Rahul Gandhi’s speech at a function to release a book The Dalit Truth: The Battles for Realising Ambedkar’s Vision on 9 April 2022 has gone viral and the media has once again trained its guns on him. The Jawahar Bhawan Conference Hall, where the function was held, was filled to capacity. The invitation for the event, issued by the Congress, said that the release would be preceded by a panel discussion. Some of my friends were attending the function and I decided to go there to meet them. I also hoped to renew my acquaintance with a few others. I thought that the occasion would help me understand how the Congress viewed Ambedkar and what future plans the party had with regard to Dalits.
Congress workers from different states formed a majority of the audience and most of them were from Delhi and from parts of Haryana and Rajasthan bordering the national capital. The members of the board of Samruddha Bharat Foundation were seated in the first row. Sevadal workers were trying to manage the crowd. By 10.30 am, the hall had no seat to spare and the organizers initiated the panel discussion. But as it invariably happens at political events, “intellectuals” were given a short shrift. For one, the audience was not interested in listening to them. They wanted to hear their leader speak, for that was the reason they had been brought there. They were just not interested in an intellectual discourse. Secondly, they were tasked with raising full-throated slogans at regular intervals, which they did with great enthusiasm. The usual practice is for participants in a panel discussion to conclude their remarks within two-three minutes. Once the top guns arrive, the panel comes under pressure to wind up its proceedings. The VIPs take the front row and the intellectuals are pushed to the back. This VIP culture, of which the Congress is the progenitor, still pervades our political system.
The topic of the panel discussion was, ‘Fashioning a new Dalit politics to combat Hindutva’. It was an important topic. But the gentleman conducting the discussion reduced it to discussion on the Congress and the Dalits. It was mentioned how the Congress had done ‘so much’ for the Dalits and the panel members were left to ponder on how the Dalits could be brought back into the Congress fold. Congress leader Rajesh Lilothia anchored the discussion and the panel members included Bhanwar Meghwanshi, Anurag Bhaskar, Jignesh Mewani, Poonam Paswan and Pranati Shinde, among others.
I felt that the Congress had lost a big opportunity for bringing Ambedkarite intellectuals to the fore. The discussion was supposed to be centred on Dalits but the focus shifted to the “BJP versus Congress” debate. One of the questions posed by the person anchoring the discussion was: “Why have the Dalits drifted away from the Congress?” One panelist said that it was because “we do not market our work” and this needs to be done aggressively. Another worthy opined that the Dalits comprised many communities and that the focus shouldn’t be one or two of them but the others as well. When the subject of the growing aspirations of the Dalit middle class came up, it was said that besides political representation, they also wanted land reforms. The moderator repeatedly tried to get the participants to discuss why Dalits were not opposing Hindutva and what should be done to draw them back into the Congress camp. The topic was very relevant but instead of discussing it honestly and dispassionately, an attempt was made to reduce it to a dialogue focused on one party. Moreover, the topic demanded that the speakers be given more time to present their views.
Rahul Gandhi arrived immediately after the panel discussion was over. K. Raju spoke for about five minutes after the release of the book and then Rahul Gandhi rose to speak. It is sad that Rahul’s speech, which has gone viral, had little to do with the real issues. His intentions may have been pious and he is definitely a cultured, thinking person but his speech wasn’t proof of his maturity. He came off as a person who wanted to prove how concerned he was about the people but the message he sent out was definitely negative. He talked about the 2016 incident in Una, Gujarat, and described his visit to the place. But his reference to the incident in Una, in which members of a Dalit family were flogged by self-appointed gau rakshaks (cow protectors), was incomplete and so was his message. He said that when he met the victims of the Una incident, he discovered that a number of them had attempted suicide. He then went to the hospital where they had been admitted to meet them. When he asked one of them why he tried to end his life and why, instead, he didn’t kill the perpetrators of the crime, the man replied that had he killed the culprits, he would have been a Dalit in his next birth!
Rahul Gandhi also said that he met a BJP MP and asked him whether he believed in rebirth. The MP said he didn’t. Then, Rahul asked him that if didn’t believe in rebirth then how could he revere Lord Ram? The MP did reply but requested that what he said should not be made public.
No one knows what Rahul Gandhi wanted to convey but his utterances did provide enough ammunition to the Sangh brotherhood’s troll army. What is the relation between believing in rebirth and having reverence for Lord Ram? Even if there is such a relation, who is its relevance to Dalits? And most importantly, how would the Congress gain politically from all this?
Is this communication gap or historical baggage?
Rahul Gandhi delivered a longish speech on The Dalit Truth: The Battles for Realising Ambedkar’s Vision but it lacked substance. His two stories did not provide any answers; they only exposed his confusion and ambiguity. The story about Una was meaningless. He spoke from his heart but the Dalit issue is not limited to them getting hold of a patron. It is about them being allowed to make their decisions on their own and the right to put forth their views. The truth is that not only Rahul Gandhi but the Congress as a party has adopted a very condescending attitude on the issue. Jignesh Mewani could have told Rahul as to how many times Congress workers had visited Una. The Una Dalits protested and their protest was powerful and vociferous. They abandoned their traditional occupation and opted for new ones. In May 2018, eight victims, along with their families, embraced Buddhism as a mark of their protest.
Does Rahul Gandhi realize that the Dalits are not only protesting against Brahmanism but they also want a share in state power? Ambedkar’s name was cited at the event only for formality’s sake. Rahul could not explain what the Dalits really want.
The event made it clear that the Congress was incapable of adopting Ambedkarism. Two women panelists, who probably were from the Congress, protested when one of the panelists proposed that Ambedkar’s pictures be put up at the Congress headquarters and his contribution acknowledged and hailed.
Jignesh Mewani did say that the aspirations of the middle-class Dalits needed to be noted but most Congress leaders feel that they just need to “struggle for the Dalits” and to show the community how the party cares for them.
The way the Congress leaders talked about Dalit issues, including their representation, showed that they were either cut off from the ground reality or didn’t want to accept it. The Congress and Rahul Gandhi need to realize that they not only need to understand the Dalits’ demand for adequate representation but also act to make it a reality. The OBCs, the Adivasis and the minorities also want their due representations. The Congress should understand that today’s India is different from the India that existed before the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. Today, you cannot afford to unravel the Dalit problem without taking recourse to Ambedkar and his understanding of it. The time when the Congress could garner votes in the name of Babu Jagjivan Ram is history. There are few who are enamoured of the idea and the Congress definitely cannot get Dalit votes in the name of Babuji. The shenanigans that Narendra Modi has indulged in to establish his proximity to Ambedkar are no secret. But the Congress is not even demonstrating the desire to do so.
A lost opportunity to understand Ambedkar
Rahul Gandhi did not quote Ambedkar even once to underline the danger that a Varna-based society poses. His tit-for-tat call to the Dalits was a bit off the mark. It is not something that Ambedkar ever asked his followers to indulge in. Ambedkarite thinking is not only about countering brahmanical exploitation or oppression. It is much broader. His idea of an enlightened India is inclusive, capable of delivering India from the fault lines created by the Varna system. If Rahul Gandhi and the Congress really want to address the Dalit issues, they should do away with their patronizing attitude and realize that they cannot touch the hearts of the Dalits without adopting Ambedkar and his beliefs. Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar were proponents of an alternative socio-cultural philosophy and they never advocated violence.
Rahul could have used the occasion to link Ambedkar’s thinking with Nehru’s ideology. Such a synthesis of ideas would transform India into a modern nation, which is what both of them wanted to do. Ambedkar and Nehru both were builders and symbols of a modern India. They did have their differences but there were much more commonalities. Unfortunately, Rahul and the Congress have done little work in this direction and the party is yet to unconditionally embrace Ambedkar.
If you repeatedly ask Dalits why they have sided with the BJP or adopted Hindutva, it will be tantamount to questioning their understanding of politics. The Congress is yet to shun its love for the elite brahmanical class and has done everything possible to demonstrate that its policies are in line with what the Brahmins want. How then can the party put the Dalits in the dock and question them? Why is no one asking why the Brahmins, Thakurs, Kayasthas and Banias are voting for the BJP?
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)
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