There have been many attempts to ignore Dr Ambedkar in the past, and now there are attempts to misread and misrepresent him, or even to appropriate him, but in his own words, the personality of elephants is such that they “may take some time to stand on their feet. But once they are on their feet nobody will be able to force them easily to sit on their knees”.

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is many things.

A Dalit— literally, broken, crushed— who united and mended Dalits across space and time in their common search for dignity and justice.

An ‘Untouchable’, whose mere touch had been designated as ‘polluting’ by the owners of holy books, but who rose by the sheer dint of grit and merit to being in charge of writing the holy book for a great experiment with democracy in the subcontinent. (That the experiment is largely failing is no fault of his.)

A Leader of the Depressed Classes, afflicted not with the kind people are today, but a depression arising from a deeper, perhaps the deepest, historically inconsolable suppression known to mankind. What he called “frustration forever“.

An inspiration to the Bahujan, and the oppressed and suppressed everywhere.

Father of the Indian Constitution, a Constitution he later said he wanted to burn.

A scholar of religion, whose arguments for mundane rights and commonplace principles were rooted in the greatest impulse of all religions— the recognition of the infinite potential in every human being.

Ambedkar was an Untouchable, whose mere touch had been designated as ‘polluting’ by the owners of holy books, but who rose by the dint of grit and merit to being in charge of writing the holy book for a great experiment with democracy in the subcontinent.

An anti-Hinduism crusader who led his people out of ‘Brahminical tyranny’ into Buddhism, or any other religion they would choose.

A reformer, whose prose elucidating the problems besetting his society and the imminently practical solutions he proposed, have the cadence of poetry.

Babasaheb.

Beer Ambedkar.

This latest identity bestowed upon Ambedkar in a skit by some students of Jain University, Bengaluru may speak to the deep-rooted resentment against ‘reservation politics’ among sections of the Savarna castes— “Why be a Dalit when you can be D-lit (meaning drunk)?” the skit said at one point— but it is actually the centuries old problem of caste, slightly repackaged, and should cause no new worries.

The fresh worry is that while Ambedkar could genuinely mean many different things to different people, there is a tendency to extend the meaning of his existence to everything, thus turning him into an empty signifier.

‘Tendency’ might not be the right word here. Perhaps it is a concerted effort, the old Brahminical technique of seeking revenge on iconoclasts by turning them into idols.

Turn a man of extremely specific ideas in relation to extremely specific problems into a man of all ideas.

So it might be a good idea to revisit why Ambedkar chose to associate his political career with the symbol of the elephant. On October 27, 1951, he said in Jalandhar, Punjab, “All of you know that the elephant is the election symbol of Scheduled Castes Federation in the coming election. Why I have chosen the elephant as our election symbol? Because this symbol is known to all Indians. Apart from it, the elephant is a symbol of intelligence, patience and strength.

Our people are as powerful as the elephant. It may take them some time to stand on their feet. But once they are on their feet nobody will be able to force them easily to sit on their knees.”

Ambedkar did not say whether the parable of the elephant and the blind men from the Buddhist scripture Tittha Sutta ever crossed his mind when deciding on the symbol. Nevertheless, the Buddha does give a clear warning against the lively, but unfortunately useless, argumentation of Brahmins in the parable.

Also read: Taking stock of Ambedkar’s conversations with the winding road of democracy is essential for every Indian

So, it turns out that Ambedkar is becoming a symbol for the Right and for the Left. He has always been a potent symbol for the downtrodden and the Left (the genuine kind, not the one where ‘tyranny of the oppressed’ is somehow always led by Brahmins and other Savarnas). But now the Right is wooing his legacy too.

Arvind Narrain reminds the reader of Dr Ambedkar’s axiom, “everyone should invest at least 10 percent of his income in purchasing books.”

First, he is whitewashed as a nationalist just because he had some strong words to say against Muslims, Pakistan and on Kashmir. Then these words are conveniently remoulded to fit certain narratives, and thus a patina of saffron is painted over Ambedkar as if he were a Hindu nationalist.

Such words were written in a particular context, and were Ambedkar alive today, would he have a different set of words to offer, given that the North Star of his intellect was always justice?

Those who dislike M.K. Gandhi for not being Hindu enough use Ambedkar’s critique of Gandhi, ironically, for being too much of a Hindu, shorn of its context and sans irony, to scaffold their arguments that Gandhi was bad.

There are attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ Ambedkar.

Obviously, these attempts shall fail, primarily because his legacy is safe among his people and his genuine followers. He is an elephant who casts a big shadow.

However, to avoid confusion, the antidote to attempts to misread and misrepresent him is more Ambedkar, in his own words. The second-best thing is to hear from his best followers, his own people. The third-best thing is to hear from people who stay close to his ideals.

So here is The Leaflet’s humble attempt to offer a glimpse of the Elephant.

Also read: Dr. Ambedkar’s rich legacy: The Leaflet’s attempt to cull out form and substance

Reading as resistance

As poet, writer, translator and publisher, Yogesh Maitreya puts it, “They have utterly failed to understand that you possessed the language of poetry, which is why it is still alive and vibrantly powerful in its tone. If not for poetry, I would have never come to realise that your words never fail to disrupt our lethargy and provoke us to think. I began to think and I am here, and whoever is reading these words is a witness of what your words could make one think and write.”

In his moving tribute, Maitreya talks about the importance of words, in contrast to events and visuals that provide an “adrenaline rush”. Ambedkar’s words have the power to transform their reader. He talks about justice the way a poet talks about love, Maitreya writes.

Writer and legal scholar, and the author of India’s Undeclared Emergency: Constitutionalism and the Politics of Resistance, Arvind Narrain, who explores the theme of reading as an antidote to the “dull, drab, deadening past” of the oppressed in his piece, also speaks to the power of words. He reminds the reader of Ambedkar’s axiom, “everyone should invest at least 10 percent of his income in purchasing books.”

He also narrates an anecdote from a companion of Ambedkar’s, who had entered his bedroom while he was asleep: “A couple of books lay to his right and left. A few were placed on a stool. One lay open on the floor. Apparently he had dozed off while reading, and the one book resting open on his chest fell when he turned sides.”

This prolific reading habit produced a personality that was meticulous in other matters as well. Narrain writes, “Dr Ambedkar the reader was very important to the formation of Dr Ambedkar the writer, Dr Ambedkar the constitutionalist and the Dr Ambedkar who called for the ‘annihilation of caste’.”

Ambedkarite legal scholar and author Dr Nitish Nawsagaray explores another layer of this meticulousness in his piece, “Ambedkar reiterated that it is possible to prevent the very functioning of the Constitution by changing the form of administration and making it incompatible with its spirit.

Only in a society where people are imbibed with constitutional morality can one take the risk of leaving the details of administration to future legislators. For Ambedkar, the Constitution was an organic document that thrived on the foundation of constitutional morality.”

Ajay Navaria writes in his piece, contrasting Ambedkar and Gandhi, quoting Kabir, “How can you and I desire the same, while I try to resolve things, you only try to complicate them?”

Ambedkar’s fastidious approach to reading and writing was only to ensure that no detail was left untouched, no stone unturned, in the quest to resolve and dissolve centuries-old hierarchies of oppression.

Perhaps this was the reason he was as detail-oriented in his reading and writing as possible. He did not want to allow the oppressors to complicate matters through sophistry again due to less reading and less writing on his part.

As writer and scholar Ajay Navaria writes in his piece, quoting Kabir, “How can you and I desire the same, while I try to resolve things, you only try to complicate them?”

Ambedkar is in the pragmatic and worldly details, and his poetics is also located thusly, because sometimes the world is all the poetry one needs. Dithering paralogism and rambling hyperboles may be a bigger disservice to his legacy than casteist ridicule.

As Navaria continues, “It is completely biased to think that only an ascetic can be worthy of our respect. This tendency has given birth to much hypocrisy and corruption at the religious and spiritual levels.”

Also read: BR Ambedkar: Father of our Constitution and radical social thinker

How long is ‘forever’?

The other big theme running through all the pieces is the endurance of Ambedkar’s legacy, that sets “a benchmark for a timeless time”, in the words of Ambedkarite scholar Jadumani Mahanand.

In his piece, Mahanand draws attention to the “historical moment when Indian Muslim women are holding Ambedkar’s portrait and the Constitution to claim their rights”.

Yogesh Maitreya writes, “I dream: Ambedkar is a dream that when it enters your head, it disrupts your sleep forever.”

Ambedkar says that one of the things necessary for a democracy’s success is that “there must be no tyranny of the majority over the minority”. The minority must always feel secure that it will not be hurt or double-crossed, even though the majority is running the government.

Muslims are treated as second-class citizens by the Hindu majoritarian state with their existence facing a perpetual threat and violence”, and when they find solace in Ambedkar, the poignant moment is testament to the foresight of Ambedkar and the universality and timelessness of his ideas, Mahanand writes.

And nothing less than timelessness will do when it comes to the fight against caste.

The excerpt from the new book  A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of B.R. Ambedkar, quoting Herbert Hope Risley, the census commissioner of the British Empire in the subcontinent at the turn of the twentieth century, reads: “Instead, he saw the flood of petitions from jati associations as proof of his hunch that caste was an institution of ‘remarkable vitality’ and of importance to even those educated people who were ‘sometimes alleged to be anxious to free themselves from the trammels of the caste system’.”

This remarkable vitality won’t die of its own. It will continue to produce myriad symptoms of injustice.

Narrain quotes Ambedkar, “The Untouchables are the weariest, most loathed and the most miserable people that history can witness. They are a spent and sacrificed people.” Ambedkar says the frustration experienced by the Untouchables is “frustration forever”, “unrelieved by space or time”.

English poet John Keats has said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Without the ‘forever’ at the end, it would be ordinary prose. That surplus word disturbs the prose and sends it into the space-time of poetry. Keats probably knew this; which is why he used this particular word.

Humans are the only beings capable of imagining eternity, and that necessitates God and beauty. It also necessitates justice.

Maitreya writes, “I dream: Ambedkar is a dream that when it enters your head, it disrupts your sleep forever.”

A less-noticed thing about elephants is that their shadows are almost the same colour as their bodies, making it difficult to distinguish in moments of revolutionary lucidity.

The Leaflet