Resurgence of an icon

Vivek Kumar | Updated on: Jan 20, 2018






On the eve of his 125th birth anniversary, it’s worth pondering why BR Ambedkar is more relevant to the mainstream today than he was 20 years ago

The renowned Buddhist scholar Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan used to argue: “The masses want to forget Gandhi, but the government doesn’t allow him to be forgotten. And the government wants to forget Ambedkar, but the masses do not allow him to be forgotten.” Government after government with different ideologies — Right, Left, Centrist, Dravidian — had kept Bhim Rao Ambedkar in oblivion, although his photograph always appeared as a backdrop for their dais. He was reduced to the status of a ‘Dalit messiah’.

A few progressive scholars did accept him as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. However, some self-styled intellectuals could not accept even this little respect and wrote full-length books challenging his integrity and refuting his contribution to the Constitution [Arun Shourie’s Worshipping False Gods (1997); he went on to become a Cabinet Minister in the Vajpayee government]. In February 2000, the BJP-led NDA government appointed a ‘National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution’ by an executive order (the notification came on February 22). In fact, Kanshi Ram, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief at that time, had launched a national movement against this move, with the slogan “Samvidhan ke samman mein, BSP maidan mein” (The BSP battles to save the Constitution’s honour) on March 15 and kept it going for a year.

Ambedkar was excluded from popular culture as well. Richard Attenborough blacked out Ambedkar from his legendary movie Gandhi (1982). There is evidence that but for Ambedkar, Gandhi would not have taken up the abolition of untouchability as one of the agenda for social reform in India. But the ethnocentric Attenborough wasn’t satisfied. In 2000, Ambedkar’s birth centenary year, the central and state governments co-funded a film based on his life. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was directed by Jabbar Patel and went on to win three National Awards, except in Maharashtra it could not be screened for the general public: no theatre owner was ready to screen the movie despite its tax-free status.

The list of injustices is long; however, the aforementioned episodes are sufficient to prove the apathy of the mainstream. The question is, why has the mainstream begun to recognise the relevance of Ambedkar today?

The enduring appeal of Ambedkar

Although mainstream political parties, academia and the media remained indifferent to Ambedkar and excluded him from educational curricula and so on, they were always conscious about the relevance of Ambedkar to Dalits. They were well aware of the increasing number of his followers, both in India and abroad. They also saw the number of people thronging to his statues in different parts of the country, on the occasion of his birth (April 14), death (December 6) and conversion to Buddhism (falling on the festival of Vijayadashami).

However, for the past two decades the electronic media, and for a decade the social media have made the masses and politicians realise that Ambedkar occupies a much larger space in the lives of Dalits and other marginalised sections than they had previously thought. For instance, ‘The Greatest Indian’ poll, sponsored by Reliance Mobile and conducted by Outlook magazine during June to August 2012, is one such survey which surprised many because of the number of votes Ambedkar got. In fact, many Dalit intellectuals argued that the survey was very cleverly designed. The survey had asked the pre-formulated question ‘Who is the greatest Indian after Gandhi’? Had they asked ‘Who is the greatest Indian?’, we have no doubt that the masses would have chosen Babasaheb Ambedkar as the greatest Indian”.

Dalits as political orphans

Another reason for Ambedkar’s increased relevance today is that mainstream political parties think that Dalits are virtually political orphans. To elaborate, they know that there is no Dalit leader who has a pan-India presence. This became more apparent to them after Mayawati’s loss in Uttar Pradesh and her confinement to UP politics. However, Congress, BJP and other political parties are aware that there exists an untapped assertive force among the Dalits, because of their long history of independent assertion which started with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) and Republican Party of India (RPI), all started by Ambedkar. Today, this independent assertive force is leaderless. The question before most political parties is simple: how to bring this vast mass under their banner? It would have been easy had they had a Dalit face with a mass following, which the Congress once had in Jagjivan Ram. But there is not even one Dalit leader today with that kind of national appeal.

For the Congress, the only credible Dalit face in the 16th Lok Sabha is Mapanna Mallikarjun Kharge, but even his popularity is most apparent in the southern parts of the country. Forget leadership, neither the Congress nor the BJP has ever appointed established Dalit leaders as spokespersons. Under these circumstances, there seems to be only one legitimate path to attract aspirational Dalit youth towards your political party: Ambedkar.

Mainstream politicos need Ambedkar because their own icons have been overemphasised and have failed to deliver social justice (especially the Gandhian concept of gram swaraj). The neo-liberal model of contemporary India has also not brought them any relief. The BJP’s icons are not acceptable to Dalits because of ideological reasons. Hence, under these circumstances, Ambedkar’s thoughts on social justice have become doubly attractive.

Ambedkar: A global citizen

The third reason behind Ambedkar’s resurgence in national politics is his acceptance in international communities and institutions. In the 21st century, with the process of globalisation, the digital revolution and trans-nationalism, Ambedkar has become a global citizen. His statue has been installed in Koyasan University in Japan. Busts have been installed in London School of Economics, Columbia University, Simon Fraser University, York University and in the United Nations headquarters in New York. An Ambedkar chair has been set up at Columbia University. Ambedkar Memorial Lectures have been set up in Calgary University and Manchester Metropolitan University. Even the UN is celebrating his 125th birth anniversary with a seminar, ‘Reducing Inequalities to achieve Sustainable Development Goals for all: Dr Ambedkar’s contribution.’ Researchers from around the world are engaged in studying Ambedkar’s thoughts [See The Political Philosophies of Antonio Gramsci and B. R. Ambedkar: Itineraries of Dalits and Subalterns, edited by Cosimo Zene (2013); and Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology (2012)].

Even South African politician Thabo Mbeki, in his National Assembly speech on June 12, 2008, referred to Ambedkar’s famous November 26, 1949 speech on the contradiction of democracy alongside nods to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the French Revolution’s historic vision of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

It was natural for the international community to recognise the relevance of Ambedkar because he had raised issues that were universal in nature. These include establishment of the individual as the centre of purpose; establishment of equality, liberty, fraternity, social justice, rationality, secularism and so on through constitutional methods, which were values of modernity that Ambedkar stood for all his life. However, all this has become common knowledge only after globalisation. Above all, the Dalit diaspora, especially those living in the UK, the US, Canada and European countries, have made Ambedkar more visible around the world. Under these circumstances, how can mainstream Indian society and politics ignore him?


However, Ambedkar’s inclusion by the mainstream is selective, without any reflexivity. It doesn’t want to engage with his socio-economic and political ideology, with his scathing criticism of Hinduism, hero worship in Indian politics, and lack of Constitutional morality in Indian society. There is no recognition of how he gave prominence to fraternity and wanted that equality, liberty and fraternity should not be divorced from each other. They only want his aura, his charisma. By a few activities in the name of Ambedkar, the political masters think they can communicate a genuine concern for Dalits. However, the ground reality, for both BJP- and Congress-led governments, is something entirely different. There is an utter lack of self-representation of Dalits in governments and in party structures. No one from any party has spoken out about the increasing number of atrocities on Dalits across the country.

On the contrary, the central government has failed to counter the RSS on issues like reservation. Therefore, one can conclude that the mainstream political parties are still in the old mould of a patron-client relationship, the mai-baap culture, without realising that now Dalits not only want a representation of their aspirations, they want self-representation as well. Hence, the co-option of Ambedkar may not necessarily lead to the co-option of Dalits in general.

Vivek Kumar is a professor of sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems and the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Published on April 08, 2016
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