In his book Republic of Caste, the civil-rights activist and writer Anand Teltumbde explores the foundational idea of the republic—equality—and how caste has subverted this idea and its implementation in every institution in the country. Teltumbde examines education, reservation, politics and policy, alongside ideological movements such as Marxism and Ambedkarism, violence and atrocities against Dalits, and protests such as Una in Gujarat. He shows that caste—especially the oppression of Dalits—has defined modern India.
In the following extract, taken from the chapter “Saffronising Ambedkar: The RSS Inversion of the Idea of India,” Teltumbde notes that BR Ambedkar’s bitter critique of Hinduism pervaded the latter’s writings, and that his actions exhibited an “ultimate abhorrence” for Hinduism. This history, Teltumbde writes, comes in the way of the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh’s goal to make India a “Hindu rashtra.” To bring Dalits into the fold, Teltumbde adds, the Sangh is left with no option but to co-opt Ambedkar and project him as opposed to Muslims and communists—effectively, to “saffronise” him.
Dalits constitute an important part of the Sangh Parivar’s game plan. Its strategic apple cart—meant to polarise the Indian population into Hindus versus others: Muslims, Christians and communists (i.e. those who do not agree with it)—could be toppled by the dalits. It cannot be taken for granted that dalits would identify themselves as Hindus anymore. With their historical, social, ideological and cultural profile, they have the potential to play spoiler for the BJP’s agenda for the nation. It is for this reason that Ambedkar assumes critical importance in the Sangh Parivar’s strategy. Unless Ambedkar were adequately saffronised, the rejection of Hinduism by the dalit masses under his leadership would continue to plague its efforts. The new-found love for Ambedkar stems from this political expediency.
It was during the tenure of Madhukar Dattatraya alias Balasaheb Deoras, perhaps the most low-profile sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, from 1973 to 1994, that active work among dalits was initiated under Seva Bharati, the Sangh’s non-governmental organisation devoted to the purpose. The ensuing shifts of stance included placing Ambedkar among the Sangh’s pratahsmaraniya (literally, one who is venerated in the morning prayer), and floating—on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in 1983—a purpose-built vehicle, the Samrasata Manch, to woo middle class dalits who yearned for social recognition from the upper castes. Until then, Ambedkar had been anathema to the Sangh Parivar, for his vitriolic attacks on everything they held sacred. Once the shift was accomplished, the Parivar began projecting him as the friend of its founder, KB Hedgewar—“the two doctors” was how this outlandish pairing was styled, as if the two had held learned confabulations together. It may be worth recalling here that Hedgewar was a mere licentiate practitioner with a diploma, not a medical degree holder, while Ambedkar held two doctoral degrees from world-renowned universities; but registering the gaps between fact and fantasy was never the Parivar’s strong suit. In the same vein, Ambedkar came to be projected as the greatest benefactor of Hindus, an admirer of the RSS, one opposed to Muslims and communists, a supporter of ghar wapsi, an advocate of the saffron flag as the national flag, a hyper-nationalist, and so on. These were clever misrepresentations, with at best a tenuous link to the facts of the case, and often none at all, but they were projected as truths with unflinching zeal.
However easily one may recognise the gimmickry, it cannot be ignored or dismissed. It created the specious grounds for co-opting dalit leaders into the saffron fold. The BJP has made steady gains in the reserved constituencies over the years and, in the general elections of 2014, won more reserved seats than any other party. However, just winning reserved seats are not enough. The BJP’s polarisation strategy is contingent on de-radicalising dalits and winning them over. Since this formula turns on the deliberate alienation of religious minorities—who, along with dalits, constitute up to 30 per cent of the electorate—not having the dalits on their side would seriously impede their plans for a Hindu rashtra.