April 14, 2016, will mark the 125th anniversary of BR Ambedkar’s birth. All around us, we see a rush of opportunists seeking to grab a piece of Ambedkarian glory, with the BJP leading the pack. Prime minister Narendra Modi never misses a chance to sing his paeans, both as prime maker of India’s Constitution and as champion of Dalit emancipation. The reality is that too much is made of Ambedkar on both counts.
Ambedkar did play a stellar role as chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution but he is not the author of the Constitution. India’s basic law is a product of the freedom movement, its specific provisions thrashed out in the constituent assembly through intense debate by a bunch of wise people.
Ambedkar played a significant role, no doubt, but that role was not big enough to negate either the contribution of the forging of democracy through the anti-colonial struggle or the intelligence and articulation of members of the constituent assembly. Ambedkar fought against the caste system and not just for a better deal for Dalits. Much as we respect this struggle and admire him for his tenacity, how can we not see that he failed in his mission? Ambedkar ultimately plumped for conversion out of Hinduism as the only form of salvation from caste oppression. Those who followed his lead and converted to Buddhism no more attained social equality than those who converted to materially more empowered Christianity or spiritually more egalitarian Islam.
This marks a more glorious moment in the history of the struggle against caste oppression than the anniversary of any leader, Dalit or otherwise. Does this mean that Dalits should just focus on getting education and better jobs and forget about organising themselves for greater empowerment? Absolutely not. Ambedkar was spot on when he urged Dalits to get educated and to get organised. Organisation alone will give them agency and clout over the working of the polity to fight institutionalised prejudice.
The Other Dalit Leader There is one great Dalit leader who both organised his community and fought for education. He was Ayyankali, who led the first strike by agricultural workers, early in the 20th century, to secure admission in a government school for a Dalit girl, in Travancore, a princely state of southern Kerala. He withheld labour from the farm, fought off and survived assassination attempts by uppercaste landlords and forced them to accept Dalits’ right to education.
By 1940, the literacy rate of the Dalits of Travancore had risen to the literacy rate of the general population of the United Provinces up north. Ambedkar is a source of inspiration, but hardly the beacon of Dalit emancipation. Liberation from caste lies not in conversion but in political empowerment and education that allow Dalits to take advantage of new opportunities thrown up by globalisation. Too much Dalit energy is frittered away in chasing reservations that kill the incentive to excel and in chasing the chimera of Ambedkarism. Dalits must resist the false promise of sanskritised respectability within the fold of Hindutva as vigorously as they must resist the notion that liberation awaits down the path of conversion.
Dalits will, one day, force Hinduism to let all of society, and not just an intellectual elite, embrace the insights of its philosophical core, of the subversive unity of the creator and all of creation, a unity that a Chandala shamed Sankara into accepting, after he treated the Chandala as an untouchable, contradicting his own preaching of non-duality. To prepare the ground for that change, Dalits must first champion economic diversification, urbanisation and concomitant modernity that empowers women to choose their own life partners regardless of their community of birth. Venerating Ambedkar is fine, so long as it does not distract from this focus on material change that lay outside the framework of India’s social reformers.