Shashi Tharoor: 'Dr Ambedkar had a strong critique of Hinduism as it was practised'
Firstpost caught up with MP Dr Shashi Tharoor in the run-up to a conference marking the 126th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, organised by the Congress govt in Karnataka
To mark Dr BR Ambedkar’s 126th birth anniversary, the Congress government in Karnataka is organising a three-day international conference titled ‘Quest for Equity – Reclaiming Social Justice, Revisiting Ambedkar’. The conference, which will commence on 21 July, will feature speakers like American civil rights activist Martin Luther King III, who is the oldest child of Martin Luther King Jr, the man who defined America’s civil rights movement; Lord Bhikhu Parekh, a political theorist and Labour member of the House of Lords; Cornel West, a leading member of Democratic Socialists of America; and Samuel Myers, a professor of economics who fought to sustain the establishment of Historically Black Colleges by providing them access to a billion dollars of federal aid.
Public intellectuals like Dr Ramchandra Guha and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi will also deliberate on the proverbial idea of India. The objective of the conference, which will be held at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru, is to lay constructive focus on promoting society as becoming more equitable, fair and just.
Firstpost caught up with Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram Dr Shashi Tharoor in the run-up to the conference, where he stated that ours is a constitution clearly written for a plural society, one that has been inspired by the spirit of people like Mahatma Gandhi. “It recognises that individual freedoms have to be balanced with group interests, that you cannot have compulsion on any matters of social behaviour, and that conformity beyond a point is not realistic if you want to preserve a diverse democracy,” Tharoor said.
He elaborated that these are the very principles that are being violated day in and day out by those who are part of the ruling dispensation, suggesting that the current polity isn’t governing in the spirit of the constitution laid down by Dr BR Ambedkar. He explained that a lot of what happens also happens in the name of non-governmental actors who seem if not blessed, at least condoned by the government, adding that Dr Ambedkar didn’t have particularly complimentary things to say about the kind of political tendency that is today represented by the successors of the Hindu Mahasabha, namely, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
When asked about whether the BJP can appropriate Ambedkar’s legacy, Dr Tharoor stated that the entire process of historical appropriation has been a fairly deliberate tactic on the part of the BJP in its most recent incarnation. “We didn’t see a similar attempt the last time the NDA was in power. But Narendra Modi, during the election campaign in 2014, tried to don the garb of Sardar Patel. We pushed back very strongly because we felt that there was such a contradiction between the way in which Sardar Patel handled the communal disturbances that accompanied the partition in 1947 and the way in which Mr Modi, confronted with similar challenges, did not rise to the same sort of approach,” adding that there was simply no legitimate argument to be made for appropriating Sardar Patel’s mantle with the record of the BJP candidate.
Going forward, Dr Tharoor articulated the sociological challenge that the Muslim community is not the only community that has been “profoundly out of sympathy with that party and that the Dalits have also been effectively marginalised to a great extent.” This in his view, is partly because the BJP has had a sort of assimilationist narrative in theory that overlooks any claims of special consideration for Dalits and partly because there’s been a certain agenda in the upper caste Hindutva movement that disparages the livelihoods and activities of the Dalit community. He cites the example of the many Dalits who make their living through animal hide, the skinning of animals, the curing of the skin, leather work and so on.
He also raised the issue of the Dalit community’s marginal representation in the ruling party. “Once they (the BJP) came to power and only after coming to power, they probably decided they needed to expand their base of governance. What we are seeing with the attempted appropriation of Ambedkar is both factors: First, you seize upon leaders from the historical past when you were actually not involved in their struggle and therefore had no claim to their activities, such as Sardar Patel few years ago and now Dr Ambedkar. Second, you simultaneously use the appropriation of this individual to reach out to a community you have been excluding from your political purview.” He called this an electoral calculation to win over the Dalits, who comprise more than 15 percent of the population.
Dr Tharoor emphasised that to this day, the BJP would not be comfortable with other things that Dr Ambedkar said, did and believed. For instance, he made a reference to Dr Ambedkar’s western suit, which was a conscious rejection of Indian traditional social behaviour that had oppressed the Dalits. “Even in the hot Indian climate, pre-air conditioning, he was often in a three-piece suit. This is not something that our friends in the BJP are going to have much understanding for.”
Dr Tharoor next asked how Dr Ambedkar’s uncompromising language on Hinduism fits in with the party of Hindutva. “I happen to believe that Dr Ambedkar was a broadminded, understanding person. Sometimes when you state certain things, you do so with a vehemence to make a point. So, I would not call Dr Ambedkar ‘anti-Hindu’, but he had a strong critique of Hinduism as it was practised. That critique would embrace many of the beliefs of today’s BJP leadership.”
Dr Tharoor highlighted that the man who gave India its constitution was a profoundly convinced democrat. “Dr Ambedkar’s speeches in the constituent assembly and speeches about whether we might lose the democracy that the founding fathers were in the process of giving us, those are things which, in many ways, call for a certain resonance in the present governance that is lacking.”
Dr Ambedkar’s commitment to equity and social justice has inspired the theme of the conference. It is said that he may have named his party the Justice party, but that name had been taken in Tamil Nadu. “Justice” Dr Tharoor emphasised, “means redressing injustices” and that “if a party is in many ways guilty of perpetrating certain injustices, how is it exactly claiming to imbibe the spirit of the man who wants to overthrow those injustices.” It’s all very well saying we love Dalits and naming an app Bhim, but what lies beyond that, he asks.
In the last couple of years, communitarian groups like the gaurakshaks and khap panchayats seem to be playing a greater role in shaping public life. Would Ambedkar have been in favour of this trend? “A khap panchayat may have social, but no legal, political and jurisdictional sanction. For them to give an order that is binding on an individual and often involves punishment and duress of various sorts is something that can be taken to a court of law, and be objected to. Because of traditional social sanction, many khap panchayats have been allowed to essentially continue to exercise such unconstitutional influences and functions,” Dr Tharoor said, adding that if the decisions of such groups infringe upon individual civil liberty, then the victims of their decisions should have recourse to the judicial system of the country.
In Annihilation of Caste, Dr Ambedkar’s undelivered speech written in 1936, he wrote: “I have no hesitation in saying that if the Mohammedan has been cruel, the Hindu has been mean; and meanness is worse than cruelty.” With the conference in Bengaluru, the Congress party hopes to refresh in public memory, many such theories laid down by the social reformer of the last century. Dr Tharoor told Firstpost that although the conference will acknowledge negative elements like discrimination and deprivation, it will ultimately aim at building a positive spirit and a concrete agenda to steer the country forward.
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