The turn of the millennium saw the publication of Worshipping False Gods, in which Arun Shourie, then a Union minister and leading light of the BJP-led NDA government, portrayed Ambedkar quite plainly as a “self-centred, unpatriotic and power-hungry anti-national”. As the country celebrates the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar, the mood in the BJP and the RSS is distinctly different: tactical perhaps, there is an aspect of enforced reverence.
Ambedkar, declared Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, was his guru. The RSS hailed Ambedkar—who had said he was disgusted with Hindus and Hinduism—as a staunch Hindu and a patriot. Lauding Ambedkar in his Vijayadashami address in 2015, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat called upon Hindus to remain united. “Hindu Hindu ek rahen, bhedbhav ko nahin sahein (Hindus must remain united and not foster internal division),” was his message during the RSS’s major annual function. The Sangh is of course quick to dismiss any suggestion of a “sudden affection” for Ambedkar in saffron circles, and turns around with an accusatory, “Why does the media always prefer negative stories? What is so sudden about our praising Ambedkar? We’ve always respected Ambedkar.”
To be sure, the RSS has always formally talked against caste. Yes, this has been so linked to its desire to consolidate a ‘Hindu’ society that it found no favour in groups outside its natural arc. In recent months, it has faced perhaps the severest challenge to this project: with the Rohith Vemula episode, and its repercussions. Everything its members say and do naturally has to measured in this calculus.
RSS leaders choose to highlight Modi’s Ambedkar Memorial lecture, delivered at the Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi on March 21, to emphasise their point. At the lecture, Modi declared himself a “bhakt of Babasaheb” and said he would strive to achieve everything that Ambedkar had wanted to achieve in India but had not happened “for 60 years”—hinting at the failure of Congress governments.
Undoubtedly, it is not just the BJP and the RSS that are engaged in the race to appropriate Ambedkar. For the Congress, it’s a largely estranged ‘natural constituency’. For the Left, it’s the underclass they never engaged with directly due to their theoretical dogma over caste. Not any more. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta attributes this to the growing awareness about Ambedkar. A group of highly competent Dalit academics have emerged and taken the lead, he says, in propagating what Ambedkar stood for. That’s why, he adds, no political party can afford to ignore Ambedkar any longer. “Not engaging with Ambedkar is no longer an option,” he stresses.
A defensive K. Raju, in charge of the Scheduled Castes cell of the Congress, points out that it was the UPA government that had set the Ambedkar memorial project rolling and cleared the design and the proposal to purchase the building in London in which Ambedkar had lived. But while the BJP is reaping the harvest, in a belated attempt to appropriate Ambedkar, the Congress is planning to hold a Dalit convention at Nagpur—which is where, in 1956, a few months before he died, Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism along with some 67 lakh Dalits. He was upholding a vow he’d undertaken—not to die a Hindu.
The greatest proof of solidarity with Ambedkar’s idea of India that senior RSS functionaries have to offer is the ekatmata stotra, a hymn for integration that is recited daily at the RSS shakhas. First introduced in the ’50s, it is a collection of shlokhas praising saints and warriors. In the ’70s, it was revised to incorporate names like Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru and others.
Participants in an Ambedkar run organised in Delhi recently
Indeed, the Sangh’s Hindi and English mouthpieces, Panchajanya and Organiser, brought out commemorative issues to mark Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. And RSS ideologue Krishna Gopal amused Ambedkar scholars by claiming that RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar and Ambedkar shared a deep friendship. Some outraged Dalit groups brought out pamphlets to point out that Krishna Gopal had not mentioned the basis for making the claim. While it is known that Ambedkar did correspond with socialist thinker Ram Manohar Lohia, they argued, there was no evidence to suggest that Ambedkar and Hedgewar were friends.
An effusive RSS, however, took all criticism in its stride and went on to claim that the practice of untouchability started in the subcontinent with the advent of Muslim rule. Ambedkar, it claimed, without offering any photograph or correspondence as evidence, had visited a RSS camp and had praised the Sangh for treating everyone equally. The RSS argued that he was opposed to certain conduct by some Hindus but was not opposed to the core Hindu philosophy. To buttress its stand, the Sangh stressed that it stood for “one well, one temple and one crematorium” for all Hindus. And completely ignoring the fact that it was the Muslim League which elected Ambedkar to the constituent assembly, the RSS claimed that Ambedkar had said that “Muslims would never think of India as their motherland”.
Meanwhile, the Centre has pulled out all stops in the celebrations, which will culminate in the Panchayati Raj Day on April 24. During this period, the government will be organising a Gram Uday Se Bharat Uday Abhiyan (a village self-governance campaign). It is also in the process of developing several places linked to Ambedkar, including Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, where he was born, a museum in London, where he studied, his deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, where he converted to Buddhism, and the memorial Chaitya Bhoomi in Dadar-Chowpatty in Mumbai. In addition, a building for the Dr Ambedkar Foundation is being built at Janpath, Delhi.
Dalit scholars say they’re bemused at the desperation of political parties falling over each other to appropriate, or misappropriate, as some of them say, the legacy of Ambedkar. One of them said on condition of anonymity, “Why are political parties not talking about the Uniform Civil Code on which Ambedkar resigned from Nehru’s cabinet? Political parties are selectively using Ambedkar for their own benefit; they haven’t understood fully the versatile Ambedkar, who believed in strengthening the rule of law for a caste-free society.”
Much of the frenzied action, observers believe, is aimed at winning over Dalit voters in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where assembly elections are due next year. While Uttar Pradesh has some 40 million Dalits, in Punjab 31 per cent of the population happens to be Dalit. And if BJP is to win Uttar Pradesh, it will have to corner the bulk of the Dalit votes, as it did in 2014. It has the BSP for competition.
There is little doubt that the BJP needs Babasaheb now more than ever before. A senior BJP leader in Delhi told Outlook, “This election season, the Dalits are a critical votebank for us. Especially since the Rohith Vemula suicide case was not handled well by the government and has made us appear anti-Dalit. Officially, no one will admit it but the fact is we made a blunder in the Vemula case. The anti-Dalit image that is being projected by the opposition will stick, and to undo that damage, we will have to work very hard.”
The attempt is to defy BSP chief Mayawati’s scathing description of the BJP as a party of tilak (Brahmins), tarazu (Banias) and talwar (Kshtriyas) and transform the party to present a modicum of inclusivity. In Uttar Pradesh particularly, where the BJP already seems to have started poll preparation for the next year’s election, Dalits are being wooed by the party to counter the Samajwadi Party’s consistent votebank of the OBCs.
Sharpening the existing faultlines between Dalits and Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh on the one hand and between Dalits and Muslims on the other seems part of the plan as the BJP appears to have factored in the rising friction between Dalits and Muslims in many places. Polarising Jats against Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh did yield the party a rich harvest in the 2014 polls. The temptation, therefore, to rebrand Ambedkar as a nationalist who accepted reformed Hinduism but not Islam is irresistible.
Bahujan Samaj Party MP Ambedh Rajan scoffs at the BJP’s “tokenism”. “If they feel so much about Ambedkar and his ideology, why is untouchability still practiced in India, why are Dalits not treated as equals,” he asks bitterly. There was no point in giving land for the Ambedkar memorial, he says. “Will land bring about any change in the lifestyle of the SCs? This is all drama, first it was the Congress and now it is the BJP,” he says.
An RSS ideologue, however, seethes at the “unfair” criticism. On condition of anonymity, he told Outlook, “Ambedkar stood for the emancipation of Dalits. It wasn’t his vision to treat Dalits as a votebank. Similarly, it isn’t correct to brand the RSS and BJP as Brahminical organisations or anti-Dalit organisations. If the Sangh was a Brahminical organisation then the Republican Party of India, which was started by Ambedkar, would not have been a member of the NDA.”
But the rejoinder from BSP MP Veer Singh is as sharp. He believes that if the Congress or the BJP genuinely wished to take concrete steps for the welfare of backward groups, they would have allowed the passage of the Constitution (117th Amendment) Bill, 2012, related to reservation in promotion. “The Rajya Sabha passed it three years back. The Congress didn’t follow it up and now the BJP is also silent for the past two years,” says Singh.
Union minister Rajnath shares a meal with Sulabh safai karmacharais
While Ambedkar believed untouchables were not “100 per cent Hindus”, the BJP and RSS seemed to be working to a plan to appropriate Ambedkar, not as a Dalit icon, but as a leader of all Indians. Indeed, Modi had declared it was unfair to confine Ambedkar to India, for he was an international figure comparable with Martin Luther King!
The RSS , it is said, never plays for the short term. Insiders confirm that the RSS’s plans are aimed at long-term results aimed at bringing about a larger sociological and cultural change. That’s why, 27 years after the VHP brought forth a Dalit, Kameshwar Chaupal, to lay the first brick at the shilanyas of the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya, this year the BJP will celebrate anniversaries of Dalit saints like Gadgebaba and Guru Sant Ravidas. BJP president Amit Shah shall also pay a tribute to Pasi King Raja Suheldev in Bahraich to woo the Pasis, a significant Dalit community in UP.
The RSS’s Samajik Samrasta Manch (SSM), a platform for social harmony, was started on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, on April 14, in 1983, and continues to do substantial work in Dalit localities. Piggy-backing on Phule-Ambedkar thought, it aims to end untouchability and integrate Dalits into Hindu society. It’s still not clear how much of a dent has been made by other programmes such as the VHP’s ‘Make Friends with one Dalit family’ and Samrasta Bhoj (community eating), under which Dalits are invited to share khichdi with the upper castes. There is also a campaign to start schools in Dalit settlements. It’s no coincidence that 2016 is the year FM Arun Jaitely wishes to be known as the ‘Year of Economic Empowerment for SC/ST Entrepreneurs’. Budget 2016 was designed to address the aspirational quotient of socially and economically marginalised communities, say BJP insiders. After all, aspiration and hope were the two mantras which swept the BJP to power in 2014.
Sections of Dalits are unmoved. While the Modi government is paying lip service to the cause, they say, there is little change to be seen on the ground. In the budget for 2016-17, allocation for the Special Component Plan for SCs, they point out, was Rs 38,833 crore—a lot less than the Rs 82,000 crore that should have been allocated (16.2 per cent of the plan amount), as per the government’s own guidelines.
The shrinkage of jobs in the government sector and the PSUs, they point out, are hurting Dalits the most. But the government is not even willing to consider extending Dalit reservation to the private sector. Similarly, the government’s neglect of school education and public health and covert promotion of private schools and private hospitals work against the Dalits.
Above all, neither the BJP nor the RSS seem to take the pledge of “liberty, equality and fraternity” in the Preamble to the Constitution seriously. While Ambedkar incessantly called for an end to all forms of social discrimination by “social democracy”, little or no effort has been made to end discrimination, atrocities against Dalits and violence triggered by inter-caste marriages.
At the same time, the central government’s hostility towards Ambedkarite groups like the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in IITs has also contributed to creating the impression of an anti-Dalit government. This impression is gaining hold among young Dalits, many of them readying to vote in the states going to the polls. The BJP’s inept handling of JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s case, slapping sedition charges on him, may have worked to galvanise BJP’s youth wing the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the short run but the gradual realisation is that it may have backfired by giving the Left and fringe groups a fresh lease of life.
Therefore, the RSS and the BJP will have to come clean on cow worship and beef-eating before they can expect support from the Dalits. The party will also have to begin addressing the discomfort of its own Dalit leaders on issues like Rohith Vemula’s suspension and suicide.
But this coopting will be difficult. Several Dalit intellectuals Outlook spoke to emphasised that Dalits haven’t yet forgotten that a day after converting to Buddhism, Babasaheb Ambedkar said in a speech, “Even though I was born in the Hindu religion, I will not die in the Hindu religion...I am happy, I am ecstatic! I have left hell!—this is how I feel.”
A New Tack On An Old Wrong?
- April 2015 * Prime Minister Narendra Modi lays the foundation stone of Ambedkar International Centre in Mumbai * RSS mouthpieces Panchjanya and Organiser bring out special issues on Ambedkar
- November 2015 Govt says Nov 26 to be Constitution Day. It’s the day on which Indian Constitution was adopted in 1949.
- November 2015 PM and Maharashtra chief minister inaugurate Ambedkar Museum at No. 10, King Henry Road in London, where Ambedkar stayed for two years between 1921-23. Maharashtra govt bought house at estimated £4 million.
- December 2015 PM unveils two commemorative coins to honour Dr Ambedkar
- January 2016 Govt asks Prasar Bharati to broadcast on DD biopic on Ambedkar on all important occasions like the Republic Day, Independence Day and so on. The film, made by Jabbar Patel in 1999-2000 had not been shown on national television till 2015.
- January 2016 An Ambedkar tableau included in Republic Day parade
- March 2016 PM lays the foundation stone of Ambedkar Memorial on Alipur Road, Delhi
- April 2016 Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary April 14 declared a gazetted holiday
- April, 2016 PM launches ‘Stand Up India’ campaign. PSU banks to support Dalit entrepreneurs with loans
- April 2016 The government and the RSS launch an extensive village outreach programme culminating with the PM’s address to villagers on April 24
“People who are ruling over us with the help of the Constitution used to clean our shoes in the past…there was a time when we didn’t even want to sit close to them but now in a few years’ time our children may have to call them huzoor.”
Madhu Mishra, president of BJP Mahila Morcha (UP), at a Holi Milan in Aligarh
“For everything, like if somebody throws a stone at a dog, then the government is responsible...that’s not right.”
V.K. Singh, MoS External Affairs, drawing an analogy following the death of two Dalit children in Faridabad
“Do you want a government led by Ramzaade (followers of Ram) or haraamzaade (illegitimate children).”
Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Union MoS for Food Processing
“Those who are opposing the hanging of terrorists, those who say that they would arrange beef parties—they are
the ones committing suicide.”
Kailash Vijayvargiya, national general secretary, BJP
By Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai, with Bula Devi in Delhi