Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of BR Ambedkar and two-term Member of Parliament from Akola in Maharastra, is the president of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), a faction of the Republican Party of India. In July 2016, the BBM worked towards organising a mass rally to protest the demolition of the old Ambedkar Bhawan in central Mumbai in June. On 26 August, Ambedkar—who was then visiting Delhi—and a few other Dalit rights activists addressed a press conference that was held at the Delhi Press Club. There, they announced that under the banner of the Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh (DSS), various Dalit organisations and workers’ associations would walk to Parliament House on 16 September to protest the atrocities against Dalits in India. DSS, Ambedkar said, would also set a socio-cultural agenda to help create a common platform for Dalit expression.
Later that day, Sagar, a web reporter at The Caravan, visited Maharastra Sadan to interview Ambedkar. They discussed, among other things, the rise of Dalit nationalism, reservations, double-member constituencies, and the caste politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
S: Do you see a rise of Dalit nationalism after Una? How do you look at the entire incident?
PA: The third or fourth generation [of Dalits], if I can say so, is a more liberated generation. Society has also changed, they can assert themselves. They have started expressing themselves in various sectors.
S: How is this generation of Dalits different from previous ones?
PA: The older generation was very much interested in liberating themselves from caste hegemony, whereas the younger generation is looking at stabilising itself on the philosophy of Dr Ambedkar—he considers caste as one of the factors but he moves on to social and other economic factors. You see Dr Ambedkar coming out of caste, into all spheres of life—that credit goes to this generation.
S: Can the Una protest be called the beginning of Dalit revolution in India or an aazadi kooch, or freedom march?
PA: I would say that, they [Dalits] would not like to be caged anymore. The RSS is trying to cage them, enslave them. The kind of individual liberty Dalits have enjoyed [under other administrations], they would not like to surrender that. There is lots of support to them on the issue from non-Dalits as well, because they [non-Dalits] also feel that their individuality was also subjected to caste. The caste identity became more important than the individual identity. So there is common cause now, for Dalits and for rest.
There was no antipathy attached to this movement which normally happens—[criticism such as] “Oh, these are the people who do that way.” In fact, there was sympathy for the Una incident. So that’s change.
S: At the press conference, you said that you would like to consolidate the support of all Dalit parties.
PA: Not all Dalit parties. The younger-generation upsurge which has come up, we are consolidating this upsurge.
S: Do you think Dalit movements have been disparate and not unified?
PA: Not disparate. It’s been a collective movement. It only now needs to be channelised. A force—a physical and ideological force.
S: In that process, are you going to seek the support of someone like [the Bahujan Samaj party leader] Mayawati?
PA: It’s a socio-cultural issue. We are not playing politics. And therefore the question of approaching these parties doesn’t arise. It’s their failure the younger generation is on the streets. So the younger generation is taking leadership, articulating it. They are a spontaneous group which has come up.
S: Are you not in favour of the political unification of Dalit political parties?PA: The question of political unification comes with different political parties. There is no political party.
S: So you are trying to bring everyone under one umbrella?
PA: Any agitation which has sprung up, it needs to be given a shape and ideology. Only then it will sustain.
S: The day the aazadi kooch was being taken up in Ahmedabad, a Dalit family was attacked by members of the upper-castes in Bhubaneswar, and the women were kidnapped. How is this kind of march going to help end atrocities and discrimination?
PA: Discrimination can’t end overnight, atrocity even. What we are trying to do now is build the character. If he [the Dalit] stands up, the person who commits an atrocity will have fear. Since he is accepting atrocity, they have no fear. But, the Una incident has aroused Gujarat.
(A friend of Ambedkar’s came into the room. He was offered a chair. His friend said, in jest: “khel kursi ka hai”—it’s all about the chair.)
S: In an interview with The Hindu, you have spoken about ending political reservations.
PA: Absolutely right.
S: What will happen to representation then?
PA: What will happen? Idle political parties will come. I am only saying what Dr [BR] Ambedkar said in 1952—that leave it, that I’ve got what I wanted. We don’t need reservations. The person who introduced reservations [Ambedkar], he saw in two elections that yes, the purpose was served. [In 1952, BR Ambedkar contested the Lok Sabha elections as an independent, and again in 1954]
S: But he lost both elections.
PA: See, he lost but he said that people have not elected him. [He said] I’ll be bleeding for ten minutes but the nation will be bleeding for life.
S: How will Dalits come into power if there is no political reservation?
PA: You think that they [parties] won’t give tickets to Dalits? Jhak mar ke denge—of course they will. And even if they don’t give, Dalits will start their own party.
This upsurge that you see now, it means that the other parties are ready to accommodate Dalits within their party. It might be a case that they might not give them appropriate candidature. That may be true. But within the party structure, being sensitive to the issue—that was already underway. The process of change has begun. You cannot expect change overnight. If you want change overnight, you have to force it. Dalits themselves must have their own organisation. If you are going to leave it to the other, he is going to [try the] method of trial and error.
This is not a question of the unification of Dalit parties. This is why I said, the Dalit employee is organised on his own. He did not feel the necessity of converting into a political force.
The question of a separate card is coming up because the RSS is speaking of enslaving Dalits. The others are forcing it down. But they feel that the pace at which we [Dalits] will do it, they will not be able to. In the coming year, Dalit politics will take centre stage.
S: Why do you think so?
PA: Because it is the only force that can take on the RSS head on.
S: Due to its numbers?
PA: Not because of its numbers, but because of its direct confrontation with the RSS.
S: Is that limited to Gujarat and Maharashtra, where Dalits have often protested in the past?
PA: It’s in all states. Now it is such that we won’t vote for the BJP. That is final.
S: Are you against reservation in government services as well?
PA: See, the reservation in the services, in education—that is a permanent feature of the Constitution. Until the Constitution exists, the reservation in the services will remain. This is permanent—the political reservation is not.
S: You spoke of a societal change earlier. What did you mean by that?
PA: As long as a non-BJP government power was in power, they would not interfere in the social life of people. They allowed things to change. And that is why there was no need to articulate it [the issues]. Take the issue of khap panchayats. Right from the Supreme Court to the state governments, everyone said that it is not a good practice. So the mechanism itself took care of what is wrong. But the BJP government in power right now—they have accepted the khap panchayat. And this is why, there’s a feeling of necessity now—that the changes that should happen are not happening.
S: No mainstream Dalit party has taken up the issue of a separate electorate for Dalits.
PA: No, they won’t take it up either. That’s because Babasaheb [a moniker used for BR Ambedkar] has buried the matter. See, at that period, when he asked for a separate electorate [before Independence], there was a third umpire—that was the Britishers. With the third umpire, there is always an appeal.
There was some humanity as well. It was because of this humanity that the talk of a separate electorate was happening—that, okay, you are ruling, that is fine, we will just put our agenda to you. Now, we have no right to put our agenda before anyone.
S: And now?
PA: Now there is no third umpire. When I myself am ruling, what is the need for a third umpire? If I do nothing even after getting power, then that means I am of no use—that I am illiterate, I am uneducated. Those that are of no use are the ones talking about a separate electorate.
S: But don’t you think the double constituency system ensured that only Dalits elect Dalits?
PA: That is what I’m saying, that at the time, there was a third umpire. Now I am ruling. Whatever I want, I can stick my hand into the safe and take. Did anyone stop Mayawati from putting 80 percent of the budget for Dalits, for the backward? Who stopped her? She had the majority, she could have gotten it passed.
It is not just a question of who gets elected. The question is that of the chief. Everything is in the hands of the chief. Mayawati goes straight to the upper house [Rajya Sabha]. Who said that if you come to power via an election, that you have to remain a slave? It’s simple.
S: Many Dalit organisations look at 15 August 1947, as not the day on which India became an independent country, but as the day on which power was transferred from white men to Brahmins. Do you agree?
PA: This is true.
S: But then you also believe that we are all ruling the nation?
PA: We have got an opportunity to rule. But are we using this opportunity in the right way?
S: Perhaps double constituency could be seen as reform then?
PA: It’s not reform. You can’t have rule within the rule. Those that consider themselves a separate electorate, consider themselves weak. They are in two minds—the mindset of being a secretary is still there, that [feeling that] I’m not a first citizen, but a second citizen. My contention is that I am a first citizen, and I will remain a first citizen.
The question is not representation. The question is, when you sit in power, you must be able to exercise that. And to exercise it, to exercise power—I’ll say it in my own words—gaand mein pehle dum hona chahiye [you need to have guts]. The mind comes later. This is India’s problem, that no one has guts. Only Indira Gandhi had it, no one else. Woh sab daanke ko chot pe kehti thi[she always hit the nail on the head]. Now, who is there—Modi—[does not have it]. Rahul Gandhi says some things, but Rajiv Gandhi, too, did not have it. This country’s biggest problem—be it savarnas [caste Hindus] or avarnas [those outside the caste heirarchy]—is that no one goes by their own mind. This is a shortcoming of Indian society; it is not a caste issue.
S: This is not an issue of caste?
PA: It is not. This is a mental set up of the common Indian, of not being assertive and always being subjective—it is the gain of this caste system. Your individuality is suppressed to caste system. They’ll believe anything they’re told.
S: What about education? Can that bring change?
PA: Education will not change this. Education is a routine thing. This is a basic instinct, it does not come from education. The system is not letting it emerge.
S: Do you agree that there is a caste hierarchy in India?
PA: There is a caste hierarchy and it is because of the hierarchy that one does not have assertiveness.
S: Are you referring to Dalits?
PA: No, even the savarnas. Savarnas are assertive towards Dalits, but when they go to America they salute them [the people] there. We could rule the world, but instead of that we are trying to teach Pakistan a lesson—the Pakistan that cannot stand with us, we are scared of that Pakistan. Areh bhaiyya that country is already fallen, how much more can you make it fall?
S: Do you support the Maoist movement?
PA: I don’t support the Maoist movement but I support the Adivasis movement. I’m making the difference here. Maoists are helping the Adivasis to maintaining the status quo. One is that Indian society has not understood certain provisions of Indian constitution—you have the Adivasis area, the Adivasi council. So you have rule within the rule. Many are unaware of this feature. Why rule within a rule? It’s only because Adivasis are best protectors of nature, and the rest are encroachers. If the responsibility is fixed on Adivasis to protect the nature, that should be respected. It is not being respected. Therefore, there is violent movement in this country. And we call them Maoists.
S: Would you say that Maoists have given dignity to Adivasis?
PA: I’m saying that the government of India has been an encroacher. Ye adhikaar toh samvidhan ne kisi ko nahi diya ki bhaiya bandish banao [The Constitution never gave anyone the right to bind people].
S: What do you think of Muslim-Dalit unity?
PA: That is no one’s agenda. It’s the agenda of the newspapers. For the RSS-minded reporters, it is their agenda to make this about Muslims and get the Hindus on their side. You should say that even Patidars came, Brahmins came, Patels came [to join the agitation].
If you are saying that Muslims are with them [Dalits], then you should say the entire thing.
S: But do you welcome the support of Muslims?
PA: We welcome everyone’s support. Brahmins who are Gandhians, communists, socialists—all are welcome. If he has reformed himself, we are ready to accept him as leader.
S: Have you invited Jignesh Mevani to the event on 16 September? Have you spoken to him?
PA: Who is Jignesh Mevani? We are not going to go and invite anyone [personally]. The press wants to create a fuss over Jignesh Mevani. You are not the first press doing this to me. Many people have asked me.
S: What do you think of Mevani?
PA: Sorry, I don’t comment on individuals.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sagar is a web reporter at The Caravan.