Obama should pay homage to Ambedkar By Kancha Ilaiah and Joseph D’Souza


We need to learn a few things from the US. There are also things that Americans should learn from us.
When President Barack Obama visits India in November, he is sure to visit Raj Ghat to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi whom he often cites as his inspiration. But the Bahujan communities and minorities would be happy if he also pays homage to Dr B R Ambedkar. This will make his visit a historic event. As such, they are looking forward to Obama’s visit as he symbolises the hope of freedom for oppressed people across the world.

As Obama emerged out of the historic struggles of the blacks in the US, his visit could also inspire the movement for the abolition of caste, the Indian variety of slavery.

Ambedkar is the best historical link between the Indian oppressed communities and also the blacks of America.

As mentioned above, Obama refers to Mahatma Gandhi more than any other US president. But one is not aware whether he knows much about Ambedkar who is generally compared with  Martin Luther King Jr, to whose civil rights movement Obama owes his political birth and growth. This nation considers Ambedkar not only as the father of the constitution but also as the liberator of all oppressed people. Though the ruling classes do see the similarities between Dalit-Bahujan struggles and the black struggles the masses can make out that historical linkages.

Multi-cultural tradition

There are other facets too. The religious minorities also look up to Ambedkar as as he was a Buddhist. Obama, while being a Christian, shares the blood of a Muslim father. If he pays homage to a Buddhist Ambedkar, apart from Mahatma Gandhi, he will be respecting the multi-cultural tradition of India. This will also attract global attention to Ambedkar’s life and thought.

Ambedkar, who took out a civil rights struggle for abolishing caste and untouchability, made the new India possible. Imagine an India that has no dalit/adivasi or minority participation in the administrative, bureaucratic and knowledge structures. Imagine no dalit participation in the higher echelons of the nation in this century. They constitute 16.5 per cent of our population and Obama, as a first black president to visit India, should ideally take note of this.

Let us not forget the fact that Obama’s educational emergence could be traced back to the affirmative action that blacks were given in the context of the civil rights movement of America. Likewise, thanks to the reservation system that  Ambedkar worked to put in place, dalits are now visible in every sphere of life. Jagajjivan Ram could become a deputy prime minister and K R Narayanan the President of India.

Obviously, there are things that we need to learn from the US and there are things that Americans should learn from us. As we know about Abraham Lincoln and Martin King, Americans should also know about both Gandhi and Ambedkar. Obama has done a lot to popularise Gandhi, and he could also do the same for  Ambedkar if he visits Nagapur Deekshabhoomi or other sites linked to Ambedkar.

The Deekshabhoomi does not represent just Ambedkar’s idea of India but also the secular Buddhist tradition of the nation. It is a known fact that Rajghat does not merely represent Mahatma Gandhi alone but the whole range of secular Hindu tradition that he stood for.

India as a nation must also own the Buddhist cultural tradition as Buddha was born, grew up and built his spiritual and social Sangha system here. No other icon than Ambedkar can represent that cultural heritage in the modern period.

Will our ruling class ensure that Obama at least lays a garland on the statue of Ambedkar in parliament premises? Such a deviation from protocol will respond to the changing needs of the nation and will be positive and desirable.

Obama was keen to learn about the plight of the untouchables during his student years. And interestingly, both he and  Ambedkar were educated at Columbia University. It could also turn out to be an occasion for the country to come to terms with the caste and untouchability problem in the international arena. The stance of denial taken by the Indian government in the United Nations had done some damage.

But things are changing. Manmohan Singh is our first prime minister to admit the caste problem and Rahul Gandhi, took the British foreign minister to a dalit village in 2009 and Bill Gates to a Musahar dalit village in Bihar. Rahul Gandhi’s recent statement that casteism is worse than racism shows that old attitudes are changing.

Let this government take one more step in the right direction by taking Obama to Deekshabhoomi. Let America know that India, too, is a mature nation grappling with its strengths and weaknesses.

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