BR Ambedkar: A resurgence of interest

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Excerpts from the tribute by RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA at the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar organised by the Consulate General of India (Sydney)

Having grown up in India, I belong to a generation reared on a history diet that made scarce mention of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. All we knew of him was that he was the “architect of the Indian constitution”, and that he was a Dalit icon.

Yet his portrait always intrigued. He was always depicted in western wear unlike his contemporaries; there was no Gandhi cap in sight. Over the last twenty years or so, his statues shot  up across the country, as “the messiah of the Dalits”. Neither the forward-marching stance, nor the book he held in his hand, seemed to draw any attention.

Yet for India’s Dalit people, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was a raging revolutionary. For them, ‘Jai Bhim’ replaced ‘Jai Ram’ as a form of greeting; it would go on to become their war cry. He wrote about and spoke against the oppression, violence, injustice and lost identity of his community. Rising from the tyranny and subjugation himself, he knew full well the debilitating effects of social exclusion.

So the Dalits are the lowest of the castes.

Dalit. It itself is a Hindi word that translates literally, to “crushed”. It crushes me to have to use such a term to refer to human beings. Crushed human beings. How can you be ok with that?

Dr BR Ambedkar.Indian Link

We live in times when we are constantly fighting labelling: we don’t call a person who suffers from asthma “an asthmatic” any more – they might be asthmatic or diabetic, but that’s not the people they are. Their disease doesn’t define them. It is politically incorrect to refer to people as deaf, or mute. It is not even appropriate to say “handicapped” any more, the preferred tem being “special”.  Educationists are even saying not to use the term “dropouts” any more to refer to people who leave school before graduating.

As new values emerge, semantic engineering is creating new social agendas.

My hesitation in using the term Dalit is not to wish away a shameful chapter in our history. The idea is that alterations in language can change social attitudes.

In April this year, as I sat in on a Melbourne conference of Indigenous writers from India and Australia, I cringed as references were made repeatedly to the “backward castes” of India. What makes them “backward”, and others “forward”, I wondered. And how can we even talk of castes any more, when it is not even ok to talk about classes?

The idea originates from Manu Smriti, an ancient Indian text, in which it is claimed that God made man in his image, as it were, so that the Brahmin proceeded from his mouth, the Kshatriya from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs and the Shudra from his feet.

His feet? I asked my father as a young girl.

“Well, yes,” he said in his wisdom. “It’s symbolic, like so much else in Hinduism. The shudras were the foot soldiers of the economy. You know, like factory workers”.

Perhaps he did not want to squash the nascent idealism in his daughter then, but only this week, as an 82-year-old sometimes disillusioned with the directions his country is currently taking, he agreed with me that a culture of atrocious oppression continues to exist to this day, dismantling the argument that caste-discrimination is a thing of the past.

“Our suffering is a thousand-footed centipede; it goes on forever,” Telugu writer Joopaka Subhadra’s words in Melbourne struck a deep chord. Hindi poet Ajay Navaria revealed, “Do you know, I cannot wear this smart jacket in my village even today. The landlords will beat me up for over stepping my station in life.” The fabulous P Sivakami, Tamil writer, spoke of how she threw in her high-profile job in the IAS when she became aware of the mechanisms with which her community is still marginalised today.

“We are the daughters of silence,” Subhadra said of her community of women.

It was an eerie hark back to Dr Ambedkar himself, who started the publication Mook Nayak almost a 100 years ago. Mook Nayak. The Hero of the Silenced.

Has much changed in a 100 years? For sure. Ambedkar today would be proud to see his people become the president of India, Chief Ministers and Governors of states, IAS officers, published writers who have won awards for literature and are invited to Australia to read from their works, and handsome jacket-wearing young poets who are much in demand on mainstream TV for their comedic works. But there are miles to go before real empowerment occurs and caste is annihilated.

The Annihilation of Caste. That of course is the name of a seminal work by Ambedkar, written in 1936. The sheer impact of the work did not dawn on me until the Melbourne conference when writer after writer referenced it, and compelled me to go looking for it. It is a short read, intended originally as a speech at the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Society for the Abolition of Caste system). In it, Babasaheb tore down the caste system in the analytical manner of a typical academic.

Dr BR Ambedkar.Indian Link

The organisers, who read the document beforehand, were aghast and demanded modifications.

“I will not change a comma,” Babasaheb thundered back, and withdrew his attendance. The published work is subtitled “Speech prepared…. but not delivered.”

The redemptive rage, and the radical intellect, left me fascinated. It has been said that Ambedkar’s statue should really be holding a copy of this book rather than the Constitution of India.

As a social activist, Ambedkar campaigned, among other things, to have drinking water resources open to his people, and the right to entry into temples, in both respects, a spooky parallel to contemporary India.

But he was so much more than a social activist.

He was an eloquent writer. An early work, Waiting for a Visa, became recommended reading at Columbia University in the US, where a young Babasaheb had studied. It is sadly unheard of in today’s literature scene in India.

He was also a publisher, bringing out three publications including Mook Nayak. As a collector of books, his personal library contained 55,000 books.

He was perhaps the most educated person in India’s freedom struggle. He had MA degrees, a PhD and a couple of DLitts from universities in the UK, US and Germany where he studied anthropology, political science, economics and law.

He was already a teacher before he went abroad, a Professor of Political Economy in the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Bombay, a position secured for him by Lord Sydneham himself, the Governor of Bombay, in what was then regarded as a madly radical appointment.

Education was vital for Ambedkar in the strategy for upliftment. He was also an academic, and principal of the Government Law College, Bombay.

As a lawyer he practised in the Bombay High Court, winning some landmark cases for non-Brahmin petitioners against Brahmins.

He was also a political theorist and a political activist. He put forth theories for the inclusion of the “depressed classes” in governance. There were 45 million people then, nearly one-fifth of India’s population and more than the population of Britain, in this class. How could they go unrepresented? He was invited to present before the committee which was preparing the Government of India Act 1919, and later worked with the all-European Simon Commission in 1925.

He also worked briefly as an investment advisor in a career that did not take off because no one would entrust their money to him. But as an economist, his exhaustive writings would help lay the foundations for the Reserve Bank of India. In 1951, he established the Finance Commission of India. He charted out programs for industrialisation, and for investment in agriculture which directly relate to the actual pathways that helped India achieve food security.

He argued for public hygiene and for community health, and women’s issues.

He was a feminist, and the earliest proponent of a uniform civil code, seeking extensive social and economic rights for women, including property and inheritance rights.

That last one would prove to be his undoing, with even Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru unable to help him write laws for women. It caused Ambedkar to resign as Law Minister.

Regardless, would you not call this man a nation builder?

Dr BR Ambedkar.Indian Link

When Outlook magazine asked in a 2012 poll, “Who, after the Mahatma, is the greatest Indian to have walked our soil?” Ambedkar came out tops.

Guided by his particular philosophy of social transformation, his work in all of his endeavours was aimed at integrating all classes of people into a common and shared identity.

He said, “Our loyalty as Indians should not in the slightest way be affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of religion, culture or language. I want our people to be Indian first, Indian last, nothing else but Indian.”

It is this very sentiment that embodies his work in the Constitution of India. It has been described ‘first and foremost a social document’… whose provisions further the aim of social revolution or establish the conditions necessary for such revolution.

It is no mean feat for a person of his background to write such a document of national import, while similar Indigenous people in other lands struggle to even find acknowledgement in the Constitution of their nation.

Here’s hoping that the students who walk in and out of Moot Court at WSU, remember this significant fact.

Perhaps Ambedkar’s life and work have a message for those Australians who get self-righteous about India’s caste system: oppression against Indigenous people is endemic in the world.

And just as the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi inspired many social movements outside of India, Ambedkar’s ideals are finding similar extrapolation. In Hungary for example, the Romas, a discriminated minority in Europe, persecuted and stigmatised, are deploying Ambedkarite ideas in their struggle for equal rights.

This year, as India marks the man’s 125th birth anniversary, there’s a massive resurgence of interest in Babasaheb’s life. There are universities and parks, structures and suburbs now named after him. On his birthday 14 April, there were prayer meetings and discussion groups, the issuing of postage stamps and gold coins. Even a fun run, to bring the youth in. A special event was held at the UN. The political parties in India all hosted mega events, with the PM visiting Ambedkar’s home town Mhow to announce a raft of social harmony programs. Everyone it seems, wanted a piece of the man. The April 2016 issue of Outlook magazine had as its headline: Whose Ambedkar is he anyway? His people today number 250 million, nearly a quarter of India’s population, and this time round, the rulers and wanna-be rulers know, they have to take them along if they have to take India forward.

The political expediency of it all notwithstanding, it is gratifying to see Dr Ambedkar remembered today not only as the uplifter of the downtrodden and the uncrusher of the crushed, but restored to his rightful position as one of the one of the true founding fathers of modern India – the other man with the rounded glasses.