Behind the Demolition of Ambedkar's Statues Lies a Fear of Justice

Caste has most often been the primary reason behind widespread social violence in India. A casteist nation is the real anti-national nation.

As Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 127 birth anniversary draws near, there is a concerted political mischief to desecrate his memory and his place in Indian history. After four statues of Ambedkar were demolished early last month in Uttar Pradesh, two were damaged in the morning of April 6, in two towns of Madhya Pradesh – Bhind and Satna. Two statues of Ambedkar damaged in UP on March 5 had their raised fingers broken. A statue of Ambedkar in a blue suit and tie, carrying the constitution in his left hand, was beheaded in Satna’s Civil Lines area in Friday’s incident. These symbolic attacks reflect the deep discomfort and sense of danger that a section of upper caste Hindus feel against the rising tide of Dalit movements across the country. The fact that Ambedkar is the central symbol of that assertion makes the political representation of his statues an obvious target.

Ambedkar is the chief maker of India’s constitution. But the real significance of this stature is slowly dawning upon Hindu society. Invoking Karl Marx’s “friend and co-worker”, Ferdinand Lassalle, Ambedkar acknowledged in the most famously undelivered lecture in modern history, The Annihilation of Caste, that “the makers of political constitutions must take account of social forces.” He went ahead to enforce that spirit in the constitution, where for the first time in India’s history, ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, were enshrined in the preamble of law.

These values, or principles, which were enshrined in liberal democracies after the French Revolution, had a special significance in India. Ambedkar historicised the importance of these values in a society where for centuries, social hierarchy and segregation have been the norm.

“You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste”, he wrote in Annihilation. “You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality.”

Ambedkar was aware of the momentous task at hand –  that the Indian constitution, as a foundational document of law, was meant to reconstitute Indian society with new values. The problem of the state as a law-preserving institution, as Walter Benjamin wrote in Critique of Violence, was its monopoly over violence. Ambedkar in his last speech to the constituent assembly, on November 25, 1949, aired his view that historically, “political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of a few”. The constitution that lay down “the principle of government” was meant to widen the social basis of political power, dismantling the old monopoly. The Indian state, even as it reflected Benjamin’s problem of institutionalised violence, was also supposed to fulfil the democratic task of controlling the social monopoly of Brahminical violence.

Ambedkar was, however, aware that laws by themselves cannot bring democracy in a society where a deep ‘notion’ of inequality exists. Caste is both notion and (social) law, and Ambedkar knew, formal, political equality guaranteed by the constitution won’t be enough to eradicate the social prejudice of caste. In his last constituent assembly speech on November 25, 1949, Ambedkar said, castes are “anti-national… because they generate jealousy and antipathy”.

Caste has most often been the primary reason behind widespread social violence in India. The state’s machinery is implicated in favouring the privileged castes on such occasions. When state power attests social monopoly, the question of justice is harmed. A casteist nation is the real anti-national nation.

Since Dalits have become a movement, demanding political rights that are way more than simply securing reservations, apart from making life literally difficult for them, they are also being cajoled by sops from political parties. But political bargaining, even as a legitimate means of strategy and economic mobility, does not decide the aspirations or fate of a political movement. Remember Ambedkar in Annihilation: “Stability is wanted, but not at the cost of change when change is imperative… Adjustment is wanted, but not at the sacrifice of social justice.”

The ‘Bharat Bandh’ on April 2 observed by Dalits and adivasis across the country – against the recent Supreme Court judgment which diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act – is the most recent testimony to the fact that Dalits won’t compromise their political rights.

Ambedkar had ominously warned in that last constituent assembly speech of “a landslide” (political victory?) that may usher in a “danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship in fact.” He warned of “Bhakti or hero-worship” as “a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” He warned of trusting power at the cost of enabling it to subvert the institutions of democracy. These warnings resonate with Orwellian proportions today.

For those caught up in the degradation that this ‘landslide’ ushered in, Ambedkar’s statues no longer represent the politically harmless constitutionalist. Rather, they are a source of warning, a symbol of Dalit resurgence, and a danger to upper caste hegemony. Removing Ambedkar’s head from his statue is an act of humiliation, and a violent rejection of his sovereignty. In its wider manifestation, it is an attack on Dalit sovereignty. It is an act that fears the implications of justice that Dalits seek in India’s political and social landscape. Ambedkar stood for justice, and those who attacked his statues fear the justice that would undermine their social and political privilege.

All acts of violence are logical, and aimed at reducing the potential (and possibilities) of the victim. Ambedkar is a symbol of possibilities. It hurts those who are the enemy of those possibilities. Ambedkar is a disturbing political icon who challenges the Hindu family tree of icons. They broke the raised finger of his statue in Uttar Pradesh because it demonstrates the will to challenge power. They removed his head from the statue in Madhya Pradesh because it challenges the heads they worship. But the vandals could not dislodge from his body the constitution that is held fast to his chest. The statue does not simply signify Ambedkar as a protector of constitutional law, but also of the other law –  where the social law is challenged each time a Dalit raises his finger.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi.