Bon Anniversaire

Monday was a day of rest as our host country of India celebrated the Dr. Baabasaheb R. Ambedkar jayanti. It’s a good thing, too, as we spent much of the weekend on the road getting to and from Aurangabad, our base for visits to the Buddhist caves at Ajanta and the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain caves at Ellora. Our accommodations in Aurangabad, at the Maharashtra Tourist Development Corporation (MTDC), included the usual mosquitoes in the room, a busload of kids plying the halls until eleven, and a mouse or two under the bed. Marine, our favorite French law professor and traveling companion on this trip, had mouse droppings on her pillow and, when she changed her room, a lovely little bird nest (with birds) on top of the geyser in the bathroom.

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 We arrived in Pune early Monday morning and so little was going to happen during the morning hours anyway. Monday was Marine’s birthday, though, and so we joined her and one of our favorite Indian law professors, Sujata, for an afternoon at the cinema. We watched Khuda Ke Liye, a movie made in Lahore, Pakistan, that tells the story of two brothers, Sarmad and Mansoor, during the period leading up to and after the bombing of the world trade towers in New York City. The title of the movie, in Urdu, means “In the Name of God,” and the story of the two brothers captured the extraordinary complexities (and horrors) of living as a Muslim after 9/11.

The birth anniversary of B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) celebrates one of the most important social reformers in modern India. An “untouchable,” or a member of the depressed class of Indian society, Ambedkar distinguished himself as an ambitious student who would eventually take graduate degrees in economics from Columbia University in the United States. When he returned to India he took a position in the government as a military secretary. He then traveled to England, where he studied law and passed the examinations to become a barrister, before returning to India to begin his life’s work advocating for the lower caste people, some of whom are still treated as less-than-human by members of the upper castes. I am interested in Ambedkar, his politics and his embrace of Buddhism, a faith that supported his egalitarian commitment to the potential of every individual, regardless of faith or class or caste. Reading about Ambedkar’s life, in a history of contemporary India, I came across the following excerpt from a speech that he delivered to the Constituent Assembly on the 25th of November, 1949. He used his position as chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution to remind his colleagues that the moment India became a republic its people would enter into a life of contradictions. His provocative appeal resonates even today in the ongoing and seemingly intractable imperfections of political democracy. “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril” (qtd in Guha 122). Ambedkar’s forceful questions offer a reminder that the people of India continue to live in peril-in a world of denial in which progress and development are predicated on a tolerance for social and economic injustice. In India, and also in the United States, we live these contradictions.

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Baabasaheb Ambedkar’s life and work is celebrated in Pune, a city with a history of commitment to education and social justice. Gandhiji called Pune “a beehive of volunteers and dedicated workers” and these commitments are reflected in the progressive ethos of the city. Volunteerism, a commitment to education for women, environmentalism, the arts, publishing, religious pluralism-these are just some of the ways Pune defines itself. I recall when we first arrived in December, from Delhi, that one of the first things we noticed was that women were driving two wheelers here, a sight not at all common during our time in Delhi. In fact next to the Symbiosis Law School, where Rebecca is teaching, is Symbiosis Society’s Dr. Baabasaheb Ambedkar Museum and Memorial. We have visited the site a few times since arriving in Pune. Carved rather unfortunately into the north slope of the Hanuman Hill (it seems there was quite a fight to save the “barren” hillside once the land was given to the Society by the government of Maharashtra), the leafy green grounds of the memorial are carefully maintained. The museum itself, a Buddhist inspired blue-tiled stupa surrounded by fish pools and garden plots, houses Ambedkar‘s personal belongings, such as his books, a pair of shoes, a violin, clothes, and eating utensils, his Bharat Ratna medal, and the urn holding the ashes of this celebrated Indian leader. Outside the museum is a Pimple Bodhi tree planted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and a Bodhi that is said to be a direct descendent of the original tree under which Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment.

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Last week we spent the evening on the grounds of the memorial as invited guests at the send off celebration for the graduating class of the law school. The event brought together a remarkable group of young students.

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Dressed in traditional clothing, the students had put together a program that included classical Indian dance by one of Rebecca’s favorite students, traditional as well as more contemporary music, and hilarious skits by students clearly familiar with tradition both handed down as well as taken up.

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My guess is that the Baabasaheb would have approved.

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