I wish to use the word Untouchable, with the U capitalised, with the unambiguous coldness with which Dr BR Ambedkar used it in his speeches and writings to describe a regime of systemic horror that most people of the subcontinent have learnt to live with for centuries. A system that saw – and sees – Ambedkar (and every Untouchable) as inexistent. As December 6, the sixtieth anniversary of his death passed us fairly quietly, I wish to think out loud about why to most Indians the appellation Untouchable comes so easily when they think of Ambedkar.
The more serious charge is that they don’t even think about him. Not on the day he died, not on the day he was born, nor on the day he was reborn with half a million fellow Untouchables. He is both emotionally and intellectually absent from the hearts and heads of most Indians who regard themselves as Touchable, and yet oddly shy away from the touch or shadow of Ambedkar.
On the morning of December 6, I opened newspapers and the daily digests of online sites to see if there had been an op-ed or essay on the man whom the writer, poet and translator Jerry Pinto described as the only alumnus of Columbia University who returned home and invented a nation. The three papers I subscribe to – The Indian Express, The Hindu and Hindustan Times – carried nothing on him except government-issued advertisements with the smile of Narendra Modi next to a picture of a benign-looking Babasaheb.
The new Manu
In the nationalist imagination, Ambedkar has come to occupy the same space that Bhakti saints such as Chokhamela have in the minds of some casteist people. These were the saints Ambedkar denounced. In certain imaginations, he appears to share the space occupied by mythological figures like Shambuka and Karna. He’s been called, without any irony, the new Manu. And yet he means mostly nothing to the Touchables.
The amorphous anything-goes we call Hinduism, especially its currently dominant Hindutva variety, is a marvellous sword-swallower. It packages Ambedkar, who vehemently attacked Hinduism with the matchless scimitar of his mind, as one of its own. He is on the verge of becoming a Bhakti sant, much of his radicalism blunted. Just like the Buddha was claimed as the ninth avatar of Vishnu, the day may not be far, some fear, when Ambedkar may be regarded the eleventh avatar of Vishnu (since we have had claimants for Kalki already). It has also been argued that protean Brahmanism, using the highhanded apparatus of footnotes, can slay an utterly seditious idea like annihilation of caste.
All those who allow themselves the luxury of letting an occasion like December 6 pass unremarked and unnoticed – each of those that casually and habitually disregards the existence of Babasaheb Ambedkar (by not planning anything for December 6) – practices some form of untouchability, and each would be touchy about being told so. These include The Hindu, the Hindustan Times, even Kafila that asks us to run from the big media or Raiot that says it is challenging the consensus. It seems that they would rather let the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its now-formidable machinery twist Ambedkar than offer a genuine and wide-ranging engagement with the man and his ideas. On December 6, at least till about 4 pm,the mainstream corporate/ family-owned/venture capital-driven English-language media, hardly featured any appraisals of what his life and ideas mean to us. If you wanted any of that, you have to turn to the newly formed conclaves of independent, online Dalit media.
At best, some so-called enlightened platforms may carry reports on the nearly ten lakh people who gather at the memorial Chaitya Bhoomi, largely Dalits from Maharashtra but increasingly from all over India and the world. When I spoke to an editor at Scroll, he said they would be carrying reports from Chaitya Bhoomi about how Dalits who gathered there viewed demonetisation. That, of course, is newsy.
But should not an anniversary such as this give the Touchables, who know shamefully little about Ambedkar, an opportunity to know more about him and the people who respect him? For six decades, there has been little reportage, not to speak of narrative journalism or books, on how this one icon draws over a million people to arrive peacefully into a crowded city like Mumbai, perambulate around the stupa of his consciousness, and leave without incident. Who are these people? What are their stories? How and why does Babasaheb inspire them? How do millions of books without ISBN numbers sell at the over 200 makeshift stalls that come up for two days? What is their economy? Why do we get to see and read so much literature on the many Kumbh Melas and so little on this sea of humanity that gathers every December 6 in Mumbai and around October 14, the day of the Ambedkar-led mass conversion, at Nagpur?
True, Jayalalithaa’s death had been finally announced at a strategically chosen time – 11.30 pm on December 5 – by when all obituaries and profiles of her, likely kept ready and neatly laid out for over two months, would be quickly updated and sent to print. I knew she would easily edge Ambedkar out today, Ambedkar the Untouchable who is anyway used to being overlooked in both life and death.
Jayalalithaa is but an excuse. Dates like December 6, April 14, May 15 (when Annihilation of Caste was first published in 1936) or the Khairlanji anniversary (September 29) have barely made a dent on the consciousness of the Touchables. There will be many savarna left-liberals who’ll know about Trayvon Martin but would have to ask Google about who Ilavarasan is. When two Dalits are murdered and six Dalit women are raped every day, it is easy to forget names and dates.
S. Anand has annotated and published BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and Riddles in Hinduism.