At 125, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar enters the domain of immortality. He has more statues than all our leaders put together— candles are lit, he’s revered, he’s garlanded, consecrated on every occasion, whether it be a protest or a celebration. Since his mahaparinirvan as a Bodhisattva in 1956, Ambedkar’s memory and ideology has been kept alive by his followers. He’s become the single-most rallying point for every instance that seeks social justice. Indeed, the turn of the century along with his centenary celebrations in 1991 has reinforced the Dalit consolidation behind Ambedkar.
The Dalits have now sufficiently driven a point that, core to the emancipatory future of millions in India (irrespective of caste), is the reinforcing of his legacy in constitutional democracy; a rights-based constitutional framework and the cultural nationalism of his Buddhism and Ambedkarite politics. This probably will be the driving force, not only for Dalits but for all citizen-centric rights-based movements in India.
The best example of this came when the courts expanded the understanding of Article 21 on right to protection of life and liberty, which emanated from the framework of rights created by Ambedkar. It lived up to Ambedkar’s vision by ensuring rights to food, to work and to education under the garb of right to life.
Rights-based constitutional agitation is now expanding, with individual rights of citizens attaining primacy. Movements and agitations by the youth in New Delhi for greater rights is a good example of this. This is where citizens’ rights tend to coincide with the clamour of Dalits to free themselves of caste-based discrimination. Yet Dalits continue to suffer from discriminations—caste and poverty—in addition to the rights violations afflicting other ‘citizens’. One hundred million followers of Ambedkar’s ideology would like to see the nation’s policies towards better justice reworked.
After 1991, a serious revaluation of the cultural nationalism ingrained in Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism was done. He was hailed as the greatest ‘Hindu reformer’, lauded for having chosen an Indian religion. Ambedkar’s followers are taking his Buddhist legacy forward. Every year on Dussehra the pilgrimage of a million Dalits to Nagpur’s deekshabhoomi is a spectacle; it is the biggest congregation of Buddhists in modern India. Ambedkarite Buddhism and his book Buddha and his Dhamma (1956), is now his followers’ religion. The years to come will see the complete integration of Dalits into the fold of Buddhism, as Ambedkar had wished.
Again in 1991, the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations, UK, ensured the installation of a plaque on 10, King Henry Road, Chalk Farm, London. It reads: “Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1891-1956, Indian Crusader for Social Justice lived here 1921-1922”. fabo also used Ambedkar’s ideology against caste discrimination in the UK in the debate leading to the recent Equality Bill.
The promise of Ambedkarite empowerment and the slow gains over the years help Dalits survive the various political reverses and false hopes laid bare by political parties. Denial of political rights is a way of life for Dalits; it will be so till the time the Ambedkarite legacy obliterates the politics of injustice and discrimination. The final achievement of constitutional democracy will come when the struggle of Dalits—who have analysed and internalised the Constitution—is crowned with success. The strength of Ambedkarite politics grew manifold after 1991, with one political party with a core Ambedkarite political ideology securing power four times in Uttar Pradesh.
The collective strength of the Dalits, who comprise 15-20 per cent of the population, cannot be underestimated. This is one group who, armed with Ambedkar’s ideology, have unwavering demands, unlike other voters whose political demands keep changing. This strength has come to the fore in the two decades following the Ambedkar centenary. The best example is the way Dalits in Andhra Pradesh made the assembly convene a special session in 2013 to pass the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan (Planning, Allocation and Utilisation of Financial Resources) Act. This, despite efforts of Andhra politics to divide Dalits on sub-caste lines. Economic justice was the essence of this act, which is now enforceable in Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra. While the leaders who brought this about, Sirivella Prasad and Korivi Vinay, moved on to politics, the unassuming Dalit activist-journalist, Mallepalli Laxmaiah, aims to replicate this law all over India. With Dalits like Laxmaiah on the rise, a resurgent Ambedkarite politics will seek and win economic, political and social justice. At the very least, Ambedkar’s immortal legacy deserves this.
(Raja Sekhar Vundru, an IAS officer, has a doctorate from National Law School, Bangalore. The views are personal.)