Ambedkar, Dalits & India

India observed the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar on 14th of April, 2016. As elections are going on in some of the Indian states and are scheduled in some other states within the next year, most senior politicians – among them, the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi – vied with each other in addressing commemorative meetings proclaiming their intent to carry forward the legacy of Babasaheb and fulfilling his dreams of seeing the depressed classes or the Dalits as equals in law and reality and respectable members of the Indian Society.

The politicians’ deference to Babasaheb is understandable as Dalits who regard him as their messiah, constitute about 15% of Indian population and a sizable vote bank. While the politicians would know best, I think, the electorate today sees through their motives and is guided by its own observations and analysis.

Babasaheb was born a Hindu, albeit a Dalit. However, he attained levels of scholarship and held high positions and public offices that would be the envy of even the most high born. Because of the discriminatory practices followed(including untouchablity) by Hindus against Dalits, he was perhaps the bitterest critic of Hindu religion.He often thought and talked of converting to another religion (Sikhism or Budhism)and finally converted to Budhism just about 2 months prior to his death in December,1956(at age 65).

His relations with Congress leaders, who were mostly Hindu, were not quite harmonious. Yet when the Constituent Assembly was formed after India won freedom, the Congress leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, who were equally concerned about reforms in Hindu religion, not only invited him to join as a member of the Constituent Assembly but made him the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee.

The Constitution given to India by Babasaheb with the unreserved support of the Congress, fully met with his aspirations regarding the upliftment of backward classes. It abolished untouchability, banned discrimination on grounds of caste, creed or religion and, over and above, as affirmative action, prescribed reservations for scheduled castes and tribes, for appointment to government jobs and admissions to institutions of higher learning to accelerate the advancement of these castes Thus Babasaheb was one of the few persons who are lucky enough to fulfill their life’s mission within their lifetime.(As part of Hindu beliefs, I am tempted to say that though Babasaheb kept cursing his being born as a Hindu, it was perhaps God’s design to create him a Hindu and a Dalit to carry out God’s work of ridding the Hindu religion of its ugly spots).

But of course that was in law only (though that itself was a herculean achievement). Conditions on the ground did not change overnight as traditions formed over thousands of years were involved. The process is still going on, the ball has been set rolling and the change is perceptible and in the right direction.

With reservation in government appointments and admissions to institutions of higher learning in force over the last over 60 years, Dalits have become a socio-political force in their own right,in the country, apart from their sizable contribution to the vote bank.The higher education of Dalit students is also liberally funded by the State. The law also criminalizes any slight to these castes so the higher castes are kept in their place. It is natural that they demand to be handled with kid gloves.

A somewhat unsavory consequence of this special position and the liberal laws of the country recently has been the tendency of some Dalit students in institutions of higher learning to indulge in politics to the embarrassment of the government of the day and antagonizing some other sections of the population. Hanging anniversaries of some convicted terrorists
were recently celebrated in the University of Hyderabad and JNU. When action was taken by the Hyderabad Unversity, it was sought to be turned into a Dalit issue. Similarly, the anti national activities indulged in JNU were sought to be made into issues of Dalit discrimination and violation of freedom of speech. It is a mis-use
of the special and favourable treatment intended by law for Dalits.
The Constitution did not envisage reservations as a permanent measure. It was, in fact, only intended for 10 years. It was logically assumed that with improvement in their status over time, the need for reservations will disappear. Due to the magnitude of the problem and the slow economic progress, not only the reservations for scheduled castes and tribes have had to be extended but the benefit of reservations has also been extended to other backward castes. However, this measure has to remain temporary as, at some stage, the country must be able to proclaim that it has assured equality of opportunity to all its citizens. Besides, reservations necessarily imply that the qualifying bar for appointments and admissions has to be lower for the beneficiary classes and that remains a drag on the country’s full potential. The political parties must, therefore, aim for the end of reservations at an appropriate stage.

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