Where Credit Is Due

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Acknowledging Babasaheb Ambedkar as a national leader would be the best memorial.

No observer of the Indian political scene will be able to deny the
power of symbolism or dare ask “what’s in a name?”. The entire gamut of
agitations, protest campaigns and victory processions vis-à-vis the
demand for memorials and statues, naming of airports, flyovers and
streets, and of welfare schemes after a particular leader is a familiar
part and parcel of Indian politics. On one single day last week,
newspapers in Mumbai carried an advertisement by the Maharashtra
government
expressing “gratitude” to the centre for handing over land
for a memorial for Babasaheb Ambedkar, a news story of how Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) activists plan to popularise Narendra Modi in rural
Maharashtra by collecting soil and iron for the 600-feet statue of
Sardar Patel and of the Maharashtra government’s decision to lay the
foundation for the 312-feet statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji. The cynical
among us might link these feverish announcements and demands to the
forthcoming general elections; those jostling for credit claim that all
they want is to commemorate their leaders.
The announcement on handing over the land for the Ambedkar memorial
led to a mutual congratulatory atmosphere between the Maharashtra and
central governments; at both places the Congress and the Nationalist
Congress Party (NCP) are allies. The different factions of the
Republican Party of India (RPI) have agitated long for such a memorial.
Many more voices joined them just before the municipal and local bodies’
elections of 2011. In the competition to take credit for the memorial, a
most unseemly spat between the state government’s ruling partners has
also broken out. When newspapers reported that the official announcement
was in the offing, the race to take credit became keener. Different
groups stepped up, marching to the site with the avowed aim of “taking
it over” and one RPI leader even declared that he and his followers were
prepared for police lathis and bullets! A NCP leader was quick to tell
media persons that he was the first to raise the demand while “others
have since joined in for credit”.
The centre’s decision to hand over land belonging to the National
Textile Corporation for the Ambedkar memorial comes 57 years after his
death. Ambedkar’s political differences with M K Gandhi over caste-based
electoral reservations and with the Congress in general are too well
known to be repeated here. Ambedkar has never been among those
commemorated and honoured by the Congress, or other ruling parties, in
all these years. It took a 16-year long agitation to rename the
Marathwada University in Aurangabad after him, and even so only through a
“compromise” formula.
A number of his intellectual followers have written and spoken out
against the injustice of portraying him only as a leader of the dalits.
Others point out that his followers are as guilty of the politics of
“appropriation” and for the fact that he is popularly seen only as a
dalit or neo-Buddhist icon. Ambedkar’s educational accomplishments along
with his achievements as an author, journalist and as a leader and
moulder of the emergent Indian nation, given the odds that he faced
because of his caste, make for an inspirational legacy by any standards.
He studied economics, law and politics, got his MA degree and PhD from
Columbia University in the US, a DSc from London University, earned an
entrance to the bar from Grey’s Inn and had enrolled in the London
School of Economics. The attention paid to Ambedkar’s “politics” has
overshadowed not only the story of his academic brilliance but also his
forceful writings (scholarly and journalistic) on myriad other issues.
Every year around 6 December – his death anniversary – the media takes
token cognisance of his place in the hearts and minds of his followers
(and political observers feel compelled to mention the lack of unity
among the many factions of the RPI). In all media reports across
languages, he is described as a “dalit leader” or “saviour”.
Perhaps what the entire country ought to recall, especially in these
times of thin-skinned intolerance to perceived insults and attempts to
project individuals as formidable leaders, is what he said before the
Constituent Assembly in 1949.
The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John
Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of
democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a
great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their
institutions’…Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the
soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to
degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

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