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Fractured Legacy

In the face of an acute leadership crisis among Dalits, the Ambedkar agenda remains a dream

Fractured Legacy
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THE nearly 150 million population makes the Dalit community one of the largest in the country. But as the desecration of a statue of Dr B.R. Ambedkar in Mumbai on July 11 and the riots that followed in Maharashtra and Gujarat proved, it is a community groping for a viable leadership. Rather, it's a community betrayed by its own torchbearers—its interests subjugated to petty electoral politics.

Fifty years after India's Independence and 40 years after the death of Ambedkar—Dalit messiah and father of the Indian Constitution—his followers tread varying paths. Regional differences persist, political groupings use them as votebanks, and there is an internecine, seemingly endless battle among those who claim to speak for them. The prize: acceptance as the representatives of a fold which, despite its growing assertiveness, is still disadvantaged.

Ambedkar's legacy seems fractured, and his dream of a pan-Indian Dalit identity in dire need of resuscitation. This, at a time when the firing that left 10 Dalit protestors dead in Mumbai and riots in Maharashtra and Gujarat should have been a cause for coming together. The Republican Party of India (RPI) is in disarray in Maharashtra; in Gujarat, chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela, aware of the lack of a strong Dalit leadership, is making an attempt to fill the vacuum.

Strangest of all, the Bahujan Samaj Party openly declared that the party could not be bothered with the happenings in Mumbai because the BSP is only concerned with consolidating Dalit support in north India. In south India, mainstream political parties lay claim to various Dalit groups.

Just as the iconisation of Ambedkar is a discernible trend in contemporary India, so are the controversies. Arun Shourie's latest tome on Ambedkar, Worshipping False Gods , has kicked off a terrible row with its conclusions on Ambedkar's role in the freedom struggle, even leading to demands from a small section that the book be banned. The Battle over Ambedkar is turning acrimonious.

In Maharashtra, even as Dalit ire was aroused at the shoot-to-kill strategy of the Bombay police, the RPI, supposed inheritors of the Ambedkar legacy, was a house divided. There were, no doubt, a spate of statements from RPI leaders condemning the act, but as the dust settled, the fissures came to the fore. Observes Ramdas Athavale, general secretary: "We have to do everything we can to keep unity. In the past too, our leaders have come together only to part ways. This is the time for all of our leaders to stand united."

Athavale's concern is understandable. A senior leader and RPI 'president' Raja Dhale suggested that the vandalising of Ambedkar could well have been the handiwork of vested interests within the Dalit movement itself. He even hinted that a handful of Congress leaders may have masterminded the desecration. Young Dalit leaders echo similar sentiments—that some elements in the party are trapped in a Congress-Shiv Sena tussle.

In fact, expression of Dalit rage in Marathwada and V

, was attacked by Dalit youth when he turned up hours after the police firing in Ghatkopar. The indifference of the present breed of leaders and the rivalry they spawn is a point of discussion. Dalit youngsters are all praise for deputy commissioner of police Vasant Ingle, a Dalit, who put in his papers on July 14 in protest against the police firing. Similarly, Datta Waghmare, an employee at the state secretariat, also quit. Ingle says that he will not withdraw his resignation till action is taken against those responsible for the firing.

But what do Dalit youth expect from their leaders? According to Arjun Dangle, noted poet and founder member of the Dalit Panthers, the RPI must encourage young leaders. "We have begun to stagnate. There is a lot of petty politics and our leaders are more interested in playing power games. There is no ideological drive." Nothing showcases the RPI infighting more than the Gavai-Dhale power struggle. Elected president in organisational polls in March, Dhale has in R.S. Gavai another claimant to the top post. Gavai submitted the minutes of the RPI general council meeting, which says he is the president, to the Election Commission. The Prakash Ambedkar-Dhale faction in the RPI alleges that Gavai cooked up the minutes. Till the EC decides, it will be a party with two presidents.

It was on December 6, 1995, Ambedkar's death anniversary, that Dalit leaders who had earlier formed 10 different parties decided to come together. The most significant aspect of the unity move was that the two most powerful Dalit leaders, Ramdas Athavale and Ambedkar's grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, decided to join hands. However, the third front of Dalits and minorities did not win any seats either in the Lok Sabha or the assembly elections and the bickering in the 'unified' RPI resurfaced.

The RPI divide is a metaphor for the fractious Dalit movement in the state. In the last 25 years, Dalit leaders have been working at cross purposes. And the political leadership allowed themselves to be wooed by one party after the other. Dalit leaders have had electoral alliances with the Congress as well as the Sena. According to Gavai, the 15 per cent Dalit votebank can only be consolidated if there is unity among the Dalits and all other minorities.

While the Congress has traditionally nursed the Dalit votebank, others are queueing up to cash in on the Ambedkar cult. The latest in line is the underworld don-turned-politician Arun Gawli. According to a section of Dalit leaders, there is a Congress-Gawli nexus, therefore those in the RPI close to the don must view his newfound sympathy for Dalits with a great deal of suspicion. Says Dangle: "The Congress should realise that they are unleashing a Bhindranwale in Maharashtra by backing Gawli."

In stark contrast to Maharashtra and Gujarat, Ambedkar acolytes in North India, particularly Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, were quite restrained. In Uttar Pradesh, which has done more to propagate Ambedkar than all state governments put together, Chief Minister Mayawati declined to take any questions on the subject. But state BSP chief Dayaram Pal said the violence was largely because Dalits hadn't adhered to the ideology of Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. "In UP, the downtrodden have seen what Mayawati 'behan-ji' has done. Soon it is going to spread to other areas," he says. Such optimism is perhaps understandable. The state capital itself has had a facelift in the last three months, mostly in the form of Ambedkar statues. The most contentious of them, of course, is the ambitious Ambedkar memorial coming up in posh Gomti Nagar colony. Starting off with an outlay of Rs 14 crore, it is expected to touch Rs 100 crore when it is completed in September, coinciding with the end of Mayawati's first six months of power-sharing.

The passage to the memorial has not been smooth. When Mayawati first proposed the idea, the finance department shot it down, citing a funds crunch. Mayawati promptly shunted out the officer who had jotted his objections. Then, she withdrew money from the contingency fund, usually used by chief ministers during an emergency. As if on cue, a team from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) is auditing papers related to the project.

But in the quest for capturing the 21.2 per cent Dalit vote in UP, the financial health of the state does not worry the chief minister. Because in her own words, she will do "in three months what others have not been able to do in three years." Mayawati has been true to her word. Apart from scores of Ambedkar statues that have mushroomed, Mayawati has come up with her unique version of land reforms: distributing land deeds to the landless. Under the scheme, gram sabha land distributed to the landless and later disputed by "powerful" people in villages will go back to the Dalits. According to figures available with the state information directorate, uptil May 31 this year, 5,503 Dalits had been returned the land they owned and another 7,249 such disputes have been identified.

The most ambitious project, however, is the Ambedkar villages. Started by Mulayam Singh Yadav in 1990-91, it seeks to identify villages with more than 50 per cent Harijan population. The scheme has gained momentum since Mayawati took over. Now, of the 1,12,804 villages, 11,524 have been identified as Ambedkar villages. Last month, Mayawati introduced another amendment: villages with 30 per cent Harijans could be included in the scheme and funds for it would be taken out from the Special Component Plan.

BUT such land reforms have attracted critics. The CPI(M), with little base in the state, has attacked the scheme as a 'sham'. Says member of the CPI(M) central committee Sunit Chopra: "There is no development work in non-Ambedkar villages and the ones that have been picked do not have as many Harijans as the government claims." Mayawati also announced the setting up of a separate department for the purpose; the new department will be aided by eight other departments. Says secretary of the Ambedkar Village Development department G.P. Patnaik: "This scheme addresses the most crying need of our times and irrespective of the name, it is a rural development project long overdue."

Dalit empowerment is clearly here to stay. Says G.P. Mishra, director of the Giri Institute of Development Studies: "Mayawati's current tenure is by far the biggest bid at empowerment of the Dalits. It is a kind of pan-Ambedkarism which is to obtain a stronger bargaining point in the political gamesmanship of the day." According to him, it is not what Mayawati can do but the feeling of "being one of them" that has helped the BSP consolidate its base in UP with 12 assembly seats in 1989 to 69 MLAs in 1996.

If the Kanshi Ram-Mayawati coup has clicked in UP, it has made significant inroads in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh with the entry of senior Congress leader Arvind Netam in its ranks. In June, Kanshi Ram organised a mammoth rally in Gwalior. His prize catch: a dozen disgruntled Congressmen. According to state BSP boss Dau-ram Ratnakar, a number of BJP men were also keen to jump on to the bandwagon. The BSP has 11 members in the state assembly but its vote percentage has gone up from 3.54 in 1991 to 8.18 in 1996.

The message of Babasaheb Ambedkar has also reached Punjab where in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP in electoral adjustments with the Akalis got three seats—one more than the Congress. Punjab—which gave Kanshi Ram his baptism by fire in the early '70s when he first evolved a Dalit union, BAMSEF, basing it on Ambedkar's teachings—has a crucial chunk of 27 per cent Dalit voters which include Mazhabis, Balmikis, Mahashas and other Dalit subcastes. In Punjab, it is no surprise that both the Congress and the Akalis have at one time or the other wanted to tie up with Kanshi Ram.

In the south, in Tamil Nadu, Dalit politics is actually an unintended consequence of the seven-decade Dravidian movement. Today, Dalit ranks have swelled with educated youth, lawyers, doctors and engineers, and those employed in government offices. While a section has emerged as small landlords and traders, another section has advanced economically by migrating to West Asia. While their economic fortunes has, at one level, freed them from the day-to-day servility, at another level, this has led to an increased resentment towards OBCs, particularly the Thevars in the southern districts and Vanniyars in the north.

The three major Dalit castes in Tamil Nadu are Parayar (mostly in the northern districts); Arunthathiyars (cobblers, in the central districts) and Pallars (Devendra Kula Vellalars in the southern districts). While all of them agree that there is a need to abandon the icon of Periyar and choose Ambedkar as the new totem, the localised Dalit leadership is unwilling to come under one umbrella. Ambedkar People's Front president and a former mayor of Chennai V. Balasundaram accuses other Dalit leaders of being sectarian.

While the Dalits are unhappy with both the DMK and AIADMK, the TMC is trying to woo them. Krishnaswamy, president of the Devendra Kula Vellalar, is already viewed as a Moopanar ally. "All India mobilisation of Dalits under the political iconage of Ambedkar will be detrimental to the Dalit cause as their principle oppressor, the Brahmins, have also organised themselves nationwide in the form of various pan-Indian structures like the RSS and the BJP. This mobilisation would meet the same fate as the BSP-BJP alliance in UP. Leaders will gain; but the Dalit movement will suffer a terrible setback," observes a senior Dalit leader. But Krishnaswamy refuses to accept this theory. "The BSP is an aberration. Today, I feel the Dalits in Tamil Nadu will show a way to establish Ambedkar rule—which will be different from the Kamaraj rule or the Dravidian movement. Ambedkar rule means not a patronising governance but a participative one," he thunders.

According to Professor Nandu Ram, a sociologist from JNU, Delhi, even Ambedkar could not achieve a pan-Indian Dalit identity because of various factors though he made some headway and gave "Dalits a sense of identity". But now even that legacy is in danger. The Dalits seem to have too many 'leaders' and too little unity.

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