Bangla Sunday, September 20, 2020

Icon of Shaheen Bagh protesters is Ambedkar, not Gandhi

A portrait of BR Ambedkar at the protest site, surrounded by Indian flags.

More than a month has passed since Taskeen Ahmad, a law student from north Delhi started going every day to the protest sit-in taking place in Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi. There, the 24 year old holds a colored portrait of the Dalit icon, Dr B.R Ambedkar, as a mark of protest against the communally divisive new Indian Citizenship Law.

The Shaheen Bagh sit-in began in December last. But even after a month, the protest has not died down. Thousands of Muslim men and women who apprehend that the law is basically aimed at persecuting them further in the country, congregate at Shaheen Bagh demanding a rollback of the new law with no Ifs and buts. Shaheen Baghis now called India’s Tahrir Square. 

The on-going protests have a unique feature. Contrary to past non- violent protests which would draw inspiration from Gandhi’s non- cooperation movement, the current protests have made Dr B.R Ambedrkar -- the architect of the Indian Constitution- the central figure, a mascot, messiah and a bulwark. 

Ambedkar called by his fans with reverence as ‘Babasaheb’, sternly fought against the discrimination of Dalits or “untouchables” in India. He was independent India's first Law and Justice Minister, a major architect of the Constitution of India who secured reservations for Dalits and ensured the socialist and secular character of the Indian Union which came into existence in 1947.

Ambedkar’s differences with Gandhi are quite known. In many of his speeches and statements, Ambedkar had castigated Gandhi for his tilt towards the upper caste Hindus. 

Renowned novelist and rights activist Arundhati Roy in her book ‘Doctor and the Saint” (in which Ambedkar is the Doctor and Gandhi is the Saint), says: “The question is, can poverty be simulated? Poverty, after all, is not just a question of having no money or no possessions. Poverty is about having no power.”

“The battle of the poor and the powerless is one of reclamation, not renunciation. While the Doctor was searching for a more lasting cure, the Saint journeyed across India distributing a placebo,” Roy writes. 

She further says: “History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First it contained him, and then it glorified him. It has made him India’s Leader of the Untouchables, the King of the Ghetto. It has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence. Using the Constitution as a subversive object is one thing. Being limited by it is quite another. Ambedkar’s circumstances forced him to be a revolutionary and to simultaneously put his foot in the door of the establishment whenever he got a chance to. His genius lay in his ability to use both these aspects of himself nimbly, and to great effect.”

“Viewed through the prism of the present, however, it has meant that he left behind a dual and sometimes confusing legacy: Ambedkar the Radical, and Ambedkar the Father of the Indian Constitution. Constitutionalism can come in the way of revolution. And the Dalit revolution has not happened yet. We still await it. Before that there cannot be any other, not in India.”

For the past 71 years, Gandhi remained an iconic figure in India’s ‘pluralistic’ society, managing to secure a central theme in almost all non- violent protests. However, the present spate of demonstrations seems to refuse to dovetail into past practice. For many, India has subtly reached a point where it is craving for a doctor to treat its bruises instead of seeking solace from the saint’s hymns sunk in mystery and mythology. 

Takseen observes: “It is new India well versed with history. More than 34 percent of India’s population compromises of youth below the age of 35 years. This chunk of the population identifies itself more with Ambedkar’s modern ideas than with Gandhi who has been placed by the past generations on a citadel where no one can ever think of reaching.” 

According to Takseen, only when anarchy has begun to rule the roost, new India will recognize the real significance of Ambedkar, his struggle for equality, justice and fairplay. 

Sitting just a few rows behind Taskeen is a 52 year old woman- Shahida Bano. A home maker, and a mother of three with the elder son studying in class 12, Bano toohas Ambedkar’s portrait on her lap. She shares Taskeen’s ideas. 

For her, Ambedkar was never as pertinent in India as he is today when in the name of religion, India is being fragmented into pieces. 

“If not Ambedkar, then who? Can you go towards the main stage where there are portraits of all freedom fighters like Baghat Singh, Bismil, even Gandhi ji. But on top of all is the picture of Babasaheb. He was the true savior of India’s soul and it is only his constitution that acted as a shield for the deprived and marginalized people of India. It is him who can provide a bulwark against the swirling tides of the present time,” says Bano Praveen Mishra, a Gujrat-based rights activist says it is for the first time that Ambedkar’s presence has become so prominent and dominating. 

“Ambedkar was never into such public discourse as he is today. It means that today’s India is identifying with more with him than with anyone else. At the same time, Gandhi’s significance hasn’t gone off at all. He is very much revered and forms the core of India’s secular ethos,” Mishra said. 

Siraj Muneer, a businessman, who has been taking part in the in the on-going protests for the past 15 days terms Ambedkar the only leader who, like a compass, can steer the country in the right direction. 

“It was only him who understood Indian society so well that the preamble he wrote seven decades ago is a clarion call for today. India can only survive if its constitution is implemented in toto. Tinker a bit, you will find a veritable inferno happening. This is the reason why Ambedkar is resurrected. It looks like he will never die again and will live for generations to come,” Muneer said.