Can Ramji bridge the gulf between Dalits and Hindutva? The Uttar Pradesh government has passed an order to make “Ramji” a part of all the official mentions of social reformer Bhim Rao Ambedkar (BR Ambedkar) as well as add a letter to his last name in the state’s documents and records.
Ambedkar’s father was called Ramji Maloji Sakpal, and the former had signed his name as Bhimrao Ramji Aambedkar in the original copy of the Constitution, which he drafted.
UP governor Ram Naik had been campaigning for the “right way” to write Ambedkar’s name since December 2017, and had even written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi over it.
I am a Marathi & so was he. Hindi speaking states have been writing his name incorrectly. Most importantly his name is written as Bhim & Rao as two words, however, the correct way to write is Bhimrao: Ram Naik, Governor, UP on addition of 'Ramji' to BR Ambedkar's name by UP govt. pic.twitter.com/5NJIFcnjoJ— ANI UP (@ANINewsUP) March 29, 2018
Now, on March 28, the state government has passed an order stating that the use of “Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar” be replaced with “Dr Bhimrao Ramji Aambedkar” in official records. The spelling of Ambedkar in English will remain unchanged, but the Hindi spelling will change so that his name is pronounced “Aambedkar”.
The BJP says its decision is nothing but an attempt to right historical records, and no more should be read into it. However, it is the saffron party’s own record that makes the decision appear not that simple.
At a time when Dalits are seething over the dilution of the Atrocities Act by the Supreme Court and the change in reservation policy for hiring teachers in universities, the decision to “rename” Ambedkar seems another one of Hindutva’s awkward attempts to win over, or rather more worryingly, colonise the community.
Ever since it has come to power, the BJP, starting from PM Modi, has been at pains to make its love for Ambedkar known. Dalits and tribals had a role to play in the BJP’s sweeping victory in 2014 – data from the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) suggests that for the first time in Indian electoral history, the BJP won more votes from the two communities than the Congress.
However, maintaining a good relationship with them doesn’t come naturally to the party whose idelogical parent is the RSS. In the saffron worldview, founded on the Manusmriti's principles, Dalits are naturally lesser beings, born to “meekly serve” the upper castes. Dr Ambedkar publicly burned copies of Manusmriti on December 25, 1927, as a "symbol of rejection of the religious basis of untouchability".
In fact, since 2014, the BJP’s struggles to appear Dalit-friendly have been quite interesting. Lacking the instruments needed to woo Dalits as it does, the ruling party has latched on to their most visible "icon" – the revered BR Ambedkar, whose electoral usefulness the party can see, and whose popularity it can sense, if not understand.
Thus, PM Modi tries to draw parallels between his own rise from his “chaiwallah” origins to Ambedkar’s underprivileged past, even as states where his party is in power see those accused of inciting riots against Dalits being shielded (Bhima Koregaon violence in Maharashtra, Saharanpur clashes in Uttar Pradesh are examples), mass Dalit protests in response to atrocities (Una flogging and aftermath), and his party’s leaders make statements equating Dalit deaths to throwing stones at dogs (VK Singh in March 2016).
In Uttar Pradesh, officials had given soap bars and shampoos to Musahar Dalit families in Kushi Nagar in May last year, to "clean up" before CM Adityanath was slated to visit them.
The very fact that an Adityanath-led government thinks linking Ram to Ambedkar’s name will bring him closer to the Hindutva fold shows how the party is deluded and why it will never understand Ambedkar.
The concepts that Ambedkar fought for all his life – equality of all human beings, abolishing of caste – are in direct contradiction with the brand of Hindutva that informs the BJP’s worldview, and which has turned “Ram” into an identity marker and a battle cry.
The RSS’s most popular ideologue, MS Golwalkar, had said: “The Hindu People is the virat purusha, the almighty manifesting himself. Though they did not use the word ‘Hindu’, it is clear from the following description of the almighty in Purusha Sukta wherein it is stated that sun and moon are his eyes, the stars and the skies are created from his nabhi (navel) and Brahmin is the head, Kshatriya the hands, Vaishya the thighs and Shudra the feet. This means that the people who have this fourfold arrangement, that is, the Hindu people, is our god. This supreme vision of godhead is the very core of our concept of ‘nation’ and has permeated our thinking and given rise to various unique concepts of our cultural heritage.”
While the party has made a big show of organising Ambedkar’s birth anniversary celebrations in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, flush with a Thakur – Yogi Aadityanath – coming to power, BJP MP Raghav Lakhanpal took out a shobha yatra in Saharanpur without police permission during Ambedkar Jayanti.
The rally went through areas with a Jatav population chanting slogans such as “UP mein rehna hoga, to Yogi-Yogi kehna hoga”, and “Jai Shri Ram”. The incident snowballed into a major clash between Thakurs and Dalits, and 60 Dalit houses were burnt.
Before the rally, the Rajputs had objected to a statue of Ambedkar, saying its raised finger would be pointed at their women using the street. While the Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Ravan has been slapped with the National Security Act and is still in jail despite protests, there has not been much action against the Rajputs.
The party has not even been able to respect the Constitution Ambedkar drafted. The RSS, and even Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde, have publicly spoken of “changing the Constitution”. Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan recently advocated a “rethink” on caste-based reservations in the country.
There is no harm in the BJP trying to reach out to Dalits. But there are many other ways to do it – for example, by working to bring down the high rate of crimes against Dalits and tribals in BJP-ruled states.
Deliberate attempts at the appropriation of a social reformer are an insult to the memory of the man who fought identity stigmatisation at the hands of Hindutva all his life.