Politics of Identity Has Perpetuated Caste Politics

The 123rd birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar this year has provided a good opportunity to evaluate the impact of his political legacy in contemporary India.

Published: 20th April 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th April 2014 04:10 PM   |  A+A-

The 123rd birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar this year has provided a good opportunity to evaluate the impact of his political legacy in contemporary India. From the Right to the Left extremes of India’s political spectrum, the appropriation of Ambedkar seems to have become an essential part of electioneering for the 16th Lok Sabha.

It is, perhaps, also time to ask why the Dalit politics espoused by Ambedkar and his self-proclaimed inheritors failed to achieve the objective of annihiliation of caste—a theme that is central to Ambedkar’s political philosophy—in electoral politics.

In a desperate attempt to regain the Congress party’s Dalit constituency, the UPA government had, for the first time, declared it a scheduled national holiday. Not to be left behind, BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi attacked the Gandhi-Nehru family for neglecting Ambedkar, insulting him and ignoring the plight of the Dalits.

Seeing her turf in danger, BSP leader Mayawati was quick to react. She slammed both the Congress and BJP for claiming that these parties respected Ambedkar and were instrumental in getting the Dalits their due place in society and its body politic. “When Mandal Commission was implemented and Bharat Ratna was accorded on Ambedkar during VP Singh’s tenure, the BJP was not happy,” Mayawati claimed. “The BJP withdrew support to the VP Singh government but cited obstruction of the Advani’s Rath Yatra as the cause.”

For the unchallenged leader of a party that claims to be the genuine inheritor of Ambedkar’s legacy, the BSP supremo’s current stance of equidistance from both the Congress and BJP is ironic. Mayawati has been at the helm of a coalition government in Uttar Pradesh with BJP support thrice. The last time a BSP-BJP coalition government was formed was in 2002 immediately after the Godhra riots in Gujarat under Modi’s chief ministerhip and Mayawati went out of the way to justify his government’s handling of the situation after the riots.

Mayawati’s maverick hobnobbing with both the Congress and BJP has turned some other Dalit outfits and organisations claiming Ambedkar’s legacy against her. In her hometurf, Baba Saheb Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Mahasabha, has accused Mayawati of treading a path which is just the opposite of what Ambedkar had shown.

It argued that while Ambedkar was in favour of a casteless system, Mayawati has tried to break people into different castes for her own political gains. The charge is not new. The Republican Party of India founded by Ambedkar has split into more than 50 factions and sub-factions aligned to opposing political configurations.

But then the history of Dalit politics is full of such ironies. Ambedkar first propounded his thesis in 1926 in a lecture he was supposed to deliver at the invitation of a Lahore-based Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (forum for the break-up of caste). The group asked Ambedkar to send an advance copy of his lecture and found its content “unbearable”. It withdrew its invitation and Ambedkar never got to deliver his speech. He ended up self-publishing it—at his own expense—under the title Annihilation of Caste.

The question of who can lead the political movement to annihilate the caste essentially relates to the question of representation and representativeness. One approach to this has been represented by Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “They cannot represent themselves—they must be represented.” The other approach believes that only Dalit leadership should lead it.

Fundamentally, this contradiction underlines the structural limitations of caste-based political mobilisations in Indian politics. Any party that relies on identities based on caste and creed alone is bound to perpetuate them and not annihilate them and the political outfits like Mayawati’s BSP or Ram Vilas Pasvan’s LJP are no exception.

Thomas is associate professor of Economics at Barkatullah University


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