The Significance of the Colour Blue in the Dalit Movement

Written by CJP | Published on: April 14, 2018
Why is the colour blue associated with Dalit movements? 

Recently, a statue of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, jurist, social activist, and Dalit icon, was vandalised in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, sparking widespread controversy. Although it was promptly replaced, the new statue depicted Dr. Ambedkar clad in a saffron sherwani. This new statue was eventually painted blue, reportedly by Himendra Gautam of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). "They painted Ambedkar's statue Saffron to own him and showcase him as per their own ideology," says author and Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah, adding, "This is also why they are highlighting 'Ramji' in his name. Today people from different backgrounds are busy claiming Ambedkar, because he has shaken them! The OBCs are also claiming Ambedkar as their own as he was the man who gave us our constitution and laid the foundation for our democracy. Neither the BJP nor any Hindutva group can survive without the support of OBCs. So they are busy carrying his pictures and showing how much they respect Ambedkar."
According to Bharat Singh Jatav, District President of the Aarakshan Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, "There is anger among the community members due to the colour of the coat. Saffron is unusual as we have always seen his pictures and statues in dark coloured western outfits, blazer and trousers. It must be repainted," he had added. Sinod Shakya, a former BSP MLA, said, "After painting many buildings saffron across the state, the BJP government now wants to saffronise Ambedkar statues, which is unacceptable." The vandalism of the Ambedkar statue was not an isolated incident; there have been reports of Ambedkar statues being damaged in several other districts in Uttar Pradesh. 
 
Why so blue?
Several Dalit protests in the recent past have involved carrying blue flags. But why is the colour blue so significant for Dalits? According to Raosaheb Kasbe, formerly a political science professor at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, "The idea behind it was that blue is the colour of sky—a representation of non-discrimination, that under the sky everyone is believed to be equal. There are many theories around this, but there is no settled history on why blue became the colour of Dalit resistance". Ilaiah says, "I read somewhere, I don't remember where exactly, but I read that Ambedkar had said that the blue sky is all over us. Just like how Dalits, Shudras and tribals are all over the country. We should therefore claim this universal colour as our own. We are all equal under the blue sky." 

Many Indian towns have statues of Ambedkar clad in a three-piece blue suit and carrying India’s constitution; Beena Pallical of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights has opined that Ambedkar’s blue suit was one of the primary inspirations for the blue flag of Dalit movements.

Ambedkar’s suit itself was reportedly a symbol of "political resistance," flouting the rules regarding what Dalits were permitted to wear. According to Dalit writer and entrepreneur Chandra Bhan Prasad, "Manudharma, or the laws of Manu, codify the rights and duties of various social groups prearranged into castes. According to that, we are told we can only wear the apparel of corpses, or ragged, old, dirty clothes. We are not supposed to be nicely dressed or even be clean". In 2002, Ramachandra Guha wrote of Ambedkar, "By the canons of tradition and history, this man was not supposed to wear a suit, blue or otherwise. That he did was a consequence of his extraordinary personal achievements: a law degree...a Ph.D. from America and another one from England, the drafting of the Constitution. By memorialising him in a suit, the Dalits were celebrating his successful storming of an upper caste citadel." In Ilaiah's opinion, Ambedkar "favoured the colour blue for his suit as it represented the blue sky under which everyone is equal. Also, he was educated in Amercia where all Presidents wore blue suits on important occasions. Perhaps, this might have influenced him. Blue in America represents democracy, republicanism and equality, all ideas that meant a lot to Ambedkar."  
 
According to the 2017 paper Fabric-Rendered Identity: A Study of Dalit Representation in Pa. Ranjith’s Attakathi, Madras and Kabali, "Blue as a colour is often used by Dalit communities especially in protests and rallies as a mark of empowerment." The paper notes that the colour blue "emerged as a self-identifying sign for Mahar Dalits in Maharashtra." Mahars comprise the largest group of Dalits in the state. The paper, while citing the book Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting by Christophe Jaffrelot, explains, "Ambedkar is known to have introduced the blue Mahar's Flag as his party flag for the Independent Labour Party. It is representative of identifying with Dalit consciousness that is non-discriminatory. It also appeals to the masses as in the 'blue collar workers'." However, the colour blue has also been employed to single out the Dalit community; the paper recalls a 1995 instance when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra implemented a policy requiring Dalit children to wear blue uniforms.