On July 30, Ramdas Athawale, who Narendra Modi inducted into his Cabinet less than a month ago, kicked off a verbal duel with Mayawati when he told her that if she claimed to be an Ambedkarite, she should embrace Buddhism.

From the manner in which Athawale has been speaking against the Bahujan Samaj Party chief right from his swearing in as a minister of state, it has become clear that he has taken the Bharatiya Janata Party’s supari to divide Dalit votes in the upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Athawale is a Dalit leader from Maharashtra and heads a faction of the Republican Party of India.

No sooner had Athawale taken his oath than he declared that he would try to “snatch the elephant” from the Bahujan Samaj Party and waxed eloquent how the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh had begun to shift towards the BJP.

Another Dalit Ram-turned Hanuman, Udit Raj (whose first name was Ram before he changed it), the BJP MP from North West Delhi, jumped into the fray, challenging Mayawati, claiming that he did more for Dalits than she did.

Ambedkar and the Ambedkarite

In the Dalit universe any and every thing gets justified in the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar. The entire business of brokers of Dalit interests masquerading as their leaders and do-gooders has thrived on this single principle. The entire splintering of Dalit parties and organisations is due to this single ploy of being a bigger follower of Ambedkar than others. This clue has been duly picked up by the mainstream parties to garner Dalit votes.

The BJP’s current overtures in terms of erecting monuments after Ambedkar, and exhibition of its allegiance to him, best exemplifies this stratagem. No wonder then that Athawale invoked Ambedkar to undermine Mayawati. The underlying claim is the same: I am a real Ambedkarite and you are not!

The question arises: what is Ambedkar or being an Ambedkarite?

Ambedkar has been an enigmatic personality who evolved all through his life. He confronted the problem of castes for which there was little that history could offer him by way of guidance, either in theory or practice, and little sympathy from the larger society.

Ambedkar, therefore, had to construct his own theory and carve out his strategies for struggle using the interstices created in political rivalry between the two major communities – Hindus and Muslims – within the overall context of the colonial state. For the major part he has also made use of the latter, from outside and also as an insider. This, with pragmatic orientation, made Ambedkar change so much that he would readily accept his inconsistencies and justify them on the ground that only asses could be consistent. He survives in his voluminous writings and speeches, besides his illustrious life account, which are not amenable to separate into what is transitory and hence polemical and what is of longer-lasting value or ideological.

Thus, it is not easy to decide what is Ambedkar or what is being Ambedkarite, least by the ilk of Ramdas Athawale, who have made misusing these terms into an art form.

The idea of Ambedkar

Even without such coherent ideological guidance, Ambedkar in essence stands as a beacon for the suffering humanity, especially of south Asia. There he becomes an immortal idea that inspires people to work for the goal of human emancipation.

Early on, he targeted annihilation of castes, not from any sectarian viewpoint as just for the liberation of the Dalits but the entire people and the country. He saw with castes surviving, nothing good could grow in the country. Later, he verbalised this very goal in terms of his ideal society, which he envisioned as based on liberty, equality and fraternity, not the bourgeois notion of it as associated with the French Revolution but with the Buddhist conception, a paradigm in which all these values would be realised in an integrated form. It is this universalist vision and his single-minded devotion to achieve it that characterises that idea.

No snapshot of Ambedkar, otherwise, howsoever carefully taken, can catch his essence. This idea of Ambedkar, transcending space and time of the historical Ambedkar inspires multitude of people who could be called Ambedkarites, irrespective of whether they want to be called so or not.

Some may rightly bring in the question of means.

Ambedkar, in one of his very last speeches, Buddha and Karl Marx, delivered in Kathmandu, saw that the goal of Marx and Buddha was the same but they differed in methods for accomplishing it.

He faulted Marx on two counts, for advocating violence and dictatorship, and therefore took Buddha’s as the superior path. What is clear is that Ambedkar acknowledged Marx’s as one of the two creeds, comparable with his most preferred Buddhism, to achieve human emancipation, but saw its defects.

Should one construe on that basis Ambedkar to be against Marx or examine whether his reading of Marx was correct?

Ambedkar was pragmatic as well as a critical thinker, who would not discard anything simply because someone said so. Ambedkarites, at the least, must reflect this quality.

Ambedkar’s Buddhism

Embracing Buddhism was the culminating point of Ambedkar’s life and therefore many people think that it is the path that Ambedkarites should follow. It is an agreeable proposition but the question arises regarding the conception of Buddhism that Ambedkar had.

He viewed Buddhism as the Dhamma, the way of life, which was in tune with a modern scientific outlook. As science permitted critical thinking, he saw Buddhism too promoting it. Buddha had warned his disciples not to accept anything just because he said so and test it out on the touchstone of their own intellect and experience.

In writing his gospel of Buddha, The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar adopted critical thinking towards traditional Buddhist lore and tried to project a rational Buddhism.

For the common masses, he acknowledged the need to create an alternate cultural paradigm when they renounced Hinduism but expected them to graduate to be prabuddha (enlightened) people. Merely converting to Buddhism and flaunting Buddhist identity was not enough.

Do we see that kind of Buddhism among the converts?

Leave aside critical thinking, these Buddhists themselves made Ambedkar a Bodhisatva and followed the same mumbo jumbo of Hinduism in their Buddhism. Can then Buddhism be an essential ingredient of an Ambedkarite?

The current Dhamma Chetana Yatra launched by the BJP in Uttar Pradesh with the help of a bunch of Buddhist monks unmistakably echoes the same challenge as Athawale has posed to Mayawati. This yatra promoting Modi and the BJP by using Buddhist monks is the depth of absolute degeneration of Buddhism, leave aside Ambedkar’s conception of it.

Expectedly, it proved to be a flop show. The yatra, led by the monk Dhamma Viriyo, was shown black flags by Dalits in the state, which resulted in BJP president Amit Shah cancelling his plan to attend a July 31 rally in Agra, where hardly 500 people turned up against the target of 50,000.

There may not be much dispute that Ambedkar lived as the biggest critique both of Hinduism as well as Hindutva. The Sangh Parivar is the fountainhead of Hindutva in our times. For a true Ambedkarite, therefore, the BJP, which is the Sangh’s political outfit, should have been untouchable. But Athawale and his ilk, adept at unprincipled and amoral political somersaults, not only find themselves in the BJP’s lap but doing their bidding with impunity.

Ambedkar envisaged an engaged Buddhism and was critical of the slothful Sangh. Today so-called Ambedkarites swear by vipassana as true Buddhism, much against Ambedkar. The Buddhist monks on the yatra, with the possible exception of a few, roll in air-conditioned comfort and property worth crores of rupees.

Mayawati vs Athawale

Kanshiram or Mayawati turned ideological Ambedkar upside down using astute caste arithmetic to secure political power. It is to their credit that in the given situation they could come out with a viable strategy to challenge established ruling class parties. Contrary to Udit Raj’s claim, they genuinely tried to empower the Dalits but could not transcend the limits of the system. The best they could do was to expose the systemic trap to the people and mobilise them to break it, but instead they chose to be its part. All their misdoings flow from this choice.

They may be criticised ad infinitum for it, but compared to other Dalit leaders like Athawale, who have chosen the easier path of selling the interests of Dalits cheaply for their petty gains under the guise of being Ambedkarite, the Kanshiram-Mayawati duo look a thousand times better.

When Athawale challenged Mayawati to become Buddhist, one could remind him that though Mahars in Maharashtra had converted en masse to Buddhism following Ambedkar, and in 1990 all these converts were made eligible for benefits as Scheduled Castes, Athawale had given an affidavit to the Election Commission, notarised by advocate Dayanand Mohite on April 3, 2009, that he was a Hindu Mahar.

One would advise Athawale that instead of advising Mayawati, he could do well to ask Modi to convert to Buddhism to prove his Ambedkar bhakti.

Rather, if he prevails upon the Sangh Parivar, through his rapport with them, to convert to Buddhism, he would unconsciously fulfil the dream of Ambedkar to make the whole of India Buddhist.

The BJP’s desperation for Uttar Pradesh is understandable but its reliance on Athawales or Udit Rajs may prove to be counterproductive. As with the Dhamma Chetana Yatra, the intrigues of these Dalit Hanumans in Uttar Pradesh on behalf of the BJP are going to consolidate Dalits more firmly behind Mayawati.

Anand Teltumbde is a writer and civil rights activists with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Maharashtra.