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Volume XLIV, No.51

In Search of a Radical Legacy of B. R. Ambedkar

Arup Kumar Sen

Tuesday 24 April 2007


The contribution of B. R. Ambedkar to modern Indian social and political thought is immense. But, his legacy carries multiple meanings. In his discourse on Ambedkar in the 1990, Upendra Baxi lamented that even the Subaltern Studies acknowledged Ambedkar after publishing its six volumes. He identified multiple Ambedkars in the context of his centenary celebration:

…there is not one but there are many Ambedkars or there are many kaleidoscopic images. When we presume to celebrate the centenary of Babasaheb, it becomes crucially relevant to ask which Ambedkar we now choose to recall. And we must also ask: What is the moral logic of our preference?….Centenary celebrations are organised political events having distinctive ideologies of recall and distinctive modes of appropriating a historical figure for the purposes of the present.1

Baxi identified seven Ambedkars in his discourse. The first Ambedkar is an authentic Dalit who bore the full brunt the practices of untouchability. The second Ambedkar is an exemplar of scholarship. The third Ambedkar is an activist journalist. The fourth Ambedkar is a pre-Gandhian activist. The fifth Ambedkar is in a mortal combat with the Mahatma (Gandhi) on the issue of legislative reservations for the Depressed Classes. The sixth Ambedkar is the Constitutionist involved in the discourse on transfer of power and the processes of Constitution-making. The seventh Ambedkar is a renegade Hindu, not just in the sense of the man who set aflame the Manusmriti in Mahad in 1927 but in his symbolic statement on converstion in 1935 and his actual conversion to Buddhism in late 1954.2

The end of Ambedkar’s life is remembered by the masses of his Dalit followers for his conversion to Buddhism along with nearly a million Dalits in Nagpur.3 Vasant Moon’s narrative on Ambedkar’s funeral ceremony noted:
Lakhs of people had come to Mumbai by whatever means they found…Ten lakhs or thereabouts of people paid their last respects…The funeral pyre witnessed thousands of people enunciated in the Buddhist religion.4

Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism still carries emanicipatory meanings to the Dalits. On Dassehra day this year—the day Ambedkar converted—people from several nomadic and denotified tribes embraced Buddhism at Nagpur.5

Babasaheb Ambedkar is one of the ‘weapons of the weak’ in their struggle in everyday life. He is viewed with reverence in the untouchable quarters of the villages and the slums of the cities:
Statues of Ambedkar are found everywhere : bronze images with ‘Padma Bhushan’ emblazoned on the base in Rajasthani towns he never visited, and where the Dalit movement has arisen; crude plaster busts equipped with heavy black spectacles in slums; life-size Ambedkars standing outside the Buddhist areas in Vidarbha as if to guard them…6

Ambedkar’s symbolic existence in the Dalit struggle is evident in the following story from Tamil Nadu. In 1994, in Karanai village in Chengai district, Dalits installed a life-size statue of Ambedkar on a piece of land owned by a Dalit but somehow transferred to a higher caste. The statue was installed as an assertion of legitimate right over the land. The statue was pulled down the same evening. Five days later, thousands of Dalits protested, only to be met with beatings and arrests. Two well-known political figures in the Dalit community, Ramvilas Paswan and Prakash Ambedkar, came to announce the reinstalment of the statue on the anniversary of his death, December 6. More upper-caste and police response followed, resulting in one death. But the struggle continued and a Dalit priest, Father Yesumarian, continued to put up Ambedkar’s statues on Dalit lands, as late as January 1997, to reclaim the fields for Dalits. 7

At the beginning of the 21st century it seems that any vision of radical politics in India is incomplete without having a dialogue with the radical legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar. n


1. Upendra Baxi, ‘Emancipation and Justice: Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Legacy and Vision’ in Upendra Baxi and Bhikhu Parekh (eds.), Crisis and Change in Contemporary India, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1995, p. 124.
2. Ibid., pp. 124-130.
3. Gail Omvedt, Dalit Visions, Orient Longman, 1995, p.51.
4. Vasant Moon, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, National Book Trust, India, 2002, p. 219.
5. Rakshit Sonawane, ‘A Conversion in Nagpur’ in The Indian Express, October 13, 2006.
6. Eleanor Zelliot, ‘The Meaning of Ambedkar’ in Ghanshyam Shah (ed.), Dalit Identity and Politics, Sage Publications, New Delhi, p. 129.
7. Ibid., pp. 130-131

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