June 25, 2023 marked the 92nd birth anniversary of India’s former prime minister V.P. Singh. A retrospective of his life and very short tenure as PM reminds one of Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s observation: “Life should be great rather than long.”
Despite having a feudal savarna background with obvious privileges, Singh’s thought and action embodied a deep sense of empathy for marginalised communities, including the women, Adivasi (Scheduled Tribes), Dalit (Scheduled Castes) and Shudra (backward classes) citizenry of India. His choice of two towering stalwarts – Ambedkar and Nelson Mandela – for the Bharat Ratna in 1990 reflects his deep commitment to the cause of social justice.
An agent of social justice
In his maiden address to the nation after assuming the PM’s chair, aired on All India Radio and Doordarshan on December 3, 1989, Singh set the tone of his intent:
“… a large number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe brethren are without even basic shelter. It will be our primary aim to ensure that they live lives of dignity and honour. The fire of hunger can be extinguished by food, but the fire that ignites the mind of the disinherited can only culminate in a revolution.”
“History has placed on the agenda of the nation the imperative of economic and social justice. Lifelong suffering is the fate of the weaker sections. Nothing is worse than a life of indignity. Social justice demands that hope must light up the lives of the weaker sections. It will be our endeavour that minorities live without fear and as equal partners of our country’s progress …”
On another occasion, while addressing a national seminar on the problems of the Scheduled Tribes, he noted that Adivasis inhabiting the country have enriched its cultural diversity with their arts and crafts, including building some of the most beautiful temples.
Nothing could have been more tragic than the same people being denied entry into those temples which they have so laboriously built. Singh drew a beautiful corollary with how Ambedkar’s portrait did not find a place in the central hall of parliament till the year he became prime minister.
Finally, as the country was celebrating Babasaheb’s birth centenary, he ensured that his portrait found a place in the sanctum sanctorum of the Indian Republic, where the Constituent Assembly conducted extensive deliberations to make the constitution. In the same vein, in one of his meetings with the chief ministers of the states, Singh had requested them to consider ways of involving the landless in the implementation of land reforms.
Singh’s legacy is dominated by one of his most momentous decisions: the announcement of the implementation of one of the Mandal Commission Report’s recommendations, which would reserve 27% of the seats in central services for OBCs.
Ambedkar had already raised this long-pending concern of the Shudra-backward class citizens in his celebrated work Who Were the Shudras (1946), and he treasured its future possibility in Article 340 of the constitution.
On August 6, 1990, a day before Singh made this historic announcement, he wrote to the members of parliament reminding them of Article 16(4) of the constitution, which mandated the states to make provisions for reservations in the appointment of backward class citizens, who in the opinion of the state, were not well represented.
Can India learn from a secular saint?
There is no denying the fact that Ambedkarism found a new lease of life following Singh’s tenure as PM. We are aware of how his tenure was cut short by right-wing Hindutva forces, which invented the ideological kamandal to scuttle the momentous ‘Mandal’ moment of social justice.
Singh refused to budge under their pressure and chose to sacrifice his government. In his post-PM years, he turned deeply philosophical, mostly engaging in poetry and painting. But he stood with a mountainous will against the communal frenzy created by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
He refused the prime minister’s post offered to him jointly by the United Front in 1996. A decade later – while he was fighting deadly cancer – in an episode of NDTV’s ‘Walk the Talk’, the host Shekhar Gupta asked him how the BJP became his “enemy number one”.
Singh calmly responded, saying that he did not have personal enemies while highlighting their hatred of minorities, particularly Muslims. He sounded not just secular but saintly.
It was only V.P. Singh’s Mandal moment that validated a constitutional category called ‘OBC’. This category found such unparalleled recognition that even those forces that stood with kamandal against Mandal started harnessing the identity of this category.
In 2014, the BJP pitched in their campaign for parliamentary elections a claim that they were the first ones to push for a prime minister belonging to the OBC category. But isn’t it ironic that a separate caste counting of OBCs is still a distant dream?
While Singh brought Ambedkar to the centre of our national imagination, the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to mainstream V.D. Savarkar by inaugurating the new parliament on his 130th birth anniversary.
Indian politics, it can be said, is at a crucial juncture. There are currently two contending visions of nationalism at loggerheads. The new generation has a momentous and significant choice to make: will they stand for Ambedkar’s democratic, secular and progressive prabuddh Bharat, or a majoritarian, chauvinistic and jingoistic Hindu rashtra advocated by Savarkar?
Dr Arvind Kumar teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, and has served as honorary joint director, Centre for Distance and Open Learning, Jamia Millia Islamia.