Every year, on the occasion of Dr. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, Buddha Pournima, Dashehara and death anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar (and the anniversaries of many more Dalit heroes i.e., festivals of Dalits), my inbox is flooded with a variety of messages. Some of them are informative and the rest are grievances about celebration, intention and motive, and the way of celebration.
The informative ones are very useful for knowing facts that are not prevalent. Social media is playing a pivotal role in promulgating information about the ideology of philanthropist leaders and heroes. However, the same tool is used to infiltrate our spaces. It is their long proven and most used strategy: to tell the oppressed that whatever they are doing, they are doing it wrong; that this is one of the reasons they are discriminated against. To make the oppressed live in guilt so that his energy will be wasted in coming out of his guilt, he does not get time to think what the oppressor is doing, and he is therefore unable to anticipate the next move of the oppressor. Some of the messages in circulation are grievances about the way of celebration, sometimes it feels logical for a short period of time but it cannot sustain when rationalized with context, after considering the history and politics, and current dynamics of the time. For that they will try to give illogical logic for a logic.
Some of the prevailing messages are about Dr. Ambedkar and the faith his followers place in him. Some of these accuse his followers of worshipping Dr. Ambedkar as god, of making extravagant expenses on Bhim Jayanti celebration, of playing DJ music in the rallies, of decorating houses and colonies, and of showing wealth and strength in celebration. They don’t stop after criticizing, either; they shamelessly give suggestions, irrespective of introspection of their own culture and history. Matter of fact is that they complain about everything we do. Some of them offer alternatives such as ”worship thoughts of Doctor Sahab’s instead Doctor Sahab himself”, ”instead of participating in the rally and wasting money and resources, spend the whole day in a library, study for 10-14 hours to pay tribute, distribute books, contribute to the library or any other study center”. All those are fantastic ideas of paying tribute to Doctor Sahab. I like those ideas, as any follower of Doctor Sahab would.
Sometimes I am compelled to think: why celebrate any festival or anniversary of a great human being, or even a religious or traditional festival? Why do we need to celebrate at all? If I am going to celebrate any anniversary or festival how should I do so? What should be my benchmark to celebrate it? ‘How to celebrate’ is whose concern: the one who is celebrating or the one who doesn’t want us to celebrate?
Let’s take the example of the birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar (Dr. Sahab).
To take his followers out of the mire of the Hindu religion Doctor Sahab embraced Buddhism. This was one of the biggest religious conversions that ever happened in world history, at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur. Millions of oppressed people converted officially and some more stopped practicing Hinduism and started practicing Buddhism. One cannot simply abandon any prevalent practice without a substitute. So, Dr. Sahab chose Buddhism which is more radical and believes in humane values instead of some supernatural power or hierarchy. The option of just abandoning all religions and not to follow any was better for him but it was not a feasible option for millions of his followers. To take them out of the mire of Hinduism, superstition and misery, it was necessary to substitute it with another more liberal and radical practicing religion. After all they were accustomed to following religion. But it was an alien practice, as they had practiced Hinduism for a long period of time. Otherwise he would not have embraced any religion. If we look at the scenario of Doctor Sahab’s times, it was not very favorable circumstances for change but our ancestors managed to do it under the guidance of Doctor Sahab. They went through lots of trouble and atrocities but they worked persistently.
Every human is a social animal and habituated to celebrate his success and failure with friends, family and society; This is how society functions: by participating in the success and failure of its other fellow members. Festivals are made to fulfill those needs, irrespective of personal celebration or celebration of society as whole. After embracing Buddhism and abandoning Hinduism, one cannot continue to celebrate Hindu festivals. This vacuum of celebration of festivals needed to be filled. How could this vacuum be occupied? There were two ways to do that. First one was to incorporate some Buddhist traditions and cultures from across the globe, as the practices are not uniform throughout the world. Wherever any religion proliferates in a new land it appropriates local culture and traditions, and over a period of time it become a culture on its own. So, it was the biggest question to decide which practice of Buddhism is to be followed, as practices around the world vary from each other.
The second option was to give the people some time to shed their burden of the Hindu religion. Give some time so that they can come up with their own culture, which will be developed by their own experience and will. This is exactly what happened when it came to the celebrations of Bhim Jayanti, Buddha Pournima or Dashehara or Mahaparinirvana of Doctor Sahab. It is not that some philanthropist came and organized rallies and food distribution programs were arranged. Everything evolved in the process. The celebration is purely voluntarily and people participate with unparalleled enthusiasm.
People complain that you made Doctor Sahab a god, you worship him as a god. Here I just want to put light on history and the concept of god. God is some invisible power or someone who can emancipate one from his misery. In case of Dalits, Doctor Sahab did the same and fought for and awarded the fundamental human rights. He fought with the caste monster single handedly. He was simultaneously fighting on 4 different fronts:
1. Against caste Hindus for rights of Dalits who were deprived from very basic and natural rights.
2. The British government to secure fundamental rights through legal means.
3. Guiding his followers to the right path to come out of the mire of Hindu traditions and rituals.
4. Knowledge production, which we should be thankful to him for. Today, 70-80 years after him, it is still as relevant as it was back then.
After looking at his contribution and tremendous efforts he undertook for emancipation of Dalits, for them he is no less than god. It’s not about ‘worshiping’ Doctor Sahab; it is about propagation and evolution of a new culture which will be our own culture. By the way, we were deprived of any knowledge and knowledge production for centuries, so all those concepts of worshiping and exploitation in the name of god are not ours. When they are the beneficiaries of god, all is good but when we celebrate they dictate all the philosophy of the world to us.
If we analyse things, we can see that it is not blind faith. Most of the followers at that time were not formally educated but all of them believed in Doctor Sahab and his vision. All his hard work was never propagated by any of the media of the time but was solely by word of mouth and personal record keeping by our forefathers. His own personal life and academic and political achievements were benchmarks in themselves, not only for us but for all humankind. In my case and so many like me his life story is still the sole source of inspiration since the time I can understand the world. When I was in school everyone from my community used to say, “You have to become like Doctor Sahab”. You know what that means? When someone says, “You have to become like Doctor Sahab”, it means he used to study for 16 hours a day, so study hard, and go for higher education. Upon being showered with praise like this, if a kid like me could get inspiration for education in adverse conditions, what’s wrong in it? Because Doctor Sahab was a very learned man, he was an ordinary man who became extraordinary by hard work, anybody can become like him if he does hard work. This is what we think when we look at his portrait. Because of his fondness for education, initiatives like ‘one copy one pen’ are started at Deekshabhoomi and Chaityabhoomi. Whenever people visit there they carry a notebook (copy) and a pen to donate there so that it can be distributed to underprivileged students irrespective of their caste.
Those who make these allegations are generally non-Dalits who have to criticise everything Doctor Sahab did and everything Ambedkarites do. They don’t have anything else to do. They just want to make us feel guilty whatever we do. Sometimes our people also fall in their trap, there is nothing wrong in it. The moment our people will understand whatever we do they are there to criticise, the same moment people will stop taking them seriously. Someone can cite that Doctor Sahab himself, who once exhorted us to follow his thoughts and work, and not him. One can get inspiration from work and thought only, and I completely agree with that. Where those thoughts and work come from? They come from him. For me Doctor Sahab comes first then his work. Obviously, I know him because of his work and teaching only. It is very simple and straight forward and easy to understand that in my home there is a portrait of Doctor Sahab, and in every function, either a celebration of joy or of sadness, his portrait is always there. Those who don’t know him initially might think he is a family member, but after seeing him everywhere one will be compelled to search for him, who is he? What he did? Why he is here? The moment one starts to know him, he will come across his ideology and start reading him and discovering about him. This is how his ideology of equality will be propagated. Once Doctor Sahab said, “Men are mortal so are the ideas, ideas also need propagation”. Any ideology in itself is of no relevance without its promoter. To spread it, a promoter is needed, as no one will listen to it merely because it is a good ideology. But one will listen and understand it because of its promoter: the one who practices it in life.
In the time of popular festivals everyone proudly says, “this is our culture”. Our situation is like having nothing as we abandon Hinduism, we also have to abandon everything associated to it: festivals and everything else. If we become a bit liberal and celebrate their festivals just for having fun and joy, our people and their people, all of them will criticize us, saying that we are still following the same crap that Doctor Sahab asked us not to follow. So, to occupy this vacuum, we need to replace these festivals by our own ones. That one can claim as his own and no one can question his intentions. What can be a better substitute than the birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar?
Our people developed their own way to celebrate it. We don’t just celebrate it like a birth anniversary, but we celebrate it like a birthday. Our celebration is comparable to the celebration of a couple married for a long time and have no child and suddenly they are blessed with a gorgeous child, and everyone is super happy. We not only celebrate, play music, dance, and distribute delicious food but everything is taken care of. No garbage or mess is left behind for the municipal workers. Volunteers clear all the garbage on the night of the festival itself. Except Ambedkar celebration, this happens nowhere. The crowd is one of the most disciplined crowd in the world, no additional security measures are needed, no stampedes, no misbehaviour happens no matter how big the crowd. At Deekshabhoomi millions of people come and go in a week but everything goes in order with the minimal police security and a bunch of volunteers.
Now this is becoming the benchmark in celebrating any public festival. This is our culture that we developed on our own and we can claim it and assert it just like our personal thing and this gives us strength and support and courage to fight with injustice.
In the time of celebration one strange and positive thing happens that you can find nowhere else: sale of books. Hundreds of publishers and thousands of sellers sell books at the celebration site. One can see that everyone coming there buys at least one book. Whether he is an old grandpa or grandma who cannot read he or she will buy one for his or her grandchildren. One who can read will buy for himself or for someone else. Writings of Doctor Sahab and biographies of great people and saints are the bestsellers. We are developing this culture of buying books and reading. This is our cultural heritage and our source of motivation and energy. This is what we are developing to occupy the vacuum created after we abandon all Hindu festivals.
Bike rallies or other rallies are not mere demonstrations of strength to others. No, it is not. There is no need if it. This is the only time when maximum of our people gather at a time and celebrate it together. This gives sense of strength from our brothers and sisters, a sense of security in numbers. It gives strength to fight any injustice. It gives energy for the whole year, it gives us books to read until the next celebration, and with the donation of one pen and copy, it creates more attachment to society and people.
These are enough reasons to celebrate, rather than to think about what they say about our celebration style and motivation. I got more reasons to celebrate in the way I am celebrating rather than not celebrating. After all it is my culture and my ancestors and people developed it and bought it to us. Only they know how difficult it was to develop this culture of celebration. After seeing the recent incidents of atrocities that happened during the celebration of Bhim Jayanti, one can imagine how difficult it would have been when the first rally was organised and the first time that festival music was played. As nothing is permanent, this will also change, and will acquire better forms. There is always scope for improvement, everything can be improved for the better. For now, what is more important is to come together and celebrate. Have a feeling of togetherness and security from strength. Whether this style is good or bad, only time will decide. Till then we will continue celebrating and improving our style as per our convenience. I am proud of having my own culture of celebration.
Vikas Bagde is a mechanical engineer.