The last few weeks have seen the owning, usurping and the embracing of Babasaheb Ambedkar by the political class. He has become by far the most important Indian icon, deeply impacting the voting arithmetic of Indians. This has naturally led the Jai Bhim-haters to soften their stance and put up a facade of respect. The convenience of picking and choosing quotes and events from a person’s life to suit our beliefs, allows us to make Ambedkar everything from a Hindu reformist to a Pakistan hater. The larger canvas of his life experience and evolution is naturally ignored in order to duck assured discomfort. And it is not only electorally dependent politicians who find him essential, even individuals like me cannot but, at the very least, act Bhim-conscious.

Let me first confess, as an ahistorical, upper class, urban citizen, at school and at home, Ambedkar hardly ever figured in any discussion that I was present at. While the Mahatma was all pervading, the only fact reiterated about Ambedkar was the obvious one-liner – the architect of the Indian Constitution. But even that was, at times, undermined. My father & co (ordinary aristocratic citizens!) claimed at private dinner conversations that the name on the Constitution was his, but others put in the real work, meaning educated upper castes and classes – the truly intellectual. I am certain my father and his friends had not listened to, or read, the transcripts of the debates in the Constituent Assembly, and hence their understanding of this great man was extremely limited.

But that is not the point. Privilege makes it very difficult for us to accept that people from lower caste backgrounds can actually be smarter than us. If we come across a few, then they are looked upon as exceptions, but even that credit is taken away. We pat ourselves on our backs for the generosity showered on them; it was us who gave them the luxury of reservation. The problem is that this feeling exists at every step of the class and caste ladder, making collective realisation that much harder.

The commonly held negative opinion on the quality of public services, healthcare or bureaucracy stems from this caste and class discrimination. As a resident of Tamil Nadu I hear this many times in the form of insinuations and innuendos, and point to it for all our societal ills. If only more deserving and meritorious people had been in these positions of power, India would have been a far greater country! The complexity of merit as an idea and affirmative action as a transformational tool is completely ignored.

The human mind is fascinating and always finds ways to justify contradictions by creating contextual spaces and resisting any overlap. One such anomaly is the upper caste Hindu traditionalist’s vociferous debunking of the Aryan invasion in order to further nationalistic unity among the Hindu majority and, at the same time, finding integration with cultures of the lower caste Dravidian struggle. Let me be very clear, public relationships of convenience are very different from socio-emotional co-existence. Deep within these conversations lies Ambedkar’s voice of questioning without the baggage of tradition.

Spiritual inquiry

Ambedkar’s investigations of Hinduism and his expose of what I would like to call abstractive isolation is an essential debate for all. In religious and spiritual dialogue we seek the ideal, the place of awakening, where the laukika – as it is – ceases to exist. All sadhana (practice) hopes for that movement through self-enquiry, ritualistic practice or emotional surrender. In order to move into that state of being it becomes essential to leave behind the real, that being the uncomfortable and irreconcilable. And in realisation, the real we believe becomes crystal clear. A substantial problem that emanates from this line of thought is that by default the economic, political and social discrepancies caused by structures that enable spiritual growth are swept under the carpet. The other issue with spiritualisation of inquiry is that the pure cannot be argued or disputed and is placed beyond the tactile, earthy.

We hear ever so often of people talking about the spiritual as being the higher level of intellectual being than any debate on caste, gender or class – one belonging to the realm of existential freedom, and the other to societal functionality. Which is why we keep both these in separate boxes within ourselves. Ambedkar broke this bubble by revealing the treacherousness of socio-religious structures that oppress even while proclaiming to provide pathways to self-awareness. This is to me as much a questioning of the self as it is of the politics of religion. Ambedkar has asked whether the abstraction that we call brahman is real when we live lives of segregation and differentiation. Does spiritual awareness change how we relate to the world around? Do I help and support people out of pity, or do I really feel that we are equal? Do the religious or spiritual really allow me to erase condescension, or does it want to make more people like me? I think each one of us should dispassionately ask these questions.

Multiple realities

Ambedkar questioned the foundations of Hindu religious and spiritual institutions. The demolition of the Hindu religious strangleholds is what he sought, but even Hindu devout have to site Ambedkar within their belief. Can someone remain religious, be aware of its pitfalls and yet move beyond its limitations? I know Ambedkarites will see this as religious appropriation, undermining the basic foundation of his thought. But it is important that we allow for this possibility, if not we will be enforcing another form of intellectual tyranny.

There have to be many Ambedkars and even a pious Hindu Ambedkarite is a possibility. I have to be careful here! Am I converting Ambedkar into a Hindu philosopher? Another appropriation? Certainly not, but the honesty of his enquiry, strength of conviction and tenacity to stand up against the powerful force me out of my comfort zone, bringing me face-to-face with who I am – including my faith and philosophy. I may choose to embrace Ambedkar and Rama, and allow myself solace in this contradiction!

At the other end, there is great resistance to non-Dalit Ambedkar voices, unless they conform to the language and tone of actual Dalit arguments. The empowered will never know how it feels to be an outcaste. This makes our entry into this dialogue problematic right from the beginning. But that does not mean that any non-Dalit who enters the fray is twisting its soul. Keeping aside the frauds, all those participating in this process are also doing it for personal reasons. There is an inner need to introspect, understand, feel and contribute that powers us. This is important, since it reveals an urge to change, and it is this spirit that creates collectives. We will make mistakes, at times be insensitive, even naïve but not insincere. Allow the privileged to come to social understandings from their own experiences and let them grapple with it, only then will the resultant sensitivity be true.

The fight for social equality has to come from varied voices. There will be disagreements and clashes but let us not reject multiple realities as long as the heart is in the right place. I was once asked whether I have the right to speak for a Dalit. I can speak for anyone as long as I am willing to understand the realities that make that person. And even after that learning I cannot be who he is and will never experience his living trauma. I have to realise him in and within myself. It is this internalisation that can change me and this takes time. Therefore yes, I will join my voice to the Dalit voice and do so, in all humility, knowing that I can never really know.

We should be thankful that Ambedkar lives among so many different people. Whether he is loved, eulogised, hated or decried, the fact that he is a consciousness gives us the strength that we are still a vibrant society. The moment he disappears from our midst we become truth-less.