India’s Outlook news magazine has released an Independence Day special issue on the legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), who was recently voted by a wide margin to be the greatest Indian after Gandhi — significantly (and to many, surprisingly) beating out the more internationally-known figure of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after Independence. (The magazine describes its carefully-designed polling process here.)
Ambedkar’s most prominent formal role in India’s history was as chairman of the committee charged with drafting the nation’s first constitution, a highly progressive text which established a wide range of civil liberties and which outlawed the caste-based repression of dalits (“untouchables”). Yet despite his undeniable importance as an architect of modern India, Ambedkar’s victory in this poll may additionally mark a significant recent change in the nation’s balance of economic, cultural, and intellectual power. Writes Outlook columnist S. Anand in “The Case for Bhim Rajya”:
So how and why did Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, finally, top what we are told is a comprehensive poll? What has changed since the ‘defeats’ of [polls in] 1999 and 2002? Has India become more accepting of one of its intellectual giants, who, in Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s recent words, was “intellectually head and shoulders above” Nehru, Gandhi and most Congress leaders? Sceptic that I am, this “victory” for Ambedkar is most likely a result of the presence of a burgeoning internet-savvy, mobile-wielding, dedicated Dalit middle class that is almost invisibly making its presence felt. Still largely kept away from mainstream media, the private sector and our universities—which have undisguised disdain for Ambedkar’s greatest weapon, reservation—the Dalits, in India and abroad, have fashioned their own websites, mailing lists and blogs such as Round Table Conference, Dalit & Adivasi Students’ Portal and Savari, a YouTube channel called Dalit Camera, besides scores of Facebook groups. They no longer depend on corporate media that takes one month to report, if at all, the 2006 murders and rapes of Khairlanji; a media that found the lynching of five Dalits in Lakshmipeta, Srikakulam district, in June 2012 banal. It is on the worldwide web that new ways of negotiating citizenship are being forged; it is from these new banlieues that unyielding Eklavyas are waging war with the Bhishmas and Dronas, gaining thumb-inch by thumb-inch. Some of these warriors had expressed dismay and fatigue over a survey that wanted to select ‘The Greatest Indian After Gandhi’. The caveat, which presumed Gandhi’s victory should he have been included, rankled. It was fresh salt on an old, unhealed wound.