Ambedkar has become an icon in the last 27 years-Part I

On the occasion of Dr BR Ambedkar’s 127th birth anniversary, it is remarkable to note that his iconic status actually owes a lot to the implementation of the Mandal Commission

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
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Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Ambedkar’s life and image changed after 1990 so radically that his status before 1990 is incomparable. Many political parties who either ignored him or accused him of divisiveness and casteism, are now competing to own his legacy.

The BJP-RSS that otherwise hated him as anti-Hindu, are trying hard to own him as their honourable icon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly says, “We are doing everything to promote his vision more than anybody else.” He tries to accuse the Congress of having ignored Ambedkar. Meanwhile, the Congress is struggling to place Ambedkar among its own icons, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

The political credit for changing Ambedkar’s status mainly goes to Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram. But the administrative credit goes to VP Singh, the first Kshatriya Prime Minister of India. For all the governments before Kanshi Ram came into the political scene, only Mahatma Gandhi was the social, moral, political and philosophical icon.

Till then, Ambedkar was an icon of a few educated Dalit employees and Neo-Buddhists. His name was not even known among the Shudra/OBC/ minority socio-political circles. In school and college classrooms, his thoughts were not taught. Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Subhas Chandra Bose, in that order, were popular among children and social forces.

They even believed that a Constitution written by Ambedkar was also against the Hindu social system. In their internal structures, they would spread rumours that Ambedkar brought in Kaliyuga, as their shastras predicted. Their notion of Hindu Rashtra does not allow any space for a Dalit to be an icon.

The radical Hindus working around RSS elements treated Ambedkar as a social and political untouchable, as they believed in Varnashrama dharma and untouchability as part of Hindu dharma. They even believed that a Constitution written by Ambedkar was also against the Hindu social system. In their internal structures, they would spread rumours that Ambedkar brought in Kaliyuga, as their shastras predicted. Their notion of Hindu Rashtra does not allow any space for a Dalit to be an icon.

Their tactical acceptance of Ambedkar began after they came to power in 1999 on the strength of Dalits. But their core thought is that SC/ST/OBCs should not even have the right to vote. However, Ambedkar did not allow them to succeed in their effort. The communists (both the left and radical left), treated Ambedkar as a lackey of British colonialism, and the Constitution as a document of conspiracy of British imperialism. If Jana Sangh wanted to bring back Manudharma, the communists wanted to establish a Soviet type of Government and Constitution. I was a witness to communist condemnation of Ambedkar in the post-Karamchedu discourse in the 1980s in Andhra Pradesh, as a British agent, while working among them as a civil liberties activist. Not many understood the social revolution that he set into motion in a system of graded inequality and practice of human untouchability.

Ambedkar’s image changed with four events: 1) Implementation of Mandal Commission Report, 2) giving him the Bharat Ratna 3) His birthday getting declared a national holiday, and 4) the enactment of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Rajiv Gandhi regime, which was implemented during the VP Singh regime.

With implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, the OBCs began to see Ambedkar as saviour of the OBCs along with SC/STs. Their ambition to get educated increased with reservations getting extended to them. This expanded the social base of the iconic image of Ambedkar. Among Dalits, slowly he acquired a prophetic status. This has huge implications, as his image crossed the boundary of politics and entered the zone of spiritual grip over the Dalit masses.

Now any number of Dalits are prepared to die to preserve Ambedkar’s statues and image. Many OBC intellectuals realised that but for him, their humiliating Shudra status would not have changed. He is to Dalits, what Prophet Mohammed is to Muslims. All this has happened within just 27 years, since 1990.

Neither the Congress nor the BJP can claim much credit for Ambedkar’s present status, though the Congress is better placed. The Congress can claim that it had made Ambedkar the Chairman of the drafting Committee of the Constitution.

(To be concluded)

The author is a well-known writer, Dalit Bahujan Human Rights Activist and chairman of T-MASS, a broad based organisation that works for social justice

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