[Reader-list] An Ambedkar for our times by ANAND TELTUMBDE THE HINDU 2ND APRIL

Asit Das asit1917 at gmail.com
Wed Apr 2 04:41:55 CDT 2014

An Ambedkar for our times by ANAND TELTUMBDE THE HINDU  2ND APRIL

Today, Ambedkar certainly outshines every other leader in terms of public
acceptance. However, the incidences of casteism also show parallel growth.
This paradoxical phenomenon can be explained only by separating the real
Ambedkar from the unreal one

In an interview published in *Outlook* (March 10, 2014), Arundhati Roy
says, "We need Ambedkar -- now, urgently" -- it was in connection with the
publication of a new annotated edition of Ambedkar's text, *The* *Annihilation
of Caste*, brought out by Navayana, a New Delhi-based publishing house. Ms.
Roy wrote a 164-page essay titled "The Doctor and the Saint" as an
introduction to the book, which has now become 415 pages thick, expanding
the core text of just about 100 pages.
*Behind the controversy*

Her introduction has already created an unseemly controversy in Dalit
circles, reminiscent of the debate in the 1970s in the wake of incipient
Dalit literature, about who could produce Dalit literature. The
protagonists of Dalits insisted that one had to be born a Dalit to do that.
The controversy now reflects a similar identitarian obsession that one had
to produce a caste certificate (Scheduled Caste) to introduce either
Ambedkar or his text. It is intriguing however why such a controversy has
cropped up only in the case of Ms. Roy especially when scores of non-Dalits
have written on Ambedkar and his writings earlier. Is it because of her
celebrity status or of her infamy as a Maoist sympathiser as perceived by
middle class Dalits? The latter is more probable. For them, anything even
remotely connected with communism is enough to evoke despisal and

Whatever be the motivation behind this uproar, it is surely unwarranted.
Ignoring the outpouring of nasty "one-liners" in social media, the main
objections, at a reasonable level, to her writing this piece appear to be
her undue projection of Gandhiji to introduce Ambedkar or to her being
qualified to do the job in the first place or even her purported
introduction not being an introduction to the text that followed. Even if
one concedes the validity of these viewpoints, they need not have been
expressed with such vehemence and negativity. As a matter of fact, the
creative writer in Ms. Roy chose not the text per se but the stand-off
between Ambedkar and Gandhiji in the context of Gandhiji's reaction to the
text in his magazine *Harijan*. She imagined that she could bring forth the
problem of castes far more effectively if she used the contrast between
Ambedkar and Gandhiji, who best represented moderate Hindu society, than
dealing with the subject matter in a dry and mechanical manner. As for the
qualification, while she took great pains to understand the issue she wrote
on, her writings never reflected any aura of authority beyond a
commonsensical objectivity necessitated by her style. Perhaps, and
therefore, they appeal more to common people than to the so-called
*Ambedkar, real and unreal*

The most interesting argument however came not from Dalits but,
paradoxically, an upper caste journalist ("B.R. Ambedkar, Arundhati Roy,
and the politics of appropriation" by G. Sampath, *Livemint*, March 18,
2014). Challenging Ms. Roy, it said that if she wanted the bauxite under
the Niyamgiri hills to be left to the Adivasis, why did she not leave
Ambedkar who has been the only possession of Dalits to Dalits themselves?
Interestingly though, the implication of the argument can be dangerous
insofar as any engagement of the "other" defined as such on the basis of
caste can be dismissed as illegitimate. May be, Ambedkar symbolises the
cultural good of Dalits, but still, to ghettoise him to Dalits alone will
mean downright disrespect to him and incalculable harm to the cause of
Dalits. Niyamgiri left to the Adivasis implies a progressive interrogation
of the prevailing developmental paradigm, while leaving Ambedkar to Dalits
will mean retrogressive destruction of the annihilation-agenda of Babasaheb

The controversy has surprisingly gone past the main point -- that it is the
bland business logic of the publisher that has fundamentally drawn Ms. Roy
into writing the introduction. With her stature as a Booker Prize awardee,
later amplified by her fearless pro-people stands on various issues on
various occasions, the book was sure to go global. Moreover, it can well be
imagined that her writing would certainly create a controversy, as has
happened before. All this would mean a bonanza for any publisher in
boosting sales of the book. Whether Navayana had consciously thought it out
this way or not, these established product strategies of a publisher cannot
be grudged by anyone as, after all, s/he has to follow the grammar of
business. Notwithstanding the "anti-caste" tag Navayana tends to wear of
late, publishing adulatory and cultish literature on Ambedkar is not the
same thing as supporting the annihilation of castes. Once this controversy
raked up by a few dies down, the vast majority of Dalits would rather take
pride in the point that even Arundhati Roy joined them in worshipping their
god. Every such form of Ambedkar adulation has indeed been reinforcing the
caste identity and directly distances the annihilation project.

The acceptance of Ambedkar does not necessarily equate itself with the
spread of an anti-caste ethos. Today, Ambedkar certainly outshines every
other leader in terms of public acceptance. No other leader can rival him
in the number of statues, pictures, congregations, books, research,
organisations, songs, or any other marker of popularity of/on him.
Curiously, his picture has become a fixture even in movies and television
episodes. However, the incidences of casteism as indicated by cases of
caste discrimination, caste atrocities, caste associations and caste
discourses, etc. also show parallel growth. This paradoxical phenomenon can
be explained only by separating the real Ambedkar from the unreal one, cast
into the icons constructed by vested interests to thwart the consciousness
of radical change ever germinating in Dalit masses. These icons package the
enigmatic real Ambedkar into a simplistic symbol: an architect of the
Constitution, a great nationalist, the father of reservations, a staunch
anti-communist, a liberal democrat, a great parliamentarian, a saviour of
Dalits, a bodhisattva, etc. These icons of the harmless, status quo-ist
Ambedkar have been proliferated all over and overshadow a possible, radical
view of the real Ambedkar.
*Which Ambedkar?*

Notwithstanding the intrigues behind the promotion of such icons by vested
interests with active support from the state, the evolution of Ambedkar,
the pragmatist sans any ideological fixation, all through his life, makes
him intrinsically difficult to understand. A young Ambedkar who theorised
castes as the enclosed classes, the enclosure being provided by the system
of endogamy and exogamy, expecting the larger Hindu society to wake up and
undertake social reforms like intermarriage in order to open up castes into
classes is in contrast to the post-Mahad Ambedkar, disillusioned by the
rabid reactions from caste Hindus, turning his sights to politics to
accomplish his objective. Were his threats of conversion to Islam for a
separate political identity for Dalits, or to force caste Hindus to
consider social reforms? Then there is the Ambedkar of the 1930s, anxious
to expand his constituency to the working classes sans castes, who founded
the Independent Labour Party (ILP), arguably the first Left party in India,
and walked with the communists but at the same time one who declared his
resolve to convert to some other religion to escape castes. What about the
Ambedkar of the 1940s, who returns to the caste, dissolves the ILP and
forms the Scheduled Castes Federation, shuns agitational politics and joins
the colonial government as labour minister or the one who wrote *States and
Minorities*, propounding state socialism be hardcoded into the proposed
Constitution of free India? Or Ambedkar, the staunchest opponent of the
Congress or the one who cooperated with the Congress in joining the
all-party government and accepted its support to get into the Constituent
Assembly? Or even the Ambedkar who developed the representation logic
culminating in reservations, expecting that a few advanced elements from
among Dalits would help the community progress or the one who publicly
lamented that educated Dalits had let him down? Or the Ambedkar who was the
architect of the Constitution and advised Dalits to adopt only
constitutional methods for a resolution of their problems or the one who
disowned it in the harshest possible terms and spoke of being the first
person to burn it down? And finally, the Ambedkar who kept referring to
Marx as a quasi benchmark to assess his decisions? Or the one who embraced
Buddhism and created the ultimate bulwark against communism in India to use
the words of one of his scholars, Eleanor Zelliot, or even the one who
would favourably compare Buddha and Marx just a few days before bidding
adieu to the world, saying their goal was the same but that they differed
in the ways of achieving them -- Buddha's being better than Marx's? These
are just a few broad vignettes of him, problematic in typifying him in a
simplistic manner. If one goes deeper, one is bound to face far more
serious problems.

Ambedkar is surely needed as long as the virus of caste lingers in this
land but not as a reincarnation of the old one as most Dalits emotionally
reflect on. Not even in the way Ms. Roy would want him to come now and
urgently. He will have to be necessarily constructed to confront the far
messier problem of contemporary castes than that obtained in his times.

*(Anand Teltumbde is a civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai.)*

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