Essay series on 'What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to me'
It was neither my family nor my school that introduced Ambedkar to me. It was because of my friends, either classmates or facebook friends that I got introduced to Babasaheb Ambedkar. It is a fact that I never felt a strong connection with Babasaheb, Jyotiba Phule and Savitri Bai in school and never heard about these three leaders in my family. I felt that connection only after I came to Pune for my graduation.
I heard stories in my school about 'Bapu', 'Bal Gangadhar Tilak' but not about 'Babasaheb'. There would be competitions in my school like reciting 'Manache Shlok' (Sanskrit prayers) or elocution competition on Tilak but Babasaheb was completely absent there. Babasaheb would be there only for one day -14th April and this day too would be a holiday in school. We never had any competition or celebration even before or after 14th April to know about Babasaheb Ambedkar. There would be discussions among some of my friends on how they danced with Lezhim on the roads for long hours on that day. But I never heard about this celebration either in my family or my school. The efforts that were taken in school to make us feel connected with Gandhi, Tilak or Nehru were not to be found in the case of Ambedkar. Today, I feel that we studied Ambedkar only in books. If there were extra efforts, at least in the school, we could have known more about Babasaheb Ambedkar and not just Ambedkar.
I remember my first encounter with Babasaheb, which was during my school days. It was my best friend from whom I heard about Babasaheb Ambedkar and not just Ambedkar. She had once told me that they do not celebrate Diwali or any other Hindu festivals. I was surprised to hear that. I had thought that Nav-Bauddha was just another religion like Hinduism and if we were told in our schools that India is the nation where all people celebrate festivals of different religions, then why wasn't my friend celebrating Diwali? (It did not come to my mind that why then was I not celebrating Bhimjayanti with her.) That was the first time perhaps when I realised that Dalits were not just in our books but they exist in real life too. It was not just her answer that made me think, her tone too was different than usual – something like hate or anger but not loud. I could not understand at that time why was she speaking in that tone to me? Was it because of my over enthusiasm for Diwali or was it because I was compelling her to celebrate Diwali? I remember once when I was in 3rd or 4th standard, I had gone to her home after my school for the first time, as my mother was late to pick me up from school. When I went to her home, after lunch her mother told me to call my mother and inform her about where I was. I knew her mother was kind and friendly, so it was not that she did not want me to stay there but from the moment I had come to her home, I could notice the tension and worry on the face of my friend's mother. I thought it was because of the fact that I was there without informing my parents. But it was more than that. Her mother made it clear to me later that my family would not like it if I stayed there. That time I wondered why she would think so. But childhood is just a phase. So these two memories faded with time. It was like they had almost disappeared from my memory. Then I did my Junior College in Mumbai. But there also, Ambedkar was never a topic in our discussions.
When I came to Pune for my graduation with my two friends from Mumbai, we made a couple of friends. In the initial days, when we would discuss about society, culture etc. one such friend would always talk with a different perspective, something we had never thought of earlier. It was from him that we often started to hear about Babasaheb Ambedkar. It is significant that this friend too was Nav-Buddhist. In the beginning, I did not take his opinions serioulsy because I did not know enough about Babasaheb Ambedkar. What I knew about Ambedkar was only a small portion which had been there in my syllabus, from school to college. At that time I was also of the opinion that it's the women who know more about festivals and culture and hence his opinions might be wrong. Eventually I came across some readings, group discussions in our Socio-Club in college, and some posts on Facebook which pulled me towards the will to know more about Babasaheb Ambedkar. Those two faded memories in my childhood then re-appeared in my mind and the questions I had during my childhood somehow got the answer that my privileged caste had to do with those memories. I also understood later that my friend's critical opinions on Hindu festivals had not only questioned my gender but my gender from certain caste too. I once had tried to read the original texts by Ambedkar, but at that time I could not understand them. Even today, I still have not read any original text by Babasaheb Ambedkar. But I am trying to know and understand more and more about Babasaheb through all possible means –be it discussions with friends, teachers, posts and pages on Facebook, seminars etc.
At the moment, I am doing my post-graduation in Gender, Culture And Development at the Women's Studies Centre, Savitribai Phule Pune University. And it is true that Feminisms in India cannot be understood without understanding Ambedkar's views on Women's Emancipation. It is the standpoint of the women at the bottom of hierarchy, of the women who are the most oppressed, that we need when we talk about Women's Emancipation and Empowerment. Freedom and Justice to these women means freedom and justice to all. Only patriarchy is not our enemy, it is hetero-normative capitalism-enabled Brahmanical Patriarchy.
Though coming from an OBC background, I sometimes wonder how did it become possible that I never heard explicitly in my family either about Jyotiba and Savitribai or about Ambedkar. I could make sense of ideal 'Dalit-Bahujanwad' in the texts only. But the reality is very different. I have come across some comments, arguments in either my family or my community which looks down upon Dalits or 'Harijans', a term they prefer to use. Not only they, but sometimes even I have been trapped in these prejudices, if not in my conscious self then in the unconscious. But I think, these caste prejudices in the unconscious are no less than explicit caste discrimination, caste violence and hence even our unconscious needs continuous self-interrogation. Posts by Ambedkarites on facebook and lectures in my Department both have influenced me to look at everyday Caste and Gender issues with a perspective different than the perspective with which my relatives/cousins look at these issues and therefore sometimes I find myself singled out in the debates with them. But eventually I'm learning that the debates are not going to help me anymore simply because they shrink the opportunity to make a dialogue with them and the possibility to draw their attention towards my perspective. Also, they are not going through the process of unlearning which I now get to explore by reading the posts by Ambedkarites.
Knowing about Babasaheb and understanding his ideology has not been an easy task for me because for that you have to unlearn a lot first. And when you do that, you feel as if all through your life so far, you have had false pride, false beliefs, false values, false principles and false knowledge which made you judge and perceive everything in a wrong way. It is about thinking from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalised who actually have a better knowledge of structural hierarchy and how to challenge it. It is about questioning your commonsensical knowledge and every opinion, choice you make even in your everyday life. It is about acknowledging your privileges while talking with others, about others. It is about reflecting upon your 'personal' which holds, sometimes unknowingly sometimes knowingly, biases, stereotypes and prejudices. It is about respecting the dignity of one's own self and that of each individual. It is about engaging in the movement for establishing an equal and just society. It is about a constant process of self-interrogation.
Babasaheb for me is like an inner voice which keeps reminding me of this process of self-interrogation. For me, this is one of the ways to keep Babasaheb alive, to contribute to the world he dreamt of.
Jai Bhim! Jai Savitri! Jai Jotiba!
Madhura Raut is currently doing MA in 'Gender,Culture & Development' course from 'Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women's Studies Centre, Savitribai Phule Pune University Pune'.