It was a sunny day in Shimla. A tall and slim spectacled old man, wearing a brown checked coat with a colourful t-shirt passed by. His posture was erect and gait confident. He had a bunch of stories to tell – about his interactions with B.R. Ambedkar. He called himself Bhagwan Das.
Navayana has republished his memoir, In Pursuit of Ambedkar, and has made a small documentary based on the series of interviews that Das gave to him. Bhagwan Das was one of those rare Ambedkarites who had met Ambedkar in person. He was born in 1927 into the sweeper (Bhangi/ safai karamchari) community. His community faced severe discrimination. Indeed, during the British rule, the community maintained a separate religion for themselves. They followed the teachings of a mystic saint called Lal Beg, and called themselves Lalbegis. Though Lalbegis were neither Hindus nor Muslims, their social life was slightly tilted towards the Islamic culture in north India.
Das first met Ambedkar in Shimla in 1943 at the age of sixteen. At that time, he was a member of the Scheduled Castes Federation. After twelve years, when he was a mere matriculate, Das got the opportunity to work with Ambedkar as a research assistant. The hunger for knowledge encouraged him to pursue degrees in political science and law later in the mid-1970s.
Das learnt Urdu during his school days and had to experience caste discrimination at the hands of his schoolteachers from the tender age of four. He also served at various positions in Royal Air Force.
In the book, Das mentions a number of anecdotes about his interactions with Ambedkar. The iconic leader stayed with his junior colleague, named Mustaq Ahmed Gurmani, during his first stay in Shimla – the then summer capital of British India. Ambedkar preferred simple food but was particular about clothing, maintained a massive collection of books in his personal library, was a voracious reader and was very open to fresh ideas and arguments. Interestingly, Das’s father used to call Ambedkar ‘Umeedkar’, which means ‘harbinger of hope’.
Let me quote two anecdotes which show the expertise and wisdom alike of the great minds of Ambedkar and Das. Once Ambedkar saw a copy of Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species with Bhagwan Das. Ambedkar told Das, “Darwin came up with the theory of the survival of the fittest, but I don’t agree with it.” To this Das politely interjected and said, “Darwin did not come up with the theory of the survival of the fittest. He only wrote that species that fail to make adjustments with the changing environment become extinct.” Babasaheb was visibly impressed with this nuanced reading and appreciated Das.
Another time, Babasaheb, after finding out that Das was writing a book on his own community, remarked, “Oh, sweepers came into existence only after the Muslims came to this country.” Almost all his associates agreed to this. Das respectfully differed and replied: “If it is true that sweepers came into existence after the coming of the Muslims, how come we find them mentioned in Buddhist texts (like I’Tsing)?” A few days later Das showed him the book by I’Tsing (I-Ching), and Ambedkar not only readily corrected his mistake but also encouraged Das to quickly finish writing the book.
What drew me towards Bhagwan Das was his sensibility towards other communities. Reading In Pursuit of Ambedkar (Nayavana, 2010), it was hard to believe that the book was first published in 2004, in Hindi, as a short autobiography. Das seems much more relevant now.
We are witnessing increasing attacks on all vulnerable groups – religious minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists), women, Dalits, and Adivasis. Neoliberalism has flowed into India through the stream of Hindutva. RSS wants to ‘civilise’ Dalits and tribals by calling them Hindus. Why was Ambedkar so firm in his stand that Hinduism is perpetual humiliation for Dalits?
Das opines that religion is an important social institution and finds Hinduism to be just another side of Brahmanism – a social philosophy where one has to accept the supremacy of Brahmins (and other savarnas). Brahmanism also entails a practice of untouchability and sexual subjugation (caste endogamy) of women to maintain the caste hierarchy. For these reasons, Das finds Hinduism obnoxious for any self-respecting Dalit.
Das, following Ambedkar’s footsteps, converted to Buddhism in 1957. He abhorred the term Valmiki and preferred being called a Dalit. He argued that Hinduisation was an attempt by the RSS to counter the consolidation of the larger Dalit/Buddhist social groups to prevent them from acting as a strong pressure group. Brahmanical forces, like the BJP, are countering this Ambedkarite assertion by pitting Hindu SCs against Muslims.
Hindutva politics projects Muslims – and Christians – as the primary enemies of Hindus. Hindutva propaganda creates the binary of Hindu versus Muslim. All third parties like Buddhists, Lal Begis, Ravi Dasis, etc. are rendered to be Hindus. While Ambedkarites talk about the importance of upward social mobility through the path of education, Hinduised SCs are tricked into continuing their traditional occupations.
A shot in the documentary film shows Bhagwan Das and S. Anand, the editor of Navayana, entering a museum where Ambedkar’s photos are exhibited. After a guard asks them to their remove shoes, Das laments about how even Ambedkar was being Hinduised by the government.
Das passed away in 2013 but his words and works are with us eternally. Towards the end of his Hindi autobiography (aptly titled Baba ke Charanon Mein), he writes:
“Ambedkar didn’t want to make Buddhism a monopoly of the untouchables. He saw it as a means to spread brotherhood and humanity in the world. It is crucial to rethink his teachings in the light of present-day realities and build a progressive and free society.”
At a time, when Hindutva forces loom large, his life and works deserve a wider audience.
Zeeshan Husain is an independent researcher working on society and politics in Uttar Pradesh.