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Top Dalit rights leaders' call to go beyond Ambedkar, who "overestimated" urban middle classes' ability to deliver

Anand Tentumbde
By Our Representative
There appears to be a steady recognition among well-known Dalit rights leaders that the community, which continues to suffer from centuries-old oppression, needs to come out of the huge euphoria around considering India's topmost Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar as some sort of a demi-god. At least two of them -- Anand Teltumbde and Jignesh Mevani -- have openly declared that there is a need to look beyond Ambedkar.
In his new book, ‘Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva’, Teltumbde, a noted scholar and an Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad alumni, recognizes a major limitation of Ambedkar -- his urban bias. Calling villages a 'den of iniquity', Ambedkar had exhorted Dalits to migrate from villages to cities to escape the shackles of caste.
Teltumbde writes in his book, o be released early next month, "Although Ambedkar fully knew the importance of land in the emancipation of Dalits, he also knew it would not be easy to secure it for them." In fact, says Teltumbde, Ambedkar thought that representation of Dalits in the administration would help the community's advancement.
The "strategy", says Teltumbde, was that "if educated Dalits occupied important positions in the state structure, they would influence state policy and gradually bring about revolutionary changes. This was why he emphasised higher education for the Dalits and struggled for their representation in the power structure."
Pointing out that "even within his lifetime, he was to witness the failure of this method", Teltumbde regrets, "By the 1970s, a new middle class began emerging among Dalits, which found that it remained vulnerable to various kinds of discrimination. Contrary to Ambedkar’s expectations that this class would provide a protective cover for the Dalit masses, it needed to form its own SC/ST employees’ associations to protect its interests."
The scholar underlines, "Designed to be apolitical and physically detached from the rural masses, it could only work in the cultural field: by building Buddha Viharas, vipassana centres, the promotion of congregational activity, etc. which distanced it further from the material issues of the Dalit masses."
Jignesh Mevani
Pointing out that during his later days of his life Ambedkar recognized the importance to be given to the rural areas, Teltumbde notes, "Ambedkar expressed regret on this score... He said that whatever he had done benefited only educated Dalits in urban areas, but he could do nothing for the vast majority of his rural brethren. He asked whether they would be able to launch a struggle for land."
Taking the cue, Says Teltumbde, the first-ever satyagraha to get fallow land transferred to landless Dalits in Marathwada in 1953 was undertaken. "For this momentous satyagraha in which 1,700 people courted arrest, he received help from Dadasaheb Gaikwad."
He adds, "In deference to Ambedkar’s wishes, two more land struggles were undertaken following his death, both under Gaikwad’s leadership: the first in 1959 in the Marathwada–Khandesh region of Maharashtra, and the second in 1964–65 all over India... in Punjab, Madras, Mysore, Delhi, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra."
Writing in the same vein, Jignesh Mevani, Gujarat's Dalits leader, says in a recent article that there is a need to prioritise the Dalit struggles "for the real, material issues of land and resource rights, instead of getting lost and entangled in the rhetorical cycle of politics." He adds, "We need to go beyond the politics of ‘Manuvaad-Brahmanvaad Murdabad’ to look at the rights of our working classes, farmers, and our access to land ownership."
Pointing out that this is where one needs to understand the role of "icons like Dadasaheb Gaikwad", Mevani says, "My fascination for Dadasaheb Gaikwad has its roots in the failures of our own land struggle... Such has been the grip of the upper-caste, upper-class hegemony on all the organs of the state that land reforms, a programme which is in harmony with the preamble of the Indian Constitution, could never materialise."
It is from Teltumbde, Mevani says, that he learned that Ambedkar "wasn’t able to do much for landless Dalits in his life", adding, he also learned much from Gujarat's Gandhian land-crusader, Chunnibhai Vaidya, who, "unlike most other Gandhians, even at 96, was willing to trudge the villages of Gujarat for the land struggle."

Comments

Santhi said…
Good analysis pointing to the limitation of academics debate. Thanks for sharing this
First try to look beyond Congress and then talk about Ambedkar

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