On Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s 65th death anniversary, we take a look at his relationship with BR Ambedkar. Both Patel and Ambedkar are being coveted as icons across the political spectrum. The debates and differences between the two throw light on political questions that are part of our discourse even today.
Two stalwarts – both of whose legacies are being bitterly contested by multiple groups and factions, each falling over the other to call them their own. Two towering figures, both of whom, their followers on either side allege against their opponents, are being “appropriated” and their legacies recast in a mould which will suit their respective interests and agendas. And, both of them are being honoured – one with a lavish memorial, the other with a statue that is billed as being the tallest in the world.
Dr BR Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the BJP and the government’s latest totems, are being hailed, revered, and feted. Today, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary, recently renamed as National Unity Day, is being celebrated with great pomp and show all across India. A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a grand Ambedkar Memorial in Mumbai, while in 2013, he commissioned Patel’s statue at Kevadia in Gujarat, which is billed as being the tallest in the world.
Meanwhile, Hardik Patel, who has rapidly become somewhat of a rather painful pinprick for the BJP, continues to agitate for scrapping the system of reservations altogether, or to accede to his demand for the Patel quota. While the celebrations and commemoration is on today, he, presently behind bars for arson and vandalism, and his supporters are raring to play a disruptive role.
Thus, in this perplexing crucible, it would be worthwhile to delve into the tomes of history and see whether both the icons – Ambedkar and Patel – saw eye-to-eye on caste and reservations.
The Constituent Assembly Debates, which took place from 9 December 1946 to 24 January 1950, provide the richest source of material for pursuing this inquiry. This is because reservations, which are now enshrined in the Constitution as a part of the fundamental right to equality and non-discrimination, were one of the most hotly debated issues.
On 24 January 1947, the Advisory Committee on Rights of Citizens, Minorities, and Tribal and Excluded Area was set up, with Patel as the head, and Ambedkar a member of one of the sub-committees, the one on Fundamental Rights. On one hand, the Committee was clear that the scourge of the caste-system and all the oppression it brought in its wake has to be eradicated, and there must be constitutional and legal safeguards to ensure that discrimination and practice of untouchability in any form was disposed of in the trashcans of history.
Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, but he also had a very determined agenda – to safeguard the rights of Dalits and ensure that their continued subjugation was brought to an end, even if it required a persistent and ‘combative’ approach. He was in no doubt that it would not be possible without securing political and economic rights – that is, through quotas in public education and employment. Therefore, he proposed that the government must set aside, by prescription, a certain percentage of posts for the backward and depressed classes.
Patel, on the other hand, and many members of the Congress, predominantly upper-castes, especially KM Munshi and Pandit Thakur Das Bharghava, were vehemently opposed to this. Munshi and Bharghava insisted that the dalits were part of Hinduism, and they should eschew their demands for quotas and separate electorates, because that would make them stand out as separate, thereby causing a schism in the Hindu community and polity.
Patel did not make a theological argument; an ardent nationalist, he emphasised that Ambedkar’s demands would disrupt the nationalism project and create a deep cleft in national identity. He stated:
Ambedkar, who had demanded separate electorates for guaranteeing equal opportunities in political representation resolutely pressed ahead. He did so in spite of being forced on the backfoot by Gandhi to accede to the Poona Pact of 1932 (which considerably diluted the stakes of the Scheduled Castes).
At this moment, one could perhaps pause and wonder who all Patel had in mind while insisting that the reality of centuries of slurs, torture, and abject deprivation be ‘forgotten’? Just because Ambedkar and a few other Dalits, whose tales of overcoming seemingly insurmountable barriers are legion, had made their way to the Constituent Assembly ? Also, doesn’t his stance resonate exactly with what Hardik and his cohorts are demanding – that economic status should be the sole criterion for deciding upon reservations?
Today, in any discussion or debate on reservations, “merit” is bound to feature. Demands that it should be the only criterion for opening doors to opportunities in both education and employment are rampant. By merit, those who oppose reservations, mean ‘performance’ – in terms of examination scores and professional accomplishments. They fervently believe that any other factor – social discrimination and exclusion – which have a significant bearing on an individual or a group’s performance in certain spheres, must be left at the wayside.
In this context, historian Christophe Jaffrelot’s seminal treatise on Ambedkar’s battle against untouchability provides illuminating insights into how he could even make it to the Constituent Assembly in the first place. It assumes all the more significance because of late, there have been consistent efforts to “whitewash” Ambedkar – scrub him clean of his dalit identity and present him as a shining constitutional scholar and statesman (which he undoubtedly was) only. Efforts are also underfoot to present him as someone who is given more respect than he deserves, and someone who hugely benefited from Gandhi and Patel’s magnanimity. These have come mostly from the BJP, whose Arun Shourie heaped scorn on Ambedkar and called him a ruthless stooge of the British.
Here, one needs to read Jaffrelot, who shows how the Indian National Congress scuttled his election to the Constituent Assembly, and Patel, who always maintained a cordial demeanour, did have a hand in it. Ultimately it was Jogendra Nath Mandal, a dalit leader from Bengal, who later went on to become Pakistan’s first Law Minister, who helped him get elected.
Thus, as the BJP and its allies surge ahead, Hardik rages on, and the Congress clambers on to the criticism bandwagon, a travel into the past rakes up some revelatory truths.