Insurgent Ambedkar and a New Moment in Politics

Both the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) events were “ultra-Left movements” also involving a small section of “jihadis”, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley contended on Sunday.

In the case of JNU, the predominant section of those involved in the agitation was “ultra-Left” barring a small section of “jihadis”, who had their faces masked during a demonstration on the campus on February 9 in which anti-national slogans were raised, Mr. Jaitley said.

The name of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was “unfairly used” in the case of HCU, where protests erupted after the suicide by research scholar Rohith Vemula, he told PTI. (emphasis added. See full report in The Hindu here)


Ambedkar at the barricades, Express photo, courtesy Tashi Tobgyal
Ambedkar at the barricades, Express photo, courtesy Tashi Tobgyal

Ambedkar has become an insurgent figure today, breaking out of all the pre-set molds in which he was sought to be confined all these decades. He is no longer neither a mere Dalit leader, nor is he simply the Constitution-maker and constitutionalist who taught us to have faith in the law – the two comfortable and domesticated roles in which he has been presented to us so far by all interested parties and the powers-that-be. In the face of the new Sanghist/ fascist assault, he has broken his chains to come out on the streets, as universities and colleges across the country begin to reverberate with his spirit of rebellion. Ambedkar, the name and the face, is ubiquitous by his presence in all the struggles that mark this moment. Even as the struggle of the HCU students for justice for Rohith Vemula continues and the news of the first victory – their release on bail – trickles in, the figure of Ambedkar at the barricades gives the lie to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s claim above: that HCU and JNU movements were ‘ultra-Left movements’ and ‘jihadis’, and that “the name of Dr Ambedkar was ‘unfairly used’ in the case of HCU. How easy it would be, Mr Jaitley, to thus pronounce the dog mad and go about your business, and how embarrassing to have to confront Ambedkar facing your police and lathis, your courts and prisons.

Mr Jaitley, you are wrong once again. Ambedkar is no longer a name you can confine in your convoluted history books, it is a battle cry that has taken its stand against injustice and chicanery. Jai Bheem-Lal Salam have become conjoint slogans of this moment when the Ambedkarite legacy itself has moved rapidly to become the voice of universal resistance. Marx often said that the proletariat could not achieve its own freedom without liberating society in its entirety. Nothing of that sort seems to have happened but certainly, into the second decade of twenty-first century India, it is increasingly becoming clear that the Dalit liberation struggle will be that struggle, one which will eventually break the sham unity that was foisted in the name of the Nation under brahmanical hegemony during the course of the anticolonial struggle and liberate even the upper caste self from its secular delusions. Dr Ambedkar had written in his writings on democracy, that entire societies cannot be put behind bars and that law alone would never ensure the liberation of the Dalits; that in the final analysis, it would have to be the ‘moral conscience’ of society that would have to step in. This ‘moral conscience’ was his name for a thorough-going cultural-intellectual revolution in society that would draw sections of the non-Dalit, upper caste and bahujan masses also into its fold. This is the moment of that cultural-intellectual revolution and names of Ambedkar-Phule-Periyar are inscribed on the banner of this revolution.

A New Moment

This is a moment of coming together in which the mutual irritants and allergies between the Left, the feminist and the Dalit movement have not gone away, but it is a moment of coming together, nevertheless. A moment of coming together, as never before. A point of clarification however, is in order here. It is not that the Dalit movement is moving close to the Left movement (and the women’s movement) that it has stridently criticized all these years. It is indeed, a new stirring on the peripheries of the older Left and women’s movement, mainly among students who have been shaped by their engagement with the discourse of the Dalit Bahujan movement. On the other hand, the Dalit movement too does not stand where it has been for quite some time now. It too has been decisively moving in a leftward direction by its own internal logic and its need to connect with urgent question that concern us today, beyond questions of identity. Questions of identity have not gone away but they are now articulated alongside a powerful challenge to the symbols of upper caste cultural hegemony. A quick glance at some of the recent milestones of the last few months may be worthwhile here.

Universities and institutions of higher learning today are in revolt – against attempts to reduce the university to a factory for the production of mindless automatons – either in the service of the neoliberal/ corporate machine or of a mind-numbing, virulent Hindu nationalism. If the neoliberal wants universities to churn out people who would become cogs in the corporate machine, Hindutva forces seek to turn all educational institutions into factories, mass producing pre-programmed Hindu nationalists who will eat, read and love only as prescribed.

But there is an air of desperation among the hitherto powerful, since, for the first time in India’s long history, universities are throbbing with the new energies produced by the entry of those who have long been excluded from the domain of knowledge. As masses of students from Dalit and Bahujan backgrounds or from really poor families enter these hitherto heavily guarded fortresses, panic buttons are pressed in a bid to protect the privileges of the dominant. With their arrival, new questions and new perspectives challenge these institutions. The old common sense that has till now dominated many of these institutions is thrown into crisis, received notions of nation and nationalism are interrogated.

Recall the withdrawal of recognition to the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) by IIT-Madras in May 2015. This institution has seen a number of right-wing organizations ranging from the RSS shakhas to groups like the Vivekananda Study Circle, operating without restrictions. However, within a year of its formation, the APSC was faced with a notice of ‘de-recognition’, following a complaint by RSS students to the MHRD and the latter’s suspiciously prompt response. The MHRD letter to IIT-M raised the matter of ‘the distribution of controversial posters and pamphlets in the campus’ and ‘creating an atmosphere of hatred among students by one student group’ and also disaffection against the Prime Minister and ‘the Hindus’.

This is eerily the very pattern that is repeated later in University of Hyderabad, where the attack, once again prodded by the MHRD, is on members of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) leading eventually to the tragic suicide by Rohith Vemula. There again, the proactive intervention of the MHRD, following provocation by the ABVP, led to the suspension of Rohith and his comrades for indulging in ‘antinational’ activities. Subsequent developments, with the orchestrated return of the Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile, widely held to be responsible for what has been termed as Rohith’s ‘institutional murder’, and the police violence that was unleashed on students further amplify this logic. ASA’s relationship with Appa Rao has been hostile and tense in the past as well, given Appa Rao’s casteist orientation. As one report put it:

In 2002, however, a fight between some ASA members and three hostel wardens – one of them being current Vice Chancellor Appa Rao – had led to the rustication of 10 students. “The trigger was that the wardens had moved a Dalit student off his duties in the hostel mess and asked him to look after sanitation instead,” said Satyanarayana. “A heated exchange took place in which the students broke some furniture and there was a physical fight.”

The fallout of the fight angered ASA even more – 10 students were expelled permanently, even though university rules allowed expulsion only for a maximum of two years. This led to a massive agitation involving supporters from outside the university as well, and the students were eventually able to return to classes after two years.

 What happened in JNU was not very different insofar as the essentials of the script go. It was the same bogey of ‘antinationalism’ that was and is being raised there – and this time it was not just the MHRD but the Home Ministry as well, that intervened – in order to frame students for sedition. The pattern itself suggests that there was more to JNU than meets the eye – and some of this became evident in the way some television channels were pressed into service for creating an atmosphere of paranoid witch hunting. And lest we forget, two of the five students whom the police want to frame are Dalits and some others from very poor backgrounds.

It is worth noticing that in all these cases, the Ambedkarite students have been talking not merely about their ‘own’ issues of caste discrimination but have also taken up issues that are not of immediate concern from an identity perspective. Thus the APSC in IIT-M had been organizing discussions on issues like coal bed methane exploration project in the Kaveri delta, GM crops, labour law changes and language politics, just as the ASA in Hyderabad University had been raising the issue of capital punishment in the Yakub Memon case, as well as questions regarding the state of minorities (the screening of a film on Muzaffarnagar violence being one of the immediate points of conflict with the ABVP). In other words, in all these cases we see the emergence of a new kind of Dalit politics that is decisively moving in a leftward direction. It is this that has caused panic. It is this that haunts the likes of Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley.

From this it should not be understood, however, that other issues of culture and identity have become any less important. A case in point is the issue of the worship of Mahishasur as a counter-cultural symbol to mainstream Hinduism. It is an index of how much of a microcosm of India JNU is, that even such marginal beliefs and practices find a place there. The coming of age of Dalit politics also manifests itself in this significant bid to create a counter-cultural canon from symbols that have been consigned to oblivion as far as the mainstream is concerned. It is this feature of JNU that has also opened up possibilities of cultural re-education of the Left groups as well, making us all aware of the immense diversity that is India. It is this that Hindutva nationalism cannot digest.


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