“When I was in Std III, the textbook prescribed under the Maharashtra school curriculum, Thoranchi Olakh (Introduction to Elders), had essays on our political leaders. Nehru and Gandhi were introduced as leaders of national stature, but Jyotibha Phule and B.R. Ambedkar were referred to as leaders of the untouchables. We would often compare the treatment given to political leaders in our textbooks.”
—Prof Y.S. Alone, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The professor may not have been alone in wondering as a child why Ambedkar was seldom described as anything more than the leader of the depressed castes. But teachers, most of them drawn from the forward castes, would possibly have given the matter hardly any thought. When the recent cartoon controversy broke out, Dalits said they could not but read it against the long history of exclusion—from textbooks—of one of the greatest leaders of India. It’s a dilemma they have always been aware of: while Ambedkar is seen as the tallest national leader from among the depressed castes, his representation in pedagogy has always been parenthetical, as a leader of a subset, not of the whole, as if his intellectual heft and his grand achievement—making equality and justice the cornerstones of a fledgling nation—were not enough to earn him a place in the national pantheon.
Think back to your schooldays, when students readily digested the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in text and poem, skit and song. Ambedkar would appear but briefly, if at all. Annual days would see someone or the other dress up as a Gandhi or a Nehru. Few would remember someone dressing up as Ambedkar, suited, bespectacled, a copy of the Constitution in hand.
Till recently, school textbooks did not even have chapters on the Constitution and its importance as an instrument of social change. After the controversy over Shankar’s old cartoon—which depicted Nehru in a seemingly domineering position vis-a-vis Ambedkar—being included in the NCERT social sciences textbook for Std XI, textbooks are being recast. The authors of most textbooks, till the new curriculum was envisaged a few years ago, had either been nationalist historians or Marxist historians. For both, Ambedkar was no more than an architect of the Constitution. Historians of both hues had ideological problems with accepting Ambedkar fully—and, it might be added, as befits his monumental achievements.
For the Marxists, Ambedkar is cast in caste, and hence in conflict with their class theories. This was perhaps compounded by the fact that the most influential ones came from affluent, upper-caste backgrounds. For “nationalist” historians, on the other hand, those who opposed Gandhi or Nehru were outside the pale of recognition. Between these two schools of thought, Ambedkar was diminished in stature.
“For the Left, he’s been a community leader, not a class leader or a leader of the subalterns,” says political thinker Imtiaz Ahmed. “Hence the dilemma in according Ambedkar a prominent place.” According to Ahmed, as one of the most creative individuals who made a substantial contribution to a nation’s life, Ambedkar should have occupied an exalted position. But this wasn’t to be: textbook-writing and teaching has for long been the preserve of the upper castes.
Somehow, there has been no reasoned debate on the Poona Pact affair—Ambedkar’s demand for a separate electorate for Dalits, which Mahatma Gandhi opposed with a fast unto death and finally had his way with. This has led to Ambedkar being projected as anti-Hindu, anti-India and anti-Gandhi. It’s a view that has only been reinforced by textbooks, according to Alone. Textbooks have been remarkably silent too on issues of human rights and the right to live with dignity. In fact, these subjects were hardly discussed in schools: absent in textbooks, absent in discussion.
But all along, the much-derided realm of competitive and caste politics ensured that Ambedkar never left the public discourse. Reservations brought new caste combinations in public life, and ‘Jai Bhim’ became the rallying cry of the newly assertive marginalised masses. Says Anand Teltumbde, who teaches at IIT Kharagpur, “Marxists have been dogmatic and haven’t come out of their ideological shell. They still view Ambedkar as a liberal petit bourgeois, and their discomfort in giving him a place in the history books stems from this. They always tried to belittle Ambedkar as only a Dalit leader, nay, even as a sub-caste leader, a Mahar leader.” It is perhaps this inability to reconcile Ambedkar’s caste identity in the social framework that largely led to his marginalisation in textbooks.
What is changing now is how the discourse on social justice and discrimination is coming to the foreground all over again as an assertive Dalit class looks upon Ambedkar as its symbol, coercing forward castes to look upon him beyond caste and place him the context of human rights and its abuse. As Teltumbde says, “If you look at it historically, they tried ignoring Ambedkar. When they realised that he has become an icon for 25 per cent of the population, which was potentially dangerous, they started to co-opt him by taking him into the Constituent Assembly, making him the chairman of the drafting committee, giving him a cabinet berth etc. But, after he died they began ignoring his legacy.”
A similar coopting of Ambedkar in politics began in the 1970s with the resurgence of caste parties, which realised it was profitable to iconise him. It’s a measure of their new clout that the cartoon controversy stalled Parliament, saw a rare ‘consensus’, and forced a review of textbooks. While many saw this as petty politics, it was perhaps for the first time that Ambedkar’s place in textbooks was debated. But history, as Teltumbde says, follows its own dialectics. Even as the debate rages over cartoons, hopefully, when books are written again, human rights, discrimination and justice will find a place in discussion and debate. And Ambedkar’s place of pride will be beyond doubt.