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'Patronising attitude, lost opportunity': Congress Dalit meet ignores Ambedkarism

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

Rahul Gandhi’s speech on the occasion of the release of book ‘Dalit Truth’ edited by Dr K Raju, and published by Penguin India, has gone viral. The darbari media has launched an offensive against him while BJP trolls have started picking up hole in it.
The Jawahar Bhavan conference hall, where the book was launched, was completely packed. The invite that had come from the Congress was that the book launch would be preceded by a panel discussion. I decided to go as I felt it was an opportunity to understand what the Congress thinks about Dr BR Ambedkar and what is its future planning related to the Dalits. I returned disappointed. It was a half-hearted and symbolic attempt to reach the Dalits.
The audience inside the auditorium had a majority of Congress workers from different States but predominantly Delhi and bordering areas of Haryana and Rajasthan. There was lot of commotion, as a large number of Congress leaders were present there, particularly from the scheduled caste community. There were some board members of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, who sat on the front row. Seva Dal volunteers were visible managing the crowd.
The topic ‘Forging a New Dalit Politics to Counter Hindutva’ was important, but the moderator converted it into an issue of how Dalits could be brought back to the Congress fold. The claim was, the Congress had done so much for them. The event was moderated by Congress leader Rajesh Lilothia and included Bhanwar Meghwanshi, Anurag Bhaskar, Jignesh Mewani, Poonam Paswan, Praniti Shinde, among others.

A lost opportunity

I felt that the Congress has lost a great opportunity to bring Ambedkarite intellectuals into the forefront. The attempt was to provide space to Dalits, but the context was to convert the debate into BJP verses the Congress, as if this is the only issue needing space.
The questions posed by the moderator was, “Why Dalits drifted away from the Congress?” The response by a woman panelist was, “We do not market our work and now need to do it aggressively.” Another worthy said, there were so many communities among Dalits and the Congress must not focus on one or two communities alone. There was also talk of growing aspiration of Dalit middle classes which need representation and land reforms.
The moderator’s attempt was to convert the entire issue as why Dalits are not fighting against Hindutva and what should be done to bring them back to the Congress. During the entire debate, there was very little reference to Dr Ambedkar. It was forgotten: In any event anywhere in the world related to Dalits, Dr Ambedkar remains the most talked about person. Indeed, large sections of Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis now realise the phenomenal contribution of not only Dr Ambedkar but also Phule, Periyar and Birsa Munda.
Rahul arrived at the venue when the panel discussion was in the last phase. When he came to the stage, the panelists were asked to go back. Board members of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation were brought in the front row. Dr K Raju, editor, “Dalit Truth”, spoke for about five minutes to give details of the book.
Rahul rose to speak after that. His speech, which has gone viral, was disconnected. He did not utter a word about the book. Neither did he find it important to congratulate the editor and the authors. His intentions may be good (he is definitely a well-behaved person), yet the statements that he made were not by a mature leader.
They came more from a person who wanted to prove how much he cared for the people but without understanding the vast Dalit Bahujan movements. He narrated the incident of Una and how he went there, there but the narrative about Una remained incomplete.
The problem with Rahul is his inability to communicate with the Hindi-speaking masses. He is perfectly well with English-speaking people and his communication is far superior and well-articulated, but in the Hindi heartland his communication needs to come out of his long pauses. In the television age, you need to put your message straight and try to develop a connect with the people.
Rahul said, when he went to see the family of the Una victims, he found that a number of youngsters had attempted to commit suicide, hence he also went to meet them in hospital. He tried to speak to some of them. He wanted to ask them as to why they attempted suicide.
Rahul said, if any person attempting to suicide after watching his sister or any other family being traumatised should normally be expected to revolt and respond in the same language to the oppressor. However, this is not happening. He asked one of them as to why did he attempted suicide instead of giving it back to the perpetrator; the boy replied, he was afraid of being killed him as he was a Dalit.
He appeared to say that Dalits can’t get angry with the upper castes because they are too religious or believe in the karma theory. One may agree that the karma theory has hurt the marginalised the most, but he must not forget that the Dalits have also responded democratically and culturally. The whole movement of Dr Ambedkar was not on playing on the pitch of Brahminism but create own way of life. Navayana was the way forward. Those who have followed Buddhism have shown the way.
Rahul condemned untouchability and rightly said that India is the only country where this problem exists, adding, it is a disease. However, he failed to identify the cause. He said, once he asked a member of Parliament from BJP if he believed in punarjanma – life after death. The reply was in the negative. He then asked the MP, if he did not believe in punarjanma, how come he believed in Lord Ram. The MP replied, he would not like to make his view public.
One does not know what Rahul wanted to communicate. What is the relationship between punarjanma and faith in Lord Ram? And even if there is some relationship, how is it connected to the issue of Dalits? And how is it going to benefit the Congress?

Communication problem, burden of history

Rahul gave a lengthy speech on Dalit truth, but he lacked substance. He could have asked Jignesh Mewani, who led the Una movement in Gujarat, to speak instead. The Dalits in Una protested and it was big protest. They left their traditional occupation and opted for new work. In May 2018 many embraced Buddhism as a mark of protest, including the seven who were flogged by the Darbar community goons in Una, and their families.
Dalits may not be very powerful in Gujarat as they constitute merely 7% of the State population, hence violence against them never became a political issue in the State. Though the Una incident became a big international news. politically it was not found useful to snatch power.
Dalits face tremendous mental agony in Gujarat because their numerical strength is low and they do not get any support. The Hindutva model is making them economically dependent. Resistance has become difficult for them. Economic boycott has been a powerful tool of the caste Hindus against Dalits as well as Adivasis.
The mainstream social narrative in Gujarat never allowed Ambedkarism to reach the villages. Political parties rarely raised their issues. But still the Una incident compelled the Dalits to understand Dr Ambedkar and Buddhism.
Given the nature of the event and its framework, it was clear that the Congress as a whole has not been able to embrace Ambedkarism or the Ambedkarite ideology. This happened despite the fact that a woman panelist categorically spoke about the need to put Dr Ambedkar’s photographs in Congress headquarters and respecting his contribution.
Jignesh Mewani spoke about middle class Dalit aspiration and the need to respect it, but most of the Congress leaders appeared to pledge that they would fight for Dalits as they cared for them. One need not ignore the fact that two UPA governments not only tried to undermine the reservation policy but promoted rabid privatisation. Narendra Modi is just taking these issues much further.
There was a time when the Congress had number of leaders from Dalit, OBC, Adivasi and minority communities. But things have changed. Gone are the days when the Congress could get votes in the name of Babu Jagjivan Ram. Modi has used every opportunity to portray how much he ‘respects’ Dr Ambedkar; the Congress lacks that sophistry. During the book launch ceremony, Dr Ambedkar’s photograph was kept on one extreme side side of the stage.
Rahul gave a lengthy speech on Dalit truth, but he lacked substance. He could have asked Jignesh Mewani, who led Una movement, to speak
Rahul could not quote Dr Ambedkar to reflect upon the crisis in the varna (caste) society. His attempt to tell the Dalits to do a ‘tit for tat’ was whimsical. Ambedkarism is not merely a philosophy of responding to the Brahminical exploitation or oppression, but much bigger than that. The idea of Prabuddha Bharat is an inclusive philosophy that can take India further away from the fragmentation caused by the varna system.
If Rahul and the Congress really want to speak about Dalits and their issues then it is important for them to get away from the patronising approach and understand that without Dr Ambedkar and his ideas, they can’t reach them. He could have used this opportunity to bring in ideas of Ambedkarism which will make India a modern nation, as Jawarhalal Nehru had wanted.
Both Dr Ambedkar and Nehru remain giants and icons of modern India. They have more commonalities, and though the differences have been there, they definitely had may points of in common. Unfortunately, Rahul and the Congress have done little in this regard.
The Congress needs to survive. It can become the voice of all the marginalised. It must remember that Dalits have their own parties in many places and there is nothing wrong when autonomous leaderships emerge from among them. 
The Congress needs to open up channel with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and allow the latter to have a bigger share in Uttar Pradesh. A coming together of the Congress and BSP would have helped the party in other parts where BSP does not have the presence but Ambedkarism exists.
Unfortunately, Congress’ Dalit outreach looks Brahminical in nature. In places like Telangana, BSP’s Dr RK Praveen Kumar is working extremely hard to bring Dalits to BSP. Outside Uttar Pradesh, Telangana is the State where BSP is showing signs of recovery. This is clear from Dr Praveen Kumar, who recently launched a mass campaign and traveled all nooks and corners of the State.

In poor taste

Rahul’s statement on BSP chief Mayawati – highlighted in media – reflects his poor understanding of the situation. To claim that Mayawati did not fight elections because of the fear of Enforcement Directorate (ED) and CBI is an extremely poor judgment.
There is no doubt that BSP lost its battle in Uttar Pradesh, as in the perception battle even among the Dalits it was not fighting the elections. Be that as it may, it was not good on the part of Rahul to make such remarks, as BSP technically still performed much better than the Congress. It got nearly 12.5% vote share against Congress’ pitiable 2.3%.
To suggest that the Congress would have liked to make Mayawati ‘chief minister’ is too patronising. If Akhilesh Yadav had made such kind of statement, one would trust him, but how can the Congress which has still not given up its love for the Brahminical elite, do it?
It is shocking that nobody is asking as to why the savarnas – Brahmins, Thakurs, Kayasthas, Banias – are voting for BJP. The Congress is unable to understand that Brahmins and other savarnas are not going to come back to its fold, and without understanding of Ambedkarism with open heart, it won’t move ahead. The Congress needs serious introspection about its dwindling vote bank.
To be fair to Rahul, he must be complimented for raising ideological issues in the Congress, but is that enough? The Congress’ downfall started in 1980s when Indira Gandhi returned to power after the Janata experiment failed. The flirting with Hindutva started since then. Most of the Congress leaders lacked political ideology and party suffered.
The assault on Golden Temple in 1984 and then the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi gave Rajiv Gandhi huge mandate, but defeated India. The Congress’ experiment of making the minorities villain was used by BJP in Gujarat in 2002. The party was more focused on getting to govern and less on party cadre building.
Rahul would do well to investigate on the performance of UPA-II, particularly P Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee, Manish Tiwari, Kapil Sibal, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma etc. and look at their performance. Congress created a monster in 1980s in the form of Bhindarwale, and in the year 2012 it magnified Anna Hazare, because it felt that encouraging Kejriwal and Anna would cut BJP’s vote. But it was too clever by half, and the party lost everything.
In 1989 when VP Singh implemented Mandal Commission report, Rajiv Gandhi opposed it in Parliament. Rahul must not forget that the temple of the Ram Janma Bhumi was opened by Arun Nehru in 1985. Today, the Congress needs to really introspect, when Rahul and the party are asking as why Dalits have gone away from the Congress.
BJP has understood caste dynamics much better than the Congress. It has brought in all the sections within its fold. The Congress, on the other hand, has been ambiguous and has suffered from ideological crisis. It is the ‘chamchas’ who have got preference in the party structure.
I still feel that the Congress is the only national alternative. I will always support parties like BSP at least in States like Uttar Pradesh where it still has a fair chance of returning to power if it works well. It is important for Rahul to promote leaders from diverse sections who can raise people’s issues. He should realise that it is not his fault. He must understand that some of the mistakes made by Indira Gandhi as well as Rajiv Gandhi have hurt the party.
When you take their powerful legacy, you need to discard their faults, whether Emergency, the Shahbano case, or opposing the Mandal Commission report, the Delhi riots, rabid privatisation during the UPA period, lack of decision making and so on.
Rahul must not ignore the fact that BSP supported the Congress to form governments in Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, but what did the Congress do to BSP? It actually allured BSP MLAs from the parental party. How does Congress maintain the goodwill when its party leaders break the party supporting you?
Indeed, Rahul is clearly facing the tough challenge because of the burden of the heritage since 1980s, as the party became very corrupt, and sycophants got more space than those who were mass leaders. As he shows achievement of the UPA era or his father’s time, it is also time to reject those things which were anti-people.
The Congress needs to invoke the legacy of the freedom movement and the first government of post-Independent India under Nehru which had people from all parties, including the Jan Sangh as well as Dr Ambedkar. The Congress can bring in that great legacy back. Rahul needs to embrace Indira Gandhi of 1971 and Nehru’s model of development, bring in diverse groups together, and usher in Dr Ambedkar’s idea of Prabuddha Bharat.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat; twitter: @freetohumanity

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