For years, the Left has tried to project Ambedkar as the antithesis of Hindutva. But the truth is that his life, work and philosophy were built on an Indic sensibility, a passionate desire for Hindu unity, and cultural nationalism. The sixth part of our history of Hindutva.
Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, is viewed in modern political discourse as the antithesis to Hindutva. Particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the academic-activists of South East Asian studies departments in the West discovered Dr Ambedkar and reinvented him as the icon against the Indian State in general and Hinduism in particular. Curiously, the left wing embraced this reinvented image of Dr Ambedkar wholeheartedly.
However, the irony is that if there is one organization in India outside the Dalit movements that has embraced Dr Ambedkar consistently since the 1930s till date, it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Some mainstream academicians of the left persuasion have attempted to portray this longstanding fascination of Hindu nationalists—particularly the so-called Sangh Parivar—with Dr Ambedkar as well as other local Dalit icons as an attempt at appropriating them for the saffron agenda. However, such studies have ignored the long term relation of Hindu nationalists with not only Dr Ambedkar but general anti-caste reform movements and their historical points of convergence.
As early as 1916, in his famed paper presented at an anthropology seminar of Columbia University, Dr Ambedkar made an observation that may well become the definition of what is today called “cultural nationalism” in the Indian context:
“It may be granted that there has not been a thorough amalgamation of the various stocks that make up the peoples of India, and to a traveller from within the boundaries of India, the East presents a marked contrast in physique and even in colour to the West, as does the South to the North. But amalgamation can never be the sole criterion of homogeneity as predicated of any people. Ethnically all people are heterogeneous. It is the unity of culture that is the basis of homogeneity. Taking this for granted, I venture to say that there is no country that can rival the Indian Peninsula with respect to the unity of its culture. It has not only a geographic unity, but it has over and above all a deeper and a much more fundamental unity— the indubitable cultural unity that covers the land from end to end.”
In this context then, caste becomes a problem for Dr Ambedkar, not as part of this “homogeneity”, but because it is a “parceling” of an “already homogeneous unit”. In other words, it fragments the cultural unity of Indian society and thus inhibits the development of national feeling among Indians. Dr Ambedkar would return to the same topic in 1940. While discussing the problem of Partition, he became, as he labeled himself, “the philosopher of Partition”. And here, rejecting the idea of territorial nationalism, he would emphasize a qualitatively different type of nationalism:
“If unity is to be of an abiding character, it must be founded on a sense of kinship, in the feeling of being kindred. In short, it must be spiritual. Judged in the light of these considera-tions, the unity between Pakistan and Hindustan is a myth. Indeed there is more spiritual unity between Hindustan and Burma than there is between Pakistan and Hindustan.” (Thoughts on Pakistan, 1941)
He had justified Partition because, as he puts it in the same article, even the Sikh axe could not resist the Islamist imperialism which was preventing the return of “Northern India to that spiritual and cultural unity by which it was bound to the rest of India before Hwen Thasang”. Dr Ambedkar always insisted on this “spiritual and cultural unity” as the basis of modern nation-state formation, and he emphasized the Vedic as well as Buddhist contribution to it. Thus, he was reinforcing what Hindu Sanghathanis have been asserting: the Buddhist-Vedic organic fraternity as part of a greater pan-Hindu identity.
The contribution of Dr Ambedkar lies in taking forward the historical reality of Indian cultural unity, and based on it, creating centralized national structures that would reinforce India’s unity in concrete tangible terms. In 1939, delivering the Kale Memorial Lecture at the Gokhale School of Politics, he confessed that he was partial towards a Unitary form of Government. “I think India needs it,” he had said.
Sangathan Rationale for Caste Annihilation
His “annihilation of caste” project was always underscored by the Hindu Sangathan (unity) perspective. “Hindu Sangathan” was a term popularized by Hindu nationalist Swami Shraddhanand. Dr Ambedkar cautioned Hindus that in the coming battles, they would be a disunited force and their unity, even if achieved, would be unsustainable if Hindu society remained casteist.
In 1933, Mahatma Gandhi asked Dr Ambedkar to write a message for his magazine Harijan. Ambedkar wrote a crisp statement which was published in the February 11 issue. It was blunt and—more importantly—prophetic:
“The Outcaste is a byproduct of the Caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the Outcaste except the destruction of the Caste system. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu Faith of this odious and vicious dogma.”
The “coming struggle” that he had visualized was the Partition and the pre-Partition riots which were part of a well-planned strategy unleashed on a population of disunited Hindus. It was his quest for justice and his constant worry about the survival of Hindus which led him on a search for an alternative that would bring unity among the Hindus of India.
In his classic work Annihilation of Caste (1944), Dr Ambedkar makes it clear that it was caste which was making the conversion of other religionists to Hinduism impossible. His vision of Hinduism is a united strong Hinduism—battle-ready and prepared to take on Abrahamic religions. To realize this vision, there is only one major crucial obstacle and that is caste. So it has to go, not only for Hinduism to survive but for it to prosper:
“So long as caste remains, there will be no Sangathan, and so long as there is no Sangathan, the Hindu will remain weak and meek…Indifferentism is the worst kind of disease that can infect a people. Why is the Hindu so indifferent? In my opinion, this indifferentism is the result of Caste System which has made Sangathan and co-operation even for a good cause impossible.”
The Sangathan perspective of the abolition of caste was a persistent theme in his articulation. He ended his long essay on the annihilation of caste thus:
“There is no use having Swaraj if you cannot defend it. More important than the question of defending Swaraj is the question of defending the Hindus under the Swaraj. ln my opinion, only when the Hindu society becomes a casteless society, then it can hope to have the strength enough to defend itself. Without such internal strength, Swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery.”
It is in this context that one could understand how he was extremely appreciative of all genuine reform work by Hindu nationalists—rather than seeing them as competition or appropriating his domain. He expressed open appreciation for the works of “Veer” V.D. Savarkar and Swami Shraddhanand—both Hindu Mahasabha leaders.
The King-Rebel connection
Perhaps for the seeds of this, one should look at the Hindu nationalist influences on one of the earliest and most crucial benefactors of Dr Ambedkar. Sayajirao Gaekwad III (1863-1939), the Maharajah of Baroda, had been influenced by the achievements of Hindu state builder Shivaji and he was seen to manifest some of the qualities of the illustrious Maratha in his own administration. The king also had sympathy for the nationalist revolutionary movement of Savarkar. It was through Shankar Wagh, the Maharajah’s barber, that Savarkar and Sayajirao were in contact.
The Maharajah’s zeal for social reform can be directly linked to his Hindu nationalism. In 1905, he had employed Pandit Atmaram, an emissary of the Arya Samaj, who was charged with the task of conducting shuddhi ceremonies for Hindus forcibly converted to Islam and Christianity. The pandit was also given the responsibility of empowering Dalits. The activities of the Arya Samaj had resulted in creating institutions that neglected caste divisions to create a pan-Hindu identity. By 1911, the Samaj was even able to establish a boarding house in Surat with the aim of dismantling the deeply entrenched practice of caste segregation.
The earliest support to Dr Ambedkar had come from the king, whose zeal for reform had roots in his concern for Hindu Sangathan. Incidentally, the king of Baroda also employed nationalist thinker and latter-day spiritualist Sri Aurobindo as his personal secretary and then made him the Vice Principal of Baroda College. Sri Aurobindo himself had the concept that the rigid caste system was undemocratic. And he saw in the Upanishads a spirituality of liberty, equality and fraternity—a concept we would see repeatedly in Dr Ambedkar’s attempts to provide an Indic restructuring of Hinduism.
Savarkar and Ambedkar
Savarkar had diagnosed without mincing words that “the scripture-based caste system is a mental illness”, and he offered a cure to this disease plaguing the Hindu psyche, “the disease gets cured instantly when the mind refuses to accept it.” While the whole traditional orthodoxy of Hindu leadership was making a fetish out of the varna system as the basis of Hindu Dharma, Savarkar had declared:
“Both chaturvarna and caste divisions are but practices. They are not coterminous with Sanatana Dharma…Sanatana Dharma will not die if the present-day distortion that is caste division is destroyed.”
With regard to untouchability, Savarkar’s voice, though a lone one in the wilderness, was clear and categorical:
“To regard our millions of co-religionists as ‘untouchables’ and worse than animals is an insult not only to humanity but also to the sanctity of our soul. It is my firm conviction that this is why untouchability should be principally eradicated. Untouchability should go also because its eradication is in the interests of our Hindu society. But even if the Hindu society were to partially benefit from that custom, I would have opposed it with equal vehemence. When I refuse to touch someone because he was born in a particular community but play with cats and dogs, I am committing a most heinous crime against humanity. Untouchability should be eradicated not only because it is incumbent on us but because it is impossible to justify this inhuman custom when we consider any aspect of dharma. Hence, this custom should be eradicated as a command of dharma. From the point of view of justice, dharma and humanism, fighting untouchability is a duty and we Hindus should completely eradicate it. In the present circumstances, how we will benefit by fighting it is a secondary consideration. This question of benefit is an aapaddharma (duty to be done in certain exceptional circumstances) and eradication of untouchability is the foremost and absolute dharma. (Essays on the Abolition of Caste, 1930)
When Savarkar was at Ratnagiri, his movements, as well as participation in political activities, were both restricted. Yet he championed the cause of the Dalits and presided over the Mahar conference held at Ratnagiri. In his letter to Savarkar, expressing his inability to visit him owing to previous engagements, Dr Ambedkar wrote:
“I, however, wish to take this opportunity of conveying to you my appreciation of the work you are doing in the field of social reform. If the Untouchables are to be part of the Hindu society, then it is not enough to remove untouchability; for that matter you should destroy ‘Chaturvarna’. I am glad that you are one of the very few leaders who have realised this.” (From letter quoted by Dhananjay Keer, Veer Savarkar, 1950)
In April 1933, Dr Ambedkar’s Janata magazine, in a special issue, paid a tribute to Veer Savarkar to the effect that his contribution to the cause of the Dalits was as decisive and great as that of Gautama Buddha himself.
In 1948, Dr Ambedkar would come to the rescue of Veer Savarkar, when Savarkar was arrested for the Gandhi assassination. The most authoritative historian on the murder, Manohar Malgonkar, the author of the definitive volume on the subject, The Men Who Killed Gandhi (1978), revealed in 2008 that it became “incumbent upon him to omit certain vital facts such as, for instance, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s secret assurance to Mr L.B. Bhopatkar, that his client, Mr V.D. Savarkar, had been implicated as a murder suspect on the flimsiest ground.” (From the author’s introduction to the 2008 edition)
Shraddhanand and Ambedkar
Another person held in high esteem by Dr Ambedkar was Swami Shraddhanand. The Swami was at the forefront of the Hindu Sangathan movement. He was one Hindu leader who fully realized that to achieve Sangathan in the truest sense, casteism had to die. As an uncompromising patriot, he was one of the foremost leaders of the Gandhian movement during the Khilafat agitation. Just after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, when none in the Congress was ready to preside over the Congress session in Punjab, he came forward and bravely presided over the Congress Committee session at Amritsar. He repeatedly attacked casteism and upheld the rights of Dalits. He went on to establish the Dalit Uddhar Sabha in Delhi. He continued to work for the upliftment and liberation of Dalits till his life was cut short tragically by the bullets of an Islamist fanatic in 1926. He was also initially an active supporter of the Gandhian movement to win Dalits their rights. However, he soon discovered that Gandhian leadership was not as committed to Dalit liberation as the Swami had expected it to be. In frustration, he wrote to Gandhi on 9 September 1921:
“The Delhi and Agra Chamars simply demand that they be allowed to draw water from wells used by the Hindus and Mohammedans and that water be not served to them (from Hindu water booths) through bamboos or leaves. Even that appears impossible for the Congress Committee to accomplish…At Nagpur, you laid down that one of the conditions for obtaining Swarajya within 12 months was to give their rights to the depressed classes and without waiting for the accomplishment of their uplift, you have decreed that if there is a complete boycott of foreign cloth up till the 30th September, Swarajya will be an accomplished fact on the 1st of October…I want to engage my limited energy in the uplift of the depressed classes. I do not understand whether the Swarajya obtained without the so-called Untouchable brethren of ours joining us will prove salutary for the Indian nation.”
In 1922, he had to resign his position from the Depressed Classes Sub-Committee of the Congress. Subsequently on 19th August 1923, at the Hindu Mahasabha annual session, the Swami unveiled a grand action plan to remove the stigma of untouchability from Hindu society forever. He tabled a resolution, which was attacked by the orthodoxy so vehemently that the session almost collapsed. The resolution the Swami brought was for the basic dignity and fundamental human rights of Dalits:
“With a view to do justice to the so-called Depressed Classes in the Hindu Community and to assimilate them as parts of an organic whole, in the great body of the Aryan fraternity, this conference of Hindus of all sects holds:
a. That the lowest among the depressed classes be allowed to draw water from common public wells,
b. That water is served to them at drinking posts freely like that as is done to the highest among other Hindus,
c. That all members of the said classes be allowed to sit on the same carpet in public meetings and their ceremonies with higher classes, and
d. That their children (male and female) be allowed to enter freely and at teaching time to sit on the same form with other Hindu and non-Hindu children in Government, National and Denominational education institutions.”
Dr Ambedkar openly admired Swami Shraddhanand. Though critical of the Hindu Mahasabha as a political party, (for there were many prominent Mahasabha leaders who were very orthodox and socially stagnant), he found the Swami a very sincere fighter for the Dalit cause. In his highly critical book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Dr Ambedkar examines the hasty way in which the Congress leadership abandoned their Dalit upliftment programme:
“Was it because the Congress intended that the scheme should be a modest one not costing more than two to five lakhs of rupees but felt that from that point of view they had made a mistake in including Swami Shraddhanand in the Committee and rather than allow the Swami to confront them with a huge scheme which the Congress could neither accept nor reject? The Congress thought it better in the first instance to refuse to make him the convener and subsequently to dissolve the Committee and hand over the work to the Hindu Mahasabha. Circumstances are not quite against such a conclusion. The Swami was the greatest and the most sincere champion of the Untouchables. There is not the slightest doubt that if he had worked on the Committee he would have produced a very big scheme. That the Congress did not want him in the Committee and was afraid that he would make big demand on Congress funds for the cause of the Untouchables is clear from the correspondence that passed between him and Pandit Motilal Nehru, the then General Secretary of the Congress.”
That Dr Ambedkar found in Shraddhanand “the greatest and most sincere champion of the Untouchables” is very interesting for this is a title which the good doctor never claimed for himself, though Gandhi would have dearly loved to have this title for himself. This also belies the Congress propaganda that the Ambedkar-Gandhi conflict was because the former did not want someone else to be called the leader of the Untouchables.
Temple of Hindutva
This holistic vision of understanding Dalit liberation as crucial for Hindu Sangathan always shaped Dr Ambedkar’s attitudes and actions. His statement issued on the temple entry rights for Dalits in 1927 approaches the issue from a cultural-historical point of view and rejects any theistic need from his side:
“The most important point we want to emphasize is not the satisfaction you get from the worship of the image of God…Hindutva belongs as much to the untouchable Hindus as to the touchable Hindus. To the growth and glory of this Hindutva contributions have been made by Untouchables like Valmiki, the seer of Vyadhageeta, Chokhamela and Rohidas as much as by Brahmins like Vashishta, Kshatriyas like Krishna, Vaishyas like Harsha and Shudras like Tukaram. The heroes like Sidnak Mahar who fought for the protection of the Hindus were innumerable. The temple built in the name of Hindutva, the growth and prosperity of which was achieved gradually with the sacrifice of touchable and untouchable Hindus, must be open to all the Hindus irrespective of caste.” (Bahiskrit Bharat, 27 November 1927; quoted in Dhananjay Keer, Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, 1990)
The important element of the statement is that Dr Ambedkar replaces the term “Hinduism” with “Hindutva”. In doing this, he attempts to make the Hindus realize that the issue of Dalit liberation should be at the core of Hindu nationalist politics, for that should be the logical development of the larger historical processes shaping Indian history. It was an appeal to do away with obscurantist traditional casteism and embrace a dynamic Hindu nationalism. Unfortunately, Hindu orthodoxy and Hindu leadership failed him. So on 13 October 1935, Dr Ambedkar declared that while it was beyond his power to have been born an untouchable, it was within his power to make sure that he would not die a Hindu, and he resolved that he would not die a Hindu.
This was indeed a well-calculated blow to Hindu orthodoxy. But only Hindu nationalists actually understood both the seriousness of the situation as well as the just nature of Dr Ambedkar’s reaction. Despite the despicable treatment meted out to Dalits by the Hindu orthodoxy, Dr Ambedkar still respected “the temple built in the name of Hindutva” and made national interest paramount in his choice of an alternative religion. He had a detailed discussion with Dr B.S. Moonje, the mentor of Dr K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS.
After this, Dr Ambedkar observed:
“What the consequences of conversion will be to the country as a whole is well worth bearing in mind. Conversion to Islam or Christianity will denationalize the Depressed Classes. If they go over to Islam the number of Muslims would be doubled; and the danger of Muslim domination also becomes real. If they go over to Christianity, the numerical strength of the Christians becomes five to six crores. It will help to strengthen the hold of Britain on the country. On the other hand if they embrace Sikhism they will not only not harm the destiny of the country but they will help the destiny of the country. They will not be denationalized.” (Dr Ambedkar, The Times of India, 24 July 1936)
Dr Ambedkar always took care that he should never allow his people to get denationalized in their quest for justice and liberation. Closely related to this is the definition of the term “Hindu”. He wanted the Dalits to go out of the oppressive orthodoxy-infested “Hindu religion” but remain within “Hindu culture”.
More Savarkarite than Savarkar
In discussing the problem of Partition, Dr Ambedkar observed that the definition of the term “Hindu” by Savarkar was made with “great care and caution” to achieve the exclusion of binary religions of non-Indic origin and inclusion of “Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, etc, by not insisting upon belief in the sanctity of the Vedas as an element in the qualifications”. Dr Ambedkar was perhaps the only person who understood the sociological implication of this definition for nation-building. In “Thoughts On Pakistan”, he observed: “Consequently the so-called aboriginal or hill-tribes also are Hindus: because India is their Fatherland as well as their Holy Land whatever form of religion or worship they follow.” Later in formulating to whom the Hindu Code Bill would apply, Dr Ambedkar used the same frame of definition that Savarkar had used in his definition of “Hindu”. When sectarians complained about Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs being grouped together with Hindus in his Bill, he replied:
“Application of Hindu code to the Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains was a historical development and it would be too late sociologically to object to it. When the Buddha differed from the Vedic Brahmins, he did so only in matters of creed and left the Hindu legal framework intact. He did not propound a separate law for his followers. The same was the case with Mahavir and the ten Sikh Gurus.”
In his Thoughts On Pakistan, one finds another curious fact that in a way transcends even a radical conception of Hindutva. When discussing Savarkar’s proposed alternative to Pakistan, he finds in it “a frankness, boldness and definiteness”, but rejects it as “illogical if not queer”, and as “creating a most dangerous situation for safety and security of India”. Because once the two-nation theory has been accepted, then with one dominant nation (the Hindu) and the other minor nation (the Muslim), Ambedkar finds co-existence absolutely impractical and dangerous. Dr Ambedkar points out that Savarkar “does not propose to suppress the Muslim nation” while at the same time “does not consent to divide the country”. He states tantalizingly: “One can understand and even appreciate the wisdom of the theory of suppression of the minor nation by the major nation because the ultimate aim is to bring about one nation.”
In the 1940s, the Hindu-Muslim problem was one crucial issue where the stand of Ambedkar is more Savarkarite than that of Savarkar himself.