Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why we must adopt Ambedkar’s tactics in fighting foes

In its first days, the anti-corruption movement was also a skit. The set, which was a raised platform that had a thin white mattress, was inspired by the freedom movement. The plot, too, of course, which was that one man would go on an indefinite fast and big crowds would come to watch. The leader of the movement, Anna Hazare, displayed some of the mannerisms of Gandhi, like the thoughtful tilt of his head. His lieutenants played their roles by crawling on to the stage to whisper things in the leader’s ear, as major figures of the freedom movement did to Gandhi. There was even a man on stage who looked dressed up like Swami Vivekananda.

At times, ordinary Indian life, too, is a skit. People unknowingly imitate actors from iconic cinema. In many video clips, drunk Indians, including upper-class women, who are threatening cops or security guards are actually hamming film scenes. Indians not only pantomime but also borrow the morals of historical figures and film classics. Gandhi’s technique of protesting authority, for instance, and his glorification of austerity have seeped into Indian life. But in the giant skit of modern Indian life, there is a historical figure who does not feature enough—B.R. Ambedkar. He is rarely imitated and his techniques of fighting stronger foes are almost never used by Indians.

It is true that his fame has grown since his death because the power of upper castes in deciding whom Indians should adore has receded. In fact, this month, yet another book about him was released. In Ambedkar: A Life author Shashi Tharoor points out that today only Gandhi statues outnumber those of Ambedkar. “A measure of his stature is that his and Gandhi’s are the only two statues on the grounds in front of Parliament." But modern India’s tribute to Ambedkar is more decorum, perhaps even an apology to the way India tormented him throughout his life. No one thinks of Ambedkar in terms of life hacks, but his story is full of them. And we have squandered them all these years by merely worshipping him.

His most important method of fighting, an umbrella strategy that accommodates other techniques, is this: in a fight against a formidable foe, align with another formidable force. Then promote your ally as the future, improved version of your foe.

The Hindu religion made Ambedkar “an untouchable", an expression that he used freely to describe himself, though modern upper-caste people tend to display a certain proxy-sensitivity to the term. Ambedkar did not just relinquish the Hindu religion, he aligned with an equally formidable force—Hindu culture. He made a show of considering a conversion to Christianity, Islam or Sikhism and then rejecting them because he was not convinced they were any better than the Hindu religion. In the end, the leader chose Buddhism because it was Hinduism without all its wounds. “Buddhism was," Tharoor writes, “a kind of Hindu Protestantism."

In other spheres, too, Ambedkar used the strategy of countering foes with formidable but modern forces. He countered Hindu practices by invoking the finest insights of the West. To him, Westernisation was not a form of subjugation to a dominant culture, but a way of punishing ancient India. Also, he countered the political clout of north Indians and Hindi by pushing for English as the single language that can unite the whole nation. For the same reason, he also overrated south India: “There is a vast difference between the North and the South. The North is conservative. The South is progressive. The North is superstitious, the South is rational. The South is educationally forward, the North is educationally backward. The culture of the South is modern. The culture of the North is ancient."

Maybe he did not know enough about the South, but this view suited him in neutralizing the power of his political rivals.

He took on Gandhi. We are often told they had “ideological differences", which is another way of saying nothing. Historians can be lame transmitters of human psychology. It seems more probable that Ambedkar’s disenchantment with Gandhi had something to do with a turf battle. Gandhi, an upper-caste male, was India’s most influential social reformer but he had endured none of the indignities of being “an untouchable". Imagine if the country’s most influential feminist were a man. Whatever the reason for their friction, Ambedkar countered Gandhi too by aligning with forces that were as formidable as Gandhi, but futuristic. It was not a person, as no one else back then could match Gandhi’s stature. So Ambedkar aligned with the great moral idea of the modern city. He dismissed Gandhi’s romance of the village and the idea that the unit of governance had to be the village. In fact, Ambedkar said that the Indian village was the fountainhead of India’s social cruelties. Also, to counter the influence of Gandhi, Ambedkar aligned with another modern force: the Indian Constitution.

Ambedkar said that India would be at risk of losing its independence again if Gandhian tactics of protest through civil disobedience were allowed to continue in free India. Once freedom had been won, Ambedkar said, everyone had to follow the law. He dismissed Gandhian protests as “the grammar of anarchy". Yet, in Indian politics, it is this grammar that has emerged as the primary technique.

Why Gandhi is pantomimed more than Ambedkar might have very little to do with their castes, and more to do with what is easy.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’ 

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