The making of an icon
Reviewed by Harbans Singh

Worshipping False Gods
By Arun Shourie Harper Collins.
Pages 664. Rs 599m

Often Mayawati, the BSP leader and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is reviled for the ubiquitous purse that she carries. Even more often B.R.Ambedkar is subjected to severe criticism for the western attire that he always wore. They point out that while all leaders of the freedom struggle gave up their western clothes in order to identify themselves with the common man of the country, he had, unmindful of the lot of the common man, continued to ape the foreign masters.

These critics forget the fact that while Gandhis and Nehrus needed to transcend class to inspire and motivate people below their class, the Ambedkars and Mayawatis need to motivate the Dalits and the depressed to aspire for material success the kind of success that is symbolised by the western suit, hat and the purse.

Scholarly, persuasive and passionately argued, Worshipping False Gods would not have been as scathing in its criticism of B.R. Ambedkar if Arun Shourie had only been a little more sensitive to the historical, social and religious forces that moulded the views of the Dalit icon. He would have been even less devastating in his criticism if he had kept in mind the manner in which gods are created by mankind.

In the context of this book, suffice it to say that Arun Shourie takes a critical look at the legend of Ambedkar, and with his well-researched facts and arguments points out his anti-freedom struggle role, while also questioning his credentials as a social reformer. But the unkindest cut for many of his followers today is inflicted by nearly 200 pages of the chapter Manu of Our Times? that are designed to rob him of the adulation as the father of the Indian Constitution. But it needs to be borne in mind that he never claimed to be one and that the compulsions of the modern Indian politics imposed that title upon him. This is no different than the messianic qualities that are attributed to men by their followers to build a legacy that endows them with power over others. This chapter would have been more effective if the arguments had not sounded like a demolition job because of the frequent resort to rhetoric.

Similarly, his role during the freedom struggle can be better appreciated in the context of the fact that the momentous Bhakti movement and the reawakening in the nineteenth century notwithstanding, the fate of the Dalits had remained sub-human for more than 3,000 years, and that, it was his alignment with the British that forced Mahatma Gandhi to launch a campaign against untouchability.

Arun Shourie, as usual, has written this book with considerable passion and well-researched facts. This book is certainly not going to go down well with the ever-increasing number of Ambedkar followers. People need icons to look up to and icons are more often than not born out of myths that human ingenuity creates.

Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that but for the "anti-freedom struggle" role of Ambedkar, the Dalits would have never been given reservations, and consequently, an opportunity to progress.

At worst, he is but one in a series of "false gods" that mankind has worshipped since times immemorial.