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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 26 New Delhi June 18, 2016

Appropriating Ambedkar and his Legacy for a Rightist Cause

Saturday 18 June 2016

by Arun Srivastava

Strange, it took not less than 70 years for the RSS to identify the real Babasaheb Ambedkar. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, finally laid his claim that Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, was a believer in the Sangh’s ideology and had called its workers symbols of social unity and integrity. He came out with yet another revelation: that Ambedkar was not in favour of adopting the tricolour as the national flag of India; instead he wanted to adopt the saffron flag of the RSS as the national flag.

Bhagwat’s deputy, Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, even went farther to assert: “Dalit icon Baba-saheb Ambedkar was misconstrued as the leader of a particular section of society, and there was a need to delve deeper into his life to bring out his national persona.” The desperation of the RSS to appropriate Ambedkar could be realised from the simple move of Joshi to draw a parallel between Ambedkar and the RSS ideologue, K.B. Hedgewar.

It is indeed an example of classical paradox that an organisation surviving on the precept of ultra-Hinduism and committed to comunalise the Indian social ethics was trying to embrace a person who believed in annihilation of caste and never subscribed to the principles and tenets of Hinduism and Hindutva.

This is also for the first time that the realisation has dawned on the Sangh bosses that efforts should be made to “minimise the gap among social communities”. The RSS chief, without maintaining the minimum façade of hesitation, claimed that Ambedkar believed in the ideology of Hinduism and he worked in this direction. It is the same RSS which had severely criticised and despised him for presenting the final draft of the Indian Constitution. The RSS organ Organiser, in its editorial of November 30, 1949, criticised Ambedkar: ”The worst [thing] about the new Constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it... There is no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseo-logy in it. There was no mention of the unique constitutional developments in ancient Bharat. Manu’s laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws, as enunciated in the Manusmriti, excite the admiration of the world and elicit spon-taneous obedience and conformity [among Hindus in India]. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

The RSS was highly critical of the personal law reforms proposed by Ambedkar. The RSS sarsanghchalak, M.S. Golwalkar, complained in a speech in August 1949 that the reforms piloted by Ambedkar “has nothing Bharatiya about it. The questions like those of marriage and divorce cannot be settled on the American or British model in this country. Marriage, according to Hindu culture and law, is a sanskar which cannot be changed even after death and not a ‘contract’ which can be broken any time.” Golwalkar continued: “Of course, some lower castes in Hindu society in some parts of the country recognise and practise divorce by custom. But their practice cannot be treated as an ideal to be followed by all.” (Organiser, September 6, 1949)

In an article carried by Organiser, in its edition of November 2, 1949, the RSS characterised the Hindu Code Bill “as a direct invasion on the faith of the Hindus”. It said: “Its provisions empowering women to divorce is revolting to the Hindu ideology.” The RSS had opposed the Hindu Code Bill. “We oppose it because it is a derogatory measure based on alien and immoral principles. It is not a Hindu Code Bill. It is anything but Hindu. We condemn it because it is a cruel and ignorant libel on Hindu laws, Hindu culture and Hindu dharma,” said the Sangh. It targeted the two architects of the Bill and Organiser characterised them as “Rishi Ambedkar and Maharishi Nehru”.

Obviously the question arises: what made the RSS to change its approach and perception towards Ambedkar? True to speak, this transfortmation came barely six months back. This was not even visible on the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections though during that period the RSS and BJP strove for inducting Dalit leaders like Udit Raj and Ramvilas Paswan as the members of the BJP-led NDA. In fact during the Bihar Assembly elections Bhagwat had opposed the reservation for the SCs and argued for its review. After the defeat of the Modi-led BJP, a section of the BJP had blamed this remark responsible for the defeat of the BJP in the elections.

Bhagwat’s claim that Ambedkar believed in the RSS ideology is simply ridiculous and in fact is part of the design to appropriate the Dalits. How could Ambedkar subscribe to Hindu and Hindutva philosophy when he personally was opposed to it and believed that caste hierarchies are an intrinsic part of Hinduism? This was the primary reason why he converted to Buddhism. It is an open secret that the RSS does not subscribe to the political ideology of Ambedkar. If Ambedksar was really relevant then why was the RSS sitting idle and did not make any move earlier to appropriate him? What implies this sudden change of heart? It is also a known fact that the RSS has always stood by the feudal and oppressive landlords in their oppression against Dalits. An insight into the rural, and particularly agrarian, violence would reveal that the kulaks and rich, who form the core of the RSS, symbolised violence against the Dalits.

In a democratic country like any other organi-sation or individual the RSS too has the right to change its mind and approach about Ambedkar and project him as its ideological maharishi. But it must have some rationale. The way the Sangh and its Parivar members cele-brated the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar raises many questions and apprehensions about their real intentions.

After a year of the Modi Government in power, the RSS launched the scheme and design to accept and identify the Sangh with a number of modern political icons who do not even subscribe to the ideological orientation of the Sangh or have any connection with the BJP. The Sangh had to take this tactical line to confuse the people, particularly the secular people, and social forces of its real intentions. It identified with Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, and now Ambedkar. Even they mellowed down their attack on Indira Gandhi. The lone exception, however, was Jawaharlal Nehru as he symbo-lised secularism and secular forces opposed to the hegemony and communalism of the saffron in India.

Apparently this move of the RSS and BJP may not appear to be detrimental to the interest of the country and its people. But behind this façade there lurks the dangerous design to saffronise the most secular and pluralist ideals and concepts. Ambedkar, during his lifetime, never endorsed the saffron ideology, but the RSS—and particularly the Modi Government—has moved him to the centre-stage of national conversation. An effort is assiduously being made by the saffron outfit to bring about a confluence of the Left and Ambedkarite politics.

The political appropriation of an icon is not a new happening. But it is the manner of appropriation that matters. In the case of Ambedkar, the RSS and BJP have been ruthless. Their effort has purely been aimed at realigning the past figures to the contemporary political requirements and presents it as an innovative concept. But how the BJP encompasses this would be an exercise interesting to watch. Ambedkar has been a reformer, crusader and thinker who was for “annihilation of the caste” system, wanted to “restore the title deeds of humanity” to the untouchables, and strove to liberate India from “Dalit-hunting”. In sharp contrast the RSS stood for all the things which Ambedkar disliked and opposed. A look at the past incidents, particularly in the Hindi heartland, would reveal that the saffron leaders, intellectuals and supporters have always identified with the upper-caste and reactionary forces and endorsed their act of suppressing the Dalit voice and denying them the dignity they deserve.

The sudden resurrection of Ambedkar has been quite an interesting development. The RSS, which till recently despised Dalits and treated them as enemies, has suddenly started enticing them, speaking in terms of their social and economic empowerment. The Sangh has even outwitted the traditional Dalit organisations and forces. With some prominent political faces joining hands with the BJP, the stance of the RSS has been vindicated. The Sangh does not intend to allow the huge Dalit population and force to go closer to the secular forces. Besides it also conspires to blunt the Dalit movement.

Appropriation of Ambedkar would help the RSS to accomplish its task. This impression gained strength in the RSS and BJP particularly after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit scholar of Hyderabad Central University. His suicide revived the national debate about the unresolved Dalit issue and the treatment meted out to the Dalit population, especially the aspiring younger generation. The manner in which Rohith was treated, even by the Union HRD Minister, raised the question whether the Indian state, the government and the Indian society was agile and responsive to the requirements and aspirations of the Dalits. Is it not a fact that even today the societal oppression on Dalits is more pronounced and gruesome?

The BJP, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, had enrolled some prominent Dalit leaders as its fraternal members. The RSS nursed the hope that their induction will swing the Dalits towards the saffron and its politics of Hindutva. But that did not happen. Since then the RSS and BJP were in search for some meaningful association with the Dalits. The Rohith episode simply hastened the process. After losing their first bet, the failure of Ramvilas Paswan and Udit Raj to bring Dalits into the fold of the Sangh, the RSS was left with no other alternative but to usurp Ambedkar and his legacy.

It was indeed outlandish to watch Narendra Modi describing himself as the bhakta (devout) of Ambedkar. While delivering the Ambedkar Memorial Lecture after laying the foundation stone of the Ambedkar National Memorial, PM Modi called himself a ‘bhakt’ of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and said the “iconic leader was a ‘vishwa manav’, not just the messiah of Dalits but someone who raised the voice for all the downtrodden and suppressed people”. Narendra Modi also assured the Dalits that he would never dilute reservations even if B.R. Ambedkar himself were to come back to life and demand their revocation. Shocking indeed, Modi was misrepresenting the facts and painting an absurd picture of Ambedksar. It would be wrong to say Modi committed a faux pass. Instead it was a deliberate move.

This revealed the desperation of the Hindutva forces to woo the Dalits by misrepresenting Ambedkar. He never advocated for reservation. Reservations, which are assumed to be a boon for Dalits, have actually been the tool of their enslavement. Modi must realise that his lies have cost the saffron party dearly. In fact he must not nurse the view that Dalits are naïve and would not make out the meaning and implication of his statement.

It is imperative to take a look at the direction of the Dalit movement in contemporary India. It cannot be denied that for the last three decades the Dalit movement has been in a state of confusion; it was at the crossroad: which way to go. The aspirational younger generation is not willing to follow in the footsteps of the previous leaders or pursue their political line. At the same time they also intend to share the contemporary gains of the reforms. At a time when the reforms have been virtually squeezing out the Dalits and turning them irrelevant, the fight against this tendency is gradually losing the connect.

The RSS and BJP are now considering the possibility of actively mobilising the Dalits, without losing the support base of the so-called upper castes. While the BSP resorted to the bottom-up strategy, moving from the Bahujan to the Sarvajan, the RSS is working on a strategy to move from the Sarvajan to Bahujan. The RSS wants to have Dalits as its strong support-base, but at the same time does not intend to antagonise or lose the main support base of the Hindus, and especially upper castes.

Obviously the question arises; where is Dalit politics heading in India today? Dalits seem to have come a full circle from the agenda of “annihilation of caste” to “secularisation of caste”, and conversion from Hinduism to actively claiming the Hindu identity. Mayawati’s experiment with Dalit politics, of tagging in the upper castes, especially the Brahmins, with the Dalits, has exposed the weakness of the present Dalit movement.

The dynamics in Dalit politics appears to have made a paradigm shift, from challenging the upper-caste hegemony to becoming a part of the majoritarian polity. By resorting to this tactics the Dalit politicians and activists were trying to make them realise that while Dalits need their share of power, they also needed Dalit support for their political survival. They also intended to send the message that they were mutually interdependent. But this model of alliance failed to make any significant impact on the Indian political system and scenario. To some extent this worked in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, but after that it lost its orientation and spirit. But it is true that Dalit politics could not make its independent assertion as it was plagued with conflicting interests which it borrowed during the phase of its alliance and entente with the upper-caste forces.

Since then Dalit politics has been in a state of confusion and disarray. Dalit identity is itself as internally fractured as the issue of conflicting interests. In the past, movements or reforms were undertaken for inclusive Dalit assertion and empowerment, but in the present scenario the creamy layer of the Dalits are using the Dalit force for their own benefits. They are least concerned of the socio-economic and political uplift or liberation of their community people.

Politically in the past Dalits were with the Congress. In the eighties they shifted to the BSP or other Dalit forums and parties. Obviously the mobilisation of Dalits by the Congress or other political parties had benefited certain Dalit sub-castes. Now in the present scenario those who nursed the sentiment of having lost the benefits are trying to rally behind the BJP. This has made the task of the RSS comparatively easy. The urge for economic empowerment and having their separate space has conjured the Dalits to seriously ponder over the relevance of maintaining their separate identity away from the Hindus. This section of the Dalits nurse the feeling that they can get their share of power and economic benefits only by aligning with the dominant Hindu religion. The weakness of size and social backwardness is sought to be overcome by accruing power by joining the majoritarian political formation.

Though some Dalit intellectuals disagree that Dalit politics today is taking a ‘Rightist shift’, they have not been able to explain the present dynamics of Dalit politics. It would have been appropriate for the Dalit scholars to explain the reasons as to why the RSS has been carrying out Brahmanical propaganda against the Dalits and also desperately try to incorporate Dalits into their Hindutva agenda. It also ought to be answered in concrete terms why the Dalit leaders and masses have been showing their inclination towards the RSS.

The assumption that Dalit politics has taken a Right turn is also corroborated by the partici-pation of the Dalits in violent clashes against the Muslims at the instigation of the RSS. Besides the urgency of upholding the Hindu cause, the Dalits are told by the RSS and Hindu leaders that the Muslims have been grabbing the benefits which otherwise should have gone to them.

The Dalit movement is witnessing additional challenges through a Right-wing turn in its political leadership. The ideological and philosophical doctrine of Ambedkar, Phule and Shahu Maharaj has lost its relevance as well as control on the sensibilities of the Dalit leadership, which is why a Right-wing turn is being witnessed. The Dalit leadership is in fact in a state of utter confusion. This is a part of the national scenario. It is not in the position to chart out an independent movement for realising their requirements and needs. The inability of the Left forces to attract Dalits and build their confidence has been a major factor for detachment of the Left forces from the vast mass of the Dalits.

In the sixties and seventies a massive upsurge of the Dalit forces was witnessed all over India. In most of the States they constituted the main force, the vanguard of the Naxalite movement. The Bhojpur movement of Bihar symbolised and represented the pioneer agrarian struggle. The Dalits were the main force. But the difference was instead of leading the struggle as Dalits, they fought against the exploitation of the feudal and landlords as agricultural labourers or sharecroppers.

Incidentally in traditional Indian society, the Dalits are treated as a non-productive force, whereas the landless agricultural labourers, who are the Dalits and Scheduled Castes, represent the productive forces. Unfortunately the Indian Left did not adopt a scientific approach towards the vast population of the Dalits. Ironically they have still been simply adopting resolutions at their party Congresses to unite the Dalits and work amongst them. The possibility of alliance between them and the Communists was foiled by the impassive outlook of the Communists who refused even to take cognisance of the problem of castes. Their ostrich- like behaviour towards the land problem was out-an-out unMarxist.

Aversion of the Dalits to identify with the Left forces has strong polemical reasons. The Indian Left leaders never reached out to the Dalits on the ideological plane. They treated the Dalits as a caste conglomerate, not a class collection. Ambedkar too was not comfortable with the Leftists. Ambedkar’s statement that mass struggles were the grammar of anarchy in the constitutional regime and should not have any place in a parliamentary democracy worked against the Left. It was argued that if the land question was at all important, it could have been taken up judicially in the Supreme Court of India. The Left-orientation was the prime reason that his close friend, Dadasaheb Gaikwad, could not gain complete acceptability amongst the Dalits. He had a Leftist orientation. Other leaders accused Gaikwad of being intellec-tually incapable of comprehending the subtleties of Ambedkar’s ideology and hence unsuitable to step into his shoes. They disapproved of Gaikwad’s struggle as being a Communist one and declared that it had no place in the Ambedkarian agenda.

Though Ambedkar shared substantial space with Marx, he was deliberately projected as anti-Marxist. Both had a firm commitment to the most oppressed people. But Ambedkar did not see the image of the working class in Dalits and any probability of its emergence until the castes were annihilated. Marxism did not have what he was looking for. Ambedkar’s emphasis was eventually on organising Dalits around their social marginalisation and the various forms of exclusion that they face.

The emergence of a Dalit middle, neo-middle class and a neo-capitalist class is one of the crucial socio-economic phenomenon of globalised India. For this section of Dalits the element of cooperation was more important than confrontation. Actually the RSS is trying to use this contradiction and the prevailing psyche. It is already an organisation of upper- caste Hindus, who control and guide the fulcrum of the Indian economy. These upper-caste people have even come to accept the necessity for reservation in the jobs for them. The reason is: they know that jobs are few and their children in the present economic scenario are aiming for the corporate sector or migrating abroad. Obviously the possibilities of clash of interest are less. In fact, reservation is the only policy which has benefited the Dalits in any real sense.

The new generation of Dalit leadership, which emerged in the 1980s, was mainly drawn from the class of government employees and officials. With the shrinking space for reservation, Dalits have also started changing their approach. Dalits are no longer hesitant to collaborate and work with other castes for their respective political goals. Incidentally the Congress is no more the political forum which can be relied upon by them in their pursuit. True enough, the subjective condition favours the RSS. Appropriation of Ambedkar is an attempt to accelerate the process of Hinduisation of the Dalits. Dalit politics has a conflict with the Left on anti-capitalist issues. There is no denying the fact that Dalit politics is taking a Rightist turn.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at

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