Maverick: The Empty Dalit Brand Wagon
By Farzana Versey
Covert April 1-15
Would a Dalit prime minister care about Mr X who enters a temple stealthily, even though he looks “normal” in his own words? In March 2009 two men were killed for trying to do so.
X belongs to the middle class; he spends weekends eating out. His feeling of ostracism could be real or psychological. It is a complex identity crisis. He believes that part of his upward mobility ought to also make him acceptable to the “real Hindus”. The temple is not a place of worship for him, but an assertion of belonging.
There are those who are in denial. A quarter of our people are considered backward and untouchable. All we get to hear is how Dalits convert for a few rupees, how they go scrounging for special privileges, how they want to remain backward.
They don’t. In a diplomatic coup of sorts – ‘sanskritisation’ – they shed their caste-based names, moved to the cities where they thought they would not be noticed. Is urban society any less prejudiced? On the contrary, there is more segregation. In the past at least it was rooted in ignorance. Today, it is those who are aware that cause harm. Could there be any valid reason for their resentment? X does not hide his roots and he has noticed that, “The best way to keep people where they are is to force them to become what you have always known them to be.”
I told him about how once during a conversation when I mentioned Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the person retorted, “Oh, that fellow Mammooty played in the film?”
X smiles. “I don’t blame them. Even among his supporters, is there any genuine respect? Solidarity? A future agenda chalked out?”
On April 14 every year there is this yearly tamasha. Coming to Mumbai is one huge picnic for them. There is a garishly-coloured picture of their leader garlanded, the flowers cringing at being smothered. They end up as common idolaters. If they truly respected Ambedkar they would understand the meaning of neo-Buddhism. I had once spoken with a professor who belonged to a backward class and he told me that his conversion was the result of the privations he underwent as a child and youth. Babasaheb’s philosophy gave him self-respect besides teaching him the value of not bowing his head before any and every god. Are these followers in the same or even similar league? Do they have any self-respect? Won’t they genuflect before any two-bit leader who offers them a free ticket?
Back in the villages, despite the fact that they are exploited by the powerful, there is no unity amongst themselves and a good deal of mutual harassment.
Unlike Tilak who used religion to gather people on one platform and the Mahatma who ostensibly did so to propagate tolerance, Ambedkar had aspired to give the marginalised a boat in which they could ride through storms as well as towards new shores. Instead, they made it into an anchor, everyone desperately hanging on to it, and then letting it loose to be hoisted as a pennant. I wonder if a Hollywood-like support for the cause would give it impetus, as it has done for the Dalai Lama version of it.
Except for politicians and their selfish multi-hued aspirations, no prominent Indian celebrity has ever come forward to espouse the cause of Dalits. Would it be considered trendy if a few film stars, socialites, cricketers put their lot behind the Dalit issue? Aren’t they too, like the Tibetans, homeless in their own homes? Why has such a movement not taken place? Whether or not it will help further the cause we do not know, but what could be the reason for this silence? Is such a vast body of backward people not as much worthy of consideration as riot, bomb blast, and drought victims?
As for the followers, most want to be leaders, but they don’t know which direction to take; they may not even want to move an inch and prefer to retain the status quo, which affords them a permanent purpose.
Dr. Ambedkar, like many a hero and symbol, becomes merely another brand name. And X remains invisible.