Appropriating Ambedkar

The Sangh's ideology and Ambedkar's could not be more different
Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi

Two days before the 125th birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar the BJP government in Haryana has paid homage to his memory in the most unique way possible: By renaming Gurgaon as Gurugram. The rationale behind the renaming goes like this. Guru Dronacharya was a legendary teacher who figures prominently in the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic. By renaming Gurgaon to Gurugram, Manohar Lal Khattar intends to honour his memory. The fact that the legacy of Dronacharya remains a controversial one is lost on Khattar. He is irrevocably entrenched in Dalit folklore as a casteist figure for his insensitive treatment of Eklavya. Eklavya was a tribal who belonged to the Nishadas (a lower caste). When he sought to learn archery from Dronacharya he was rejected because of his caste. Undaunted, Eklavya fashioned a clay figurine of the teacher who had turned him down and started practicing before the statue as a mark of respect. As time passed Eklavya became an archer as skilled as Arjuna. Fearing that Eklavya would eventually surpass his favourite pupil; Dronacharya asked Eklavya for a guru dakshina. He asked Eklavya to cut off his right thumb ensuring that he would never be a great archer. Understandably this passage in the Mahabharata is interpreted by Dalit writers as a clear cut case of caste based oppression. Dalit writer Shashikant Hingonekar laments this event by writing, “If you had kept your thumb, history would have happened somewhat differently. But you gave your thumb and history also became theirs. Ekalavya, since that day they have not even given you a glance. Forgive me, Ekalavya, I won’t be fooled now by their sweet words. My thumb will never be broken.”

Renaming Gurgaon as Gurugram is a strange step given that the BJP has been trying for a while now to appropriate Ambedkar as a BJP mascot. It is a fact that Ambedkar and the RSS with its brahminical roots are as different as chalk and cheese. Ambedkar’s burning of the Manusmriti was one of the strongest attacks on the inequalities prevalent in Hinduism. Not only did Ambedkar renounce Hinduism and convert to Buddhism he was also staunchly against the RSS and what it stood for. The political manifesto of the Scheduled Castes Federation — a political outfit set up by Ambedkar in 1942 — rejected the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha as “reactionary” organizations.“The Scheduled Castes Federation will not have any alliance with any reactionary party such as the Hindu Mahasabha or the RSS,” the document, reproduced in Vol 10 of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar Charitragranth, a Marathi book by Changdev Bhavanrao Khairmode, reads. This intrinsic schizophrenia of the party is quite evident in how it has taken up causes which are quite antithetical to the ideas espoused by Ambedkar. Take beef for example, not only has the Maharashtra government banned beef, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone on record to state that a pink revolution-cow killing on a mass scale-would happen if the BJP were to lose in the general elections in 2014. Ambedkar’s views on beef eating were quite the opposite. He emphasised on how beef eating was common amongst Vedic Hindus. He further pointed out that the taboo around beef was propagated by Brahmins. Another issue on which Modi and Ambedkar differ is manual scavenging. While Modi wrote in his book Karmayog that scavenging is a spiritual activity, Ambedkar was clear that manual scavenging was a pernicious societal evil. There is also a mischievous attempt to divorce Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution, from Ambedkar, the leader of Dalit resistance and defiance. In keeping with his egalitarian principles and struggles, Ambedkar drafted a Constitution that would safeguard the rights and liberties of women, Dalits, minorities, and all citizens.

Ambedkar had resigned in frustration over the Hindu Code Bill, when Hindutva leaders along with conservative elements within the Congress had vociferously attacked the Bill’s attempts to reform Hindu personal laws and ensure equality for women. BJP’s hero Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, had said the Bill would “shatter the magnificent structure of Hindu culture.” In his resignation letter, Ambedkar declared, “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu Society untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap. This is the significance I attached to the Hindu Code.”

Today, as the Sangh Parivar, as well as the State machinery all over India tramples over the Constitutional rights and liberties of women, minorities and Dalits, imposing dress and diet codes and attacking conversion, it is Ambedkar’s legacy as an agitator that is relevant to the struggles to defend and expand people’s freedoms. Renaming Gurgaon as Gurugram while Modi pays lip service to the memory of Ambedkar just exposes the cognitive dissonance and opportunism of the BJP.