As Dalit assertion is taking shape and Dalit power is being manifested, the relationship between Dalits and their icon, B.R. Ambedkar, is being discussed publicly for the first time. And for the first time ever, he is being acknowledged by the mainstream society in India as the second greatest Indian, which is really amazing considering the fact that this section of society had mostly a negative assessment of Ambedkar, as someone who was responsible for tearing up the safe cocoon the privileged people of the country had spun around themselves by gifting themselves the superiority of caste and every other privilege that followed as a consequence of this division.
For the oppressed and the excluded commu-nities, Ambedkar was a saviour, showing them the path to liberation. The question that is being asked by both the supporters and critics of Ambedkar is: is the icon is being turned into a prophet by his followers? While this question is bothering quite a few, for many others, the question is superfluous because the answer is obvious. They are celebrating that, at last, due recognition is being accorded to India’s foremost thinker, visionary and emancipator. For them, in their mind, Ambedkar has been a prophet for quite a while. The new development is that they are admitting it now publicly, unapolo-getically, without fear of being ridiculed since they are learning to assert themselves. This assertion is the gift of Ambedkar to a people who have been, for aeons, treated worse than animals, considered less-than-human, enslaved and exploited mercilessly. The Dalits are rising and, quite logically, the status of their guru, Ambedkar, is being re-evaluated.
Let us take a look at the socio-economic situation in which the 200 million Dalits are placed today. Eightysix per cent of Dalits are landless; 80 per cent of them live in the rural areas; 60 per cent are dependent on daily wage labour for their sustenance. Barely 37 per cent Dalits are literate. About one million Dalits do manual scavenging for a living. Almost every day, an atrocity is committed against the Dalits in some part of the country or the other, and daily they are subjected to mental and verbal abuse. Although untouchability was outlawed legally in 1950, in practice, the Dalits continue to face social and economic exclusion. They are denied access to common property like land and water and are not given equal opportunity in education and employment. When they try to assert their rights as citizens, they face severe repression from the so-called higher castes. The Dalits are massacred, their homes are burnt and their women raped. A common punishment meted out to them for crossing the path of the caste people is that they are forcibly made to eat human shit. They face social boycott or are even driven out of their village.
Mention prophet or messiah, two names spring to mind: Mohammed, the Prophet and Jesus Christ, the Messiah. It is nobody’s case that Ambedkar is in their league (although he could join them in a few hundred years, just as they rose to their status of a prophet/messiah). But the fact is that they were ordinary mortals, driven by a zeal to reform a system that had degenerated, and were imbued with a commit-ment to show a way out to an oppressed and wronged people. They came out with credos to reform the society and reset its values which won them followers and admirers. Both were ordinary mortals who made a mission of their life to bring about change in society. They succeeded in the long run, at considerable cost to their lives and their followers.
Muslims believe that the prophets of Islam were those human beings chosen by God to be His messengers. They believe that the prophets are human and not divine although some are able to perform miracles to prove their claim. In Muslim tradition, Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus were all prophets. Mohammed was the last in the series of prophets and it was he who restored the original, monotheistic faith. God chose him to reveal the Quran or revelations of God. Islamic theology says that all of God’s messengers preached the message of Islam—submission to the Will of God.
Jesus Christ, whose followers believe that he was the son of God, sought to reform the society which had become degenerate. Opposing the rigidities that had developed in the Jewish priesthood and seeking to purify the religion, Jesus propounded a way of life that was based on love, charity and humility. He too was born mortal; he was also a reformer, asking people to rebel against the atrocities, corruption and waywardness of the then rulers. Christianity has had a tradition of honouring those who contributed to the spread of the religion and its values with sainthood—our own Mother Teresa is a step away from sainthood being conferred on her. She was beatified in 2002 by the Pope. Mother Teresa is already revered as a modern-day saint by Christians from all corners and of all denominations. Mother Teresa’s tomb has been turned into a shrine with people visiting it and praying at it regularly.
Yet another reformer was the Buddha, again a mortal, who opposed the oppression of caste, discarded the rites and dogmas imposed by the Brahmins and proclaimed equality of all. His philosophy inspired millions of people for about 2500 years and his code of ethics is recognised universally. Hinduism, after driving Buddhism out of the country, conveniently incorporated Buddha as its ninth avatar of god, no less. In fact, all the reform movements in India, from Buddha onwards (whether it was Mahavira or Kabir or the founders of Sikhism), revolted against the Brahmanical value system which gave divine sanction to the caste hierarchy and untouchability.
Almost all the gods of Hinduism were mortals; they were given the status of gods by later generations. For example, Rama was mortal; so was Krishna, as was Sri Venkateswara. Indeed, the dashavatars were all mortals, from Hiranya-kasyapa to Krishna who all fought oppression, injustice, tyrannical rule and the rulers of those times. Yet another reformer who has risen to a a god-like status is Adi Sankaracharya whom we worship as a redeemer of Hinduism. He has temples in his name and his images are worshipped. He too was a mere mortal who mobilised support for Hinduism, converted and re-established Hinduism singlehandedly, or so we are led to believe by common lore, which is no mean achievement at any point in time. Two other religious reformers who are worshipped by their followers are Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya.
Coming to modern times, two leading personalities who fought for the rights of the oppressed and slaves are the American clergyman and activist, Martin Luther King, and South African icon Nelson Mandela. King is known for using the Gandhian methods of non-violence to end racial segregation and discrimination. King shook the White establishment into acceding equal rights to the long-suffering Black people of the USA. His most memorable speech, known as “I have a Dream”—which was delivered to a massive gathering of Blacks in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, the only of its kind of protest by Blacks then, on the occasion of 100 years of abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln—can be applied to the Dalits. He said: “…But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatise a shameful condition.” His words encapsulate the condition of our Dalits. Another modern-day international icon is Nelson Mandela, a hero of the native Black people of South Africa who were subjugated for centuries —first by the White colonialists and later by the White natives. Mandela endured 27 years of imprisonment and kept faith in his beliefs which led to the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa. He has come to symbolise the opposition to oppression everywhere.
When the modern Hindu reformers like Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhva-charya are worshipped by their followers, why this opposition to Ambedkar who has redeemed and continues to redeem millions of Indians/outcast Hindus? It reeks of double standards and hypocrisy: my god is a god but yours is a false god. This has been said before and will be said in future too because all those who fight the status quo are demonised, punished and even put to death. But, like our ancestors said, what does it matter if a dog barks when the king is sailing forth regally? It is so much noise, no more.
All prophets promise salvation and indeed show the way to it. Ambedkar has also done it. Millions of Dalits are finding salvation from the non-existence and meaninglessness of their lives, as had been deemed by Hinduism. Why should not Ambedkar be deified, introduced into the pantheon of Dalit heroes as a super-human being, considering his huge contribution to millions of Dalits? Why cannot he be seen as a prophet, someone who brought hope to a people who were beyond hope for centuries? As someone who brought light into the dark lives of the Dalits, someone who ensured that the slaves of the Hindu society broke their shackles and discovered the meaning of freedom? Someone who brought dignity to a people who, generation after generation, were conditioned into believing that they were the dregs of society, worthless beings who did not deserve any dignity?
Like the other prophets and messiahs and avatars (and let’s not forget that they were all mortals) Ambedkar lived by his beliefs and his lifelong struggle to fight oppression inspires millions of people today. He is their role model. Thanks to the concept of reservation that he proposed, hundreds and thousands of Dalits have got the opportunity to become individuals, if not human, once again. By any standards, Ambedkar was an intellectual par excellence. He was a reformer, a thinker, a revolutionary and a doer. His gifts of equality, human freedom and dignity have lifted this country from an impoverished nation to a power to be reckoned with. Yet he does not figure in the pantheon of political gods that are worshipped as founders and builders of modern India. But that does not matter. Because Ambedkar inspires hundreds and thousands in fighting for their rights as very few have inspired before or after him.
One of the most important contributions of Ambedkar’s life and his achievements in those dark ages towards lifting the spirits of his fellow caste-brethren is to inspire them to unshackle their mind that has, for many millennia, come to accept the shackles, the servitude imposed on them, believe that they are born only to serve the twice-born, that their existence is only of slaves. Freedom, dignity, self-respect, self-esteem, confidence were concepts that were alien and non-existent in their mind. Ambedkar broke these shackles of the mind which the first step towards shattering shattering the physical shackles.
How do these multitudes repay their debt to Ambedkar? One way is to immortalise him, not just in the privacy of their homes and thoughts and emotions but publicly, by acknowledging that he is their saviour. It is a different matter that Ambedkar was a staunch rationalist and would have perhaps not approved of the status being conferred on him by his followers today. The important point is that Dalits regard him as larger than life.
If today Dalits revere Ambedkar as a demi-god, deify him, install or demand installation of his statues in public spaces, these are all ironically in the true Hindu tradition, of finding gods everywhere and in everything, a tradition that worships (which I believe is a form of showing respect to) rivers, mountains, trees and animals, babas and ammas. The Hindus should be the last people to object to the deification of Ambedkar, of turning him into a prophet or a messiah.
The fact is that while gods create ordinary men and women, their admirers make them larger than life so that their teachings are not lost sight of, so that they are followed both in letter and spirit, so that the following generations continue to be inspired by them. Whether it was Rama or Krishna in the hoary past or Buddha or Adi Sankaracharya in recent history, they were all immortalised and elevated to a position of super-human beings for guiding the people, for being a beacon light, for being men of courage and rejecting what was against the common people’s interest. Ordinary people create prophets and messiahs out of extra-ordinary men and women. Undoubtedly, there has been none like Ambedkar in the entire tragic history of the Dalit people; none who has impacted so many, none who gave them so much confidence. And there is none who is not inspired by his extraordinary life and achievements.
Dr Akhileshwari teaches at the Department of Communication and Journalism, Osmania University, Hyderabad. She was formerly Deccan Herald’s Special Correspondent in Andhra Pradesh and Foreign Correspondent based in Washington D.C. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Mainstream Weekly MAINSTREAM, VOL LI, NO 17, APRIL 13, 2013