"You join and in joining bear all the responsibility and obligations and guilt that joining represents." [The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi, Amitav Ghosh]
Coming from a Kerala village, I have a fancy for political processions. Not an evening passes without at least one jatha
on a typical day there. There are four political parties with considerable strength in our place -- Muslim League, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Indian National Congress, and BJP. A procession usually consists of 15-20 men. Muslim League marches are typically on local matters, say celebrating a Panchayat election victory, whereas the other three parties' slogans are often about national issues. Congress workers frequently (and mechanically) add a "----- Gandhi zindabad" (with the then relevant first name of course) regardless of the key issue that prompted the procession. If you hear Bush or Annan or Chavez, you know for sure that it's the Communists.
Do not think that all the rallies consist only of a few dozens. Occasional huge rallies in towns attract hundreds of thousands of party workers. Rarely there would be a huge procession celebrating a specific event. One such procession in which I was also a participant was when the state was declared totally literate in April 1991. That was a rally that took several hours to cross a point. The rally culminated in a public function attended by several distinguished people from different walks of life. I remember, attending this mega rally had kept me in high spirits for quite some time!
Moving out of Kerala, together with a pinch of later acquired pseudo-intellectual notions -- higher beings shouldn't be rilly rallying with insignificant microbes -- retarded my enthusiasm in attending or witnessing such events. Somebody who celebrated Mandela's release from jail and Namibian independence in his school days cocooned himself from political affairs to such an extent that he did not notice a government change in Delhi in 1997 for a couple of days. Living in Chandrababu Naidu's Hyderabad for a few years also meant learning to look down upon social sciences while being looked down upon by IT guys and MBAs. Pursuing humanities was discouraged in schools, my Telugu friends told me. Pure Sciences were a necessary evil. Social scientists were encouraged to do meaningless thought experiments all the time instead of rigorous field works. To be socially conscious you had to put an extra effort in such an atmosphere. (Fortunately I had a few friends who thought alike, some of them also activists, and this was helpful in keeping in touch with social matters).
Happily sequestered in a South Bombay academic campus, glued to TV and the Net in free time, today, I do not get to see any real political action. And when you do not see the real thing for a long time you tend to think that the picture the media paint is a good approximation of the real thing!
I thought about political rallies because I saw many processions, mostly consisting of hundreds, yesterday while going from Kurla to Bandra. These processions were part of the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. Yesterday was Ambedkar'a 114th birth anniversary. I assume that most of the ordinary folks in those rallies were Dalits. Women and children outnumbered men in most of those rallies. I guess that is because families have come together to join these processions.
Ambedkar's is the only name that can draw poor families in large numbers spontaneously to the streets in most places in India. Anniversaries of all other leaders are/can be celebrated only officially. Massive public participation on a pan-Indian scale, that only Ambedkar enjoys. And that he does enjoy even half a century after his death.
Needless to say Ambedkar richly deserves this adulation. His life was an exercise in bringing dignity to vast sections of our society that were insulted and humiliated over the centuries. Not only that, he succeeded to a certain extent in constitutionalizing this process. A highly corrupt, and sometimes communal, present day Dalit leadership notwithstanding, thousands of ordinary Dalits have benefitted immensely from the path that Ambedkar showed them.
Update (April 29): Niket Kaisare has an excellent post on his blog where he writes: "The adulation and respect for Dr. Ambedkar will remain hollow unless we inculcate his teachings in our lives, unless we strive to get education, unless we strive to treat all Indians equally. Unless we try (its a tough goal, but attempt we must), we aren't really respecting the great man." Check out the full thing.