The Right To Revere

‘The story of the past life of the Scheduled Caste Hindus was pitch dark…It was for the first time in the history of the past twenty-five years that the sun of a better future arose on their horizon,’ thus writes Dhanajay Keer, in his biography of Ambedkar. ‘Before (his rise, Dalits) were treated worse than animals. His heroic struggle raised them to political equality with other communities in India.’

Is it any wonder then that there was such a furore over the presence of the 62-year old cartoon in the NCERT text book? Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is not just a political leader, a drafter of our constitution, a Dalit icon – he is actually beyond all that. A Buddha temple in Delhi places Ambedkar next to Buddha. To a Dalit, it should make perfect sense. Given a choice, he (she) would place Ambedkar in the middle.

Ambedkar was not the first man to protest against the caste system. He was not the first to campaign for Dalit rights. But he was the first from within the Dalit community to do so. And, no less, he was the first to reject the ‘patronising’ methods of his predecessors. Equal rights are not ‘gifts’ from the benevolent upper castes. They are the birth rights of every human being and Dalits certainly are human. The need not be ‘awarded’ rights. They should, instead, ‘assert’ their rights.

If you pay attention to the previous paragraph, you will know the difference. Gandhi called them ‘Harijan’, a patronising term, whereas the word Dalit, which Ambekar preferred, had power. ‘We are the oppressed, and now we’re taking over what’s ours. We thought we are fit only for mending broken slippers or cleaning toilets, until we saw one of us go on to receive a doctorate from Colombia University and London School of Economics and, what then, lo and behold, become the law minister of a country and draft its constitution! That Brahmin Nehru and that Bania Gandhi only became barristers. And the Dalit Ambedkar became a double doctorate!’

If you look at it from this angle, you will know how insulting this cartoon must be. This cartoon issue is being debated as an issue of freedom of expression. It is not. If this cartoon had been published in one of the magazines or books and attracted such a furore, it is understandable. This cartoon had been published in a school text book. It is worth imagining what kind of impression the upper caste students would have formed by seeing it. It is also inaccurate historically because the Indian constitution was indeed drafted in record time. Historian Granville Austin claims that the framing of Indian Constitution was ‘perhaps the greatest political venture since that originated in Philadelphia in 1787…’ and ‘a gigantic step.’ Ramachandra Guha claims that ‘Moral vision, political skill, legal acumen: these were all brought together in the framing of the Indian Constitution.’

Our children should know this. They should know that shortly before our constitution was to be drafted, a group of Americans sat in closed rooms to draft the constitution for post-war Japan. This was then ‘imposed’ on them. Ours was drafted wholly by Indians, with series of debates, with representation from all political and social groups and with full public and media glare! Our children should know the ideological, moral and intellectual spectrum of people such as Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar who steered India towards becoming a socialist, secular and democratic republic.

Ambedkar at a Constituent Assembly meeting

Ambedkar at a Constituent Assembly meeting

There were hundreds of heated debates during the framing of our Constitution. It was expected because the assembly included people who represented extreme right, extreme left, women, minorities, tribals, and even people who clamoured for village republics. It was bound to attract fiery arguments. And Nehru intended it to be like this. Yet, none of them gathered up near the speaker and shouted slogans. None of them threw the mike or chair at another. None of them used profane or objectionable word against another. All their views were heard, recorded, debated, questioned, analysed and finally accepted or rejected.

This process could not have taken place overnight. But Nehru was an impatient man, and he had a right to be. He wanted results, not debates. Vain arguments tired him. This cartoon would have been the result of Nehru’s impatience at those interminable debates and analysis of issues in the constituent assembly, and Ambedkar’s ‘inability’ to control them.

Our children should know these things. They should know that, despite their ideological and political differences, these leaders worked together towards a common goal and they were too patriotic and intellectually mature to let their differences come in the way of nation building.

This cartoon is fine as a political commentary in 1949. In 2012, it is an insult to the memory of two greatest leaders and nation builders India had at the right time. India is often called ‘Punya Bhumi’; indeed it is our good fortune that we had these two great leaders at the right moment. Thanks to Ambedkar we have a constitution and millions of Dalits have their identities restored. Outlook claimed that Ambedkar would have approved of that cartoon. Well, that was very magnanimous of him.

We don’t.