Why everyone wants a piece of Ambedkar

He is now India's tallest, unquestioned icon across political spectrum

36-Ambedkar-statues Standing tall: Ambedkar statues at sculptor Ravi Chandra’s studio in Bengaluru | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

A finger pointed towards the distant horizon, as if guiding his followers to salvation; the Constitution held closely under his left arm; a suit with two pens tucked in the breast pocket, the statutes of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar are mostly similar across the country. The Ambedkar iconography has remained largely the same since it was first designed by sculptor Brahmesh Wagh and installed in the Parliament complex in 1967.

Unlike Mahatma Gandhi’s statues in which the father of the nation can be seen with different emotions and in multiple poses, Ambedkar’s statues―which outnumber the statues of any other political figure in the country―have mostly retained his resolute look. For the dalit community in India, his statues have an added sociopolitical significance, being a visible marker of their identity.

The Narendra Modi government has embarked upon a major exercise to induct Ambedkar into its pantheon of national leaders....The BJP’s appropriation of Ambedkar has been the sharpest by any political party.
The RSS has embarked upon a monumental drive to engage with dalits, trying to bring them into the Hindu mainstream. It hails Ambedkar’s nationalist and Hindu identity, while acknowledging his disapproval of the caste system.
As the Indian Constitution proved to be a resilient document encompassing the diversity of a young nation, Ambedkar’s contribution in giving a framework to the country makes him a formidable national leader.

As dalits assert their presence through activism, arts, political engagement, and often vociferous protests whenever the community is targeted, political parties are forced to look at Ambedkar as an icon they need to extol. Unlike other political heroes, who are often bracketed in divergent ideological streams, Ambedkar has emerged as a leader with an uncontested legacy as the country celebrates 75 years of independence. As the Indian Constitution proved to be a resilient document encompassing the diversity of a young nation, Ambedkar’s contribution in giving a framework to the country makes him a formidable national leader whose stock continues to rise in India and abroad.

“With the advent of social media, the youth have become active in highlighting Ambedkar’s ideals. There has been an internationalisation of Ambedkar’s thought. Ambedkar busts are present in nine universities across the world from London School of Economics to Columbia. He has become a global icon,” said Vivek Kumar, who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “Ambedkar had said that wherever Hindus go, they take their caste along. Now there is talk of a law in the UK and the US against caste discrimination. That way he was prescient.”

The Narendra Modi government has embarked upon a major exercise to induct Ambedkar into its pantheon of national leaders. For instance, it initiated the ‘panchteerth’ project to develop sites associated with Ambedkar. This involves developing his janmabhoomi (birthplace) in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh; shiksha bhoomi, the place in London where he stayed while studying in the UK; deeksha bhoomi in Nagpur, where he embraced Buddhism; mahaparinirvan bhoomi, his house in Delhi where he breathed his last, and chaitya bhoomi, the place where he was cremated in Mumbai. The Modi government also built the Ambedkar International Centre in Delhi. Here, one of the statues show him in a slightly different pose, seated comfortably in a chair with the Constitution.

The BJP’s appropriation of Ambedkar by projecting itself as the guardian of his legacy has been the sharpest by any political party. It also nominated dalit leader Ram Nath Kovind as president in 2017. The Congress had nominated K.R. Narayanan to the top post in 1997, but neither the Congress nor Narayanan himself wanted to project his elevation as that of an Ambedkarite. Rather, the party projected him as a man of his own merit, thus failing to draw any political mileage. Modi consistently eulogises Ambedkar when he talks about the poor, the dalits and the marginalised. “I am prime minister because of Ambedkar,” he said in one of his rallies.

PTI4_14_2014_000025B Proud legacy: Narendra Modi offers floral tributes to Ambedkar at the Gujarat assembly | PTI

The BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, too, has embarked upon a monumental drive to engage with dalits, trying to bring them into the Hindu mainstream. The RSS hails Ambedkar’s nationalist and Hindu identity, while acknowledging his disapproval of the caste system. It draws comfort from the fact that Ambedkar led his people to embrace Buddhism, ignoring the two Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Islam) even when he rebelled against Brahminical Hinduism. Nor did he go for the more high-spirited Sikhism. For the reformist Hindu, which the RSS claims to represent, Buddhism is part of the larger sanatana system. This social outreach is part of its programme to keep the indigenous communities together against the fear of Islamic radicalisation. The sangh’s engagement with Ambedkar got an added push in 2015 when its publications, Organiser and Panchajanya, brought out special issues to commemorate Ambedkar.

“Their strategies are twofold. The first is, if all Hindus across castes start respecting Ambedkar, his critique of the Hindu religion can be [erased] from the memories of the dalits and other oppressed communities. Secondly, they are constantly trying to rebuild Ambedkar’s image based on selectively forgetting his critique,” said social historian Badri Narayan in his book, Republic of Hindutva. “His image is used as a brand icon for the samrasta (social harmony) campaign, as a part of the drive to assimilate dalits into the Hindu fold. In order to attach the elements of divinity, rituals and worship to the image of Ambedkar, it is expedient for hindutva forces to associate themselves with the symbolic power that lies within it.”

As the BJP presents Ambedkar shorn of his stringent commentary on religion and caste, it is accused of being symbolic in its treatment. But the BJP seeks to actively counter this argument. “It is an irony that our political critics who say that we are trying to appropriate Ambedkar and his legacy forget that they are the ones guilty of not recognising his contributions,” said BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli. “Under Modi, there is an effort to ensure that the stalwarts who contributed to the making of a free country are recognised, given their due place, and that all glory is not passed on to one family at the cost of the contribution of others.”

The BJP has benefited hugely from this dalit outreach. The saffron party’s tally of dalit MPs increased from 40 in 2014 to 46 in 2019. Dalits constitute over 16.6 per cent of the country’s population and there are 84 Lok Sabha seats reserved for them. Uttar Pradesh has the most number of dalits, while Punjab has the largest share by percentage of population.

41-A-rally-in-Kolkata Flames of protest: A rally in Kolkata against widespread attacks on dalits in April 2018 | Salil Bera

Other political parties, too, do not want to be left behind. The Aam Aadmi Party governments in Delhi and Punjab have made it mandatory to display the pictures of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh in government offices. AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal termed Ambedkar as param-aadarsh (highest ideal), and the Delhi government even produced a musical in the icon’s name.

Ambedkar is being resurrected across the country as one of the tallest and the most visible leaders of India. His three tallest statues are coming up in Hyderabad, Vijayawada and Mumbai.

The Congress, meanwhile, is trying to regain its hold among the dalits, who stood by the party after independence even when Ambedkar launched his own political experiments. Ambedkar set up the Independent Labour Party (1936), the Scheduled Caste Federation (1942) and the Republican Party of India (1956), but he was not successful in making a mark electorally. He lost from the Bombay North Central Lok Sabha constituency to his former assistant and Congress candidate N.S. Kajrolkar in the 1952 general elections. Two years later, he lost the bypoll to the Bhandara seat. He died in 1956.

After the entry of caste-based parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, dalits drifted away from the Congress, and the BJP’s aggressive hindutva further weaned them away. Slowly, the Congress is trying to regain its connect with the dalits, but it is not an easy task. It picked Charanjit Singh Channi to become Punjab chief minister, the first dalit to hold the post. It also chose Mallikarjun Kharge to replace Sonia Gandhi as its president. Kharge was only the second dalit leader after Jagjivan Ram to hold the post, sending out a clear political message. “Whatever work has been done [for the dalits] has been done by the Congress, based on Ambedkar’s ideology, be it economic reforms, special component plans (intervention strategy to cater exclusively to dalits), quota in petrol pumps, 20-point plan programme, reservation and strengthening the public sector undertakings and the government sector through which jobs were created,” said Congress spokesperson Udit Raj.

“Ambedkar’s social contribution was immense. The Indian society is divided. When there is caste in society, it will also be reflected in politics. Political parties also have internal assessments as to which caste has influence in which area. Ambedkar was trying to end that. But that has not ended. For this, even Ambedkarites are responsible as others,” said Raj.

He said Ambedkar was against symbolism and statues. “Although the BJP has made his statutes, to highlight it as an achievement is not a big thing. The party ended scholarships and the special component plans and are reducing government jobs, for which babasaheb fought,” he said.

For years after independence, the contributions of those leaders who participated in the freedom struggle became a rallying point to motivate the masses. Ambedkar died when he was 65 and he also did not contribute much to the freedom struggle as he was focused on getting equal rights for the deprived classes. Moreover, all the big leaders in the freedom struggle belonged to the upper castes, while Ambedkar’s effort was to eradicate casteism and uplift the voiceless as he himself had been through humiliating experiences.

Ambedkar differed with Gandhi on the ways to address casteism in the Hindu society, and gradually turned away from the Congress. “I have no homeland, Gandhiji,” Ambedkar had remarked after meeting Gandhi in 1931 for the first time. A year later, he gave in following Gandhi’s fast unto death and signed the Poona Pact, agreeing to reserved seats for the scheduled castes, instead of separate electorates. Gandhi’s stature as the father of the nation ensured that dalits remained within the Congress fold.

“Ambedkar, one of the greatest figures in Indian history, is himself a story of success. The leading voice on the Indian Constitution, and a powerful leader safeguarding dalit, women and minority rights, babasaheb remains a beloved son of the soil,” said bureaucrat-turned-politician K. Raju in his book, The Dalit Truth. “His understanding of people was truly unparalleled. He is cabined as a dalit icon, but the truth is that his influence extends far beyond his caste, and even beyond India. He was a once-in-a-generation thinker, an advocate of a new social order that recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as fundamental tenets of life.” Raju was also additional secretary in the Sonia Gandhi-led national advisory council.

Uttar Pradesh has been the centre point of dalit politics in the country. But the saffronisation of dalits has been an issue for the Congress and the Mayawati-led BSP, now forced to the margins in the state. It has emerged as sort of a contradiction that when Ambedkar activists, intellectuals, artists and youth have become much more vocal, caste-based political parties are on the decline.

“If anyone is following Ambedkar and is committed to his ideals, it is only the BSP. But when communalism reigns, people stray from his path. The kind of governments which are functioning today are against Ambedkar,” said BSP spokesperson Dharamveer Chaudhary. “In the last 500 years, no other mahamanav (great human being) was born other than Ambedkar. When he drafted the Constitution, he talked about uniting society, instead of dividing it. He is the god of modern India. He was the most educated person in the country who transformed the lives of millions living in harsh conditions.”

Though the BSP still retains a big chunk of the dalit vote, it needs alliances with other caste parties to create a bouquet of castes to win elections. Independently, the BSP has won a few seats in states other than Uttar Pradesh, but many of its MLAs had defected to the Congress, like in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The entry of the Chandrashekhar Azad-led Bhim Army, which has attracted the younger and vocal sections of dalits, has been well noticed, but it is yet to make a mark at the hustings.

PTI02-10-2020_000247A Taking a stand: Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and actor Swara Bhasker during a protest in Delhi against the alleged gang-rape of a 19-year-old dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh | PTI

In Maharashtra, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, a party led by Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash, has allied with the Shiv Sena faction of Uddhav Thackeray. While the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress appear to be apprehensive of their coalition partner joining hands with a new ally, it could have an impact on the state politics.

“Political parties may go away, but not Ambedkar’s ideology. The Republican Party faded away, but Ambedkar’s thought remains,” said Chaudhary. “Mainstream parties, including the BJP, are against reservations. They follow Ambedkar symbolically, but do not go for his ideals. They do it for vote-bank politics. But they do not want the dalit community to benefit.”

Indian polity, however, has come a long way since 1997, when Arun Shourie wrote a critical book on Ambedkar, Worshipping False Gods. It is no longer possible for anyone to be highly critical of Ambedkar and get away with it.

Yet, the country is far away from realising the Ambedkar ideal. “In 75 years of independence, babasaheb’s idea of nation-building has not been highlighted. [On the basis of] what he has written and produced in the Constitution, the Hindu Code Bill and the Annihilation of Caste, self-representation becomes the hallmark of his idea of nation-building,” said Kumar. “If we go by that argument, where is the representation of people, especially in modern institutions like judiciary, polity, bureaucracy, universities, industry, civil society and even media in these 75 years? If their representation according to their population has not yet been taken into consideration, then his whole idea of nation-building has not yet been materialised.”

Kumar said while the scheduled tribes had a separate ministry, the issues of the scheduled castes were handled by the social justice ministry, which had a wide range of other concerns to address. “Look at all the political parties, where is the representation in their central committees? Where is the representation in the judiciary? [Some] representation is there, as governor or president. But is it effective? It is tokenism. The same goes for vice chancellors. Of the 54 Central universities, not even one has a dalit vice chancellor. There are 84 colleges in Delhi, but not even a single dalit serves as principal. The PSUs used to give representation to dalits, but once they are sold, the share of the dalit representation goes with it.”

As India moves past its 75th year of independence, a broader conversation around Ambedkar is a welcome step to strengthen the country’s democratic polity and bridge the divisions in society.