP and others.
Gabrielle Dietrich, a Dalit activist from Tamil Nadu, says: “Most Dalit representation doesn’t come from the Dalit struggle. Hence MPs are puppets in the hands of the mainstream—upper-class, upper-caste-controlled parties.” A study of atrocities on Dalits during polls in Rajasthan suggests that Dalits who tried to contest independently were threatened, even murdered. “Why blame only Dalit parties for forgetting Ambedkar? Are other parties following the ideologies they propagate? It’s just vote politics,” Dietrich adds. CPI MP D. Raja disagrees: “That is the problem of academic interpretation. Dalits can choose any party or ideology. Generalising all Dalit representatives as puppets is a bad way of looking into Dalit politics.” One of Congress’s Dalit faces, P.L. Punia, was once close to Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, and is now the biggest critic of the latter. “Dalit parliamentarians are not mere puppets, although Mayawati treats her MPs and MLAs as puppets,” he says.
So does Ambedkar have any relevance beyond the symbolic to Dalit politics? Dalit writer and professor at JNU, Tulsi Ram, says: “Babasaheb is always there. He gave us the Constitution where we have some reservation for Dalits and every party, Dalit or non-Dalit, is bound to follow it.... How much the Dalit leaders have derailed from his political path is another issue.”
Dalit activist and politician from Rajasthan, Bhanwar Meghwanshi, says that it’s difficult not to revert to votebank politics, as resources are limited for a poor community. He adds: “OBCs are the biggest enemies today for all Dalits who want to raise their voices.” He indicates that none of the political forces want to form alliances with the poor Dalit parties and movements, unless Dalit groups opt to subject themselves to their agenda and choose to be used as votebanks. Tulsi Ram adds that the OBCs or intermediate castes are “attacking Dalits to snatch assets like land, besides grabbing socio-political space”.
Till now the votebank politics model, as followed by Mayawati, has been most successful in empowering Dalits. But the change she offers has ceased to be transformative and lost most of its radical energy, for it creates a hierarchy of its own. In that process, Ambedkar is no more than a potent symbol.
Ambedkar does get adulatory attention these days, but for flesh-and-blood Dalits fighting injustice like Teekaram, most Dalit parties remain mere paper tigers, rather than the Dalit panthers they often claim to be.