New Delhi: As the nation commemorated the 50th death anniversary of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar on Wednesday, over eight lakh Dalits paid homage to their great leader at Chaityabhumi in Mumbai.
Most Dalits see Ambedkar as their true leader—someone who challenged the very basis of the caste system unlike other national leaders—notably Gandhi—who they claim followed a middle path.
At a time when India is seeing a Dalit resurgence, Ambedkar seems to have hogged all the attention. To discuss the contentious issue on CNN-IBN’s Face the Nation, was a panel which included Jabbar Patel, director of the biopic of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar; Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson and Professor Mridula Mukherjee, historian and Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
Has Ambedkar's legacy proved more durable than that of Gandhi?
Ambedkar’s popularity is at an all time high. But the fact is the legacy itself is frayed — exposing a dichotomy, a paradox. There were vigorous debates over Ambedkar and Gandhi through the ‘30s and ‘40s. At the end of the day, the Gandhian idea of ‘a human society’ seems to have lost out to the Ambedkar’s more revolutionary idea of ‘social justice at all costs’.
Though we can learn from both Ambedkar and Gandhi, the fact remains that Ambedkar’s statues outnumber Gandhi or perhaps that of any other leader’s in India.
Neither on October 2 nor on January 30 do eight lakh people visit Gandhi’s samadhi as we find in case of Ambedkar. What is it that really distinguishes the two?
“Both were great in their own respect and in their own ways. But it was Ambedkar’s work that gave Dalits a status of human beings and a sense of equality and power. There is a vast group that worships Ambedkar as a deity. It is no surprise to see eight lakh Dalits reaffirming faith in him on his 50th anniversary,” Tushar Gandhi said.
Is that the reason why in the 21st century Mahatma is revered in various ways but is not seen as a deity while Ambedkar has become God?
“Ambedkar has become a deity only for the Harijans—the entire group of people who were persecuted and not even treated as human beings by the Hindu community. It was Ambedkar who gave them a sense of belonging, power and status in the society. His becoming a deity was bound to happen,” said Tushar Gandhi.
Has Ambedkar been reduced to a mere statue?
Ambedkar gave Dalits a sense of status, power, and self-respect, but in the process, has Ambedkar been reduced to a mere statue? Perhaps he has become a mute witness to what he sees around himself. Is that the tragedy of Ambedkar?
“Statue is just the symbol. He was the man who gave an identity to human beings deprived and exploited for a thousand years. Though we have a political struggle going on, we have forgotten that Ambedkar was the one who gave India its very first constitution. His relevance is much more than just being a Dalit leader,” said Jabbar Patel.
Lage Raho Munnabahi—recent commercial Bollywood film discovered Mahatma at a popular level. Does Ambedkar too needs be discovered at a popular level?
Several films have been made on Ambedkar’s life but would ever a film on the Dalit leader get the same appeal as Lage Raho Munnabahi—the film that took Gandhigiri to the common man—did?
“To me Lage Raho Munnabahi is too much a romanticised version of the whole Gandhian philosophy. Dr Ambedkar’s philosophy is much deeper than that. Ambedkar did not just talk about Dalits, but he also spoke about human rights,” said Jabbar Patel.
One thing is clear, perhaps it’s much more difficult to make a film on Ambedkar than on Gandhi.
“When I made a film on Ambedkar, I realised it’s indeed difficult to do depict his ideas and achievements in their true light. My film took one-and-half-years to be released in the country due to censorship issues. In this country, it is extremely difficult to portray Ambedkar’s philosophy in its true sense,” said Patel.
Ambedkar remains a contentious and controversial figure—but perhaps that is what makes him also a fascinating figure to be studied about.
What do Gandhi and Ambedkar mean to the contemporary India?
“There was a process of contention and reconciliation between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Ambedkar was not a member of the Congress. Then how did he get the role of framing the constitution in the Assembly? It was actually the Congress leaders—Nehru, Gandhi and Patel—who gave him this role,” said Professor Mridula Mukherjee.
In today’s India, where the image of militancy within Dalits has become dominant, how can it be reconciled with what Mahatma spoke of – trying to break down the upper caste opposition to unsociability and caste system?
Had Mahatma been alive, what message could he have given the Dalit youth who swear by Ambedkar and practice a form of militancy in his name?
“Bapu would have admired the fierce spirit of Dalit youth who have been demanding their rights. However, he would not have accepted the violent means that they have adopted. What happened in Maharashtra a few days ago was not a demonstration of anger, but an outcome of frustration of the Dalit community. The leaders who exist for Dalits today are exploitative and opportunistic. They do not voice the opinion of the Dalit community at all. These leaders have become more like an upper-caste exploitative lot themselves,” said Tushar Gandhi.
Perhaps the anger and frustration that set afire two train in Maharashtra a few days ago was an outcome of the exploitative and opportunistic leadership that Dalits have been given in to today.
Has the intellectual legacy of Ambedkar been lost?
“Ambedkar’s contribution to the country in the form of writings on human rights was extraordinary. The kind of Constitution he wrote for this country—the lengthiest Constitution in this world—is a feat that most people in this county have forgotten,” said Patel.
The phenomenal writings of Ambedkar have been an intellectual legacy for our country. Has the exploitative Dalit leadership today lost that legacy somewhere? As Tushar Gnadhi points out, it is this opportunistic leadership that has left Dalit youth as a frustrated lot.
“Whether we talk of Gandhi, Ambedkar or any other great legacy, a lot depends on the contemporary leadership. How the present day leaders link up those legacies and transmit them to the present generations or if they use them as mere icons, is something that matters,” said Professor Mukherjee.
The intellectual bankruptcy of the Dalit leaders is imminent and palpable. While eight lakh Dalit leaders visit Chaityabhumi on Ambedkar’s anniversary, not one of them realises the intellectual bankruptcy that they all suffer from today.
Ambedkar, more than being a Dalit icon figure, was someone who asked them to educate, organise and agitate. Dalits today must consider whether their leadership or they themselves have really lived up to the ideals of Dr Ambedkar.
Final Verdict: Has Ambedkar's legacy proved more durable than that of Gandhi?
81 per cent of the viewers said ‘yes it has’ and 19 per cent of them said ‘no’.
Perhaps Ambedkar’s legacy needs to be re-looked and rediscovered to understand it in its true form. Remember Babasaheb said, “Social democracy and political democracy must go hand-in-hand. And that can happen only if we manage to create a truly equitable society.”