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Ambedkar Will Teach the Nation from His Statues

Rajesh Komath (komathrajesh@gmail.com) teaches at the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam.

The pointed finger of Ambedkar statues symbolically conveys the meaning of lecturing, or teaching the nation about democracy and fraternity.The politics of proliferating Dalit iconography is one of seeking visibility and asserting one’s right to access public spaces.However, clashes routinely erupt over such iconography given the upper castes’ fear of their threatened hegemony.

 

It was the learned sculptor Brahmesh V Wagh who first designed a statue of Ambedkar holding a copy of the Constitution in one hand and the other outstretched with a pointing index finger, which is now commonly seen across the country.The first time any iconography of Ambedkar had been placed in a public space was a bronze image on the south-east side of the Lok Sabha hall, New Delhi, in 1966.

Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur by caste, marks the return of forward caste dominance in the political scheme of Uttar Pradesh (UP) after a long interval. The Thakurs’ incitement of violence against Dalits in Saharanpuris an act ofreasserting hitherto suppressed caste­ pride and authority in society.

Saharanpur Clashes

Clashes between the Thakurs and Dalits of Shabbirpur village, 25 kms away from Saharanpur city in western UP, began on 14 April 2017overthe proposed installation of a statue of Ambedkar, an icon of Dalit pride, as part of the annual Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. The Thakurs raised an objection to the same citing the lack of administrative permission. This first confrontation raised communitarian tensions in the village.Soon after, when the Thakurs took out a procession memorialising medieval Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap, they were stalled by the Dalits citing the same reason of lack of administrative consent. This second confrontation escalated to systematic acts of violence against the Dalits and their property, who soon fled en masse from the village. The third round of clashes took place when Mayawati visited Shabbirpur on 23 May 2017 resulting in the death of one Dalit and grave injury to many. Reports suggest that one person was shot and five sustained sword injuries during the violent clash. Two of the injured were in a critical state (Ali 2017).

The Saharanpur clashes spotlight the role of Ambedkar statues yet another time. The pointed index finger of Ambedkar’s statues has not failed to outrage upper castes whether in this case of Shabbirpur or elsewhere in the past[i]. The pointed finger of Ambedkar symbolically conveys the meaning of lecturing, or teaching—teaching the nation as it were. We can read it as a gesture seeking to teach the caste Hindus about democracy and fraternity—an idea seemingly unknown to them until Ambedkar firmly ensconced it in the Constitution of India. This iconography of the pointing finger has been the principle reason of forestalling the Dalits from erecting the statue in Shabbirpur.

Significance of Dalit Iconography

The Saharanpur clashes persuade us to rethink the potency of these icons and images forDalit politicalarticulation. When Mayawati started installing statues, busts and other visual imagery of Dalit–Bahujan icons in public places across UP, the entire range of media agencies from right to left decried these acts as a waste of state resources and taxpayers’ money. An effort at creating spacesof Dalit Bahujan pride was projected as a symbol of massive corruption and self-indulgence. The media never concerned itself with the historical conditions of Dalit existence and the historical injustices inflicted upon Dalits which predate their continued marginalisation today. How do Dalits speak for themselves? How do Dalits articulate their needs and wants? They were/are treated as unclean and pushed to work as manual scavengers and village guards, protecting village properties of the upper castes, including cows. They were rendered the “other” in public spaces. Dalits in contemporary Indian villages are seeking to overcome these historical barriers to make their presence felt. Thus, making themselves visible in the village culturalscape is the primary motive in erecting Dalit imagery at the entrance of their ghettos, apart from laying claim to public spaces. It is also to ascribe Dalit pride as a citizen of this land and nation. While all media, visual and print,silenced Dalit voices and trivialised their political assertion in UP, the Economic and Political Weekly took an impartial stand in representingthe events that unfolded at Shabbirpurafter the landslide electoral victory of Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). An editorial on the issue titled “Dalit Assertion in Uttar Pradesh” (20 May 2017) provides hope for just representation.

The practice of erecting statues of Ambedkar in Dalit settlements had begun way back in the 1970s. The political processes surrounding such acts of assertion by the Dalitshave been as contentiousthenas in the case of Shabbirpur now. Owen M Lynch (1981) records,

On 14 April 1978 in Agra, the Ambedkar Jayanti procession of the Jatavs (Chamars), which carried an Ambedkar statue on an elephant, was attacked while passing through an upper-caste neighbourhood. The upper castes used the riot that followed as a pretext to persuade the administration to change the route of the yearly Dalit procession. In reaction to the administration’s acquiescence, the Jatavs attacked government buildings and confronted the high castes and the police, leading to hundreds of arrests and ten deaths. Peace was restored only when the army intervened and when the administration satisfied the demands of the Scheduled Castes.

Ambedkar as an icon has become a symbol of Dalit identity. Proliferation of his iconography as a vehicle of the sociopolitical aspirations and assertions of Dalits in caste-ridden public placesunravels a process of “deep politicisation”in Indian society (Khilnani 1997). It is a process that at once generates self–confidence andpride in oneself as alsointolerance to the upper castes, among Dalits. The emergence of Dalit visibility in politics is not considered to be a democratising process in the Indian polity nor a process that expands the sphere of dignity of Dalits. The affronted upper castes consider these assertions as a threat to their social dominance, historically legitimated and justified byvillage society. Thus, there are two kinds of political emotions at work, in the context of proliferating Dalit iconography, in the villages of north India: (i) Dalit emotions of self–pride at rising social visibility, and (ii) the upper castes’ fear over threatened hegemonic control. Consequently, violence is the outcome of these two political emotions engendered in the face of Dalit art and politics.

Drawing Parallel with Kerala

One can draw lessons from Kerala here for itssimilar forms of politics towards Dalits. It took years of political petitions and articulation to erect a statue of Ambedkar in front of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly. Now there are statues of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar before the assembly building.

The contention over Dalit iconography in Kerala dates back to the case of an Ayyankali statue. Ayyankali, a leader of the Dalits and lower castes, played an important role in developing the lives of Dalits in Travancore. His statue was unveiled by Indira Gandhi in 1980 at Kawdiar Square, Vellayambhalam, Thiruvananthapuram (capital of Kerala). Certain sections of Kerala society lobbied to relocate the statue to some other place (Hindu 2012) from its original location opposite the palace of the Travancore kingdom. It is poignant for harking back to the famous stand-off between Ayyankali and the Travancore state, over the former’s struggle for Dalits’ access to public spaces. All the same, Ayyankali does not feature in the historical narratives of Kerala’s struggles for freedom by Marxist historians. Ayyankali spoke for the right of the cultivators to get recognition and due wages. The contemporary political scene in Kerala too is intolerant of the Bahujan ideology. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) workers, active in villages or townships, are threatened and attacked by left cadre for mobilising Dalits on an Ambedkarite plank. This is on account of two reasons: (i) Erosion of support of the significant proportion of Malayali Dalits who have been and continue to be with the leftparties, and (ii) Ambedkarite discourse effecting a change in the political vocabulary of Dalits,enabling them to understand the grammar of caste and its covert veneration within the left parties and Indian Marxism. It is in this context that preliminary thoughts of forming the Bhim Army in Keralaneed to be heeded.

The political arithmetic of Kerala politics notwithstanding, Dalits in Kerala’s state assembly or Lok Sabha have failed to assertively represent the Dalit and Adivasi cause. They pretend to be secular Marxists addressing the class question as a universal question of Malayalis, which torpedo the very notion of participatory democracy. A recent move by the incumbent Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of giving cabinet rank to the chairperson of the “Kerala State Welfare Corporation for Forward Communities” testifies to this.

At this juncture, Dalits in Kerala have also expressed the intent to form a Bhim Army for a Kerala model that fights against caste prejudices, humiliation in public spaces, and discrimination in all spheres, including universities and other centres of learning. Its aim is to intervene into cases of atrocities against Dalits in Kerala, legally and politically. After the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, issues of caste prejudices and discrimination on campuses has begun to be articulated and visibilised. However, these articulations have been subjected to threats and violence by the mainstream student unions and federations. Bhim Army is poignant for both rural and urban Dalit lives in Kerala.

References

Ali, Mohammad (2017): “Fresh Violence Eerupts in Chandrapura,” Hindu, 24 May 2017, p 13.

Owen, M Lynch (1981): “Rioting as Regional Action: An Interpretation of the April 1978 Riots in Agra,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 16, No 48, 1981, pp 1951–56.

Khilnani, Sunil (1997): The Idea of India, New Delhi: Penguin 1997.

Tartakov, Gary Michael (ed) (2012): Dalit Art and Visual Imagery, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

(2012): “Ayyankali Statue to Stay Put: Mayor,” Hindu, 19 August 2012, http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Thiruvananthapuram/ayyankali-statue-to-stay-put-mayor/article3794845.ece.

 

 

Updated On : 29th Jun, 2017

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