The Race to Own Bhimrao Ambedkar
Pursue his goal, not necessarily his methods
There is a mad scramble among political parties to appropriate Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, who fought long and hard to annihilate caste and end untouchability and other social practices that oppressed castes placed low down in the Hindu hierarchy. The reason is not so much these parties’ respect for what Ambedkar stood for or did but because they realise that Dalits, who account for 16.6% of India’s population (as per the 2011 Census), venerate Ambedkar and are likely to be well-disposed towards a party that claims to share their feelings.
Ambedkar rejected Hinduism with its caste hierarchy and the terrible burden this placed on the Dalits, who were called the depressed classes in his time and were termed the Scheduled Castes in the Constitution in whose drafting Ambedkar played a significant role. He promoted mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, to escape Hinduism’s caste tyranny. Yet, the Hindutva party, BJP, is desperate to claim Ambedkar. The Congress, whose politics made him law minister in Independent India but also made him quit that post in protest, and fielded a candidate against Ambedkar and defeated him in the 1952 general elections, also wants to claim him. The Left, for whose proletarian revolution dreams Ambedkar had no patience and who returned the favour during his lifetime, want to claim him as well. Relatively more sincere would be attempts by Mayawati’s BSP to claim Ambedkar’s mantle. But it would be difficult to accept that any one of these parties has a coherent vision to emancipate the Dalits or annihilate caste, as Ambedkar wanted to.
It is not patronage or special schemes that would deliver Dalits out of their condition. The correlation between birth and occupation forms the material basis of caste. Diversification of the economic structure, creating a variety of non-traditional occupations, and organising and equipping Dalits to move into these occupations so that they become part of a global division of labour would pay real homage to Ambedkar. Political parties find it more expedient to offer patronage than to do the things that actually change the status quo.