Some years back, while delivering a memorial lecture at New Delhi’s India International Centre, historian Ramchandra Guha claimed that while national leaders’ hold on the public psyche usually declines drastically after their death, Ambedkar looms 10 times bigger after his death than in his lifetime! Many in the audience appeared to be seething with rage; they felt Guha was slighting Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
But going by the number of Ambedkar statues coming up all over India and the fact that millions of dalits hang his picture in their homes like a deity, Guha might well be right. Ambedkar, who refused to call Gandhi a Mahatma, scathingly questioned and criticised his credentials as a social reformer but signed the Poona Pact, albeit grudgingly, seems to have upstaged the Father of the Nation, at least, on the eve of major elections, thanks to ground realities and the obvious encashability of his name. How many political leaders and parties today seek votes in the name of Mahatma Gandhi? His samadhi has become a silent witness to the annual ritual of offering rose petals and rendition of some of his favourite bhajans on October 2, and protests by Opposition leaders, and now, even by the Prime Minister of India. An exasperated Mahatma must be muttering: Hey Ram! But his anguished voice is lost in the din of the crowd.
Wherever he might be, Ambedkar must be amused to see how pitched battles are being fought to appropriate his legacy. Those people, whose forefathers would not sit next to him or wouldn’t rent him a place to live, threw files at him and made sure he didn’t win an election after he resigned from the first Cabinet of independent India, are shouting from the rooftops and on the social networks how ardently they admire him, how many schemes they have initiated in his name and how they were leading the country on the path shown by him! On April 14 this year, there were full-page advertisements in several English and regional dailies commemorating Ambedkar’s 127th birth anniversary, with each party vociferously claiming that it had bestowed higher honours upon him. Further, some national leaders who have never ever entered a Harijan basti in their life are now descending on such bastis along with a horde of television cameramen and sharing food with people there. The very same day Parliament Street sported countless buntings, posters, garlands and roadside counters offering water and chairs to thousands of marchers. What more can Ambedkar ask for? He has arrived! He must be pleased beyond words!
But will Ambedkar, one of the sharpest legal minds of his time, be taken in by this brazen display of opportunistic, ritualistic tokenism? The Unnao rape happened despite all the reverence being shown to Ambedkar, though a massive public outcry through the media, social networks and human rights activists eventually led to the arrest of the MP accused of rape. Cruel and despicable incidences like Unnao are reminiscent of the scenes in the Hollywood movie 12 Years a Slave, and they still happen. Untouchability, outlawed many decades back, is still being practised in villages. In some states, dalit bridegrooms can’t ride a horse or an elephant in their own marriage procession; at some places, they can’t even grow moustaches! In 2014, in Badaun, two minor dalit girls were gangraped and killed; their bodies hung from trees! In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case, the Chief Justice of India was constrained to observe that dozens of dalit girls were being raped every day but no one bothered to organise candlelight vigils for them!
Discrimination against dalit students in universities, engineering and medical colleges isn’t a figment of imagination; it actually takes place; sometimes leading to a tragic end. According to a statement made in the Lok Sabha by the minister of state for home recently, the National Crime Records Bureau’s figures show 47,338 cases of atrocities against SC/STs were registered in 2016. As hardly one in four cases is registered in rural India, the actual number of attacks may be four times higher! Regrettably, the conviction rate of the accused is only around 25-27 per cent!
Why does Untouchability still continue with impunity? Because those in authority don’t dare to take the offenders to task because of their political, monetary and muscle power — punishing them entails negative a electoral fallout. Why do civil servants who are supposed to uphold the Constitution turn a blind eye to heinous crimes committed under their nose? Apparently, notwithstanding their higher education, training and exposure, many still harbour deep social prejudices and biases against disadvantaged sections of society. What did former DGP Prakash Singh say in his report to the Supreme Court on the violence that occurred during the jat reservation agitation in Haryana — for 48 hours, there was no administration!
If Ambedkar’s admirers genuinely want to please him, they can do the following:
Shame practitioners of untouchability and demand its total eradication in the next five years.
Demand fast trials against the perpetrators of the crimes in the Unnao and Badaun cases.
DMs and SSPs who aren’t caste neutral and in whose districts attacks and rapes of dalit women happen should be suspended immediately; if the attacks take place thrice in their careers, they should be compulsorily retired.
All political parties must shun people with casteist bent of mind and not give them tickets to contest in elections.
The future of old dalit leaders, the display model of political parties, is in danger. The GenNext of dalit leaders — assertive, aggressive, self-confident, articulate and tech-savvy — will make them irrelevant. With awareness of their rights given by Ambedkar and assertiveness to demand their rights taught by dalit leaders Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, they will not take injustice being done to them lying down. That the Bharat Bandh called by various dalit outfits was a success, though tainted by instances of violence, is ample proof of this.
Taxpayers’ money used by different governments to buy advertisements and organising rallies on Ambedkar’s birthday could have been much better utilised to set up primary schools for dalit children. That would have really pleased Ambedkar — for him, quality education was the first step to empowerment.