The Dalit leadership has failed young Ambedkarites like Rohith Vemula
The politically correct felicitations of B R Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary were rendered somewhat meaningless by the suicide of Hy derabad Central University student Rohith Vemula. Netas descended in quick succession on HCU. From Rahul Gandhi to Chirag Paswan, Mayawati to Arvind Kejriwal, there were familiar expressions of sympathy but little evidence of just how the political class intends to address the core issue of realising the Ambedkarite vision for 21st century India. Particularly heartless were the utterances of Union ministers who questioned Rohith's caste without an ounce of empathy , even as they've been busily trying to appropriate Ambedkar.
When Ambedkar is only a political token, how can his modern progressive vision ever be realised? By challenging Rohith's caste status, BJP might save its minister Bandaru Dattatreya from the SCST Act but it hardly provides for a political reach-out to those who now see Rohit as a symbol of a brutally unequal order. Nor can this be Rahul Gandhi's Belchi moment: having treated its Dalit leaders as marginal representatives for decades, it will require more than a one night vigil to convince Dalit groups that Congress is willing to share power.
The Paswans and Mayawatis may have benefitted from their caste status, but their politics has revolved around selfaggrandisement, hardly the radical change in the power structure that Ambedkar envisioned, nor the idea that political power was to be sought for the larger goal of social equality . Perhaps reservation in constituencies plays a part here; forever imprisoned in the reserved trap, a competitive Dalit leadership of intellect and stature has not emerged.
Ambedkar believed a political democracy that does not work towards an egalitarian society was meaningless. In Annihilation of Caste, he provided a trenchant critique of “enlightened high caste reformers who did not have the courage to agitate against caste“. For Ambed kar, upper caste leadership of Dalits was abhorrent, he rejected both Hinduism and the caste system as well as the claims of any upper castes to represent Dalits.
But his legatees in the post-Independence era, from Paswan to Mayawati to Ramdas Athavale, have rushed to form alliances with different mainstream upper caste political parties, enamoured as they are of political power for its own sake. Ambedkar's urgent mission of creating a Dalit counter-narrative to caste, to Hinduism and to the dominant forms of Indian culture, to mount a full scale socioeconomic transformation of Indian society , has been forgotten by those who act in his name.
The fiery Athavale and his Republican Party of India have sought favours from whoever has been in power. Ram Vilas Paswan holds the distinction of being in virtually every cabinet since the United Front government of the mid-1990s. For a while it looked as if Kanshi Ram and Mayawati would break out of the deadening cycle of mainstream politics particularly in their BAMCEF years. A BAMCEF bulletin declared in 1976: “Educated persons from oppressed communities are trapped in government services ... their cowardice, selfishness, inherent timidity and lack of desire of social service to their own creed ... makes them useless.“ But BAMCEF failed at an intellectual awakening. Kanshi Ram and Mayawati set up BSP in 1984 and unleashed a political revolution in UP.
Yet BSP not only created its own power elite but today has become almost unrecognisable from any other political party , particularly after Mayawati declared her mission was Sarvajan Samaj.While this made political sense, ideologically the Ambedkarite mission was somewhat betrayed. Educated Dalits may have formed entrepreneurs' groups and pressed for change in the private sector. But in the public realm, the Dalits today lack their version of an Asaduddin Owaisi. Love him or hate him, Owaisi is emerging as the political voice of the Indian Muslim, by offering a robust and reasoned counternarrative (unlike his more outrageous brother) on debates ranging from terrorism to the Uniform Civil Code. Where is a similarly argumentative Dalit leader offering a genuine alternative template?
As the scholar Kancha Ilaiah writes: “The tragedy is every young Dalit intellectual's ambition is to be a civil servant ... an administrative slave of Hindu Brahmanism ...the Dalit community has not produced a powerful socio-spiritual philosopher.“
In Homo Hierarchicus, Louis Dumont argued that the caste system is a system of ideas in which the Dalit by his very existence violates the brahmanical obsession with personal hygiene and purity . While the menstruating woman or the bereaved can escape their pollution, the Dalit is “unclean“ from birth. Reservations have created a Dalit middle class, but what about the mission to smash the “purity“ versus “pollution“ system of ideas altogether? When Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti, launched a movement to drink water from tanks, he took his place with Jyotirao Phule and E V Ramaswami Naicker who had not just anti-Brahmin, but anti-caste and anti-birth based social hierarchy in their overarching agenda of action.
Where is such a Dalit leader today?
Rewriting the Purusa Sukta, a hymn that places castes in a hierarchy of the Divine's Being's body parts, was a demand once voiced by Dalit intellectuals as a crucial first step in a spiritual renaissance of Hinduism; they believed this would make Hinduism more modern and egalitarian.But there is no Dalit political leader who is able to frontally challenge the idea of Dalitness in caste Hindu minds. The Dalit Panthers of the 70s have faded away , their radical poetry either co-opted or forgotten.Youth like Rohith Vemula search for answers, try in vain to make sense of the discrimination they face, yet the modern Dalit leadership continues to fail them.
Feb 03 2016
By Sagarika Ghose