Editor’s Note: This month, that is April 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Dalit History, where we invite various articles about historical moments in Dalit movements as well as Dalits (Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule) in history who have been part of the anti-caste movement in India. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As India pivots dramatically on its axis, transforming itself into a conservative, theocratic Hindu supremacist state with neo-colonial ambitions, the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar is under siege. Having appropriated Gandhian imagery with relative ease (give or take a few pro-Godse statements by errant MPs- selected purposely for playing to the hardliner galleries), Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy represents a bigger challenge.
Nonetheless, the culture industry is operating in full swing— BJP politicians and ministers ‘honor’ him in public, WhatsApp forwards and social media trolls of the Hindu Right routinely circulate misleading quotes attributed to him against Muslims, against Kashmir, and even against Buddhism, even as the media tries to mummify him into a benign statue legacy- the ‘constitution-giver’, the talented ‘Dalit’ contributing to the holistic social program of an increasingly ‘Hindu’ state.
In this context, a brief revision of Dr. Ambedkar’s positions with respect to the Hindu Right, especially pertaining to the Dalit movement in Maharashtra, is necessary.
Revisiting Ambedkar’s Resistance
By the early 1900s, the industrialized parts of Maharashtra (then Bombay Presidency) had given rise to a unique social fabric. Especially in Bombay city, where in 1922 the daily workforce in just the mills was estimated to be around 1.5 lakh, of which about 10% were Mahars. The latter were only employed in menial roles and kept away from the lucrative weaving jobs (as it required the worker to hold the broken thread in their mouth while repairing it). Hence, in the initial years Mahars were less active in working class mobilizations since these tended to invisibilize such caste prejudices.
Mahars were however, over-represented in the casual labor and unorganized sector, being prominent in the areas of construction, sanitary work, coal labor, dockyards and railways. Even here, they were often underpaid and poorly treated. This cohort combined with the relatively less caste-stratified rural economy— and created material conditions for Dalits mobilizing beyond spiritual and religious prescriptions of Brahminical ‘Hindu’ reformers. It was in this scenario that Dr. Ambedkar stepped in.
Leading upto this period, there had been some attempts to mobilize Dalits. Gopal Baba Walangkar and Shivram Janba Kamble filed petitions between 1894 and 1910 about resuming the recruitments of Mahars in the army (which had been stopped because of the ‘Martial Race Theory’ forwarded by the British). Shivram Kamble was also involved with the ‘Somvanshiya Sabha’ in Pune which focused on education. ‘Somvanshiya’ was a sub-caste of Mahars and a few organizations emerged from the community to uplift its status.
However, it was Vitthal Ramji Shinde, a ‘nationalist’ Maratha, who sought to uplift the Dalits via the ‘Depressed Classes Mission’. In practice however, as a member of the Prarthana Samaj, he was more interested in drawing Dalits into not just the Congress but also under the larger Hindu-integrationist umbrella through organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha.
Among the early Dalit leadership that Shinde influenced included, Kisan Faguji Bansode and Akkaji Gavai. Both Gavai and Bansode were the most prominent leaders by the time Dr. Ambedkar entered mass politics. Bansode had already started many institutions, including a school for girls by 1907, and his protégé, Jayabai Chaudhuri became an important activist in the field of education. In his early political career, Bansode expressed radical anti-Hindu views.
Having been under the influence of Mahatma Phule’s Satyashodhak movement, he wrote antagonistically against Brahmins and Hinduism itself. But in later life, he retreated into away from political life into spiritualism and wrote books about the medieval Mahar saint Chokhamela. Though he never fully aligned with the Hindu Mahasabha or publicly attacked Dr. Ambedkar, his reticence in the light of the latter’s ascendance was met with frustration by sections of Dalit youth. Akkaji Gavai meanwhile, clashed more publicly with Dr. Ambedkar for the leadership of the movement. He had started by founding a ‘Mahar Library’ as well as the ‘Mahar Sudharak Mandal’, and became (along with Kalicharan Nandagawali) the first Dalit member of the Legislative Council. Like Bansode, he too came under the influence of Shinde and the larger Tilakite stream of the Congress.
By 1917, a series of ‘Untouchability Relief’ conferences were being organized by Shinde. He tried to rope in Dr. Ambedkar by attempting to honor him on his return as a ‘Mahar graduate’, but the latter refused the invitation and disassociated himself from it. And in 1920, at the Akhil Bharatiya Bahishkrut Parishad, in the presence of Shahu Chatrapati Maharaj of Kolhapur, Dr. Ambedkar clashed bitterly with Gavai over Shinde’s ‘Depressed Classes Mission’ and denounced it utterly. The result of this was the death knell to the mission as well as its Hindu-revivalist agenda. This also marks the beginning of the growth of Dr. Ambedkar’s support in Nagpur (which later emerged as a hub of Ambedkarite politics).
It must be noted that the success of Dr. Ambedkar was not a foregone conclusion, he was indeed the most articulate and charismatic speaker of the Dalit leaders, yet regional affiliations and religious considerations stood in his way. His growth as a leader should also be seen as a decisive rejection by the Dalits of pro-Hindu integrationist and spiritual options, in an increasingly industrialized economy. The 1920s marked the rise of a vigorous Dalit movement in the Bombay Presidency under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar.
Meanwhile Gavai, and later his follower Thaware, ended up in the fold of the Hindu Mahasabha but could not muster a challenge to the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar. By 1932, Gavai was working closely with the Hindu Mahasabha leader, B.S. Moonje. The latter was upset that Gavai ‘did not have the pluck or courage to create disturbances and show black flags…’ on the occasion of Dr. Ambedkar’s visit.
That Dr. Ambedkar was no friend of the Hindu Right or even the more moderate Brahmin ‘reformers’ was clear from his clashes with Shinde and the Gavai-Bansode cohort. Right from his initial entry into politics via submitting testimony for the Southborough Committee on Reforms in 1920 and the launch of his journal, Mooknayak, Dr. Ambedkar clearly articulated that he saw the untouchables as a ‘separate group’ from the Hindus, as distinct as Hindus were from members of other religions. He stated,
“…a legislature composed of high caste men will not pass a law removing untouchability, sanctioning intermarriages, removing a ban on the use of public streets, public temples, public schools… This is not because they cannot, but chiefly because they will not”.
This sort of analysis would lead him to be a champion of separate electorates rather than token representation within the electoral system. This would eventually bring Dr. Ambedkar in conflict with Gandhi, with the seeds of the infamous ‘Poona Pact’ already being sown.
Unlike Gandhi, who for most of his life at least, was an ardent defender of the caste system—aiming only to reform its virulent (and in his estimation) corruptions of an indigenous tradition of social harmony, Dr. Ambedkar aspired for the complete annihilation of the caste system. He denounced Brahmins and their caste supremacy, correctly identifying these casteist mores behind the atrocious treatment of women in ‘Hindu society’. He went on to term ‘Hindu society’ a menace upon liberty, equality and fraternity, and repeatedly denounce the idea of a ‘Hindu Raj’.
Meanwhile, during the 1940s, as the demand for Pakistan grew steam, Dr. Ambedkar wrote the remarkably insightful ‘Pakistan: Or the Partition of India’. It remains not just a brilliant analysis of the rapidly developing political realities, it is also a great academic exploration of nationalism as a philosophical construct. He dismisses the emotive claims of the Hindus put forward by the Congress (at this point the Congress membership was 97% Hindus, making it for all practical purposes, a Hindu party).
And he draws from historical lessons of Arab nationalism in Turkey as well as Slovak nationalism in Czechoslovakia—pointing out that forces of nationalism, in this case Islamic assertion for Pakistan, cannot be put back in the bottle once manifested. Extending that logic to Kashmir, it should be pretty derivative of what his position would be. If anything, a case can be made that his position on Kashmir should be seen as an extension of this philosophical treatise on nationalism, rather than selective readings of his quotes on Article 370. In either case, Dr. Ambedkar doesn’t come off as a Hindu Right-wing ally on either Pakistan or Kashmir.
In fact, on several occasions during the Constituent Assembly Debates, he cautioned against fundamentalism while championing the cause of socialism and individual liberty. In an almost prophetic warning, he declared while talking about the ‘Directive Principles of State Police’,
“Whoever captures power will not be free to do what he likes with it. In the exercise of it, he will have to respect these instruments of instructions which are called Directive Principles. He cannot ignore them… … What great value these possess will be realized better when the forces of right contrive to capture power”.
For the Hindu Right wing, which since its inception had aspirations for a dramatic refashioning of the social order, such words could not have been sweet to hear. Yet the importance of Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy has been extremely crucial to the sustaining of the Hindu Right wing in India. Unable to foster a parallel leadership for Dalits under Gavai and others during Dr. Ambedkar’s lifetime, they struggled bringing the Dalit movement under the larger integrationist ‘Hindu’ identity umbrella.
Why Does The Hindu Right Wing Still Co-Opt The Dalit Movement?
It was not until Balasaheb Deoras became the sarsanghchalak of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or Sangh for short) in 1973, that active attempts were made to co-opt the Dalit movement. Dr. Ambedkar was placed in the list of names for the Sangh morning prayers, and social platforms such as Samrasata Manch began actively wooing Dalits. Propaganda about personal friendship between the founder of RSS, Hedgewar and Dr. Ambedkar began circulating, and he was positioned as anti-Muslim, advocator of the saffron flag, Sanskrit enthusiast and a hyper nationalist.
In truth, none of these and other claims hold up to impartial scrutiny. He never accepted that Buddhism was simply a sect of Hinduism, as claimed by the Sangh. When important Hindu Right leaders such as Hedgewar, Golwalkar and Savarkar went to meet him (not the other way around), he received them. There is however no evidence of a friendship nor any record of him praising them.
Yet these mistruths are increasingly being normalized as legends in the Hindu Right-wing mythology that is aggressively recruiting Dalit youth in big numbers. The radicalism of Dr. Ambedkar, the Mahad Satyagraha and burning of Manu Smriti amongst others, are all fragments of a narrative that are increasingly being lost… his image is being pigeon-holed in the mainstream, Savarna discourse as the constitutionalist and enlightened liberal.
However, as witnessed during the recent anti-NRC-CAA protests, the portraits of Dr. Ambedkar found its way everywhere from protest rallies to the hundreds of ‘Shaheen Bagh-inspired sit-in protests’. The indomitable spirit of Babasaheb refuses to be frozen behind a frame, as the eternal rebel, even his image refuses to stop resisting… refuses to become a plaything or pliable symbol for Brahminical hegemons.
And as the renewed interest in scholarship of Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Phule’s works gains strength amongst Dalit and Bahujan communities, and as study circles, humor and discourse pages grow on social media… the battle for the image, ideas and legacy of Babasaheb, still lies at the soul of things.
- Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India by Gail Omvedt
- The Republic of Caste by Anand Teltumbde
- In Quest of Equality: Indian Constitution since Independence by Bojja Tharakam
Ravikant Kisana teaches media sociology & cultural studies at Flame University, Pune. You can find him on Twitter.
Featured Image Source: Scroll