The Ambedkar of page 435

ChandraBhan Prasad

Dalits, post-Ambedkar, have never been able to add to the major rights the leader won for them. (The Bhopal Declaration is yet to be judged by history.) Up to December 6, 1956, there have been free-ships, scholarships, reservation in school and college admissions, reservation in government jobs and legislative bodies and a broad directive in the Constitution to create an egalitarian social order - that's all. And consider the limitations Ambedkar had in his time.

The Dalits' first major war of independence was won in 1932, when the issue of a separate electorate was clinched by Ambedkar. At the time, the total number of Dalits' enrolled in any form of education (and at any stage) was a mere 10.80 lakh. Today, there are 8.73 lakh Dalits enrolled in graduate and postgraduate courses alone. In 1947, 17.06 lakh Dalits were enrolled all across India. Today, there are 48.66 lakh Dalits enrolled at the matric and plus 2 levels, and another 2.88 crore at the primary level. In 1962, there were only 107 Dalits engaged in group I services, today there are 8,52,000 Dalits working with group one services. During Ambedkar's time, only a few hundred Dalits could understand or speak in English. Today, in almost every block, several dozen Dalits can. Yet, these very Dalits have failed to wage a successful battle. Why?

One could easily argue that in his time, the rulers were alien and hence, open to reasoning; which is how Ambedkar could successfully implement his agenda. This is a solid argument. Today, leave aside the ruling classes, even the most radical of the non-Dalit intelligentsia would frown at the very idea of Dalits sharing India's assets. To them, it is alright to have a non-Dalit bourgeoisie, but why should Dalits acquire that ugly distinction? After all, they are "proletariat" and hence, should remain the cause of "revolution". But then, Dr Ambedkar also clinched issues with Pt Nehru, who was also a swadeshi babu.

If Dalits ask for a little space on the edit page of a mainstream daily, they are dubbed "traitors of the revolution." If America's leading newspaper The Wall Street Journal can have 17.1 per cent journalists of ethnic or black origin, through the policy of diversity, why can't the same be done in India? But then we will be dubbed the flagbearers of imperialism. Despite a highly hostile intellectual climate, the community cannot escape its fair share of the blame.

How faulty the contemporary Dalit consciousness has been can be judged from two instances. When Arun Shourie came out with his Worshipping False Gods, Dalits all across India were infuriated. The same Arun Shourie is now presiding over the disinvestment exercise, and the community is silent. Similarly, when the Constitution review panel was constituted two years ago, the Dalits were again infuriated. Now, the commission has submitted its report, recommending the extension of reservation to the private sector; a fresh set of land reforms and social justice clearance for all group I and II officers before promotion and yet, the community has not come to celebrate this milestone; which can quite easily be attributed to the Bhopal Conference.

After the Bhopal Conference, the Left and Sangh intelligentsia were highly worried about what would happen to India if the Dalits became manufacturers, newspaper editors or professionals working with Microsoft. The same people who try and ensure their children's admission into American universities and also wrangle American seminar invitations for themselves - are blaming us of being pro-America! Marathi Dalit literature drew a substantial amount of inspiration from the American Black movement. Dr Ambedkar was also appreciative of the American Constitution, why shouldn't we quote the fantastic doctrine of diversity as evolved in the US as well?

While we were pondering over how we would counter the Left and the Sangh and argue our case about entering India's private sector, Rajashekhar Vundru came up with the idea of a new Ambedkar. He called me last week and asked me to locate volume 10 of Ambedkar's writings. I did so immediately. He asked me to open to page 435.

I obeyed. He asked me to read a small note, Closed doors in Government Contracts. While he held the phone, I read the entire text at one go. That was the most memorable day I have had ever since leaving JNU. Ambedkar had submitted that note on October 1942 to the Governor General, when he was member of his Excellency's Executive Council. That pathbreaking note asked for a Dalit share in CPWD government contracts. Which means that what Dalit intellectuals asked for in Bhopal this year, Ambedkar had also asked for 60 years ago.

The question before us is why did none of our millions of educated Dalits not glance at page 435? The Dalits have learnt about Ambedkar either from the mainstream media, which calls him a great social revolutionary (as if he had nothing to do with the economy), or through Dalits who ride mopeds or travel in unreserved second-class rail coaches, people with smaller ambitions for the community.

In the face of growing challenges, it is time the English-speaking Dalit intelligentsia took charge of the situation and rediscovered the original Ambedkar!

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