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Do we really know Ambedkar?

If we can mistake Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose for Baba Saheb Ambedkar, then anybody would wonder if we really know him

Author Abhilash Khandekar
This year on 14th April when Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar's 126th birth anniversary was being celebrated with much fanfare and on a bigger scale all over the country -- in Delhi a large number of PSUs, Banks and their Employee organisations set up pandals, put up mikes and treated people with soft drinks and snacks -- a unique photo from somewhere else went viral on social media. In the photo from a small-town primary school somewhere in Hindi heartland, two women (teachers or non-teaching employees) were seen garlanding a photo, with the blackboard showing us "Dr Bhimrao Ambdekar 126th Jayanti Samaroh" written on it in Hindi.
 
Nothing unusual, you would say! Quite right...there was nothing unusual about celebrating our Constitution maker's birth anniversary and remembering him for his contribution to the independent India. Well, here is the catch : the photo which they were garlanding was of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose! And, clearly the photo did not appear to be edited or morphed.
 
Which means neither they identified Bose nor Ambedkar. Small mistake? Ah!
 
Does suffer from identify crisis in the increasingly caste-ridden India? Why suddenly it appears that BJP is trying to ride piggyback on Ambedkar who was not quite a Hinduite? Do people know how the country's first law minister really wanted the society to shape? Did he want caste system to grow or completely end that? Did Dr Ambedkar want equality in letter and spirit or a divided society?
 
As a journalist what I have found in the past three decades, the following of Ambedkar is markedly growing. More and more Dalits are awakening and turning into an Ambedkar loyalist, mostly without ever realising the need to even know who he was, what's that he stood for or which values he espoused etc. Young, unemployed are seen taking out morchas on his anniversaries, shouting slogans and demanding more rights, jobs and reservations. In rural Maharashtra, at taluka places you will easily find his statues erected at market places and crossroads in the thousands. I mean, Ambedkar is all over and attracting more ardent followers each year! More so, in the post Mandal years. In the year 2002, then CM of Madhya Pradesh, Digivjay Singh issued an exhaustive Dalit Agenda which ended up dividing the society and proved to be the Waterloo for Congress in MP. Later Prime Minister Modi made it a point to go to Mhow, Ambedkar's birth place.
 
Since Ambedkar was born in a district where I spent half of my life (Indore) and worked as Editor of a prominent Marathi daily in Aurabnagabd in Maharashtra where Ambedkar lived for some time and built a big education institute, I know just a little more than the ordinary Ambedkarite. I am not his follower but respect him as an intellectual giant and social reformist, his differences with MK Gandhi, notwithstanding!
 
So here is a 'refresher' on the great thinker and father of India's Constitution, with a little background of the towering personality who's family was pretty modest by all means.
 
Modest background :
 
Bhimrao was born on 14th April, 1891 in the Cantonment town of Mhow near Indore in Madhya Pradesh. He was the last and 14th child of his parents -- Ramji Sakpal and Bhimabai Murbadkar Sakpal. He lost his mother when he was just two years old. His father was an army man. Though the family was brought up in Bhakti tradition of Sant Tukaram and Kabir, all the children were educated by their father in Hindu epics. As the young and talented boy, Bhimrao however, was quite sceptical about Ramayana and Mahabharata. He was not quite impressed with the morality lessons narrated in these two epics as a child and was distressed with the story of Karna's killing by Arjun on the advice of Lord Krishna. Later on his writings tell us he would tell his father that he did not like (in fact disliked) Rama. His essays 'Riddles in Hinduism' throw light on his thinking in greater details. They were published after his death.
 
The war between touchables and untouchables began quite early in his life when he was admitted to a school in Satara (Mah) where he was made to sit separately on a gunny sacks and was not allowed to drink water, lest he polluted the upper caste taps.
 
Towards the end of 19th century, at the age of 7-8 years, his family was shifted to Mumbai where he completed his schooling and college from Elphinstone. This was the time when someone introduced him to Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda. The Hindu Royal ruler of a very progressive Marathi state of Baroda, then under Bombay Presidency, helped Ambedkar with Rs 25-a-month-scholarship to complete graduation and then sent him abroad for studying at New York's famous Columbia University, bearing his full expenses.
 
It was in the USA that the 25-year old Bhimrao first wrote about castes in India and his thoughts. The path-breaking essay "Castes in India : Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development " was written while in the US. Later Ambedkar went back to London to study at the London School of Economics and then returned to Baroda to serve the Maharaja to repay the scholarship. During his stay after higher education in US and UK, he still had to fight casteism. India was not a free country yet. In Baroda he had to masquerade as a Parsi to get accommodation at a Parsi inn, he being an "untouchable".
 
His thoughts :
 
There are innumerable essays, books, lectures and other printed and unprinted writings by Dr Ambedkar who was a voracious reader, hard worker, scholar, author, researcher and a reformer. But what gave him much prominence was the written text of a lecture at Lahore, meant for progressive Hindu organisation which was against prevailing caste system.
 
His historic speech Annihilation of Caste (now a multi-edition, multi language book) was an eighty-year old speech that was never delivered. It was meant to be delivered at Lahore for an organisation known as Jat Pat Todak Mandal in 1937. But under severe pressure from different organisations, the Mandal had to cancel their annual conference in which Dr Ambedkar was invited as a guest and deliver lecture against caste. He always wanted caste barriers to be broken. While Mahatma Gandhi was a leader who supported Hindu caste system or varna vyawastha (four castes as per their vocations and arranged in a hierarchy), Ambedkar was opposed to it. In 1921 in his Gujarati Navjivan, Gandhiji wrote : "...I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the Caste System". Gandhiji too was a great thinker and his thoughts on castes and politics, social reforms and modern India, were little different than Ambedkar. There are scholars who follow and criticise both the leaders for the stands taken by them.
 
On Gandhi-Ambedkar intellectual debates and opposition to each other's firmly held views on this particular issue of caste, a lot has been written and that could be a different and detailed topic, warranting a different occasion.
 
In this piece the focus is on understanding Ambedkar and why Ambedkar wanted to end caste system and what his 'followers' are actually doing today. The photo mention above may be a small, stand alone aberration but there is a wide spread belief that a large section of Ambedkar followers have not understood him at all. The limited endeavour therefore is to underline the contrast. How he never compromised with merit or education, how hard did he work, how intellectualism came to be known as his hall mark and how he first deserved and then desired. Even left his ministerial position for his principles and values.
 
His followers today want solidarity of all Dalits, trying to converge into a solid political vote bank, reinforce reservations in jobs and promotions for them and denounce the upper castes (mainly Bramhins who are anyway just about 4% in India) and have little or no place for merit. Ambedkar famously said, more than once, "The caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers". Is that the reason his followers are coming together to be heard as one large political class to be wooed by all political parties? Has the focus of Ambedkar movement shifted--from casteless society to more profound casteism? Have reservations been an answer to caste-less society?
 
Ambedkar was indeed disappointed with Hinduism and after much of contemplation and study of Islam and Christianity as two other important religions in India, he embraced Buddhism on 14 October 1956, along with his second wife Sharda Kabir who was a Bramhin, at Nagpur, incidentally the Headquarters of the Hindu right wing cultural organisation RSS. 
 
But it was the same Ambedkar who wanted Hindu Code Bill passed into an act of law and provide, among other things, equality to women in the then prevailing caste system in India. President Rajendra Prasad threatened to block the bill's passage into an Act after the Constituent Assembly sat on the bill from 1947-1951. Eventually, Ambedkar resigned as the Law Minister of India. In his resignation speech he said : "To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, and go on passing legislation related to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap".
 
His efforts to annihilate caste system in India has surely failed. It was often termed as Amberkar's utopia. Are Ambedkarites of the day trying to fulfil his dreams or they are creating and strengthening their own caste system afresh? Are Dalits pursuing intellectual course of their tallest hero or helping widen social divide and hatred is the question that needs to be answered. 
 
Study of Ambedkar is a vast subject. It will continue for many more years to come. What all he thought about caste system, society and politics can not be included in a small article like this. The questions posed above are for sociologists, demographers and political thinkers. While some answers we know, a few more need to be searched for in the changing social dynamics of India today!
 
[ The writer is a senior journalist and Editor. He can be contacted
at Abhikhandekar1 and at kabhilash59@gmail.com ]
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