A battle for Indian caste hero’s legacy

India is marking the 124th birth anniversary of its first law minister. Political parties are trying to draw voters by claiming that they share the values of B R Ambedkar who fought caste discrimination, Foreign Correspondent Samanth Subramanian reports

Members of the Shri Guru Ravidass Welfare Society place flowers around a photograph of Indian social reformer, B R Ambedkar to mark his 124th birth anniversay in Amritsar on April 14. AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // India’s political parties are vying to lay claim to the legacy of BR Ambedkar, an icon for Hinduism’s oppressed castes and the architect of the Indian constitution, whose 124th birth anniversary was celebrated across the country this week.

Ambedkar, who played an active role in India’s freedom struggle, became the first law minister when the country won independence from Britain in 1947. But he is best remembered for standing up against the social discrimination that members of his Dalit caste – or the untouchables – faced from elite Hindus.

India’s parliament marked Ambedkar’s anniversary on Tuesday, the date of his birth. In the central hall of the parliamentary complex, where Ambedkar’s portrait has hung since 1980, legislators across party lines gathered to pay tribute with floral garlands.

Outside parliament, however, it has been every party for itself, each one seeking for themselves Ambedkar’s grand stature and the reverence with which he is regarded by India’s Dalits, who number more than 200 million.

In the hierarchy of Hindu castes, Dalits fall at the very bottom. Considered “untouchable” for many centuries until the practice was outlawed when India became independent, Dalits were restricted to working in professions considered impure, such as leather tanning and human waste removal.

Although Dalits have since been able to access greater economic opportunities, they still face social stigma today, particularly in rural India.

However, “in electoral politics, Dalits have been growing more and more assertive as a voting bloc”, said Peer Mohamed, an independent political analyst based in Chennai. “The numbers are huge, and if they vote together, they can make or break elections now.”

But part of these political claims to Ambedkar also lie in the rediscovery of his legacy, Mr Mohamed said. For decades after his death in 1956, Ambedkar was “nearly in oblivion, in terms of popular knowledge about him. Only recently has a wealth of literature about him and his story begun to be published”.

Despite being the son of an army officer, Ambedkar found himself asked to sit outside the classroom during his schooldays in Madhya Pradesh, because of his caste. He was the first Dalit to enter Elphinstone College in Bombay in 1908. Until then, Dalits had neither the education nor the economic resources to attend college.

Ambedkar went on to study economics at Columbia University and read for the Bar in London, before returning to India to practice law.

His active agitations against the practice of the Dalits began in 1927. After India became independent, Ambedkar was named chairman of the committee to draft the constitution, even while he served as law minister in prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress government.

At a Congress party event on Tuesday, PC Chacko, a senior Congress leader, emphasised that Ambedkar “will always be remembered as a Congressman, and his visions of social inclusion will always remain the motto of the Congress”.

Mr Chacko accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of trying to usurp Ambedkar’s legacy for the purposes of attracting Dalit votes.

The BJP, for its part, issued new books and pamphlets about Ambedkar this week. Two of its senior leaders, Amit Shah and the home minister Rajnath Singh, addressed rallies of party workers in Patna on Tuesday, dedicating their speeches to Ambedkar’s memory.

On Monday, prime minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone of a new, 2 billion rupee (Dh7.3bn) centre that will promote Ambedkar’s philosophies of equality and social justice in New Delhi.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the nationalist Hindu organisation that is an ideological ally of the BJP, called Ambedkar a "nationalist Hindu". An editorial in the RSS publication The Organiser projected Ambedkar as a "misunderstood national leader" who admired "the complete absence of caste discrimination in RSS camps".

“If there is one word whose pursuit and practice can end all manner of discrimination, it is Hinduism,” Suresh Joshi, an RSS general secretary, said on Tuesday. “That was Ambedkar’s vision: to leave caste aside, identify with Hinduism, and end discrimination.”

However, Mr Joshi did not mention Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in October 1956, just two months before he passed away. In a formal ceremony, Ambedkar and roughly 500,000 of his followers chose to practice the Buddhist faith because it was not weighed down by Hinduism’s caste hierarchies.

“Even though I was born in the Hindu religion, I will not die in the Hindu religion,” Ambedkar said in a speech the day after he converted. “This oath I made earlier; yesterday I proved it true. I am happy; I am ecstatic! I have left hell – this is how I feel.”

On the same day, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, founded specifically to represent the state’s repressed castes, criticised the Congress and BJP for appropriating its hero.

“Other parties do drama of celebrating Dr Ambedkar’s anniversary in a grand manner but they never bothered to give him due respect in his lifetime,” Mayawati, the chief of the BSP, who goes by only one name, said at a rally in Lucknow. She was speaking at a giant memorial, in which Ambedkar sits on a throne much like the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC.

The Congress and the BJP “always resented Ambedkar” and they were now using his memory to reach out to Dalits as a vote bank, Ms Mayawati added.

Other state-level parties also hastened to tie themselves to Ambedkar. In Bihar, the chief minister Nitish Kumar called his party, the Janata Dal [United], “the true believers in his faith”. The BSP’s rival, the Samajwadi Party, which runs the government in Uttar Pradesh, counter-intuitively declared December 6, Ambedkar’s death anniversary, as a new state holiday.

Political analyst Mr Mohamed admitted that these moves were opportunistic, but said he welcomed them nonetheless.

“If any sort of belated acknowledgement of Ambedkar’s legacy is happening now, it is to be welcome, and it shows that we’re in a vibrant democracy, and that parties feel the need to be in touch with grass roots India,” he said.

“And if it is all just rhetoric, then it will become apparent quickly. Voters will learn to figure that out.”