Towards a ‘Suitable’ Ambedkar
Does anyone still remember the 're-editing' of Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi during National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-I period when demands were raised that it should to be scrapped and the original collected works should to be reinstated so that readers/scholars are made available the 'most authentic version of writings and utterances of Gandhi'. Noted Gandhians had underlined then how the revised Collected Works and adjoining CDs (compact discs) issued during 2001 had 'five hundred entries missing' from the original one.
Thanks to the exit of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government in 2004, the original Collected Works could be restored and even published online so that henceforth no government -- deliberately or inadvertently -- is able to make any changes in the works.
Well, while the project to ‘re-edit’ Gandhi was undertaken in a big way, which could be exposed in time, what one observes that surreptitiously or not so surreptitiously, the project to edit other icons of the anti-colonial or social emancipation movement is on in very many ways. It has been quite a long time since both Gandhi as well as Ambedkar -- who were once anathema to the Hindutva project -- have been included as 'Pratahsmaraniya' (worth remembering in the morning) in the RSS shakhas. The emphasis seems to be on to present a more sanitised image of them which is more acceptable to the ruling dispensation.
A recent example of this has come from Gujarat.
‘Educate, Organise, Agitate' -- a slogan synonymous with the Ambedkarite movement in India -- which was the motto of Bahishrut Hitkarini Sabha founded by Babasaheb in 1924 -- had a new ‘avatar’, thanks to the Gujarat government textbook board and its team of experts. The fifth standard Gujarati textbook replaced this with 'Educate, Organise and Self-Reliance as true assistance'.
As expected, this tweaking of Ambedkar's key slogan -- which he had used in his inspirational speech addressing a meeting of All India Scheduled Castes Federation in 1945 as well -- created an uproar in Ambedkarite circles and a demand was made to rectify it immediately. A layperson could even see that 'Agitate' being substituted with 'Self-reliance as true assistance' cannot be even attributed to printer's devil.
A protest letter submitted by some Ambedkarite activists to the government rightly expressed why this ‘distorted presentation of truth’ is unacceptable.
“Any discretionary change in the slogan not only hurts sentiments of crores of followers of Babasaheb but will also be called distorted presentation of a historic truth,”
The protest letter also compared the slogan with the slogan given by Subhash Chandra Bose — Tum Mujhe Khoon do, Main Tumhe Azadi Dunga — and said, “Can we imagine a slogan like – Tum Mujhe Paisa do, Main Tumhe Azadi Dunga – in the name of our beloved leader Subhash Chandra Bose? And that too in a textbook for children?”
Looking at the fact that vetting of textbooks is a job of experts -- who did not raise any objection to this editing of slogan-- it would be rather difficult to conclude whether this was an inadvertent mistake or a deliberate move on their part. But, if past records can be checked, one discovers that there has existed a great hiatus between what the government claims about Ambedkar and what it does about it.
Remember, how the then Anandiben Patel-led Gujarat government had withdrawn (2015) and later pulped the book on Dr Ambedkar commissioned by her government itself because it discussed Ambedkar’s radical thoughts on Hinduism and the 22-point pledges he took to convert to Buddhism in 1956. We should not forget that the author of this book was close to the government and a few lakh copies of the book had been prepared which were to be distributed in government schools as supplementary reading.
What were those pledges administered by Ambedkar himself to lakhs of his followers, which the government found ‘explosive’ enough to pulp the book itself? To summarise, the pledges talked of having ‘no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, no faith in Rama and Krishna, no faith in Gauri’, and resolved not to worship them. It also talked about not believing ‘in the incarnation of God’ and maintaining distance from a religious ceremonies that are part of Hinduism and performed by brahmins. While resolving to follow ‘noble eightfold path’ of the Buddha, it also talked of belief in ‘the equality of man’ and one's endeavour to 'establish equality'.
The government made it rather explicit that it does respect Ambedkar but on its own terms.
Is it only the saffron camp in Gujarat that is more sensitive towards the real content of Ambedkar’s message or is this a pan-India phenomenon in their camp?
The experience of neighbouring Maharashtra can also be an eye-opener.
The year 2016 happened to be the year of Dr Ambedkar's 125 birth anniversary and plans were afoot to celebrate it not only in India but in other countries as well. The state government had even planned to spend Rs 500 crore on a grand memorial for Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar at Dadar in Mumbai, and a statue at Indu Mills in Dadar. It was the same year when Dr Ambedkar Bhavan and the building next door that housed a printing press, in Dadar, Mumbai, was demolished in the dark of the night (June 25, 2016).
Whatever be the explanation offered by the government -- when it had to go on the defensive because of this demolition -- it cannot be forgotten that the Bhavan was situated on prime land and the BJP-led state government had made plans to erect a 17- storeyed building there. What was rather disturbing to note was that the Bhavan was built by Dr Ambedkar himself and '[t]his place was witness to many a movement of Ambedkar. ..the building was a treasure trove of documents and manuscripts of Dr Ambedkar, which now lie buried in the debris.”
One even noticed the cavalier manner of ensuring that Dr Ambedkar's original documents, photographs and source material are preserved. When the Metro was to be built in a particular area of Mumbai where these documents were properly kept, the government overnight asked the people concerned to vacate it within 24 hours and shift the documents to another place where there were no proper arrangements to store them. According to experts “apathy may have led to rare drafts of his books, handwritten works, letters, documents and photographs being destroyed.”
What is the root of this ‘apathy towards the real Ambedkar?
Is it because in the early 1940s itself Dr Ambedkar had rejected the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and Hindu Mahasabha as “reactionary” organisations. The political manifesto of the Scheduled Castes Federation itself— the political outfit which was set up by him in 1942 had clearly stated:
“The Scheduled Castes Federation will not have any alliance with any reactionary party such as the Hindu Mahasabha or the RSS,”
(See Vol 10 of Dr BhimraoRamjiAmbedkarCharitragranth, a Marathi book by ChangdevBhavanraoKhairmode, or refer to this article.
Or, in his historic monograph, Pakistan or Partition of India, Ambedkar had reiterated his fears vis-a-vis the possible majoritarian turn at the hands of those who vouched for 'Hindu Raj'
“If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.” (Ambedkar, Pakistan or Partition of India, p. 358)
There are reasons to believe that formally the Right wing has declared Ambedkar as an icon and keep singing paeans to him but they have not moved far away from the assessment done by one of their ideologues way back in the 1990s. A few hundred-page monograph titled, Worshipping False Gods, which had come out in the mid-nineties spews venom against Ambedkar -- an act for which one is yet to see any apology or self-criticism from them.
It was in 2017 when the nation celebrated the 90th year of ‘Mahad Kranti’, as it is termed in dalit folklore, when we were witness to a very disturbing spectacle. Billboards were put up across New Delhi railway station where Ambedkar was presented as an icon for cleanliness. It showed an Ambedkar look-alike leading a group of people towards a dustbin to throw garbage and the banner headline asked people to ‘Wake up the Spirit of Babasaheb Ambedkar and participate in this great campaign of cleaning rubbish (Áap ke andarke Babasaheb ko Aap Jagrut Karein . Gandagi ke khilaf is Mahan Abhiyan mein apna yogdan dein)
Who put up these billboards across the capital’s main railway station and who approved it? Definitely, higher-ups in the government would have vetted these billboards and had found nothing objectionable to this ‘reduction’ of Ambedkar's image. Was anybody ever punished for this humiliating portrait of this real gem of India?
Was it an oblique way of communicating the understanding much prevalent among dominant castes that for them Ambedkar’s historic contributions in drafting the Constitution or his more than three-decade-long struggle for equity means nothing? Or did they want to reiterate the understanding that in their eyes this great scholar -- whose personal library had more than 20,000 books -- and who wrote extensively on various issues of immediate and long-term concern of Indian people, was no more than a someone who should remain bound by his ‘traditional duties’ sanctified by religion?
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi. The views are personal.
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