A few years ago, we invited a public vote to decide on the greatest Indian after Mahatma Gandhi for the History tv channel. The winner, by some distance, was Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The architect of the Indian constitution is that rare individual: ignored in life, venerated in death. Ironically, we see the opposite with Jawaharlal Nehru: hero-worshipped as India’s first prime minister, now targeted years later. The man who fought against the curse of ‘untouchablility’ is now an untouchable himself: you can question even Bapu’s politics and get away with it, but can’t say a single critical word about Babasaheb. The man who fought against deification is now a Demi-god for the Dalits and beyond.
Today, almost every page in the morning newspaper has a government advertisement on Ambedkar as the nation begins celebrations of his 125th birth anniversary. The celebrations are valid per se. Why, after all, should only members of the Gandhi-Nehru family have the privilege of being remembered on their birthdays? In Mumbai, we even have the absurd sight of puny local netas being wished on their birthdays with large hoardings put up by their chamchas. Ambedkar deserves to be remembered for his immense contribution to modern-day India. My only question: should he acquire this god-like status where statues and memorials dot the landscape and where there is no healthy debate on Ambedkarism?
Last night, on the News Today at 9, I did a show on how farmers in a UP district had got Rs 75 and Rs 100 cheques as relief after their crops were destroyed by unseasonal rain. The local officer has since been suspended after the media outcry. Many of these small and marginal farmers are Dalits; in 2015, there is still a direct co-relation between caste and social and economic status. The political empowerment of Dalits has still to lead to their genuine social and economic empowerment. The Ambedkar revolution is incomplete: the only way it will be complete is when there is actual equality of opportunity for which the great man always fought. The stamps, statues and memorials are lip-service, simply an opportunity for our contemporary netas to appeal to a Dalit vote bank. A Mayawati, for example, is a powerful symbol of a political revolution, but symbolism alone cannot reverse centuries of inequality. When, for example, will this country rid itself of the curse of manual scavenging? When will we stop caste-based classified advertisements? When will a bright Dalit boy have access to the best education without needing the crutch of reservations? When will hard labour remain the ‘task’ of Dalits only? When will we see for that matter more Dalits in newsrooms or as editors of newspapers and news channels?
While I seek answers to those questions, I leave you with the words of a man whose intellectual vigour is unmatched. Said Ambedkar, “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
Post-script: to those who may well ask what is my contribution to Dalit emancipation, I can claim to have helped educate a Dalit family in the best possible school. If each one of us did the same, we might come closer to realising Babasaheb’s dream of a society driven by equal opportunity. Jai Bhim!