Protests in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi showed a picture of India which I never expected to emerge – an India where Muslim women were protesting along with other men and women. What struck me was the presence of many portraits of Ambedkar at the site of protests. I could sense a growing relevance of Ambedkar’s symbols and ideas among the Muslims.
Since Ambedkar passed away seven decades ago, Ambedkarites, the followers of Ambedkar, have kept aflame Ambedkar’s vision and mission. My own Muslim friends and relatives are starting to acknowledge Ambedkar as a leader of all the oppressed, while earlier they considered Ambedkar as merely a leader of Dalits. Here are the three reasons, I believe, for the increasing relevance of Ambedkar among all the oppressed groups in India.
Ambedkar and the question of caste
First and foremost is the “caste question” in India. The present situation of Dalits is due to the long history of brahmanical exploitation. Suryakant Waghmore (2013) argues that it is the Dalit movement which is fighting for the proper, ethical functioning of the social and political institutions in India. The Ambedkarite’s fight for a multi-religious India emanates from the assumption that the question of caste is inextricably linked to the question of religion and communalism. Ambedkarites tell us that in the garb of Hinduism, it is actually Brahmanism which is ruling India. Brahmanical upper-caste men propagate the term “Hinduism” so that Hindu OBCs, SCs, STs and even women can be ruled. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, which would reveal the condition of the OBCs, has not been made public. There are speculations that the present condition of the OBCs is much worse than that described by the Mandal commission report (1980). Hinduism then becomes a tool to control all the subalterns – whether OBCs, women, SCs or STs – as only a handful of castes get the lion’s share of resources.
Ambedkar and the question of religion/communalism
In his seminal text States and Minorities (1947), Ambedkar argues for a member of each minority group in the Cabinet, and provisions against their social and economic boycott. Ambedkar knew the communal majority would ostracize religious minorities just like it ostracized social minorities like Dalits. Today, Muslims are actually experiencing social boycott just like Dalits and tribes, for instance, while looking to rent a house.
Ambedkarites are fighting communalism tooth and nail. We know how Dalit activists fought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the police to prevent pogrom against Muslims in Kanpur (Jaoul, 2012) and how they considered Muslims as the closest allies against Hindu nationalism (read Brahmanism) (Jaoul, Sangharsh 2017). Brahmanical sociologists, from G.S. Ghurye to M.N. Srinivas, from N.K. Bose to Andre Beteille[i], all have contributed in normalizing the sociology of Hindus as the sociology of India (I. Ahmad 2014). Eleanor Zelliot (2005) elaborates how seriously Ambedkar wanted to leave Hinduism and searched for alternatives in Sikhism, Islam and Christianity. Finally, he chose Buddhism.
The BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is playing the politics of erasing all religious minorities either through structural or physical exclusion. There is no denying that Buddhists and Muslims are the two poorest religious minorities (Thorat and Ahmad 2015). Sikhs and Christians are equally vulnerable to pogroms, despite having considerable wealth and education. Today, we have Ambedkarite leaders like Chandrashekar Ravan fighting for the rights of Dalits and Muslims. Not to forget Rohith Vemula whose group was fighting for the right of students to screen Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai (2015), a documentary film on the atrocities against Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, in 2013.
Ambedkar and the question of women/patriarchy
The issue of caste(ism) and communalism has deep roots in brahmanical patriarchy. Logically, one has to sexually subjugate women to maintain caste purity. Caste can only be annihilated if women are empowered enough to choose their own spouse (Ambedkar 1936). We see regular violence against women of religious minorities, Dalits and indigenous communities. The participation of women in the workforce has decreased over the past few years, partly because of growing unemployment due to the government’s neoliberal policies. Just see the online abuses hurled at women the moment they criticize any step taken by the BJP-led government. Anthropologist Paola Bacchetta (1999) writes how women in RSS are encouraged to accept their “womanly” roles and marry within their own (Brahmin) caste. Targeting of feminists, along with Marxists and Ambedkarites, by BJP-backed goons is becoming common on university campuses. Ambedkar in his essay “Castes in India” (1916) tells us why women must be given the full choice to marry. Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet in 1951 when Brahmins opposed his Hindu Code Bill that recognized women’s right to property and divorce. In the narrow alleys of a village in Kanpur Dehat district, Dalit activists tell fellow villagers how Ambedkar fought for the right of women of all castes and creeds to education (Jaoul, Sangharsh 2017).
Today, even as the RSS propagates the falsehood that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim, Muslim women hold placards, banners and posters with Ambedkar’s quotes, slogans and portraits. The relevance of Ambedkar is growing among all oppressed groups, including Muslims, and he has become that uniting factor. The saffron fire of hatred is being extinguished with the blue fountain of love and compassion.
Ahmad, Irfan. “Are India’s Muslims a minority?” Al Jazeera. June 5, 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/06/are-india-muslims-minority-201463122145787274.html (accessed March 29, 2020).
Ambedkar, B.R. “Annihilation of Caste”. In Writings & Speeches of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, by B.R. Ambedkar. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1936.
Ambedkar, B R. “Castes in India”. In Writings & Speeches of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, by B R Ambedkar. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1916.
Ambedkar, B R. “State and Minorities”. In Writings and Speeches of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, by B.R. Ambedkar. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1947.
Bacchetta, Paola. “Militant Hindu Nationalist Women Reimagine Themselves: Notes on mechanisms of expansion/ adjustment”. Journal of Women’s History, Vol 10 No 4 (Winter) 1999: 126-147.
Sangharsh. Directed by Nicolas Jaoul. 2017.
Jaoul, Nicolas. “The making of a political stronghold: A Dalit neighbourhood’s exit from the Hindu Nationalist Riot System.” Ethnography (Sage) 13, No. 1 (2012): 102-116.
Thorat, Sukhadeo, and Mashkoor Ahmad. “Minorities and Poverty: Why some minorities are more poor than others?” Journal of Social Inclusion Studies, 2015: 126-142.
Waghmore, Suryakant. Civility against Caste: Dalit Politics and Citizenship in Western India. New Delhi: Sage, 2013.
Zelliot, Eleanor. Ambedkar’s Conversion. New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2005.