There is an element of the surreal in the alacrity with which BR Ambedkar’s statue was painted saffron and then repainted blue in Dugrayyia village, Badaun district, Uttar Pradesh, earlier this month. Statue-politics, Dalit protests and the ruling BJP’s mega-celebrations involving marches and garlanding of Ambedkar images on his birth anniversary on April 14 reflect a heightened anxiety across the political spectrum to appropriate the scholar-statesman’s legacy for obvious electoral gains.
For a man so eclectic, radical and searing in his contempt for Mahatma Gandhi and the socialists at one level and Hinduism, both as religion and philosophy, on another, the ongoing efforts would have doubtless seemed comical. Presently, one would confine this analysis only to the competitive iconography being created around the scholar-politician and reflect on his probable response to this caricaturisation.
Based on what this formidable devotee to reason had to say about placing men on pedestals, on creating “Mahatmas” out of mere mortals, it is safe to assume that he could only have been disgusted at the current preoccupation with his statues and framed photographs.
The marigold-encrusted, temporarily saffron-turned-blue statue of Ambedkar is as much an insult to his thought as the intellectually and ethically bereft arguments being bandied about his ideological legacy. For those straining to create a godman out of this stellar intellectual, it is worth quoting an article he wrote denouncing “all Mahatmas” and why he “hates” them in the Marathi-language publication Chittra Dipawali , Special Number, 1938 (reproduced in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches , Volume 17, part 2, published by Dr Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment).
Ambedkar wrote: “Is Gandhi a Mahatma? I am sick of this question. There are two reasons why this question annoys me. Firstly, I hate all the Mahatmas and firmly believe that they should be done away with. I am of the opinion that their existence is a curse to the nation in which they are born. The reason why I say so is because they try to perpetuate blind faith in place of intelligence and reason.”
It is a sign of times we live in that it is with trepidation that one cites Ambedkar’s description of Gandhi’s “cunningness” and lack of originality in propounding truth and non-violence. What is more enlightening for the present analysis is his deconstruction of the very easy procedure required for acquiring saintliness in India.
The presence of so many curiously-attired men and women in our legislatures only serves to validate Ambedkar’s analysis of the social psychology existing then and now in India. A sense of déjà vu descends if one hears him denouncing the overwhelming propensity Indians have towards deference and becoming “ bhakts (devotees)” to our leaders.
“As I met Mr Gandhi in the capacity of an opponent, I have a feeling that I know him better because he had opened his real fangs to me and I could see the inside of the man. While others who went as devotees saw nothing of him except the external appearance which he had put up as a Mahatma,” said Ambedkar (BBC interview, December 31, 1955).
It is impossible here to resist the impulse to underline Ambedkar’s beliefs to the various competitors for his legacy. That he fought political battles against the Congress and Gandhi is well documented enough for the BJP to now conclude that Ambedkar is the appropriate symbol to brandish in the face of nation-wide protests by Dalit groups on his birth anniversary today against the dilution of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The BJP is carrying forward the campaign by the RSS that Ambedkar advocated merger of every identity as “Hindu” to eliminate caste discrimination.
According to a report dated April 14, 2015, in the RSS publication Organiser , Sarkaryavah Suresh ‘Bhaiji’ Joshi drew parallels between Sangh-founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and Ambedkar.
“He (Ambedkar) said if we have to eradicate inequality, we all should be identified with only one word, i.e., ‘Hindu’. This word will vanish all types of discrimination. Dr Hedgewar also said the same thing,” said Joshi. In ‘Philosophy of Hinduism’ (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 3, Unpublished Writings), Ambedkar said: “This brief analysis of the ‘Philosophy of Hinduism’ from the point of view of justice reveals in a glaring manner how Hinduism is inimical to equality, antagonistic to liberty and opposed to fraternity.”
His radicalism being too volatile to ingest, Ambedkar is now being cast in the same mould that he once attacked Gandhi for — as an icon to be revered, worshipped not followed. It is both a tragedy and a farce that History is being repeated on this Ambedkar Jayanti.