“His mouth became the Priests;
his arms were made into the Warrior,
his thighs the People,
and from his feet the Servants were born.”
– Rig Veda 10.90
The Vedic tradition classifies Hindus into four Varnas or social groups each ascribed a different responsibility in the society. The Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda illustrates the different body functions of the Purusha, or the cosmic man, which translates into the functioning of a society.
Philosophy professor Rajshree Vasudevan, Sastra University, Thanjavur says,
“It is common knowledge that the Varna system was initiated with the purpose of creating an order in the society. It was down the years that this scientific system got regressive and discriminatory.”
The Varna, which literally means colour, identifies four social groups - the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Kshatriyas (warriors, rulers and administrators), the Vaishyas (traders and merchants) and the Shudras (serving the needs of the other three Varnas).
“The word caste strictly refers to the sub-divisions of the Varna and not the Varnas themselves,” says Vasudevan. The Dalits, who constitute 16.2% of the entire population, is the group which falls outside the Varna system. They are also referred to as Panchamas (the fifth Varna) and the Aspruhyas (the untouchables).
Assistant Professor Ruchi Jaggi, Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune, points out: “Though the diversification of the Varnas was physical in nature, the concept of the “other” made it organic and overwhelming for those of the upper castes. This superiority leads to an upper caste looking down upon the work of those of the lower castes.”
It is to ‘annihilate’ this concept of the ‘other’ that Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit, dedicated his life. He rose to emerge as one of the brightest political thinkers of India and was instrumental in framing the Indian constitution.
of Dalit politics in India
In his essay, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Ambedkar wrote, “There will be outcastes as long as there are castes, and nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.”
Ambedkar’s first personal meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay, May 1931, was an uncomfortable one. He accused the Congress of not doing much for the Dalits and wasting funds meant for them. “Gandhiji, I have no homeland,” said Ambedkar, “How can I call this land my own homeland wherein we are treated worse than cats and dogs, wherein we cannot get water to drink?”
On another occasion, this time at a conference in 1935, Ambedkar said, “I am born a Hindu. I couldn't help it, but I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu. Hindu civilisation is a diabolical contrivance to suppress and enslave humanity.”
Such were the views of the man born in the Mhow district of Central Maharashtra on the 14th of April, 1891. Though born to the Mahars (street sweepers), Dr Ambedkar acquired degrees (M.A., Ph.D., M.Sc. (Econ), D.Sc. (Econ), Barrister-at-law) that none in his community or perhaps generations in history have been able to achieve.
Gail Omdvet, in her book, ‘Ambedkar, towards an enlightened India’ writes, “If Gandhi was ‘Bapu’, the father of the society in which he tried to inject equality while maintaining Hindu framework, Ambedkar was ‘Baba’ to his people and the great liberator from the framework. While Gandhi fought for freedom from colonial rule, Ambedkar fought for a broader liberation from exploitation and oppression.”
Usha Venkatram, a retired sociologist from Mumbai says that Ambedkar was reduced to being a Dalit leader as his ideas of a nation built on equality and rationalism were sidetracked a everyone saw him as being a mere symbol of only Dalits.
Ambedkar also severely criticised Gandhi’s idea of including the untouchables in the Hinduism fold. He blamed Gandhiji of returning to antiquity as he gave more importance to personal virtues (he wanted Dalits to become like Brahmins by avoiding meat, alcohol) than socio-economic causes that Ambedkar was in support of.
The great liberator of Dalits once said, “To remain in religion because it is ancestral is only suited to a fool. No thinking man can take such a policy. Remaining in a situation in which one finds oneself fits an animal; it cannot satisfy a human being. The difference between animals and humans is that animals can’t progress. Humans can!”
While Gandhi fought for entry of Dalits in temples, Ambedkar fought for equal rights in education and public offices. He burned the Manusmriti which justified the Varna system and asked Dalit women to dress up as Brahmin women, to avoid any caste symbol.
Ambedkar was deeply influenced by the French revolution and the motto of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity.’ In an article written for ‘Bahiskrit Bharat’, the architect of the Indian constitution stated, “This movement (Dalit) is not against Brahmins but Brahminic religion.” It was no wonder that Gandhiji declared Dr Ambedkar to be a ‘challenge to Hinduism.’
From Closure of Hinduism to Moving Closer
The Dalit movement in India continued with the same fervour but was largely fragmented with ‘Periyavar’ in Tamil Nadu, a separate movement in Andhra and Kanshi Ram who founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and championed the cause. Born in 1934, with a degree in Science, Kanshi Ram’s motto was to gain political empowerment for the lower castes.
Thus, one can see stark differences and shifts in ideology, mooted for political support in Kanshi Ram’s lifetime. “Kanshi Ram came in at a time when political empowerment was essential. He did follow Ambedkar’s ideologies to a certain extent. But his focus was very different as compared to Babasaheb,” says Venkatram.
Indian journalist Badri Narayan notes these ideological differences –
Reflected in the ideologies of the BSP, the Bahujan movement is an extension of Ambedkar’s ideas. Kanshi Ram refrained from calling it the Dalit movement as he wanted to emancipate them from the vicious circle of Dalitness.
“Ambedkar provided an ethical context to the politics of Dalit liberation since morality was very important to him. Kanshi Ram chose to be pragmatic in his attempt to politically empower Dalits. Ambedkar saw the abolition of the caste system as vital for Dalit emancipation, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati favoured the awakening of Dalit and backward identities in order to link these with the Bahujan movement (see box). Ambedkar had refused to accept Manu as the founder of the caste system in India while Kanshi Ram gave Indian politics the new concept of ‘Manuvad’. Kanshi Ram always kept in mind Ambedkar's motto that political power was the master-key for Dalit liberation and that acquiring this master-key should be the Dalit war-strategy. But he used to say that Ambedkar learnt from books while he had learnt from his own life and people.”
The ideological differences between Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram come into view from their backgrounds. While Ambedkar studied at the Columbia University, Kanshi Ram was born in a poor village in Punjab and learnt about politics in schools. Though the seed of Dalit movement was sown in Maharashtra, it was nurtured in Uttar Pradesh. Though Kanshi Ram always tried to follow Ambedkarism, he said, “He used to gather books, I collected people.”
Aiming for the Red Fort – The Rise of Mayawati
In his final speech at the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar pointed out many dangers that stand before the young. Prominent among them was worshipping great men. He said, “Bhakti (worship) in religion may be a road to salvation of the soul. But bhakti in politics is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
BSP leader Mayawati, who loudly claims to be a follower of Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, seems to be the person Ambedkar had warned us against.
While Ambedkar constantly feared the lack of belief in the constitutional methods (calling it the grammar of anarchy), Mayawati played a hide and seek game with the apex court of the country. She continued building memorials of Dalit leaders (including her) despite being told by the court not to go ahead. The cost of the venture was estimated to be around Rs. 3,000 crore.
Daughter of a lowly clerk, Mayawati grew up in a shanty Dalit house in Uttar Pradesh, a relatively backward state in India. At a time when Dalit women were not even allowed to speak, Mayawati spitted fire at public meetings about the conditions of Dalits as a school teacher. This got her noticed by Kanshi Ram and the rest is history.
Today, the upper castes fear her rise and wouldn’t want Mayawati’s crude ways to be showcased internationally if she becomes the Prime Minister. While the lower castes support Mayawati in every way - as the fiery slogan goes, “Auron ki majboori hain, Mayawati zaroori hai.” (It's the misfortune of others, Mayawati is indispensable)
After making her place in the history textbooks by building memorials, Mayawati’s next aim is the iconic Red Fort in New Delhi. In a recent rally at Kasturchand Park ground, Nagpur, the former UP Chief Minister told her supporters, “You must ensure a big victory for BSP in the next general elections so that I can deliver Independence Day speech as Prime Minister from the Red Fort.”
The Prime Minister traditionally delivers the Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Red Fort.
In a perfect situation Mayawati as Prime Minister would be an incredible gain. Women and Dalits have been oppressed for centuries and Mayawati would represent both these classes. A symbol of what democracy can achieve in a country. But her autocratic and unprincipled ways whitewash this perfect scenario.
If we were to plot a graph on the functioning of the Dalit movement in the country, it would be a downward slant. Though leaders like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati claim to follow Ambedkar, the visionary’s dream of a ‘complete overhauling’ of the Hindu society and Hindu theology remains unattained. He did much of it by promoting inter-caste marriages, supporting Dalit entry into temples, encouraging them to enter into politics and fighting for equal rights.
Ambedkar had a light hearted attitude on religion (he fed mutton to his students at a death memorial), conventions seemed irrelevant to him (he wanted his wife Ramabai to be dressed in white instead of traditional green one at her funeral ceremony since it was her favourite colour).
If even one-fourth of Ambedkar’s vision could be attained by India today, the sweeper’s son next door would have been able to walk down the road with his head held high.
The fight continues.
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