Release Ambedkar from the prison of his identity

Abhijit Majumder
Abhijit MajumderApr 14, 2016 | 13:24

Release Ambedkar from the prison of his identity

Over the last 70 years, our polity has cut Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to size with the cruel finesse of a bonsai master. He exists in textbooks and hoardings chiefly as a Dalit leader who patiently presided over the making of our Constitution.

Ambedkar would have turned 125 today. Surely, it is time to release him from the prison in which has served a very long sentence — the prison of his identity.


For an India rising and trying to look at itself with its own eyes (and not of those who ruled it for centuries), it is crucial to touch Ambedkar, know him, feel his pain as our civilisational pain.

To understand that he was a leader bigger than his caste struggle, or even his role in the freedom movement and in creating the Constitution.

Those who kept and want him permanently in that prison want to keep the lineage of their chosen heroes intact. Ironically, Ambedkar, who fought bitterly against caste, is used as a rallying point by those who benefit from caste politics.

Ambedkar was a leader bigger than his caste struggle.

He wanted caste reservation to cease after ten years; our netas want a crippled society that seeks it forever. The architect of the Constitution never left a brick of vengeance in our laws; many make their careers exploiting caste hatred.

Much of his views that went against the Nehru-Gandhi narrative have been deliberately downplayed in politics and history books. How many know that he favoured a Uniform Civil Code? Or that he opposed special status to Kashmir?


Ambedkar had reportedly told Sheikh Abdullah: "You wish India should protect your borders, she should build roads in your area, she should supply you food grains, and Kashmir should get equal status as India. But the Government of India should have only limited powers and Indian people should have no rights in Kashmir. To give consent to this proposal would be a treacherous thing against the interests of India, and I, as the law minister of India, will never do it."

Abdullah then approached Nehru. Rest is deeply troublesome history.

But the most potent of all is the systematic use of Ambedkar to exploit India’s faultlines, ensure that society stays divided.

The British perfected it. A section of Indian media and intelligentsia perpetuate it without offering any solution or positive stories from the ground. Recent reportage and social media posts from Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh and Haryana shows how we jump to attribute violent incidents to caste even when no such motive exists.

It is the continuation of how the British used caste to divide and rule India. Our colonial rulers fertilised and watered the seeds of ugliness that existed in Hindu society. In 1827-28 and 1830, they identified 132-caste professions in some of the first censuses carried out in Varanasi, Allahabad and Dhaka. Subsequent general censuses in the 1850s and 1860s started clearly segregating Indians by their castes.


"The caste system extant in the late 19th and early 20th century has been altered as a result of British actions so that it increasingly took on the characteristics that were ascribed to by the British," writes Kevin Hobson, a Canadian historian of the British empire, in his essay, "The Indian Caste System and the British".

On the other hand, those on a mission to politically and culturally unite Hindus have not addressed Ambedkar’s central problem on caste distinction.

The RSS has renewed its efforts to reach out to Dalits through its various projects like community kitchens. It has even announced 2016 as "Sewa Varsh" to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of the third sarsanghchalak, Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, who had said: "If untouchability is not wrong, nothing is wrong in the world."

RSS-run bookstores, the one outside Jhandewalan for instance, gives as much space to Ambedkar as its own icons Hedgewar or Golwalkar.

However, the Sangh has been ambiguous. In the face of the staggering mountain of injustice, its line "casteism is evil, not caste" sounds like a semantic quibble, a fig leaf on a postulate from which a dark tradition has spawned.

If there is one case for throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it is caste. Which is why we must partake in Ambedkar’s agony.

"The untouchables are beaten for putting on clothes of superior quality. They are whipped because they used utensils made of metal like copper, etc. Their houses are burnt for having purchased land for cultivation. They are beaten for putting on the sacred thread on their body. They are beaten for refusing to carry away dead animals and eat the carrion, or for walking through the village road with socks and shoes on, or for not bowing down before a caste Hindu, or for taking water in a copper pot while going out in the field to ease [defecate]," he said in a speech delivered to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference on May 31, 1936.

For Ambedkar, untouchability was also a class struggle. "This is not a matter of doing injustice against one man. This is a matter of injustice being done by one class against another."

Babasaheb merely renounced what he regarded as an oppressive social and religious template of "caste Hindus". By embracing Buddhism, which he thought was a more rational option, he neither left Hindu-ness nor severed his ancient cultural ties.

Ambedkar was not just a great leader. He is a chance for a great civilisation to correct itself.

Last updated: April 15, 2016 | 12:32
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