The Dalits' own April Fool
Napoleon was nicknamed April-Fish because he married on April 1. Famous American humourist Mark Twain wrote "The first of April is when we remember what we are over the other 364 days of the year." Europe and America holiday on this day, gifts and greetings are exchanged and children play practical jokes on their friends. French children paste paper cutouts of fish on the backs of unsuspecting friends and when the "young fool" discovers what has happened, the pranksters yell "Piosson d' Avril" - April Fish or April Fool.
The genesis of this festival is a curious one. In 16th century France, the New Year was observed on April 1. While March 25 was considered to be the beginning of the New Year; the festivities would go on for a week, concluding on April 1. But then King Charles IX, in 1564, decreed that with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the New Year would begin from January 1. The change travelled through official circles but the ordinary masses remained ignorant, they continued observing April 1 as the beginning of the New Year - thus being called "fools" by the people who knew better.
India's Dalits have very few festivals of their own but "April" has emerged as the month of the Dalit festivals, because their liberator and messiah Dr BR Ambedkar was born on April 14. The day begins with Jai Bheem greetings within the family and then extends to neighbourhoods. Dalits switch on DD1, where proceedings from the Parliament courtyard are telecast live. The President, Vice President, Prime Minister, members of the Cabinet and MPs garland Ambedkar's imposing statue. A large number of Dalits join in the garlanding. Phones ring, greetings are exchanged. On this day, Dalits plan their day meticulously; as in almost every locality Ambedkar Jayanti events are organised.
Thousands of Dalits then assemble at Parliament Street, where about two dozen leading Dalit book distributors display the year's publications, often focussing on the life and struggles of Ambedkar. On this day, Parliament Street also belongs to leading distributor SS Gautam of Gautam Book Centre, who has set up the Dalit Sahitya Research Foundation. Gautam's contribution towards spreading Ambedkarian literature is widely acknowledged.
April belongs to the Dalits or at least they self-consciously believe so. Thousands of newer Ambedkar statues come into being all across India. As of today, if counted, Ambedkar should have the largest number of statues made in his likeness. April is also a month of Dalit seminars, where the community collects funds on its own and organises a host of intellectual/literary events.
And listen to the deliberations! Most of them are focussed on the sufferings of Dr Ambedkar, the pains he underwent and the sacrifices he made. There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude to him for his emancipatory contributions. He must be worshipped, everybody says. But there is hardly any discourse over Ambedkar's thesis of change. The picture which emerges from the Dalits' April mood seems to say this: Dalit suffering is a thing of the past, the community stands liberated, everything is all right now; and all because of Dr Ambedkar. Then why not set up more statues in his memory and celebrate his birthday with even greater fanfare?
Peeved at this prevailing Dalit mood and their intellectual conduct, Rajesh Paswan, a young lecturer at UP's Khurja College had this to say, "Dalit children born today, when they grow up, may mistake Ambedkar to have been a man whose only vocation was statue making and perhaps, also a man expert at the art of birthday celebrations." I was stunned; Rajesh himself is a passionate Ambedkarite. He has even opened up a public library in memory of Dr Ambedkar.
According to estimates from the Union Ministry of Human Resources, there are some 3.5 crore Dalits enrolled with India's educational institutions. Barring government jobs, the Dalits really can't go anywhere else. According to the Union Ministry of Labour, the total number of jobs the State can possibly offer works out to some two crore. Of this, the Dalits can claim some 50 lakh jobs, of which 35 lakh have already been taken by them. There are about another 60 lakh educated Dalits, registered with employment exchanges, waiting for jobs. Almost every second Dalit in the "main force" is a landless agricultural labourer; hardly any Dalit can be found in industry, trade or the capital market.
The question is, where will the millions of Dalit children enrolled in schools go when they turn 20 and what about those who are already in their 20s? What about the 50 lakh plus educated Dalits whose unending wait at employment exchanges offers no hope? Why is every "April Dalit" indifferent to these issues? While European citizens fool other people at the start of April and rejoice, April Dalits fool themselves; and still rejoice.
They are not any closer to what Dr Ambedkar dreamt about and fought for. This is indeed saddening, as the community's strength is fast turning into misguided missiles!