The political panic over the use of a 1949 Ambedkar cartoon in a Class XI political science textbook has raised a debate over whether electoral democracy is riding roughshod over democratic values.
Faced with the belligerence of Dalit leaders, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal executed a complete retreat and not only promised to remove the offending cartoon and stop the distribution of the books already printed, but has ordered a review of the entire content of such textbooks to remove any offending material by next year.
While sociologist Ashis Nandy has decried the political pusillanimity of Sibal for bowing to “psephocracy”, where vote power decides what is right or wrong, two key political science advisors to the NCERT textbook division have resigned in disgust. The irony is that both the advisors, Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, are known for their pro-OBC, pro-Dalit views.
No doubt, the coming days will see a replay of all the arguments we heard during the Rushdie-Jaipur LitFest affair.
But the more interesting idea to contemplate is why some individuals acquire the status of prophets about whom nothing even remotely critical can ever be said or implied.
The right comparison this time would be to the Danish prophet cartoons, which offended Muslims, and the Ambedkar cartoon, which apparently offended Dalits.
Dalit writer Kancha Ilaiah– who usually makes it a point to provoke caste war at the drop of a hat – made the same point. “Ambedkar is to Dalits what the prophet is to Muslims. He should not be seen only as a constitution-maker, which the authors of the textbook seem to have presented him as; he is fast acquiring the status of prophet for the scheduled castes of the country,” The Indian Express quoted him as saying.
Yes, he’s right. The conditions for converting Ambedkar from just an extraordinary human being and social reformer to prophet seem just right.
Several conditions must exist for a social or political icon to be elevated to the status of near-god or prophet. Four, in particular, are important.
First, the political conditions must be right. There must be sufficiently large numbers that feel excluded and are in search of the right way to empower themselves.
Second, the sense of alienation from the dominant culture must be acute and widely felt across the community. If the dominant culture somehow conveys the impression of superiority, the task of elevating a leader to saint becomes easier.
Third, the dominant culture should be in decline and seized with self-doubt.
Fourth, elevation to prophethood does not depend on what the prophet may actually have said or done; it depends on the will of his followers and their need for political power.
Let’s consider the historical precedents first. Buddha and Mahavira emerged as non-theistic icons and prophets when overweening Brahminism was creating a social decline and sense of disgust in the broader population.
The elevation of Jesus Christ to Son of God happened centuries after the crucifixion and that, too, not among the people he was born – the Jews, where he would merely have been a social reformer. Jesus became messiah first in Europe, where the decline of Roman values was becoming apparent and anti-Semitism was rising as a political mood.
The rise of the prophet of Islam happened in the context where both Jews and Christians claimed to be people of the book, and hence superior. They looked down on the tribal Arabs as uncultured and uncivilised. Mohammed emerged as a prophet in this backdrop.
A counter-point can be made with Gandhi. As moral leaders go, Gandhi would have been considered a prophet or saint equivalent to a Jesus or Mohammed in any other era but the 20th century. But the 20th century was the era of rising rationalism, where saints had to be reduced to ordinary mortals. The demythification of Gandhi has begun in the west, and will continue.
So why should it be any different with Ambedkar? How can he, a 20th century rationalist, become a prophet?
Well, the conditions are right for him to be elevated to prophethood – despite the fact that what Dalits are doing to him would be the very antithesis of what he himself advocated: use of rational thought, use of constitutional methods of protest, avoidance of superstition and the cult of personality.
In 1949, in a speech to the constituent assembly, he clearly said that “hero worship is a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.” But that will not stop Dalits from doing that to him, for their need for Ambedkar overpowers what he actually stood for.
Let’s briefly discuss the conditions as they exist now.
One, Dalits, despite all their own internal divisions, are the largest single disadvantaged group in India and they constitute the biggest voting chuck – if we take them together. The attempt to raise Ambedkar to god-like status is important to consolidate the power of this vote base and demand a greater share of the national resources and wealth.
Two, there is little doubt that Dalit alienation is high – and Hindu self-doubt is peaking right now. Dalits need a towering icon like Ambedkar – no Dalit in the past or in the present has thought so deeply about society as Ambedkar – to give themselves a sense of superiority over the rest of society. We all know Ambedkar was only human, and he would have made his share of mistakes, but admitting this does not serve the Dalit purpose of consolidating power.
Muslims who lived in the era of the prophet knew he was only human and made his share of errors, but after him his followers saw the need to place him beyond human doubt to consolidate their political power. The same thing happened in early Christianity when Paul delinked the historical Jesus from the Jesus who was required for political and societal consolidation.
Ambedkar’s tryst with prophethood has clearly begun. In due course, he will be up there with the Buddha as the most important prophet of the Dalits. Never mind if he isn’t the Ambedkar we know from his writings.
Falsification of truth and the mythification of historical personalities is vital for power.