Ambedkar was for ‘(Pra)Buddh Bharat’, not ‘Hindu Bharat: What if all dalit-Bahujans of India embrace Buddhism!
On 14th April, 2016, Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother embraced Buddhism. This of course is a major intervention in the ongoing dalit discourse on identity, nationalism, discrimination, caste and religion at large. To respond/appropriate this discourse, Ram Madhav in his editorial raised a valid concern that dalit’s caste assertion has been a matter of pride in post independent India, and at the same time because of such assertion ‘many were worried that casteism was staging a comeback.’ He says that samridhi (progress and prosperity) and satta (empowerment) can be taken care of by the government. But, he says that society plays an important role in promoting and protecting other two values i.e. samman (respect and dignity) and sahbhagita (participation and partnership) (Madhav: 2016). So he missed (consciously or unconsciously) to explain the spheres of participation and partnership, and how the state is not responsible for this. On the other hand, he also missed defining what constitutes society, which has the responsibility to extend respect and dignity among fellow beings to create an environment based on liberty, equality and fraternity
Interestingly, Christophe Jaffrelot resolves this issue by saying, “for Ambedkar, there was an ‘ism’ above nationalism; Humanism, with its values of equality and liberty. Hence, his collaboration with the British to promote the cause of the Indian plebe and to fight the axis powers- hence also his conversion to Buddhism. While Hinduism tends to be considered as the national religion of India par excellence today, Ambedkar looked at it as disrespectful of human dignity, in contrast to Buddhism.” (Jaffrelot: 2016) For Jaffrelot, Ambedkar “rejected Hinduism because he thought that the caste system was co-substantial to this religion, whereas equality was inherent in Buddhism.” (Jaffrelot: 2016) Therefore, if this society or nation is determined by Hindu, Hindu religion, Hinduism or Hindutva then the only alternative that remains for true citizens of this nation is to embrace Buddhism and realize this nation as (Pra)budh Bharat (not ‘Hindu Bharat‘), whose foundation was laid down by Ambedkar himself; his example was followed by the masses since 1956 and more recently by Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother.
On 14th October 1956, Ambedkar killed his Hindu religious existence and gave a call to all Hindus for the same. Today, every rational Hindu consciously or unconsciously wants to commit suicide of his/her Hindu religiosity, but it is the politico-religious matrix of Hinduism that obstructs them from coming out of their religiously self-imposed ignorance and embracing Buddhism. Nevertheless, this has been actualized in various ways, particularly through death of the body or death of the body-politic of religion concerned through conversion. In any case, any departure from Hinduism is a move towards Buddhism, which is now getting more vibrancy and leading a road to ‘(Pra)Budhh Bharat’, not ‘Hindu Bharat’. A comparison between Ambedkar and Rohith Vemula’s method of politics supports this argument of the inevitability of committing mass level suicide of the Hindu religion.
A Dalit in India breathes nothing but the virus, disease or infection of the caste structure which is continuously, consciously and unconsciously, produced and reproduced by the Hindu religion. Suicide of any kind is always a symbol of rejecting not the body possessed, but the externalities in which it is forced to breathe. It’s the most powerful weapon of both physical and metaphysical rejection of all non-bodily structures. On the other hand, a living rejection by suicide of one’s religious affiliations in the form of conversion is a three-fold experience: rejection of a bodily life surrounded by the caste infection, rejection of everydayness of killing past religious consciousness which is the sources of such infections and adopting a new way of life based on brotherhood. It’s a painful transition, a continuous struggle within and outside the body and a process of becoming anew.
In fact, Ambedkar wanted Hindus to realise the notion of religion-free governance; he said that, “the Hindus must consider whether they should conserve the whole of their social heritage or select what is helpful and transmit to future generations only that much and no more. Prof. John Dewey, who was my teacher and to whom I owe so much, has said: ‘Every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse …As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to conserve and transmit the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as to make for a better future society” (Mukherjee: 2009; 349). But, after 20 years of efforts to persuade Hindus and other leaders to reform Hinduism, Babasaheb Ambedkar realised that it can never be reformed and therefore he converted to Buddhism. Rohith Vemula, having embraced Ambedkarism, experienced the caste structure, conceptually similar to what Babasaheb had experienced, which had infected everything from his village to the higher educational institutions. Although, he had it in his mind to embrace Buddhism eventually, but he found suicide as more appropriate action to reject the entire casteist moral domain of society at that moment. And finally his mother and brother embraced Buddhism on14th April, 2016.
Ambedkar’s life and writings mark stages of his struggle and scholarship: one, as a researcher, he analyses the existing Hindu social order and finds how caste is the nucleus of the Hindu religion and is nothing but an infection, disease, moral disorder, slave morality. He views it as the most extreme structure to humiliate, exploit deeper than the surplus labour exploitation theorised by Marx, a structure that does not even allow dalits to claim merely the subsistence level of wage. It awards the most severe punishment ever given to any being, a penalty which not only punishes the first person but the entire group s/he belongs to for generations to come. Therefore, before Ambedkar announces that he was born as a Hindu but won’t die as a Hindu in 1936, once in a reply to one of the leaders, he said that, ‘I am not a part of the whole; I am a part apart’ (BSWS: Vol. 2 P. 261). Similarly, on 17th January, through his last letter, Rohith Vemula writes, “I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty” and finally urges, ‘do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone’. He was not only hurt but afraid of the future courses of the democratic actions to be taken by his Dalit friends as well as responses by the enemies, including the administration and political parties. A dalit’s experience is always anchored in scientific investigation before it reaches any conclusion – this is reflected in both Ambedkar and the science student Rohith Vemula who wanted to write like Carl Sagan.
Secondly, after analysing the existing conscious and subconscious structure of caste, Ambedkar goes on exposing the moral, rational and reasonable bankruptcy of the existing social reforms, governmentality and the double standard of brahminical leaders and reformers in dealing with the most inhuman practice of caste (Annihilation of Caste: 1936). Similarly, Vemula exposed the reasons for his emptied soul which were his unappreciated birth- caste and social space; the existing moral domain prevailing ‘in every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, in dying in living’ (Vemula’s Suicide note: 2016) where man was reduced to a thing, a number and to vote and not treated as a mind. Similar to Ambedkar’s experience with the existing social reformers, brahminical leaders and status quoist administration, Vemula’s experience from his village to the university system made him realize the existence of moral bankruptcy and the caste structure prevalent everywhere. His activism inside and outside the university to fight against caste system had made him to kill his Hindu religious affiliation long back, as reflected both in his Facebook account and his brother’s letter on 14th April 2016.
Thirdly, by observing such situation wherein none is going to accompany him in true sense to fight back caste system, Ambedkar applied ‘experimentalism’ (largely inspired by John Dewey): democratic, non-violent, legal and constitutional methods to raise consciousness and sensitise not only untouchables but also the brahminical forces and British government to destroy the caste structure (Mukherjee: 2009). He fought at every corner to end the caste structure and struggled for long to reform Hindu religion at all legal, formal, informal, conscious and unconscious levels of the caste system. Finally, after so much legal and rational struggle to end the caste system which was not only bad for dalits and untouchables but was morally and spiritually degrading and slavish for brahminical forces as well, he takes a larger call to depart from Hindu life. He commits politico-religious suicide and takes a religio-political birth in Buddhism. His religious suicide was not an individual act but a political action, followed by thousands of lakhs of people who committed suicide of their Hindu identity. Was it a happy moment for Ambedkar to declare that he will not die a Hindu?
Similarly, before his rustication from the university in the month of December, Vemula shares a quote of Malcolm X on his Facebook wall which read, “having the opportunity to ride on the front, the back or the middle of someone’s’ bus doesn’t dignify you. When you have your own bus, then you will have dignity” (Vemula’s Facebook Account: February 2016). Therefore, he chose to devote his life to struggling against brahminical forces within the classroom, university campus, society and the politics outside the campus at large. His observation of the prevailing system of discrimination had caused the widening of the gap between his body and mind. For Rohith it was not an end of his body but an attempt to end the growing gap between soul and body that had emptied him from within.
Vemula did not declare his suicide to come, but he had written to the university administration by saying that, please provide a bottle of poison and rope to the dalit students at the time of admission so that they can commit suicide if they’re not able to fight back the caste discriminations in the university campus. Similar to Ambedkar, whose declaration of conversion in 1936 was never taken seriously by the caste hindus, the university administration never took any cognizance of Vemula’s call to end caste discrimination within the campus. Consequently, Vemula, expressed his anxiety at the cost of his life, which would not have been heard otherwise in this country. Moreover, Vemula expressed his hunch about prevailing politics which could do mischief with the meaning of ‘his sense’. His hunch was not utopia in any sense, the responses of the current government, university administration and rightwing political forces confirms his hunches of misinterpretation and political brutality. His moral call to the existing agencies such as university did not touch even their democratic instinct, leaving aside their dead moral agencies. Consequently, protesting students and teachers who tried to make protest more democratic, were kidnapped by university authorities through police and other state machinery. Then onwards, several attempts have been made by the administration in coalition with the state forces to end the democratic protests led by dalit-bahujan students. Until now, none of the government agencies has taken this issue seriously to resolve, but have applied all means to crush the movement for freedom and equality within the nation and society, brutally.
Nonetheless, his suicide did not end with his body, but it generated a heat among the democrats across the globe. Remember that, Vemula’s suicide is not the first incident of dalit students committing suicide. In Hyderabad Central University itself, various dalit students had committed suicide in previous years. The way one suicide opens a gate for another suicide as the last resort of one’s protest against casteist administration and larger castist moral order, similarly Vemula’s family members committed suicide of their Hindu religion and converted into Buddhism – this paves the way for more people to embrace Buddhism in days to come. It’s nothing but a long term continuity of Babasaheb’s conversion movement, which will continue in future in a more accelerated form to realize the life of (Pra)Buddh Bharat, and not ‘Hindu Bharat‘. Ramesh Kamble observes that, “Ambedkar declared that he would make India a Buddhist nation. This declaration has to be understood as exhibiting Ambedkar’s concern of making India a society and a nation where the principles of justice, reason and concern for the other would be the guiding principles of organising social life. In Ambedkarite conception Buddha’s concern for creating a righteous moral, social order was to create a society where no man becomes a source of another man’s suffering and misery. This by implication means no social group; no nation becomes a source of another social groupor nation’s misery and suffering.” (Kamble: 2003: 4307) This is inevitable because, in fact, most of the marginalized and depressed class people from all spheres in India feel similar emptiness. Some could reject it, some might have to live the ‘living rejection’, but none is debarred from such ’emptiness’, ‘selflessness’, ‘location-less self’. The more you oppose the structure which enforces ’emptiness of the soul’, the more your soul is emptied.
Ambedkar on October 14, 1956, while converting to Buddhism, said, “By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression today I am reborn…I thereby reject my old religion, Hinduism, which is determined to the prosperity of human kind and which discriminates between man and man and which treats me as inferior”. (Jaffrelot: 2016) Taking inspiration from Babasaheb, and to fulfill the living desire of Rohith Vemula, his mother and brother converted to Buddhism by announcing that, “from today, my mother and I will be truly free. Free from shame. Free from daily humiliation. Free from the guilt of praying to the same God in whose name our people have been tortured for centuries” (Indian Express: 15th April 2016).
Nonetheless, we are at the juncture where, either a civil war between Upper castes and dalit-Bahujans, what Kancha Ilaiah has predicted (Ilaiah: 2010) will take place or all the dalit-Bahujans will embrace Buddhism to liberate India from its caste disease. Because, whether you agree or not you are governed by the caste structure…you agree or not ‘(Pra)Buddh Bharat’ is inevitable because Hinduism is built on its contradictory diseased base whose demise is certain. What is required is to ‘educate, agitate and organise’.
• Ambedkar, B.R. (2005) Writings and Speeches Vol. II, ed. Vasant Moon. Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra.
• Ambedkar, B. R. (2005) Annihilation of Caste. in Writings and Speeches Vol. 1, ed. Vasant Moon (Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra)
• Ilaiah, K. (2010) Post Hindu India. Delhi. Sage Publication
• Iyer, Kavitha, and Modak,Sadaf ( 15 April, 2016)Rohith Vemula’s mother, brother embrace Buddhism: See more at: (http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/on-ambedkar-jayanti-rohith-vemulas-mother-brother-convert-to-buddhism/#sthash.vOhFOXdl.dpufhttp://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/on-ambedkar-jayanti-rohith-vemulas-mother-brother-convert-to-buddhism/).Accessed on 6:55 PM, 15th April 2016
• Jaffrelot, C. (14th April, 2016) Ambedkar against Nationalism. Indian Express, Delhi.
• Kamble, Ramesh. (2003) Contextualising Ambedkarian Conversion. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 41 (Oct. 11-17, 2003), pp. 4305-4308
• Madhav, R. (14th April, 2016) What Dalits want. Indian Express, Delhi.
• Mukherjee, A. P. (2009)B. R. Ambedkar, John Dewey, and the Meaning of Democracy. New Literary History, Vol. 40, No. 2, India and the West, pp. 345-370. Johns Hopkins University Press
• Vemula, R. Facebook Account. (https://www.facebook.com/rohith352?pnref=friends.search). Accessed on February 17, 2016 at 6:55 PM.
Sanjeev Kumar is Assistant Professor at SPM College, University of Delhi.
Pictures courtesy: the internet.