Concerted attempts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to turn BR Ambedkar into the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mascot will reach its culmination in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, on April 14, the 125th birth anniversary of the Dalit icon. Over the past year, the Prime Minister has laid foundation stones for Ambedkar memorials at various places and inaugurated one in London.
Last week, Modi initiated the oddly worded Stand Up India, a scheme for offering loans to Scheduled Castes for undertaking entrepreneurial enterprises outside the farm sector. On Thursday in Mhow, he will kick off a nationwide movement for social harmony and bolstering rural development.
Modi’s Dalit policy is two-pronged. One, he seeks to convey to the Dalits that the justifiable pride they take in Ambedkar is now also the nation’s, courtesy the BJP. Two, echoing the philosophy of economic determinism, he is telling the Dalits that once India realises its true potential for development, caste will disappear.
However, economic determinism did not impress Ambedkar. In Annihilation of Caste, he argues against the socialist’s reluctance to emphasise caste as the site of struggle thus,
“… Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill the monster.”
Therefore, to celebrate Ambedkar’s birth anniversary and the ideas he represents, Modi should lecture the higher castes on social reforms. This is because their dehumanising caste consciousness has disabled India from growing into an ideal society, which, according to Ambedkar, is one based on “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
In addition, Modi must also tell the Sangh Parivar that its projects of ghar wapsi, love jihad, and a countrywide ban on beef contravene some of Ambedkar’s fundamental ideas.
Take ghar wapsi, through which the Sangh wants to bring back into the Hindu fold all those who converted to Islam or Christianity in the distant past. These converts largely comprise Dalits wishing to escape the brutalising caste system.
Obviously, Ambedkar wasn’t opposed to conversion, manifest in his own embracing of Buddhism in 1956. He saw conversion as a mode of protest, a veritable method of gaining social acceptance denied to Dalits in Hinduism.
Justifying conversion, he asks rhetorically,
Does Hinduism recognise their (Dalits) worth as human beings? Does it stand for their equality? Does it teach the Hindus that the Untouchables are their kindred? Does it say to Hindus that it is a sin to treat the Untouchables as being neither man nor beast?
For Ambedkar, these questions have just one answer: No. This is because the “teachings of Hinduisms” render “lawful the lawlessness of the Hindus towards the untouchables”. Ambedkar, therefore, can’t figure out why the Hindus should ask the “untouchables to accept Hinduism and stay in Hinduism.”
He accepts that caste has infiltrated into Islam and Christianity. But what distinguishes these two from Hinduism is that “caste among the non-Hindus” does not have a basis in their scriptures.
In contrast, Ambedkar argues that Hinduism compels...
... the Hindus (to) treat isolation and segregation of castes as a virtue… If Hindus wish to break caste, their religion will come in the way. But it will not be so in the case of non-Hindus.
It is perhaps the politics of demography which has prompted Hindus leaders to attempt retaining Dalits in Hinduism. It is the only way through which Hinduism, or rather Brahmanism, can have an edge in the game of numbers. It can’t increase its numbers by winning converts because, as Ambedkar argues, “caste is inconsistent with conversion.” In which caste would the convert be fitted?
Other religions don’t face this problem because they ideationally believe in universal brotherhood. This is also the reason why Islam and Christianity lack the severity of the caste system as it exists in Hinduism.
In contrast to Gandhi who considered all religions to be "equal" and was ambivalent if not opposed to conversion, Ambedkar thought there were vital differences between religions. That people had a right to prefer or choose one over the others, depending on the methods different religions advocate for the “promotion and spread of good".
From Ambedkar’s perspective, it wouldn’t be an issue for a Hindu woman to marry a Muslim, regardless of whether she embraces Islam. Such betrothals to the Sangh, however, represent a jihad through the mechanism of love. In July 2014, love jihad prompted the Sangh to trigger protests against Hindu-Muslim marriages weeks before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly bypolls.
The BJP could not reap the electoral dividends as it had hoped for, largely because a large section of Dalits weren’t enamoured by its love jihad campaign. According to some Dalit activists, the ferocity of the campaign against love jihad reminded them of the atrocities committed on Dalits whenever any of them marry a caste Hindu.
Indeed, to be true to Ambedkar’s social philosophy, Modi shouldn’t only explain the causes behind conversion to his audience, but also speak on the virtues of Dalit -high caste marriages.
For his arguments, Modi can turn to Ambedkar, who said,
I am convinced that the real remedy is intermarriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling – the feeling of being aliens – created by caste will not vanish.
He should repeat what Ambedkar said eight decades ago:
Among the Hindus, intermarriage must necessarily be a factor of greater force in social life than it need be in the life of non-Hindus.
This is because he thinks non-Hindus are well knit through other ties, not the case with Hindus.
Instead of fomenting popular ire against Hindu-Muslim marriages, the Sangh should launch a movement against those who undertake “honour killing” to protect the purity of caste and deter Dalits from exercising their choice who they wish to marry.
Untouchability and beef
Indeed, Ambedkar in his writings places great emphasis on the individual and his or her right to choose. This is one of the reasons why he would have frowned at the campaign for imposing an all-India ban on cattle slaughter. It was Ambedkar who is supposed to have dissuaded members of the Constituent Assembly who were keen to incorporate the ban on cow-slaughter as a Fundamental Right in the Constitution.
Otherwise too, his writings show a link between untouchability and beef consumption. He believes the proscription on eating beef arose out of the struggle for supremacy between Brahmanism and Buddhism, which he says was the original religion of Dalits.
To counter the growing popularity of Buddhism, not least because of its opposition to the large-scale, senseless sacrifice of cows and bulls for ritualistic purposes, the Brahmins gave up eating beef. This was consequently included as a proscription in the ancient scriptures sometime in the fourth century CE. Other non-Brahmin communities imitated the Brahmin in abstaining from beef.
But Dalits did not follow suit. This was because even when beef was widely eaten, they (called Broken Men in Ambedkar’s writings) ate the dead cow’s meat. They lacked the means to eat fresh beef. So even when eating of beef was discontinued, Dalit communities continued eating the flesh of the dead cow. Because of their dietary culture, they were deemed as untouchables.
They did not imitate Brahmins and others because, as Ambedkar writes, “without it (beef) they would (have) starve(d).” This argument – beef provides nutritious food at cheap rates to the poor – has been invoked over the last year to argue against imposing a blanket ban on cattle slaughter.
But the Ambedkarite logic hasn’t dissuaded Sangh Parivar activists from persisting with their campaign against cattle slaughter. It might now, however, given that the Sangh Parivar now wants to claim Ambedkar as its own.
But for this to happen, Modi has to publicly engage with Ambedkar’s ideas. He has been lecturing Muslims on how Sufism represents the true spirit of Islam. It is perhaps time for him to educate the Sangh Parivar footsoldiers on Ambedkar’s critique of Hinduism, how ghar wapsi, love jihad and ban on cow-slaughter turn Ambedkar’s idea on its head.
One supposes Modi won’t because he is simply looking for Dalit votes.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.