On the 127th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar this April 14, he will be both dead and alive. Alive because this is his most visible birthday given the Dalit rebellion in North India against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rule manifested in massive protests on April 2 2018, in which 11 Dalit protesters perished on the streets. The protests in South India were impressive because all the South Indian state governments and the upper castes behaved in a civilised manner and allowed the Dalit protests without any violence.
Across the six South Indian states, — Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry — Ambedkar’s philosophy and social reform agenda have a different reception for historical reasons. A massive social reform and anti-Brahmin ideology entered the social consciousness of South India long before Ambedkar came upon the scene. The reservation ideology here took its roots from Mysore's Wadiyar dynasty days and the communal award for implementing reservation was forced by the Periyar movement – the intensity of which has never been witnessed by the North. This is not to say that the South Indian Brahmins did not resist reservations. Eminent scholar Mokshagundam Visweswarayya even resigned in protest against reservations but the Wadiyars of Mysore did not care. A similar process started in Maharashtra in the kingdom of Shahu Maharaj. Ironically, the birth place of Ambedkar, is in a difficult position today. The birthplace of Phule Ambedkarism is also the birthplace of RSS, as a result, Ambedkarism and radical Hinduism (like radical Islam) are compete equally there.
From Iyyankali to Periyar
Even as Ambedkar's iconography remains popular in the South, the South gave birth to its own leaders who championed the cause of the oppressed. The Karnataka Lingayat movement, has close links to Ambedkarism, which brought into existence a Navayana Buddhism religion in 1956, but has a history that predates Ambedkar. In fact, Basaveshwara Veerashaiva (Lingayat religion) is closer to Buddhist spiritualism than to Hinduism.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana region caught up with the anti-Brahmin movement rather late, as it was a divided region between the British empire and the Nizam's rule. Now though both the states are hotbeds of Ambedkarism. If Ambedkar became a huge figure during the separate Telangana movement because of his small states theory, he remains an equally powerful influence in Andhra because Amaravati has a Buddhist history. The new capital of Andhra Pradesh is identified with Buddhist Nagarjuna and Buddha’s massive vihara. While in Hyderabad, the Hussain Sagar has a huge statue of Buddha (in the middle of its water) and a big statue of Ambedkar on its bund, indicating the Buddha-Ambedkar cultural connectivity. And both the state governments have announced that they will install 125-feet Ambedkar statues at Amaravati and Hyderabad.
Kerala produced Iyyankali (Ayyankali), a Dalit icon in his own right, and Narayana Guru. Both of them negated Adi Shankara’s Adwaita Varnadharma and introduced modern education among the untouchable Pulayas and Edavas. That education, in the background of massive Christian-Muslim education, made Kerala the most educated state in India. Ambedkar, co-exists with them very well. The Dalit education advanced here more than in any other state, producing the first Dalit President of India in KR Narayanan and the first Dalit Chief Justice of India, Justice KG Balakrishnan.
Tamil Nadu produced Iyothee Thassar (Buddhist) and Periyar. Though Periyar was an atheist, his anti-Brahmin and anti-Hindu struggles went along the lines of Ambedkar’s struggles. Unfortunately, Periyar did not leave behind a body of coherent writings as Ambedkar did for his followers.
The North-South gulf
The spread of Ambedkar’s ideas through his books, speeches of his followers and as a visual presence through his huge number of statues (useful for illiterates to know about him) in almost all South Indian states has made a significant difference. Ambedkar figures more than any other public figure in all intellectual discourses because his writings have been translated and commented upon more than the writings of any other national leader. The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, is now firmly overshadowed by Ambedkar in every respect in the South.
By and large, social relations among the castes in South India are better than in the North. Untouchability is also weakening here more than it is in the North. In the realm of economic development, the South is far ahead of the North. Ambedkarism is an ideology of economic development. However, spiritual inequality and anti-inter-caste marriage thinking remain major problems even in South India.
Additionally, the South Indian states have been resisting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP from capturing power, and take back their economies and social relations to pre-Independence status. The forces that reject radical Hinduism of the kind that the RSS-BJP espouse, are therefore more prevalent in the South, with a better existential view of the productive castes — SC/ST/OBC — as against North and West India.
Exigencies of present-day politics
Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are hopeful places for the RSS-BJP. The Hindu fundamentalist forces became hopeful of extending their reach further in the South after the BJP came to power in Karnataka in 2013. If Karnataka can stop the Modi juggernaut in the upcoming assembly election in May 2018 under the leadership of chief minister Siddaramaiah, the Southern liberalism and Ambedkarism will be safe. The Kannada anti-Hindi movement, separate flag and the Lingayat movements are good ideological safeguards.
The Ambedkarites in Telangana have convinced the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM) that only the unity of Ambedkarists and Marxists will save the nation from the radical Hinduism of the RSS-BJP that have many characteristics in common with radical Islamism in Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. No radical religious and political formation will allow democratic constitutionalism to survive. In Telangana, the CPIM, in alliance with all Ambedkarites and Phuleites, formed a new political front called the Bahujan Left Front (BLF) and plans to contest all 119 seats on the social justice agenda in 2019. For the first time in India, Ambedkar and Karl Marx are on the banners of Communist parties. The CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury in Hyderabad and Nagpur himself gave the slogan of ‘Neel, Laal unity zindabad’. If this ideology extends to the Kerala-ruling CPIM, a perceptible change will occur in the country.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu have so far been viewed as safer states because they have not yet given any significant space to Manuvadi forces because of their cultural transformation. If the BJP remains in power in Delhi even after 2019, there is a widespread fear among the South and North SC/ST/OBCs, that the Constitution itself may be in danger because the Saffron party believes in Manudharma which Ambedkar burnt quite consciously.
(Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a well-known writer and chairman of T-MASS, an organisation that works for social justice and to unify all progressive forces in Telangana)