Seeking Babasaheb Among His People

Where can one find Ambedkar? Does it make sense to look for him in the hallowed grounds of academia or in political ideologues?

B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Ajay Tallam/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Ajay Tallam/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Our memories are like objects stashed away in an old storehouse, in the hope that they can always be retrieved in the future. Any act of remembering is akin to going through one’s accumulated belongings of many years, where the frustration of being unable to locate the intended object is matched by a commensurate joy in making a serendipitous discovery. Reading Ambedkar: The Attendant Details put together by Salim Yusufji at Navayana evokes a similar feeling.

The B.R. Ambedkar we meet here is a collage of multitudinous images refracted through the prism of those whose lives he touched in one way or another: men and women who saw him in the flesh and knew him in many little ways. Like the Tamil writer Bama says in the introduction to this volume, “We learn of his love for books, his speed in reading, his fortitude to bear sorrows, and his unceasing hard work. While the many voices that speak to us in this book have tried to portray him as larger than life, he frequently insists – to them, and us – that he is just another person.”

The following account is not a review of the book so much as my attempt to add to this panoply of images. To stay true to the anecdotal style of the book, I have culled incidents which, though not personally witnessed by me, have managed to gain an afterlife in the storytelling repertory of old relatives. The task of weaving a fabric of free-flowing narrative from disjointed memories may prove a tall order and the patching together of these disparate incidents can, at best, yield a quilt-like structure – the warmth of which, I hope, would compensate for any lack of continuity.

Childhood influences

Ambedkar was an integral part of the medley of characters that came alive for me during bedtime stories. As in any Maharashtrian household, I was raised on the legends of Shivaji, Tanaji Malusare, Baji Prabhu Deshpande and their ilk. Ambedkar seemed to me an odd figure in this company. As I heard of the heroics of the Maratha warriors with wide-eyed admiration, my naivety prevented me from understanding how the mere act of drinking water (from the tank in Mahad in 1927) or entering a temple (1930) was supposed to match the valour of slaying an Afzal Khan or recapturing the Kondhana fort.

To make matters worse, my mother’s insistence that I emulate Ambedkar’s example of studying 18 hours a day reduced the likelihood of my developing an admiration for him. I would have much preferred joining the Maratha army to ward off the marauding Mughals, instead of spending hours at a study table reading in deep solitude.

On annual visits to my ancestral home in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, I became acutely aware of Ambedkar’s presence. Entering my maternal grandfather’s house, I would be greeted by a photograph of Ambedkar, looking imperious on the wall, alongside another of my grandmother. I started out believing that he was a family member. In hindsight, I realise that he was and is much more than that.

But Ambedkar’s persona did not remain enclosed in photo frames. His presence loomed large even amid the most quotidian details of our lives. I am reminded of an incident my mother intermittently recounts from her childhood. A cousin of hers was subjected to my grandfather’s tedious catechism about what he wanted to be as a grown up. To someone who lived in a family of clerks and police constables his reply – ‘I will become a constable’ – shouldn’t have been surprising. Instead, it was met with a resounding slap across the face. My fuming grandfather barked at the child, ‘A constable? NO! You will be a big sahib! Say it!’ The cousin was allowed to leave only after he had snivelingly assented to the change in career plans.

For long I have dismissed this event as merely another instance of elders being abusive towards children. I still hold that view. Perhaps my grandfather’s gruff behaviour was a crude attempt to hammer into the child the ambition to aim for greater things. Thankfully, I must add, my grandfather has been kind enough to spare me the benefits of his career counselling services.

A lasting presence

My paternal grandfather, whose six-foot-tall frame always looked stern, was in the army. It was not uncommon for people from the Mahar caste to join the military. In fact, during British rule, it had turned into an alternative occupation which helped the Mahars attain a life of dignity. Every time he returned home on his annual leave, he had to cover a distance from the bus station to the Dalit settlement which lay on the outskirts of the village. He would deliberately hire a tonga although he could easily reach the Dalit settlement on foot. He would not have it any other way.

Armed with his dapper suit and a suitcase, visibly proud, he would sail past the upper caste settlements. He was aware of the risk of inviting the ire of the caste Hindus but the symbolic act of defiance was more important to him than mere convenience. At times I wonder if he knew of the incident from Ambedkar’s life when a collective refusal by tonga drivers to ferry him forced his Mahar hosts to find a driver from among themselves, leading inevitably to an accident. Most probably my grandfather didn’t. But there is an element of poetic justice to the story. The tongas that once refused to carry the erudite barrister had finally relented to take aboard the brash military officer .

So far there have been no female protagonists. A vignette about my late maternal grandmother would perhaps meet the brief. As the mahaparinirvana divas (Ambedkar’s death anniversary) inched closer, a stream of visitors would visit the chawl in Kolhapur where my mother lived amidst all the bustle of a joint family. The visitors would be treated to a sumptuous breakfast and lunch would be packed for them. Why, you may ask. They were people on their way to the Chaitya Bhoomi in Mumbai to pay obeisance to Ambedkar.

Chaitya Bhoom in Mumbai. Credit: Anannya Deb/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Chaitya Bhoom in Mumbai. Credit: Anannya Deb/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As my grandmother with her Zen-like calm went about the business of cooking meals for everyone, my mother – supported by her father – mocked her enthusiasm over these trips. The father-daughter duo did not spare even the visitors, who despite their dire financial straits would still insist on visiting Chaitya Bhoomi, and asked them why it was necessary to travel so far for purely symbolic purposes. Unable to bear it, my grandmother retorted, ‘If we don’t visit Chaitya Bhoomi how will the world know that Babasaheb still lives in our hearts and his movement remains strong. Educated people like you don’t understand this.’ Then, pointing to the visitors, she added, ‘But these people do.’ These profound words of hers are a standing rebuke to those of us who merely pontificate from the comfort of our homes without making any significant contribution of our own.

Also read: The Hinduisation of Ambedkarism

Such instances reflect the unwavering faith that Dalits have in Ambedkar, and his messianic status among followers. Recently, a photograph, purported to be that of Bhimabai (Ambedkar’s mother), was being circulated on WhatsApp. On being shown that picture, my maternal great grandmother peered at the mobile phone as if trying to leave an imprint of the image on her mind. Satisfied, she joined her hands in a namaskar and with a lump in her throat said, “Mother! What good deeds did you commit in your past lives that you had the honour of giving birth to a son like Babasaheb? Where would we be without him? We will forever remain in your debt.”

My reaction to dismiss this as an old woman’s prattle was contained by a sudden surge in admiration at this deep sense of devotion that neither the violence of caste nor the ravages of time have managed to corrode. It struck me, in retrospect, that these moments symbolise a clash of two different world views; the former belonging to that of an illiterate old woman whose faith has kept her going through what has been a harsh life, while the latter represents that of young man whose sheltered existence affords him the luxury to be critical of such boundless devotion – a luxury that he owes to the innumerable men and women like her. The former is notorious for its propensity to slip into fawning admiration while the latter runs the risk being reduced to ivory tower activism. Is it possible to locate a golden mean between hero-worship and inert skepticism?

The following is a letter taken from Janata Patratil Lekh edited by Arun Krishnaji Kamble, in which this debate unfolds and is settled in Ambedkar’s response. I have translated the letter from its original Marathi and am presenting it in just its bare essentials.

An Answer to a Letter from a Matang Youth

Respected Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar,

The reason behind my writing you this letter is to demand clarifications on certain issues and seek answers to a range of questions that have plagued me for a long time. I expect you to respond honestly to the letter. If you do not respond, I would bear in my heart a thousand times more contempt towards you than you did towards Gandhiji when he chose to ignore, out of arrogance or contempt, the 17-page letter you wrote to him before leaving on a foreign trip.

I belong to the Matang caste of the Marathwada region under the Nizam state and, being the first person to receive education I consider myself obliged to think upon the future of my community. I do not write this letter to you as a student but as someone who aspires to be a leader of my community in the future.

(He goes on to further outline the reasons behind the animosity between the Mahar and Mang – or Matang – communities.)

Out of sheer superstition the mahar community considers you as God incarnate and worships your photographs, deluding themselves by thinking that no one like you could be ever born again. I find this abject surrender of the critical faculties despicable and will never let the mang community emulate this example.

If you aspire to become a leader of the untouchables at the national level and agree to the conditions that I have set, I am willing to come under your tutelage. In your speeches you have expressed an anxiety regarding what would happen to the movement after your death. Let me assure you that I will follow in your footsteps and make every effort to take the movement forward. If I don’t get a reply from you within fifteen days I will assume that our paths have diverged, never to meet again. Thus I expect you to elucidate your views on the issues that I have raised in an elaborate manner.

Yours truly,

Devidas Namdevrao Kamble

The following is Ambedkar’s response to the letter:

Dear Devidas Namdevrao Kamble,

I am humbled by being referred to as ‘respected’ by you. When the Mahars do the same there is nothing extraordinary about it, since there is nothing uncommon about Mahars praising a Mahar. On the other hand, you referring to me as ‘Respected Babasaheb’ suggests a deep sense of regard which one cannot express in words.

I am not sure who has misled you into thinking that it was Mr Gandhi’s refusal to respond to my letter that is the cause of my antagonism towards him. Let me assure you that there are other reasons for my differences with Mr Gandhi, a lack of response to my letter is not one of them. Many people, like you, write letters to me. I have never attempted to respond to all of them, which invariably hurts their sentiments but they never despise me because of it. They are aware that I am submerged in work day and night. I do not idle away my time in luxuries such as the theatre and the cinema hall. I am subsumed by my hobbies; reading and social work. And unlike Mr Gandhi I do not have a secretary. I have to personally carry out my own tasks.

First and foremost I must congratulate you for raising two crucial issues. Your attempt to draw attention to the growing tendency within the mahars of worshipping me is praiseworthy. I urge you to put into practice your resolve to not let the Mang community follow this example. Hero-worship degrades humanity. I am an ardent supporter of equality. My appeals that I am no God, no Mahatma seem to have fallen on deaf ears. It is undoubtedly a great cause that you have undertaken. I must, however, inform you that your approach towards this issue seems constricted. You must extend this crusade against hero-worship even to the Mahar quarters. It would undoubtedly be a great feat if you succeed in this endeavour. If you think that your success might bring the specter of hero-worship to your own self then fear not. The practice of worshipping individuals like you can never be as detrimental as that of worshipping me.

Yours truly,

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

After decades of relative neglect, Ambedkar seems to have finally breached the academic fortress, a fact reflected in the stream of seminars and courses now being offered on him. That an entire cross section of the political class would develop an intense feeling of ownership of Ambedkar would have been difficult to predict only a few decades ago, or for that matter his meteorological rise in university campuses and academic discourse. The demands for a Bhim Rajya compete simultaneously with the political project of a Ram Rajya. In a perverse way, his new importance in the political discourse of the country shows how he has become a tool that political parties across the ideological spectrum deploy to suit their own convenience.

Credit: Nicolas Mirguet/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ambedkar. Credit: Nicolas Mirguet/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When one is confronted with such a haze of distortions and superficial gestures, where does one find Babasaheb? Should one look for him in the hallowed grounds of academia where he has finally, if grudgingly, been extended a place of honour? Or should we locate him in political ideologues, who waste no opportunity to sing paeans to Ambedkar, while simultaneously trampling on the principles that he stood for? In the former sphere he becomes a safe constitutionalist figure who is stripped of the fiery passion which defined him, while in the latter he mutates into an empty symbol, waiting to be imbued with meaning.

Since no answers are to be had here, where must we seek him?

You will find him in his own words as he gently prods the Mang youth in the right direction. My paternal grandfather’s haughty insistence on travelling in a tonga and wearing a suit will probably give you a glimpse of Ambedkar himself. You can seek him in the enthusiasm of my illiterate grandmother – and many women like her – in enabling people to make their way to Chaitya Bhoomi.

Babasaheb lives among them.

Rohan Kamble is doing his MPhil in the Department of English in Delhi University.