Looking back, 2019: The year Ambedkar became a universal rallying point for dissent

For the first time, he is emblematic of protests across all sections of society.

ByRavikiran Shinde
Looking back, 2019: The year Ambedkar became a universal rallying point for dissent
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As protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act have gained momentum with each passing day, one thing’s for sure: Dr Ambedkar has emerged as the single-most influential figure for all those protesting against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s idea of India.

From protests at Jama Masjid and universities across India to overseas demonstrations in Germany and Columbia University, Ambedkar’s image and his quotes were strikingly visible during the citizenship law protests. This signals a significant change. For the first time, a pan-India protest — unrelated to reservation or atrocities against Dalits — had Ambedkar placards and quotes, far surpassing pictures of other historical figures. 

Dr Ambedkar’s image has always been emblematic for the anti-caste movement involving Dalits and OBCs. Whether it was Rohith Vemula’s death, the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, or the 13-point roster system, his image has always been a rallying point, especially since the ascent of the BJP government in 2014.

Dr Ambedkar has been an inspiration for the depressed classes. However, his contributions to women empowerment through the Constitution, his message for students, and idea of pluralism have not been spread beyond these groups. 2019 might have changed this.

The citizenship law protests began after the Act was passed in Parliament on December 12. The protests have drawn together all sections of society — Muslims, Dalits, OBCs, Adivasis, students, women, the intellectual class — many under Ambedkar’s image as a symbol of resistance. 

Historian Ramachandra Guha, a Gandhian, was detained at a Bengaluru protest while holding a poster of Ambedkar. Even on November 25, when Congress leader Sonia Gandhi led a protest against the BJP’s “murder of democracy” in Maharashtra, it was held in front of a statue of Ambedkar in the Parliament premises.

So, where did this affinity come from? I think there are three possible reasons for Ambedkar becoming the symbol for those resisting the BJP’s brand of politics. 

Photo of Ambedkar at a protest at Jama Masjid. Source

Ambedkar’s stern warning against a Hindu Rashtra (Raj)

As the BJP tries to convert a Secular India into a Hindu Rashtra, using its brute majority in Parliament, those who oppose this idea of India can safely rely on Ambedkar’s warning in his book, Pakistan or the Partition of India. The book, published in 1946, provides clarity on the perils of a Hindu Rashtra that isn’t seen in the writings or speeches of prominent freedom fighters like Gandhi or Nehru.

This is precisely why during the citizenship law protests, Ambedkar was widely quoted by journalists like Rajesh Priyadarshi of BBC, and Ravish Kumar on NDTV. Ravish, in his primetime segment on December 13, said: “If the Hindu Raj (rashtra) becomes a reality, then it would be the greatest menace to this country.”

Ambekar on Ravish Kumar’s segment.

Ambedkar as a student and his message of ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise’

The citizenship law protests began from universities and campuses, like Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and others. Students, especially women students, from all backgrounds chanted slogans under portraits of Ambedkar. 

Perhaps they could relate to Ambedkar’s own struggle as a student.

Coming from an underprivileged background, Ambedkar relied on a scholarship from Saiyyaji Rao Gaekwad in Baroda to do his postgraduate studies at Columbia University in 1913. He then enrolled in the London School of Economics but had to leave halfway when his scholarship ended in 1917. He returned to London four years later.

The Narendra Modi government’s anti-student agenda is clear from the proposed fee hike in JNU and other institutions. In stark contrast is Ambedkar’s struggle for higher education.

Today, students are frequently asked why they’re protesting instead of studying. No other answer can be as apt as Ambedkar’s message: “Educate, agitate and organise.” At a protest at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, a student told NDTV: “We are invoking Dr Ambedkar because he is the father of the Constitution, and how he would have felt at this point in time.”

It’s a sentiment repeated by Anubhav Sinha, the director of Article 15, one of those rare instances of a Bollywood movie centred on caste and caste discrimination. 

The Constitution and Dr Ambedkar are inseparable

The BJP often invokes Ambedkar’s name. However, the systematic subversion of the Constitution — and the BJP’s fast-track towards a Hindu Rashtra — has been against the very ethos of the Constitution itself. As the architect of the document, Ambedkar is a crucial figure when democracy comes under attack.  

In the new scheme of things, an inability to furnish citizenship documents makes second-class citizens out of a large population of marginalised sections like Dalits, Adivasis and poor minorities. The fight for equality against this second-class citizenry is what Ambedkar’s life and mission was about. Women, backward classes, and religious minorities were protected using constitutional safeguards.

On December 21, during a protest in Darussalam, Hyderabad, Indian flags were waved, and people held up photos of Ambedkar and the Constitution. A journalist covering the rally told me: “The Constitution is the only straw which people can clutch at now. I think the affinity towards the Constitution, which guarantees them their rights, is what is drawing them [Muslims and others] to Ambedkar. And that is why we see more photos of him in rallies.”

Ambedkar’s words on the value of dissent can also be linked to how criticising the government today is labelled as sedition. This is how the protests have solidified the nationalism brand of Ambedkar — of dissent and fighting for rights using democratic ways. 

While the BJP pitches Hindus versus Muslims, Ambedkar had explained the importance of fraternity, along with liberty and equality, in saving democracy. “In an ideal society…there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy,” he said. “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoined communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of reverence and respect towards fellow men.”

So, it’s not just the Preamble being read during protests, Ambedkar’s words and thoughts resonate with protesters. He’s even seen in memes against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Memes featuring Ambedkar.

On December 27, the protest at Azad Maidan, Mumbai, had a huge backdrop with an image of Ambedkar. Safvana Khalid, a young protester in attendance, told me: “Dr Ambedkar not only was the architect of our Constitution but was also monumental in shifting the focus of politics by adding a social lens. All of us gain huge inspiration from him and his relentless courage in fighting against the caste hierarchy. It’s no surprise then that he dominates most of the protests taking place in the country.”

Amid all the despair, the end of 2019 brings with it a new hope: a profound belief, across all sections of society, that Ambedkar and his values can guide the nation through tough times. 

I think people have already realised that.

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