“Gandhiji, I have no homeland.”
“You have got a homeland and from the reports that have reached me about your work at the Round Table Conference, I know you are a patriot of sterling worth.”
“How can I call this land my homeland and this religion my own where we are treated worse than cats and dogs, where no self-respecting Untouchable worth his name will be proud of this land.”
– Excerpts from a conversation between
Ambedkar and Gandhi at Mani Bhavan, Mumbai, on 14 August 1931[i].
In one of his most well-researched articles, historian Ramachandra Guha has charted out the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s vastly altered perception of Babasaheb Ambedkar over the span of the seven decades since India attained independence. The archives that he has investigated are select issues of Organiser, the English periodical of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), from which he culls, methodically, an array of statements to show how the RSS has sought, over the years, not only to overcome its animus against the Dalit icon but actually to project him as the “Ultimate Unifier”. Guha holds up as an example the 125th birth anniversary issue on Ambedkar (17 April 2016) which featured several essays on Babasaheb, one saying he provided the “glue for nation building”, a second arguing that his “visions and actions resembled that of the Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj, etc”, a third positing that he supported workers’ rights, a fourth designating him as a “timeless leader” who though “not against Brahmins [was] against [the] Brahminical order.” All the essays, and the issue as a whole, are entirely celebratory. In contrast to such adulation, the RSS and its mouthpiece, as Guha attests, were once ruthlessly critical of the man who, as independent India’s first law minister, put his stamp on the Indian Constitution, as well as tried to reform some of the more retrograde Hindu personal laws by piloting the so-called Hindu Code Bill. During the years 1949-1950, the RSS’s condemnation of the Ambedkarite ethos was particularly vitriolic. The 30 November 1949 issue of Organiser carried an editorial on the Constitution, whose final draft had first been presented to the Constituent Assembly: “The worst [thing] about the new Constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it …. [T]here is no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it.”
The editorial went on to observe that there was “no mention of the unique constitutional developments in ancient Bharat. Manu’s laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity [among Hindus in India]. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.” Earlier in the same year, the RSS sarsanghchalak, M.S. Golwalkar, had complained in a speech that Ambedkar’s attempted intervention in the personal laws of the Hindus “has nothing Bharatiya about it. The questions like those of marriage and divorce in the country cannot be settled on the American or British model. Marriage, according to Hindu culture and law, is a sanskar which cannot be changed even after death and not a ‘contract’ which can be broken any time.”[ii]
RSS’s response to Mandal
The radical shift in stance towards Ambedkar of the RSS is a relatively recent phenomenon, almost as recent as the last decade of the 20th century and even later, and is clearly symptomatic of a realization among members of its think-tank, and those of its affiliate organizations, of the need to pursue an aggressive Dalit outreach programme. This programme indeed became an integral portion of a social engineering initiative which started in the period following the implementation, by the then central government, of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission for quota-based reservations in education and employment for persons from the Other Backward Castes (OBC) which, in turn, generated an aspirational and assertive temper among all ranks of the lower castes in general. The RSS’s response to the prospect of an anti-caste revolt from below, in the wake of the aforementioned developments, was, on the one hand, to try to mobilize Hindus, across castes, into an unified community through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and, on the other hand, to strategically coopt Dalits by giving them important positions within its organizational matrix. It was perhaps incidental, but definitely not accidental, that the shilanayas (foundation-stone laying) ceremony for the projected Ram Temple in Ayodhya was inaugurated on behalf of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an RSS affiliate, by a Dalit.[iii]
The saffronization enterprise is at its peak today. Only last year, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, made a claim that Ambedkar was a believer in the Sangh’s ideology and had praised its cadres for their dedication to the cause of national cohesion and harmony
Dalit Studies scholars, such as Anand Teltumbde and Badri Narayan, have explored, both extensively and intensively, attempts on the part of the Hindu Right, whose ideological fountainhead is the RSS, to assimilate the Dalits and OBCs, who have been traditionally suspicious of Hinduism’s brahmanical premises, within the Hindu nationalist framework.[iv] According to Badri Narayan, “The political strategy that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) [the political arm of the RSS], and forces like the RSS and the VHP, is now aimed at, on the one hand, giving representation to leaders of Dalit communities in state and national politics and trying to satisfy their urge of representation in the power politics, and, on the other, appropriating cultural symbols and folk icons popular in Dalit oral traditions by providing them a saffron colour and redefining local societies in North Indian society.”[v]
The saffronization enterprise is at its peak today. Only last year, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, made a claim that Ambedkar was a believer in the Sangh’s ideology and had praised its cadres for their dedication to the cause of national cohesion and harmony. He also stated that Ambedkar was not in favour of adopting the tricolour as the national flag of India; instead he wanted to adopt the saffron flag of the RSS as the national flag.[vi]
Bhagwat’s deputy, Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, went even further to say that “Dalit leader Babasaheb Ambedkar was misconstrued as the leader of a particular section of society; there is a need to delve deeper into his life to bring out his national persona.” The desperation of the RSS to appropriate Ambedkar can be appreciated from the adroit tactic of Joshi to draw a parallel between Ambedkar and the RSS founder, K. B. Hedgewar.[vii] Another ideologue of the RSS, the president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, expressed the opinion that “For us, Hindu means all those religions which have come up from this soil of Hindustan. Dr Ambedkar upheld the spirit of this country when he stopped the flow of Dalits into foreign religions like Christianity and Islam by propagating the ideals of Buddhism. That way he contributed greatly to the Hindu Dharma. And that is why we consider him one of the pioneers of our ideology and our movement.”[viii]
But is it all that easy to hide the fault lines of the project to reinvent the profile of the man who authored Annihilation of Caste, Riddles of Hinduism and The Buddha and his Dhamma, and who, on 14 October 1956, repudiated Hinduism, along with 3,65,000 followers, by pledging 22 oaths of total severance of bonds with Hinduism? The 22 vows included:
- I have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh nor shall I worship them.
- I have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are believed to be incarnation of God, nor shall I worship them
- I shall have no faith in ‘Gauri’, Ganpati, and other gods and goddesses of the Hindus, nor shall I worship them
- I do not believe in the incarnation of God.[ix]
No wonder, till today the RSS’s attitude towards Ambedkar remains mired in ambivalence.
‘Stooge of the Empire’
As late as 1997, Arun Shourie, member of the BJP, and later, one of its parliamentarians and a minister in the first Union Cabinet headed by the party, came out with a no-holds-barred critique of Ambedkar entitled Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts which have been Erased. The book, in consonance with the ideological affiliations of Shourie, begins with a lamentation on the decline of nationalist sentiment in India and its supersession by a discursive trend that he calls “Slogan-Cum-Stampede”, the prominent instances of which cited by him are “garibi hatao” and “social justice”. The sum and substance of Shourie’s thesis was that, in violation of the broad consensus that Gandhi had forged among different sections of the Indian population, Ambedkar was a renegade; no, worse, he was a traitor to the cause of national liberation. According to Shourie, Ambedkar repeatedly struck a discordant note in the fight against British rule. In short, he was, more or less, a stooge of the Empire.[x]
It is possible to argue that although Arun Shourie was a fellow traveller of the RSS, Worshipping False Gods was not an RSS publication and therefore not representative of the views of the RSS on Ambedkar. But nevertheless a reading of some of the current literature on Ambedkar published by Suruchi Prakashan, the RSS’s publication division, reveals distortions and deletions which are evidence of the discomfort of the RSS with the radical aspects of Ambedkar’s anti-caste vision.
I shall now take up, for analysis, three of Suruchi Prakashan’s latest productions on Ambedkar, each of them slim monographs, titled Manusmriti Aur Dr Ambedkar (2014), Prakhar Rashtra Bhakt Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar (2014) and Rashtra Purush Babasaheb Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar (2015), respectively.[xi]
The two biographical tracts predictably contain a high proportion of panegyrics on Ambedkar, the focus in either being on his commitment to nation-building. In either text he is presented as a physician of Hindu society, its reform rather than its repudiation being his aim. As someone whose mission was to cement the cracks of caste, class and cultural differences that had crept into the Hindu fold and make their country assailable by foreigners. There is absolutely no doubt in the minds of these biographers that it is Hindus who comprise India’s national mainstream.
Ambedkar travelled abroad, to the West, no doubt, to attain higher learning, but he ever remained a Hindu in his core values. The biography of 2015 claims that he “forbore to taste alcohol or beef during his stay away from his homeland”.
Each of the two biographies equivocates about Ambedkar’s conduct during the earliest of his public agitations against untouchability – the Mahad Satyagraha of 1927. While apparently supportive of his crusade for equal access to the water of the Chavdar Lake for Untouchables as well as caste Hindus, the narratives seek to emphasize his continued allegiance to the Hindu ethos. It is remarked that he derived inspiration for his cause from the Bhagawad Gita, and, that, his burning of the Manusmriti on this occasion notwithstanding, he later elaborated upon his infinite faith in its fundamental dictums. His concern with issues such as undiscriminated temple-entrance to all castes and separate electorates for Untouchables, then designated as the Depressed Classes, was to ensure that the Untouchables were not alienated from their Hindu belonging. The reconciliation of his differences with Gandhi on the matter of separate electorates through the Poona Pact proved, as per the 2014 biography, Ambedkar’s determination to preserve the integrity of Hinduism.
Neither of the two biographies mentions the bitterness that Ambedkar felt towards Gandhi in the wake of the Poona Pact or his resultant exhortation to Hindus to annihilate caste. Curiously, Ambedkar’s magnum opus, Annihilation of Caste, does not feature by name in either biography.
K. Satyanarayana’s staunch contention that Hindutva forces cannot domesticate Ambedkar sends out a beacon of cheer in these days of gloom. Ambedkar, he reminds us, averred in Annihilation of Caste that caste was the warp and woof of Hinduism and that till Hinduism was destroyed caste would survive
On his reason to convert out of Hinduism, which he reiterates at the end of Annihilation of Caste, the two biographies record it as a statement of protest against Hinduism, but steadfastly refrain from dubbing it anti-Hindu. It is now well-known that the Hindu Mahasabha, an ideological precursor to the RSS, did its utmost to mediate the conversion threat from Ambedkar, and prevent a switch of religions of the Untouchables from Hinduism to a purportedly un-Indian one, such as Islam or Christianity. B. S. Moonje and Veer Savarkar, especially, among the Hindu Mahasabha leaders, tried their best, over secret parleys, to nudge Ambedkar into negotiations with the Sikh panth in Amritsar. The negotiations failed, but they were mighty relieved when, after a lapse of almost two decades, Ambedkar chose to lead his followers into Buddhism, albeit a Buddhism of his own innovation. Indeed, his choice was loudly acclaimed by Savarkar, who proclaimed that the Buddhist Ambedkar was a Hindu Ambedkar after all.[xii]
A peculiarity of both the biographies is the inadequacy of bibliographical information as supplement to the citations in the texts. While the 2015 text has many citations but no bibliography, the 2014 text has a brief bibliography that does not cover all the citations. Such omissions leave room for doubt about the authenticity of the research undertaken in the compilation of the narratives.
Ambedkar and Manusmriti
By far the most intriguing of the Suruchi Prakashan publications on Ambedkar, however, is the one about his interpretation of the Manusmriti. The argument is simple, and summed up under 20 succinct points in Chapter 4 (“Summary”). But before that, in Chapter 1 (“Why this Book”) itself, there is an unmistakable value-judgment passed on Ambedkar’s interpretation. Ambedkar, it is said, by his own admission, lacked competence in Sanskrit, and therefore depended on the translation of the Manusmriti by the anti-Vedic, Orientalist scholars, Max Muller and George Bulhar, to decode this text. Had he done so instead, the book says, with the help of its native English translation by the Sanskritist, Ganganath Jha, he would have appreciated Manu’s point of view better.
There are four avowed objectives of the book on the Manusmriti:
- To dispel the erroneous belief that the Manusmriti is supportive of the current forms of inequity in Hindu society.
- To correct the misconception that the Manusmriti upholds casteist and sexist orthodoxies and is brahmanical in its worldview.
- To interrogate the biases which allowed for Ambedkar’s stringent criticism of the Manusmriti.
- To point out the fallacy in Ambedkar’s dismissal of the Manusmriti’s propagation of the varnavyavastha, the central theme of Manu’s precepts and the key tenet of Hindu civilization, as a mere gradation of the population of the Hindus into degrees in correspondence with social tasks performed by its constituents.
Chapter 2 (“Manusmriti in the Eyes of Dr Ambedkar”) of the book is in a question-and- answer format. The project of the chapter is to redeem the Manusmriti from its misrepresentations by Ambedkar and Ambedkarities. The explanation of Ambedkar’s own misrepresentations is three-pronged:
- The predominantly anti-Hindu and anti-Indian prejudices which he acquired during his studies in the West
- His familiarity with Hindu scriptures stemmed from his access to Western translations of these scriptures quite exclusively
- His profound, personal abhorrence towards casteism and its consequences in contemporary Hindu society.
But, unfortunately, all these factors combined to influence him to adopt an utterly literal take on the word “Brahmin” – so laments the author of the book. The author says that if he had attributed to the word not the connotation of caste alone but instead the connotation of conduct too, the much-vilified denomination dubbed as “Brahminism” would have resonated with intonations of piety, selflessness and service.
Chapter 2 might well have been titled, “What Ambedkar Missed Out on in the Manusmriti.” The gist of the chapter is an account of the deficiencies in Ambedkar’s comprehension of this Hindu Dharmashastra, whose significance matches that of the Vedas, according to the author; it is equally a reflection on the Dalit icon’s “dubious” scholarship on the subject he had examined. A tacit train of thought which runs through the narrative of Manusmriti Aur Dr Ambedkar is that a non-Hindu can never arrive at the essence of the Manusmriti as accurately as a Hindu. Is this “natural disadvantage” of grasping its true meaning the lot of the Untouchable too?
Satyanarayana’s staunch contention that Hindutva forces cannot domesticate Ambedkar sends out a beacon of cheer in these days of gloom. Ambedkar, he reminds us, averred in Annihilation of Caste that caste was the warp and woof of Hinduism and that till Hinduism was destroyed caste would survive.[xiii] How can such an adversarial persona be installed among the pantheon of Hindutva’s idols?
[i]Quoted from Narendra Jadhav, Ambedkar: Awakening India’s Social Conscience Delhi: Konark Press, 2014.
[ii]Ramachandra Guha, “Which Ambedkar?” India News, 21 April 2016.
[iii]“Will Dalits Continue to Stay with BJP, or Move Back to BSP Fold?” PressReader – Economic Times, 28 February 2017.
[iv]Anand Teltumbde, Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis; Kolkata, Samya Books, 2005. Badri Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilization, Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009.
[v]Badri Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilization, p 20.
[vi]Arun Srivastava, “Appropriating Ambedkar and his Legacy for a Rightist Cause,” Mainstream, Vol LIV, No. 26, p 1.
[vii]Arun Srivastava, “Appropriating Ambedkar and his Legacy for a Rightist Cause,” p 1.
[viii]Quoted from Prakash Louis, “Hindutva: Historicity of Dalit Connection,” in Anand Teltumbde, Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis, p. 146.
[ix]Quoted from Narendra Jadhav, Ambedkar: Awakening India’s Social Conscience, p 594.
[x] Shourie, Arun, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts that Have Been Erased. Delhi: ASA Publications, 1997.
[xi] The New Delhi sales outlet of Suruchi Prakashan is located prominently on one side of a building on the approach to Keshav Kunj, the RSS headquarters in the city. It is a small shop, but on display for purchase is an array of ‘nationalist’ literature in the shape of pamphlets, monographs and books, and desk- and wall-calenders and also sundry pieces of memorabilia projecting Hindutva motifs.
[xii]These details have been recorded by several of Ambedkar’s biographers, most significant among them being Dhananjay Keer in Dr Ambedkar’s Life and Mission (Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1954) and Christophe Jaffrelot in Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste (Delhi, Permanent Black, 2004).
[xiii]K. Satyanarayana, “Ambedkar Cannot be Adopted or Appropriated by Hindutva” – the transcript and translation of the lecture delivered at the launch of a book of the same title that he co-authored. The text and video of the original Telugu lecture are available on Dalit Camera.
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