Jai Bhim, not Ram
The spectre of Sambuka
Faced with growing Dalit alienation and anger that has spilled out on the streets of India, the Narendra Modi government has gone on an overdrive to proclaim its devotion to the country's greatest Dalit icon, Babasaheb B.R. Ambedkar.
The prime minister, as is his wont, has repeatedly claimed over the past few days that no government has done as much to preserve and promote Ambedkar's legacy as his. He has trotted out the number of memorials built and schemes named after the icon in the last four years. Modi has also asked members of parliament belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party to spend two nights in villages between April 14 and May 5 to propagate, especially to the Dalit community, the measures taken by the party and the government to honour Ambedkar.
This zeal to appropriate Ambedkar stems from two reasons. The first is obvious. The BJP is unnerved at the prospects of losing the vote of the Dalits and the backward castes in the next general election. For purely political and electoral reasons, therefore, the party desperately needs to reach out to the community and thinks that symbolic genuflection to Ambedkar will do the trick.
The second reason is much more important, long-term and insidious. It is to appropriate Ambedkar and deify him as the architect of the Indian Constitution but simultaneously obliterate his scathing criticism of the Hindu caste order, and indeed Hinduism itself - its gods, scriptures and practices that uphold and sustain hierarchy and inequality, violence and injustice.
The second motive came out in the open when the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh issued an order on March 28 to refer to Ambedkar by his "correct" name in all government and court records - Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The state governor, Ram Naik, had first suggested the change, arguing that Ramji was Ambedkar's father's name and it was the practice in Maharashtra to use the father's name as a middle name. Ambedkar himself had signed his full name while drafting the Constitution, Naik argued.
For Dalit leaders and activists, it was obvious that this renaming exercise was a far from subtle attempt to 'Hinduise' a man who challenged the religion and wholly repudiated it by converting to Buddhism months before he died. His grandson, Anandraj Ambedkar, pointed out that Ambedkar seldom wrote his full name and preferred his initials. Slamming the BJP government's order, another grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, said, "My sense is, close to the elections, they might try to tell the voters that Ambedkar was also a 'Ram bhakt'."
With Yogi Adityanath set to revive the Ayodhya temple issue, that is a distinct possibility. And that is why it is also imperative to realize that Babasaheb Ambedkar was the very opposite of a Ram bhakt - and penned the most devastating critique of the epic hero in his book, Riddles in Hinduism, which he could not publish in his lifetime.
The incomplete manuscript of the book, which Ambedkar wrote towards the end of his life, was published by the Maharashtra government decades later as part of the multi-volume series, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. But it remained largely obscure to the lay public till the radical publishing house, Navayana, brought out a selection from the book in 2016, richly annotated by editors, S. Anand and Shobna Iyer.
In the context of the UP government order, it is particularly illuminating to read Ambedkar's analysis of the hero of the Ramayana in the Appendix titled "The Riddle of Rama and Krishna" for it brings to light aspects that have been suppressed in most retellings of India's best-known epic.
Ambedkar's short text analyzing the character of Ram is based on a careful reading of Valmiki's Ramayana. Unlike Valmiki - and most religious Hindus - who extol the hero as a "maryada purushottam" (ideal man), Ambedkar sees nothing righteous in his conduct.
Ambedkar's criticism of Ram's role in the battle between Sugriv and Vali has been made by others. Ram, it is well known, killed Vali through unfair means to help his ally, Sugriv, win the kingdom. In Ambedkar's words, "The murder of Vali is the greatest blot on the character of Rama. It was a crime which was thoroughly unprovoked, for Vali had no quarrel with Rama. It was most cowardly act for Vali was unarmed. It was a planned and premeditated murder."
Ambedkar is equally critical of Ram's treatment of his wife, Sita. On Ram's conduct with Sita after killing Ravan, Ambedkar writes, "It would be difficult to believe any man with ordinary human kindness could address his wife in such dire distress as Rama did to Sita when he met her in Lanka, if there was not the direct authority of Valmiki." He goes on to quote Ram's words from the Ramayana, insulting Sita and then demanding that she prove her purity through a trial by fire.
After returning to Ayodhya, Ram hears of malicious gossip against Sita and cannot bear the disgrace. Ambedkar writes at some length on how Ram plots to abandon Sita "as the easiest way of saving himself from public calumny without waiting to consider whether the way was fair or foul. The life of Sita simply did not count. What counted was his own personal name and fame."
But more than the plight of Sita, it is Ambedkar's commentary on the murder of Sambuka, the Shudra, that is chilling - perhaps because it is so little known outside a small circle of Dalit and Dravidian anti-caste cognoscenti.
Ambedkar writes that according to Valmiki there were no premature deaths in Ram's reign but a Brahman's son suddenly died prematurely. "The bereaved father", writes Ambedkar, "carried the body to the gate of the king's palace, and placing it there, cried aloud and bitterly reproached Rama for the death of his son, saying that it must be the consequence of some sin committed within his realm, and that the king himself was guilty if he did not punish it..."
Ram is then told that "some Shudra among his subjects must have been performing tapasya (ascetic exercises) and thereby going against dharma (sacred law); for according to it the practice of tapasya was proper to the twice-born alone, while the duty of the Shudras consisted only in the service of the twice-born."
Ram then scours the countryside and finally finds a man doing tapasya. Ambedkar, drawing the details from Valmiki's account, writes that Ram then approaches the man "and with no more ado than to enquire of him and inform himself that he was a Shudra by the name of Sambuka, who was practising tapasya with a view to going to heaven in his own earthly person and without so much as a warning, expostulation or the like addressed to him, cut off his head. And lo and behold! That very moment the dead Brahman boy in distant Ayodhya began to breathe again."
The gods congratulate Ram on his deed and the sage, Agastya, presents him with a divine bracelet. Ram then returns to the capital. Ambedkar concludes his essay with just three words: "Such is Rama."
It is a measure of the complete upper caste hegemony over social and religious discourse over millennia that even liberal Hindus know so little about Ram's beheading of Sambuka in order to uphold the sanctity of an inhumane caste order. Eklavya was made to sacrifice his thumb in order to ensure that a tribal boy does not surpass the skills of a Kshatriya prince in archery. Sambuka faced a worse fate: spiritual knowledge was denied to him because he dared adopt a practice reserved for the high born.
No wonder Dalit activists and scholars who have managed to enter higher education and government, which were once the sole preserve of the upper castes, fear that with the ascendance of virulent 'Ram bhakts' in the country today, their hard-won rights will be snatched away. The last four years have been marked not just by assaults on Dalit lives and livelihoods but also the non-release of post-matric scholarships to Dalit students amounting to nearly Rs 7,000 crore and the drastic reduction of reserved faculty positions in universities for those belonging to the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes.
Inserting Ramji to Bhimrao Ambedkar's name and building memorials in his honour is not going to make the spectre of Sambuka go away...