Ram keeps Ambedkar company

In Allahabad’s Phulpur, Ambedkar and Ram shared the same horse-drawn carriage in a Ambedkar Jayanti procession 

The celebration of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary is no longer the exclusive preserve of political parties and city-bred social activists. The day is celebrated even in distant villages with great gusto. Tableaux, elephants and horses form part of the procession. In one such tableau, Ram and Ambedkar were seated side by side on a horse-drawn carriage. The child who was playing Ambedkar held a book in his hands that said “Samvidhan” (Constitution), while the little Ram was armed with bow and arrows. A band was playing and youngsters and children were frenetically dancing to its tunes. Many had a peg or two under their belt and that added energy to their moves. Does Ambedkar just represent awareness of the Dalits? Or is he an article of faith for them? And why Ram with Ambedkar?

The scene described above was witnessed on 14 April 2019 at Babubanj Bazar, Phulpur, in Allahabad. On enquiry, I was told that the tableaux forming part of the procession have come from ten to twelve adjoining villages. Many questions came to mind. Is this an attempt at Hinduization of Ambedkar? Or, are Dalits being Hinduized by establishing Ram along with Ambedkar as their idol? Also, why have Dalit tradition and culture been overwhelmed by the peddlers of crass market culture as is evident by the Ambedkarite songs parodied on Bhojpuri songs being played at the celebration?  This question is important for me, as the folk art form of “Nautanki” – and it was the favourite means of the Dalits for expressing their thoughts and their queries – still survives in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Why tableaux and procession on Ambedkar Jayanti?   

What is the objective behind taking out tableaux and procession on Ambedkar Jayanti? That was the question I put to Shrinath, an elderly resident of Pali village in Phulpur tehsil. Shrinath used to work as a labourer in the fields of Lekhpals, who have large landholdings in eastern UP.

Ambedkar with Ram

Shrinath explained that the trend and the times are the key reason. Just as the savarnas take out tableaux of Ram on Ramnavmi and of Shiv in the month of Srawan, accompanied by bands, so the younger generation of Dalits takes out similar processions on Ambedkar Jayanti. He said that he had never celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti himself.

Is the noisy celebration of Ambedkar Jayanti a symbol of Dalit protest against their oppression and exploitation?

In 2018, Samajwadi Party (SP) candidates won the Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha by-elections with the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). That left no doubt in anybody’s mind that SP and BSP would forge an alliance in the General Elections. Then, Dalits and OBCs took to the streets on April 2 – the day on which a nationwide bandh was called to protest the dilution of the SC-ST Atrocities Act. On 14 April 2018, the Dalits and OBCs jointly celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti. Earlier in the year, the incident at Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra had united Dalits against their oppression and exploitation.

Before this string of events, Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations were confined to the offices of political parties, academic institutions, government bodies and NGOs. It was hardly a public event.

It is a symbol of resistance

Ramji, a daily-wage labourer from Zaafarpur village, says, “In 2017, chief minister Yogi Adityanath cancelled the public holiday on Ambedkar Jayanti. The Dalits in my village felt very bad. But there was little they could do. We decided to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti together and with great pomp and show.”

Painting Ambedkar saffron: A kanwad yatri carries a placard with Ambedkar’s picture and message

Bhagauti Prasad of Dataipura village, who has contested the election for Gram Pradhan’s position many times, is a tutor by profession. He says: “There are many Dalit great men like Sant Raidas, Bhagwan Valmiki and Ambedkar. But we did not celebrate their birth anniversaries. There were two reasons for that. One, we were very poor and not in a position to contribute anything towards holding joint celebrations. Second, we did not know how to communicate with the feudal society and the feudal administrative set-up.”

Bhagauti Prasad further says: “Now, our community is educated and aware and feels that it should celebrate the birth anniversaries of our great men. In a sense, this is also a symbol of our resistance. You will notice that over the past three-four years, gods and goddesses like Ganesh, Shiv and Ram have disappeared from the marriage invitation cards of most of the Dalits and have been replaced by Ambedkar and Buddha.”

Why Ram with Ambedkar?

Most of those present did not have a convincing explanation for Ram being seated next to Ambedkar in the tableaux. Some said that Ram was their god while others said that for them, Ambedkar was on a par with Ram.

Ambedkarite songs parodied on Bhojpuri songs and inebriated participants

All said and done, it is good that even in the villages, people are raising their voice against exploitation and oppression. This was the central message of the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. But it was disappointing to note that the bands accompanying the tableaux were playing Ambedkarite songs parodied on vulgar Bhojpuri songs and that some people were drunk. But the enthusiasm of some Dalit youth and children could only be seen to be believed. The volume of the sound system could have been lower so that instead of being subjected to ear-piercing music, the people could have heard the message of Ambedkar.

Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil


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The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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