In India there are probably as many holy cows as there are gods in the Hindu pantheon. Say a critical word against them and you’re likely to be besieged by protesting hordes. At the top the totem pole are the Prophet, Shivaji, Bal Thackeray and B R Ambedkar. Given his famous aversion to hero worship, the Dalit leader would have gagged at being so memorialised. One wonders what his reaction would be if he toured Uttar Pradesh where statues of Mayawati’s holy trinity-Kanshi Ram, Ambedkar and herself-grace public parks or took a stroll through Mumbai, which is scattered with statues and busts of him.
Ambedkar was well aware of the dangers of idolatry. In 1949, he warned the Constituent Assembly that hero worship is a straight path to decline and ultimately to dictatorship. But his cautionary advice seems to have been cast to the winds. Politicians erecting shrines of personal political heroes in every park and chowk is widely censured. However, in the case of Ambedkar, most academics and scholars of caste defend the desire of the ordinary Dalit to idolise him.
According to writer-professor Kancha Ilaiah, the Ambedkar statue is the only way for illiterate Dalits to know the statesman. “Their father of the nation is Ambedkar,” he said. For Dalits, that one of their own acquired a foreign education and later became one of the architects of the Constitution was simply fantastic. “To create a statue was a claim that he could be counted among leaders such as Nehru and Gandhi,” observed Gyan Prakash, who teaches history at Princeton University.
Ilaiah, who teaches politics at Osmania University, went so far as to reason that if statues of Rajiv Gandhi have been erected across the country at the expense of the state, how can one blame Mayawati for spending over Rs 2000 crores on commemorating Dalit icons?
For sociologist Meera Kosambi, statuary is a colonial inheritance that serves little purpose. However she said, “If statues are to be erected, then (Ambedkar) is to, my mind, somebody really worth commemorating.” Kosambi pointed out that the desire to honour Ambedkar must be understood in the context of his “contribution to the mobilisation of Dalits and giving them a pride in themselves”. It’s difficult for members of upper castes to fathom this level of devotion as they have never faced the sort of degradation Dalits have, she said.
The depth of emotion invested in Ambedkar memorials explains the history of violence attached to them. Residents of Ghatkopar’s Ramabai Nagar rioted in 1997 when they found that a statue of Ambedkar had been garlanded with slippers. In 2006, angry mobs burnt the Deccan Queen when an Ambedkar monument was desecrated in Kanpur. Only last week, a couple were in danger of being mobbed when they, allegedly, damaged a photograph of Ambedkar in Buddha Vihar, a Buddhist trust in Thane. While Kosambi asserted that she doesn’t condone violence, she said that one can almost see Dalit retaliation as a sign of self-asssertion. “They retaliate because of the confidence Ambedkar has given them,” she explained. “They were expected to be sub-human. Now they are as human as everybody else.”
Ambedkar’s messianic aura began to take shape during his lifetime itself. S Anand, who runs Navayana, a publishing house that specialises in caste-related literature, said that the statesman was embarrassed when his fiftieth anniversary was marked by celebrations that lasted nine days in Mumbai in 1942. Yet, one can’t expect Dalits to be faithful to Ambedkar’s wishes of not building a cult around him. “One should understand why there’s such love,” Anand pointed out. “If you deny people material opportunities, they will start clinging to icons.”
Perhaps the obsession with stone comes from the fact that India is a highly religious society which worships idols and gurus. According to Ilaiah, the Hindu practice of idol worship has rubbed off on Dalits. Anand prefers to view Ambedkar worship as “not an expression of religiosity” but as “secularisation of the public sphere. I would any day prefer Dalits idolising Ambedkar than ending up queuing to have darshan of Hindu gods like Tirupati Balaji-icons that hold the Dalits in undisguised contempt. Mayawati erecting statues for herself is, of course, another matter.”