Raosaheb Kasbe, a former professor of political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, is a leading scholar on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Dalit movements in India, and is best known for his seminal work, Ambedkar ani Marx (Ambedkar and Marx), in which he tried to correlate the works of Ambedkar and Karl Marx. In an interview in Nashik, where he now lives, Kasbe spoke about the ongoing fight for Ambedkar’s legacy between various groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Congress. Edited excerpts:
Both the Congress and the RSS, with which Ambedkar had political as well as ideological differences, are trying to appropriate his legacy in the year of his 125th birth anniversary. How do you explain this?
Let me explain this with an anecdote. When (Maharashtra) chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was expanding his government for the first time, a Dalit legislator, Rajkumar Badole, was sworn in the cabinet. After taking the oath, a tradition in Maharashtra requires the oath-taker to recite salutations like Jai Hind and Jai Maharashtra. Badole also added Jai Bheem to it. This is a salutation normally associated with the Republican Party of India—the party that Ambedkar wanted to form, but died before its formal announcement—or those who are active in the Dalit movement, and not someone who is shaped by RSS traditions. This clearly shows Ambedkar is revered not only by Dalits, but across ideologies, including the RSS, Congress and even Naxalites. In the recent past, many young people arrested by police in urban areas because they were suspected to be active sympathizers or part of sleeper cells of the Naxal movement are from the Dalit community.
But the RSS is going beyond this. They are trying to project Ambedkar as a messiah of Hindus, who saved Hinduism by converting to an Indic religion like Buddhism and not Semitic religions like Islam or Christianity.
There is nothing new in these attempts of the RSS. The attempt to project Ambedkar as anti-Muslim or anti-Christian missionaries by quoting some of his writing out of context and then falsely propagating that he sympathized with the RSS and its world view have been going on for very long. One can find these attempts even in the writings of late Dattopant Thengdi, who was associated with the RSS since the organization’s early years.
But there is a problem for the RSS, too, when it tries to appropriate Ambedkar. It doesn’t know how to deal with Ambedkar’s modern world view based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. If it starts claiming it believes in these principles, then it will drive away its core support group who still believes in Chaturvarna, if not in the caste system. It outsources this work to groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
VHP leaders, attempting to keep their following, make outrageous statements on the caste system, women’s rights, conversion and so on. But the RSS is a clever organization; it does not hesitate in denouncing VHP’s statements if the need arises and trying to project itself as different from it.
The RSS won’t be able to internalize Ambedkar till they give up their core belief that there is a need to rewrite the Indian Constitution. They believe there is hardly anything Indian in the Constitution and it is nothing more than an attempt to cover constitutions of various Western countries with an Indian garb.
Why then are the RSS and the BJP able to attract so many other backward classes (OBC) and Dalits to their fold?
Sooner or later this dichotomy is going to explode in the RSS’s and the BJP’s face. Last year, during his campaign rally in Kochi, Narendra Modi, who is the OBC face of RSS, said a very interesting thing. He said the 21st century belongs to OBCs and BCs (backward classes or Dalits), but I wonder how well his statement was received by the Brahminical leadership of RSS. At present, one can only say it is trying to use OBCs to gain control over political power.
Some radical Dalit activists try to point out various instances of disagreement between Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, and try to portray Gandhi as the prime enemy of Ambedkar and Dalits. In support of their argument they point to the Poona Pact because of which Ambedkar had to give up his demand for a separate electorate (for Dalits) due to Gandhi’s fast unto death and also Gandhi’s belief in the Chaturvarna system. Yes, there were differences of opinions, but one can hardly call them each other’s enemy. In fact, on many occasions, both have been complementary to each other.
On the issue of separate electorate, initially Ambedkar also did not support the idea of a separate electorate and was in favour of reserved seats for Dalits. But the Congress rejected this demand. So in retaliation, Ambedkar hardened his stand and demanded a separate electorate for Dalits, and then 1932’s communal award was declared and Dalits were given separate electorate and 76 seats in the central legislature. To protest this, Gandhi started his fast unto death in Pune.
Ambedkar had to eventually negotiate with Gandhi and Ambedkar emerged as the winner as he walked away with 176 seats as against 76 seats in the central legislature. But those who do not care to read history or those who know facts very well, but still want to twist facts for their own political or ideological reasons, try to project that Gandhi and Ambedkar shared some kind of animosity and that Gandhi was against Dalits.
How has globalization affected the upliftment of Dalits in India?
It has had both a positive and negative impact on the Dalit community. Today’s Dalit youth, whose parents benefited from reservations in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, were ready to ride the wave of globalization when the doors of the Indian economy were opened in the 1990s. But globalization itself reduced the role of the state in Indian life, so job opportunities in government sectors were reduced. Dalit youth, who are first-generation graduates or postgraduates in their families, are finding it hard to get jobs in the government.
How can one make today’s digitally empowered generation aware of Ambedkar’s legacy? They are mostly divorced from caste realities in India.
This is true to some extent in the case of the youth in a few big metros who received education in elite institutes and for whom English is the first language of communication and not their mother tongue. But one can’t generalize this about all urban youth. But even so, there is a need to present Ambedkar in a different way to today’s youth. Most of them are aware of him as the father of the Indian Constitution, but they don’t know he was a modernist who advocated rapid industrialization and urbanization. He believed urbanization and industrialization were the first steps in making India a casteless society.
He was in favour of technology, and if this aspect of Ambedkar is highlighted, he will be embraced by the young.