“India has already graduated beyond Gandhi to Ambedkar…” Vishal Mangalwadi made this pronouncement in a letter he wrote to Arun Shourie about 17 years ago. Shourie had just published a book Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes and Dilemmas (1994) in which he presented a devastating critique of the Christian missionaries whose service in India overlapped with the colonial rule. An admirer and follower of Gandhi, Arun Shourie is, like his idol, against missionaries, against conversion and against the rise of the Dalits. This letter was written in February 1995. Kanshi Ram’s BSP was already a force to reckon with in North India. Ambedkarism was swelling in appeal with five years of debates and discussions around the Mandal Commission Report. As if to counter this assertion, and reclaim the lost ground for Gandhi, Shourie wrote his next book denouncing Ambedkar, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar, and the Facts Which Have Been Erased in 1997. Did Shourie succeed in what he intended to do?
A few months ago, about 17 years after the above-mentioned letter reached Mr Shourie, the mainstream Indian media and the Indian middle-class woke up to the same truth, when the result for the Greatest Indian After Gandhi poll was declared. Ambedkar was heads and shoulders above Nehru and the galaxy of other popular Indian personalities. Many dared to believe if Gandhi was among the contenders he too would have been relegated to No. 2. Gandhian nationalists, within the Congress party as well as the BJP, could not stem the tide of rising popularity of the man whose only contribution to the country according to the official text books is that he was the “father of the Indian Constitution”. The emergence and rise of Ambedkar in the mainstream media and cultural life has posed a serious threat to Gandhism and the Gandhian view of social and political philosophy. Or has it really?
It is instructive to keep this context in mind while remembering Jabbar Patel’s film Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000). Any discussion of Ambedkar must turn sooner or later to Gandhi, his older contemporary and, socially and politically, his bête noir. Similarly, his representation must be contrasted with the way Gandhi is represented in the film. When Richard Attenborough made Gandhi in 1982, there was no mention of Ambedkar in the film. Gandhians could live under the illusion that Ambedkar can be relegated to oblivion. However, Ambedkar and his legacy were alive and thriving. With Ambedkar’s birth centenary approaching in 1991, a demand was begun to be made for a full-length film on Ambedkar too.
The film, released a dozen years ago, no doubt, has high production values. Technically, it is brilliant. After all, you expect that when some of the best names of Indian cinema come together to create a masterpiece. Bhanu Athaiya, Shyam Benegal, Mammootty, Ashok Mehta were all there to aid Jabbar Patel in fashioning a historically credible biopic that is also aesthetically appealing.
But what is it’s evaluation of Gandhi? To be sure, the film lampoons Gandhi, shows him to be a shrewd and obstinate man but ultimately a benevolent moral dictator, who convinces Nehru to bring Ambedkar into his first cabinet. However, mocking and lampooning Gandhi is not the most radical thing a filmmaker or, say, a creative writer can do with the mahatma. He did that to himself, for instance, in his autobiography. In any case, contrary to the popular notions, we Indians are not uncomfortable with the whims and fancies and even moral failings of our great men or even gods.
Recently, Ram Jethmalani, a member of parliament representing the Hindu nationalist party BJP, made a controversial remark that he thought Ram was a bad husband and for that he did not like him. Innocent people can be forgiven for being scandalized with this apparently anti-Hindu remark. But Ram Jethmalani was only being a good, more complete modern Hindu himself. Hinduism does allow one the freedom to be playful with its gods, to the extent of mocking them. Jethmalani will continue to serve in the party that draws its inspiration from Ram the king, Ram the warrior, Ram the brother, Ram the son, Ram the Kshatriya, though he may have a minor bone to pick with Ram the husband. This is because Hinduism does not require absolute moral purity or perfection from its gods. It is perfectly possible to be a good Ram bhakta while complaining about this or that moral failing in Ram. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to be an ardent Gandhian despite quibbling over this, that or the other aspect of Gandhi’s personality.
So Jabbar Patel can lampoon Gandhi but ultimately Ambedkar is shown to depend on Gandhi’s magnanimity to rise up the ladder. The film is a perfect example of how the forces of Brahmanism have incorporated and hierarchised, to use Louis Dumont idea, Ambedkar in the neo-Hindu pantheon of nationalist leaders.
A film that sought to underline the uniqueness of Ambedkar’s life and thoughts should have emphasized how Ambedkar’s diagnosis and cure for India’s Depressed Class’ problems differed from Gandhi’s Harijan cause.
This ultimate impact of the film became clear to me when an accidental reference to it was made in a discussion I was having with a small group of students from Bahujan backgrounds. Since all of us had seen the film a long time back, the only thing these students seemed to remember was the benevolence of Gandhi in bringing Ambedkar on board!
The film does not break the mould but only finds a place for Ambedkar in the cracks that have appeared over a period of time in the grand narrative of Indian nationalism; and thus it plugs that gap. The film falls in line with the larger nationalist design where space for Ambedkar will be made only as a compliment to Gandhi and not as his counter point.
If politics is any indication, India has graduated from Gandhi to Ambedkar. But in cultural and aesthetic spheres, there’s still some catching up to do.
(Published in December 2012 issue of FORWARD Press)