Prof Vivek Kumar teaches sociology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, has extensively researched the Dalit movement, and is currently giving finishing touches to a biography of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram. On the 125th anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, he speaks of his contribution, his appropriation by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, and why the Dalits revere him.

What is the significance of the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar for Dalits? Do you think it holds the same significance for other segments constituting the nation?
What is happening now is the assertion of Dalits and it has seven shades. Beginning from the socio-religious movement, you can see how Buddhism is being resurrected again and again. Then there is the political movement. The third is the movement of Dalit bureaucrats. For instance, last year they celebrated the 31st anniversary of the birth of BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation), which became strong enough to produce a political party (BSP). Fourth, there is the Dalit literary movement independent of politics. This assertion has led to Dalits writing autobiographies. There used to be poems and stories. But autobiographies are a statement, and these are getting translated and sold in the national market.

Fifth, there is the Dalit NGO movement. Following globalisation, supra-institutions began to emerge and play a dominant role – for instance, the World Social Forum. Dalit NGOs have begun to play a role in them and, very importantly, instead of talking of caste discrimination, they have begun to speak of human rights violations. Not only is this vocabulary understood by international agencies and supra-institutions, it is also intimately related to other movements worldwide.

Sixth, there is the independent movement of Dalit women. For example, in Maharashtra, there is this Dalit women’s rights movement and they have organised Dalit Women Federation. Seventh, there is the Dalit Diaspora movement. It was there earlier but had been invisible. After the information revolution, the internet connectivity has given them visibility. Canada’s Simon Fraser University has a bust of Ambedkar, as do Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

Who instituted these busts?
The Dalit Diaspora, which was there in numbers, mounted pressure on these institutes to accept Ambedkar and install his bust, arguing he was the champion of human rights. In collaboration with the local university, Canada’s Calgary University has organised an annual lecture series, as has the Manchester Metropolitan University.

This Dalit assertion has given them more acceptability and visibility. This hadn’t existed earlier, say, before 2000. There is a ripening of democracy, people got their rights, and they began asserting. This process culminated in 2007 with Mayawati getting a majority on her own in Uttar Pradesh. There was then a fervour which could have got translated into other parts of the country, but it did not happen.

Does the significance of Ambedkar have the same echo for other segments of the nation as it has for Dalits?
I’d say the assertion of Dalits has strengthened democracy. We had thought the Dalits would be excluded. This isn’t to say they are not excluded still, but they captured their niche wherever they had an opportunity. It brought them to a stage where they can form a political party of their own, allowed them to write their own literature, and have their own religion. Through this assertion the Dalits are saying that even when rights are denied to them, they will wrest it on their own. This response was not expected. It was an unintended consequence of democracy.

Are you saying that the assertion of Dalits compelled the non-Dalit segment of the nation to accept Ambedkar as an icon?
I’d say the Dalit movement and assertion became so strong that the other segment could not ignore him, largely because he is the most inspiring figure for the Dalits. It was then the analysis of Ambedkar began from within. We social scientists started saying he was not just a Dalit leader, not just a Constitution-maker, but was a nation-builder. Why reduce Ambedkar, we asked. This process of reductionism by the other side was questioned by the inside (Dalit) practitioners of social sciences like us. We began to write papers on Ambedkar’s ideas of nation and nation-building.

These ideas were different from those of other leaders, wasn’t it?
First, Ambedkar never accepted India was a nation. He always said India was a nation in the making. He categorically said that a land with 6,000 castes couldn’t be a nation. Caste brings jealousy, animosity and exclusion. How can a community based on jealousy, animosity and exclusion be a nation? He quoted Ernest Renan, a social scientist, who talked of the idea of nation being a philosophical one, but that it was sociologically a conglomeration of classes. A nation emerges when all the classes get their dues and rights as such.

In this context, Ambedkar said if nation is an idea and rights have to be given, then nation is the name of governance. After all, what do you govern? You govern only the rights of the people. But if people don’t have rights, what will you govern? In that context, a nation will emerge only if you give rights to the people rights.

This is why Ambedkar asked for self-representation. He quoted JS Mills to argue that a nation doesn’t emerge only with the representation of aspirations of the people, but also with self-representation. Why? Because with self-representation, people are no longer just subjects, but they can also make rules for others. If you can’t make rules, then you’d always be the ruled and the person making rules would always be the ruler.

Basically, this means putting everyone on the same footing?
Yes and the baton can change hands. The second thing was that the Indian society was not governed by the consciousness of kind. Rather, it was governed by the consciousness of caste. Consciousness of kind means people are equal on the basis of their making and have the same interests. Ambedkar said that if you are governed by the consciousness of caste, then every caste has its own interests and, therefore, it can’t make rules and laws to emancipate others. It will only make rules to perpetuate its monopoly over power. He, therefore, advocated self-representation.

Third, when the British Planning Commission had come to India in 1885, Gokhale argued with the British that they had not given Indians representation in the bureaucracy and, therefore, the dwarfing and stunting of Indians had taken place, their capacities diminished in just 150-200 years of British rule. Ambedkar asked: Imagine the capacities of Dalits who have been denied their rights for centuries.

Ambedkar, therefore, said that even on the moral ground there had to be self-representation. The next question that Ambedkar asked was: Which of the groups need to be given representation? His answer was Dalits and tribals, Indian women who did not have any rights in Hinduism whatsoever, and the minorities.

But there is the charge that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim.
The claim that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim is absurd. If you read his book, Pakistan or The Partition of India, he had very categorically said that India shouldn’t be partitioned abruptly. Ambedkar proposed that there be a strong Centre and two federal states. He knew sentiments don’t last long and, therefore, the demand for separatism might not last forever – that people might realise that what they have committed and come back again (to united India). He was very clear that the sentiment of separatism would gradually subside. However, Ambedkar was also very clear that if Muslims were to ask for a separation nation, then nobody could also stop it. But he wasn’t against any community. I’d suggest to contemporary intelligentsia to read his original writing rather than commentaries on him.

Both the BJP and the Congress seem very keen on appropriating Ambedkar, particularly this year. Do you think this is a belated realisation on their part about his greatness? Or is it geared for electoral ends?
The Dalits through their assertion are telling that unless their icon is appreciated in full measure, they wouldn’t otherwise listen to the political parties. For the BJP, it operates at two levels. The BJP is governed by the RSS diktat. The RSS seems to be telling the BJP that unless Ambedkar is appreciated, it would be very difficult to enlarge its following among the Dalits.

Don’t you think the RSS is also using Ambedkar to create a monolith Hindu community?
The RSS has been trying that since very long. But if you see the assertion, the symbolism, the type of religious organisations that are emerging and how they differentiate Jai Bhim from Jai Sri Ram, it is obvious that there is a polarisation and Dalits are not listening to the RSS.

Apart from the RSS trying to enlarge its following, the BJP is trying to appreciate Dr Ambedkar because it needs a cushion for itself. They have formed a government on a vote base of just 31%. This is just about good enough to come into power, but it needs about 35-40% of votes to maintain itself in power.

As for the Congress, it has been decimated in the northern belt. It now only has Meera Kumar in Bihar and Kumari Selja in Haryana as its prominent Dalit leaders. Earlier, it was inclined to (the Dalit leadership) in Maharashtra. But it now wants to appropriate Dalit symbols and give Dalits a place in the leadership structure in the northern belt, which decides 180 seats.

Do you think the rediscovery of Ambedkar by what we can say mainstream India is a consequence of the BSP’s rise and post-Mandal reservation debates?
It was Kanshi Ram who popularised Dr Ambedkar. But it has also happened across the terrain – social, cultural and religion as well. But this is also because of the efforts of Dalit groups which are educated and employed. All have joined in this process (of rediscovering and reassessing Dr Ambedkar.) This is also a product of our democracy, of our democratic rights and movements. Yes, political power for Dalits has given them the confidence to assert themselves. It is no longer just about saying, ‘Don’t call me achhut (untouchable).’ It is more about replying to them in their own terms.

For instance, I confronted Ramachandra Guha at Columbia University. Guha was talking about why Ambedkar wore suits. His thesis was that he wanted to give a group of people a reference point, that he wanted to uplift a mass of people who were scantily clad. My counter to Guha was, “What possibility is there of a Dalit being photographed in his informal moment?” Actually, Ambedkar got photographed only in his formal moments, like while going to take oath (of office.) Obviously, he’d wear suit then.

There are no pictures of Ambedkar other than in his official moments. But when he converted to Buddhism, he wore the kurta-pajama, when he went for the funeral of his wife, he wore kafani. It was not only one type of dress he wore. Take Bhagat Singh. In his entire life, Bhagat Singh wore a suit and a hat only once, that is, when he was trying to evade police. But we get to see the photograph of Bhagat Singh only in suit. Does that mean Bhagat Singh only wore suits? How you caricature historical personalities, and how you explain them, is altogether a different ballgame.

How do Dalits look upon Gandhi?
Dalits say there can be either Gandhi or Ambedkar. There can’t be both. One was talking about their emancipation, the other about their assimilation. Can emancipation be independent of the existing (social) structures? I am talking of structures in the sense of roles and statuses distributed in a society.

So what were the roles and statuses which were assigned to the Dalits? That was why Ambedkar wanted Dalits to discover independent structures in which they could be on their own. Ambedkar believed that as long as there was someone to mediate between his people and God, they will never be emancipated. Only the mediator will become stronger. In Buddhism, there is no church, there is no mediator and, of course, no holy book as we understand.
Gandhi wanted to bring the Dalits into the Brahmanical structures. Really, as long as you are at the mercy of trustees, you will play second fiddle. Who were the trustees of Hindus? The Brahmins. In other words, because of the presence of trustees, you will have a lower status and there can be no mitigation of hierarchy.

Read Gandhi’s article, The Ideal Bhangi. You will then understand the mindset with which Gandhi approached the (Dalit) problem. He didn’t allow them to go out of Hinduism, and that’s why he did not allow separate electorates to them. In fact, Ambedkar replied saying that by voting once every five years, can you dismantle Hinduism? Also, by voting once every five years, can you unite Hindus? Gandhi opposed the separate electorate on the ground that it would divide the Hindus.

Actually, what Gandhi pleaded in the English press and what he wrote in the Gujarati press had Ambedkar to claim that he had seen Gandhi as a bare man with his true fangs. Gandhi did not allow the emergence of fresh ideas for the society. He kept going back and forth on his religion.

Wouldn’t you say that for his times, Gandhi was refreshingly different, even radical, in organising, say, temple entry for Dalits?
Well, take the temple entry programme which Gandhi is said to have led in Vaikom in Kerala. But it was Periyar who actually led it, and after he was behind bars, it was led by his wife and his sister. During the movement the king (of Travancore) died. The queen was stricken with fear. She thought the movement had been a bad omen for her husband. These are the words of Periyar, mind you.

The queen, therefore, thought of a compromise formula. So she called her diwan, who told her, “Don’t talk to Periyar. He is a small fry. I will get someone bigger.” The diwan knew C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji, as he was popularly known, and who was Gandhi’s samdhi. Gandhi was called for.

Gandhi met Periyar and asked him about the temple entry programme. Periyar told him the Vaikom movement wasn’t about temple entry, but for allowing Dalits to walk into the temple’s corridors, which was where the important state offices were. Gandhi worked out a compromise formula. He never led a temple entry programme.

In respect to the emancipation of Dalits through social and political means, Gandhi was an utter failure. He didn’t even allow their rights to be implemented in true spirit. Therefore, the Dalits don’t accept that Gandhi was anywhere close to emancipating them.