It’s hard to see why Prime Minister Narendra Modi at all took the trouble Wednesday to bring up B.R. Ambedkar, the national icon of dalit resistance, intellectual and head of the country’s Constitution-drafting committee, when there was no specific reason to do so. It’s true that casual or even hypocritical referencing of Ambedkar has become a ritual of our politics. Apart for the dalits themselves, to whom Ambedkar matters as much as Martin Luther King Jr does to American blacks, if not more, politicians routinely exalt that famous leader of dalit challenge to India’s social system in order to show that they care for the former “untouchable” community even when they actually don’t.
In election meetings and in Parliament, Mr Modi has done enough of this. But his allusion to “Babasaheb” Ambedkar has two specific contexts: One, his government finally woke up — seeing that storm clouds were gathering — to file a review petition in the Supreme Court seeking a change in the court’s order that was widely seen (except by the Supreme Court itself) as diluting the effect of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.
Two, the government was, in a way, forced to take that step. Dalit BJP and NDA MPs, including ministers of parties that are the BJP’s coalition partners, left the Prime Minister very little choice. Union Cabinet minister Ram Vilas Paswan went to the extent of saying that the BJP should conduct itself the way that the Congress used to when it ruled at the Centre — show sympathy to SC-ST people and to the minorities. In other words, the PM was coming off a licking.
That really can’t be the best time to blow one’s own trumpet. Mr Modi said no other government in the country had shown as much honour to Ambedkar’s memory as his government had. That is a vacuous observation. All that the government can say is that it will soon refurbish and inaugurate the house in Delhi where the dalit icon died, and that statues have been raised to his name. Mr Modi forgot to mention that his government had decided to create an Ambedkar “pilgrim circuit”.
Probably some of this political razzmatazz helped the BJP harvest dalit votes in the UP Assembly elections last year, although the dalit community had faced violence at the hands of Sangh Parivar cow vigilantes, including in the PM’s home state Gujarat.
The real point the BJP doesn’t get is that it’s impossible to honour the memory of Ambedkar while dalit lives become more insecure. The dalits would have been truly appreciative if the Modi government had built no statue or inaugurated a building for Ambedkar, but sent down the message that violence to their lives or dignity would be severely punished.