In defense of Prakash Amedkar’s recent statements on political reservations and Afzal Guru

In Defence of Prakash Ambedkar

by Anand Teltumbde

Prakash Ambedkar’s recent statements that the political reservations given to dalits (scheduled castes) and the requirement of mentioning caste in school leaving certificates should be done away with, as also his stand against the hanging of Afzal Guru, all of which have evoked varied reactions, need to be reflected upon.

Prakash Ambedkar is the leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) – a political outfit that seeks the unity of dalits and backward castes of the lower echelon in Maharashtra with some amount of success to its credit. Three times Member of Parliament and grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, with his offbeat views, he is not a stranger to controversies. Some time ago he had created a stir among dalits by publishing a book in Marathi entitled Ambedkar Chalval Sampali Ahe (The Ambedkarite Movement Has Ended). He made two statements recently, creating a furore among certain sections of the public. In the first statement, he said that political reservations given to dalits (scheduled castes) and also the requirement of mentioning caste in school leaving certificates (probably school records) should be stopped. The second statement was against the hanging of Afzal Guru. What is interesting is not the reactions they elicited but the pattern of these responses. While the first statement evoked angry reactions within dalit circles, notably the established dalit leaders and their hangers-on, it was mostly praised and welcomed by others, apparently those from the Hindu Right. The second statement met with a deafening silence from the former and angry reactions from the latter. The so-called progressive India, of course, kept its “dignified silence” on both.

Political Reservations

The genesis of current political reservations for dalits is directly traced to the infamous Poona Pact Ambedkar had to sign under pressure from Gandhi’s fast unto death against the communal award of the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald in the aftermath of the three round table conferences (RTCs) in 1931-32. Gandhi – who participated from the second RTC following the Gandhi-­Irwin Pact of May 1931 – vehemently opposed Ambedkar’s demand for separate electo­rates for dalits with an alibi that it would destroy Hindu society. At the end, Ambedkar won the argument and got dalits separate electorates, establishing for the first time their separate political identity from Hindus. In the prevailing political climate, with such demands from various communities, it spelt a milestone win for dalits and a corresponding loss for the Congress. Gandhi declared that he would oppose it and went on a fast unto death in Yerwada Jail from 20 September 1932. On the fifth day, after ensuing countrywide ­tension, he succeeded in blackmailing Ambedkar into giving up separate electorates and instead accepting more number of reserved seats in joint electorates along with a plethora of promises that the Congress would work for the ­upliftment of dalits.

These reserved seats were to be ­secured through two-stage voting; in the preliminary round, only dalits would vote to elect their four potential representatives and in the subsequent round all voters would elect one from among those four. This two-stage system was dropped after the adoption of the Constitution yielding the current form of reserved seats where a dalit representative gets elected by all the voters. It was ­incorporated in Article 330 of the Constitution for an initial period of 10 years, with a proviso that it would be reviewed at the end of the period and dropped if needed. However, ever since, despite there being occasional demands from dalits to end this system, it gets automa­tically renewed every time before its ­expiry with exemplary unani­mity, ­establishing its value to the ruling classes beyond doubt.

These political reservations opened the floodgates of co-optation of dalits and decimated the possibility of their ­independent representation. Since dalits had little impact on the election of dalit politicians, the latter did not need to care for them, leave alone representing their ­interests. Rather, since their election ­entirely depended on the ruling-class parties for resources and vote banks, the dalit leaders became totally subservient to the leadership of these parties. The reserved seats served as politically inert additions to the tally of the ruling-class parties and as an important conduit for managing this inflammable section of the populace. The negative fallout of this system became evident when genuine dalit candidates were easily defeated by political pygmies with ruling-class party support. Ambedkar himself lost in the 1952 general elections to one Narayan Kajrolkar, a Congress candidate. He was again defeated by a political non-entity, one Bhaurao Borkar, fielded by the Congress in a by-election for the Bhandara Lok Sabha reserved seat in 1954. He ­realised that the system of political reservations had become an instrument of perpetuation of slavery and demanded its end on 21 October 1955.

While this reservation has been fully implemented, not a single dalit representative has ever raised his voice against any of the anti-dalit government policies or against the increasing incidence of atrocities. Rather, there is a plethora of examples to prove that they directly or indirectly supported such policies. Even during the post-Ambedkar period, the dalits kept on demanding an end to such reservations, but the ruling classes would not let go of this golden goose. In 1974, the Dalit Panthers of Gujarat had symbolically set fire to Article 330 demanding its end. In 1982, the 50th year of the Poona Pact, Kanshi Ram had launched a countrywide movement for its end, stating that such reservation had created a tribe of chamcha(stooges). But all this history is inconsequential to opportunists like Ramdas Athawale, who reap the “strange and bitter fruit” of this policy, even as they accuse Prakash Ambedkar as being anti-dalit.

Towards Annihilation

While the demand for ending political reservation is clearly justified, the demand for removing caste from school records may be cosmetic so long as reservations in the educational sphere are continued. It may however be justifiably said that those dalits or non-dalits who do not want to mention caste in school records should be allowed to do so. ­Today many people are humiliatingly forced to record the caste and religious identities of their children at the time of admission even though they do not ­believe in them. It may thus be viewed as a laudable suggestion to have a “no caste” option available for those who want to transcend this evil. This might bring down the number of people wanting to avail of reservations and also ­reveal the size of those who detest the caste system.

While this could be proposed as a minimalist solution, it is time one deeply reflected over these caste-based policies which have effectively perpetuated the caste system. Objectively speaking, caste-based reservations only matter in the professional courses being offered by a few reputed institutions – the Indian ­Institutes of Technology, the Indian ­Institutes of Management, and the like. The fact that reservations in these elite institutions go unfilled year after year for the want of candidates implies that not enough students qualify to reach these institutions even after lowering the qualifying cut-off to a dangerous level.

Dispassionate analysis of this pheno­menon would point to the weak foundation of dalit students, which in turn is attributable to the multilayered school education system that dishes out education to children according to the socio-economic standing of their parents. If all children were provided with free, quality education through a common school system as envisaged in the Constitution, there may not be any necessity for having such discriminatory caste-based ­policies. The implementation of the right to education (RTE), which was reluctantly bestowed as a consequence of a Supreme Court judgment and instituted by the much trumpeted RTE Act 2010, is much in violation of the original provisions of the Constitution. It has legitimated the multilayered educational system, mischievously bringing in reservation for the weaker sections as an antidote. ­Dalits as a social group can be seen as the worst victims of this so-called RTE but so effective is their political management that none of their leaders has raised even a feeble voice against it. Job reservation has been rendered ineffective because of negative growth of employment in the public sector since 1997. But instead of noting this stark reality and raising one’s voice against the neo-liberal policies of the government that have brought this about, dalit leaders keep singing the song of reservation and even claim that globalisation has been beneficial to them. Surely, such a stand is not conducive to the “annihilation-of-castes” vision of ­Babasaheb Ambedkar, just reiterated by Prakash Ambedkar.

Afzal Guru

There is an unspoken dictum that dalits are not supposed to speak beyond caste and therefore Prakash Ambedkar’s statement that Afzal Guru should not be hanged might be prima facie disturbing to many. Statesmanlike, in mid-December last year, Prakash rationally argued that the majority of Kashmiris wanted to be part of the Indian union, but if Afzal Guru were hanged, “they will doubt whether they will be part of a secular ­India”. He therefore demanded that the status quo on Afzal Guru be maintained. The statement tacitly implied that the majority of Kashmiris thought that Guru did not deserve the death sentence and if he were to be executed, this would be viewed as being communally inspired.

Afzal Guru’s conviction as well as ­execution has been commented upon by many legal luminaries and human rights activists as being in violation of the law. But, all Prakash Ambedkar did was to demand that the status quo be maintained. This however evoked venomous reaction from sections of the right-wing who had just showered praises on him for his views on reservations. While the angry reactions to his views on reservation from his rivals in dalit politics, who ­always did the bidding for the ruling classes, are understandable, so also is their silence on Afzal Guru. But, what is interesting is the extreme responses of love and hate from the Hindu right-wingers. As the views of individuals unprompted by any organised effort, the comments may reflect their general opposition to caste-based reservations, the sections of the Indian Constitution that have a bearing on these, and the Congress, which is identified as the progenitor of such reser­vations, but the fact is that the Bharatiya Janata Party, their party, today commands the maximum number of reserved seats. What is disturbing in this entire episode is the silence of the self-proclaimed ­progressives.

Anand Teltumbde ( is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

Economic & Political weekly, Vol – XLVIII No. 11, March 16, 2013


The Left’s Untouchable

Why was Ambedkar’s critique of caste anathema for Indian Marxists?
It’s an abiding mystery of Indian politics: why the Left has consistently shown an uneasy reluctance to seriously engage with B.R. Ambedkar’s thoughts. When Ambedkar pushed for the Poona Pact in 1932, demanding separate electorates for Dalits, the Indian Left kept its distance from the issue. Symptomatically, E.M.S. Namboodiripad wrote: “This was a great blow to the freedom movement. For this led to the diversion of people’s attention from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the upliftment of the Harijans.”

EMS’s reaction to the Poona Pact was in consonance with his reading of Indian history in Marxist terms. Borrowing crudely from Marx’s understanding of the history of slavery, EMS found the caste system, despite its exploitative structure, to be “a superior economic organisation”, which facilitated organised production through a systematic allocation of labour. He didn’t note Ambedkar’s sophisticated distinction between “division of labour” and “division of the labourer” (including the hierarchy within that division) in the casteist relations of production. The eternal fixedness of the labourer with regard to his birth (as the “subject” who “will bear its Father’s name”), and the religious sanction behind such an identity, were deemed unimportant. Being mostly from the upper castes, Left scholars avoided examining the assumptions of caste.

Since before Independence, the mainstream Left framed the class question safely within the nationalist question; for EMS and his comrades, this issue was not a diversion.

Ambedkar had the courage to push for a radical division within the framework of nationalist politics, by asking for separate electorates. By calling Ambedkar’s cause “mundane”, EMS drew a specious distinction between the working class and Dalits, holding the former to be “superior”. Through this, EMS betrayed his predominantly upper-caste mindset. He is an exemplar of progressive casteism in the history of Left politics and thinking in India. This led to lower castes and Dalits not finding a place in the party hierarchy.

The most insidious form of caste solidarity ignores and hides the stark fact that caste is part of what Althusser calls the “apparatus” of ideology and is based in material existence. Every form of social practice (and exploitation) in India is contextually casteist. It creates conditions of multiple prejudice between the bourgeois and the working class (where the scavenging class/caste goes unnamed). And this prejudice becomes part of the relations of production as caste introduces elements of segregation and humiliation within those relations. In the case of untouchables, one might in fact call it relations of waste, where the disposing of sewage, etc, is not accorded even the minimum standard of dignified working conditions.

Ambedkar pointed out how the class system had an “open-door character”, whereas castes were “self-enclosed units”. He gave a brilliant explanation of caste’s forced endogamy: “Some closed the door: others found it closed against them.” The image throws up a phenomenon opposite to the Kafkan idea of law: the (Hindu) gatekeeper of law, in Ambedkar’s explanation, is also the lawgiver, and he allows entry by birth, but no exit. Once entry has been secured in Hindu society, as Ambedkar argued, everyone who is not a Brahmin is an other. Hinduism is a uniquely self-othering social system, whose (touchable) norms are secured by declaring a brutal exception: untouchability.

In his comparison of Buddha and Marx, Ambedkar bypasses Marx’s idea of private property and keeps out the question of capital ownership. He also does not complicate the relation between ‘law’ and ‘government’. These appear to be limitations of the historical conjuncture of Dalit politics. But Ambedkar finds the materialist and non-violent character of Buddhism to be evoking another thinkable historical version of a Marxist society.

Some critics in the Indian Left see the Dalit movement as being merely a ‘politics of recognition’ and having no revolutionary potential. It is a shallow view of the movement against segregated exploitation that seeks to penetrate entrenched hegemony. The politics against untouchability demands more than good wages and working conditions: it asks for a reconfiguration of the socio-cultural space and the elimination of a violated and untouchable ‘bare life’.

Ambedkar had warned that the Indian socialist would have to “take account of caste after the revolution, if he does not take account of it before the revolution”.

In a discussion after the screening of his film, Jai Bhim Comrade, Anand Patwardhan said that even though Gandhi erred on the caste system, he did more against untouchability than the Left. Under the stark light of this observation, the Left must rethink its ideological history. Or else, the crisis of its political legitimacy may not outlive the warnings.


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