Ambedkar’s thought was not always in sync with the Hindu view of our society. We must be wary of attempts to ‘appropriate’ Ambedkar for Hindutva.
The lionizing of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is being taken to new heights today. From the Sangh Parivar to the secularist cabal, he is celebrated as a great thinker and visionary. We encounter the strangest of bedfellows here. Who would have thought that Arundhati Roy and Devendra Fadnavis would one day share glowing love declarations? The leftist ideologue tells us that ‘we need Ambedkar—now, urgently,’ while the BJP politician calls him a great jurist and politician whose principles remain universal and relevant in the modern age. The Maharashtra Chief Minister adds deed to word by proudly unveiling a statue of Ambedkar at a Japanese university and proclaiming him ‘one of the world’s greatest Buddhist leaders.’
In the battle over Ambedkar’s ‘legacy’, all political parties seem to agree that his thought is integral to their message. The Communist Party of India (CPI) national secretary calls him a ‘colossus’ and says that, as history unfolds, the enduring relevance of his thoughts and theories and his role as ‘the founder of secularism in this country’ are revealed. In Swarajya , columnist Aravindan Neelakandan portrays the same man as a giant of cultural nationalism and natural ally of the Hindutva movement.
Though rare, we know of cases where some leader from the recent past is glorified by people and parties on all sides of the political spectrum. However, it becomes a different matter when we move to the sphere of political, legal, and social thought. Here, some level of coherence is essential to the quality and integrity of thinking. How should we then understand the apparently boundless capacity of Ambedkar’s thought to find a place in just about all ideologies circulating in contemporary India?
There are many options. First, it could be the case that Ambedkar’s ‘thought’ has as little to do with thinking, as we understand that term, as ideology has to do with science. Anyone can appropriate mushy ideological stuff, if they are incapable of thinking. Second, as a corollary, it could be the case that his pronouncements lack coherence and integrity and can be appropriated by ideologues from right to left, from Hindu nationalist to staunch secularist.
Third, the absence of coherence and integrity could also be a property of the ideologizing by Indian academics and politicians. They share this uncanny ability to embrace Ambedkar’s ideas, because their own thought consists of an incoherent collection of bits and pieces held together by strong emotions rather than sound reasoning. The fourth option is obvious: all of the above are true. In that case, the wedding of Ambedkar to the contemporary ideologues would be a match made in heaven. Especially so, if it transpires that Ambedkar’s ‘thoughts’ cloak self-seeking, narrow, and base interests in a language that glorifies them.
Not willing to deny the right to matrimony to anyone (not even in this case of polygamy), I will argue that the last option is the case. Let me explain what I mean.
Basically, Ambedkar was selling scraps from a Western orientalist and colonial story concerning Indian culture as facts about the world, much like those other marginal merchants who buy crumbs from European dining tables at steeply discounted prices to resell these at marked-up prices in India. In the course of the nineteenth century, a dominant account about Hinduism and the caste system had crystallized in Western scholarship.
In its original Christian form, this revolved around a contrast between true and false religion: false religion is the invention of men seeking to satisfy their own worldly desires by invoking the name of God, whereas true religion is the genuine revelation of God to humanity. In contrast to the universal spiritual teachings of true religion, the priests of false religion impose a set of constricting rules and rites on the believers and thus keep them in control.
According to this Western-Christian story, Indian culture was constituted by one such false religion, namely Hinduism: the Brahmin ‘priests’ imposed all kinds of rites and rules as sacred commandments; thus, they manipulated and oppressed the masses. The crowning piece of their deception, so it was said, was the caste system: an immoral social hierarchy sold as divine injunction.
Over the decades, this Protestant-Christian account underwent a process of secularization: its teachings about false religion were transformed into common-sense ideas about Hindu religion. The predicate ‘false’ was dropped but the basic story remained the same, from the textbooks of colonial education to the treatises of social scientists: (a) ‘Hinduism’ was the dominant ‘religion’ of Indian culture; (b) it was a flawed religion that did not present a message of equality to humanity, but instead provided stifling rules for specific groups of people; (c) the variety of jatis across India are so many expressions of an immoral hierarchy sanctioned by religion and held in place by a priesthood.
Both Western and Indian authors endorsed this as a factual description of Indian society. But this is where the rub comes: without the support of an entire cluster of Christian-theological ideas about false religion, this account of Hinduism and caste could never make sense in the first place. Now listen to Ambedkar’s famous undelivered speech The Annihilation of Caste (1936), often considered the clearest formulation of his thought on the matter:
‘The Hindus hold to the sacredness of the social order. Caste has a divine basis. You must therefore destroy the sacredness and divinity with which Caste has become invested.’
‘What is called Religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions. Religion, in the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries, to all times, is not to be found in them …’
‘Caste is no doubt primarily the breath of the Hindus. But the Hindus have fouled the air all over and everybody is infected, Sikh, Muslim and Christian.’
‘You must have courage to tell the Hindus, that what is wrong with them is their religion—the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of Caste. Will you show that courage?’
Elsewhere he writes:
‘Inequality is the official doctrine of Brahminism and the suppression of the lower classes aspiring to equality has been looked upon by them and carried out by them without remorse as their bounden duty … There is no social evil and no social wrong to which the Brahmin does not give his support.’
Ambedkar’s basic message was that (a) Indian society is dominated by an all-pervading religion named Hinduism, (b) this is a bad and wrong religion, which has no universal spiritual principles, (c) its evil Brahmin priests are responsible for inventing its multitude of commands and prohibitions, (d) the caste system has its sacred foundations in Hinduism, (e) this Hindu system prevents a true nation and society from coming into being in India. To annihilate caste, one would of course have to destroy its foundations – the religion that has produced it; consequently, the annihilation of caste entailed the annihilation of Hinduism.
This is what Ambedkar stood for. He echoed such utterances as though they constituted a rational and moral analysis of a culture; in reality, these were discarded scraps of an old Christian theology of false religion now presented as facts about the world. If our ‘colossus’ had even an inkling of the Protestant-Christian framework which produced the judgements he reproduced, he could have spared himself the effort and summed up his harangue in one simple sentence: ‘Hinduism is false religion and it needs to disappear.’
What, then, can one say to the people who try to present Ambedkar as a great thinker and humanitarian visionary? Imagine a preacher in today’s world who insists that a particular religion is false and evil and needs to be wiped from the face of the earth. He would not be considered a paragon of humanitarian vision but a dangerous fanatic. Ambedkarites make an exception for Hinduism, which indeed needs to be wiped out according to them, but that is because they truly believe it is a false and evil religion. Their hatred is not only inspired by centuries of preaching Western-Christian stories about India as God-given truth, but even more so by decades of emotional investment and vested interest. They are among the dangerous fanatics of today.
But what about the Hindutva ideologues who have joined the bandwagon? In his piece‘Hindutva and Dr. Ambedkar’ (Swarajya, 12/09/2015), Aravindan Neelakandan writes that the academic-activists in the West are responsible for reinventing Ambedkar as ‘the icon against the Indian State in general and Hinduism in particular’; the left in India merely embraced this ‘reinvented image.’ According to him, the truth is that Ambedkar’s ‘life, work and philosophy were built on an Indic sensibility, a passionate desire for Hindu unity, and cultural nationalism.’ This denial of truth in the name of truth is sickening.
Neelakandan’s thesis goes something like this: Ambedkar claims that all of India has a strong cultural unity, but this homogeneous unit was divided by caste. To become a nation, India has to find ‘spiritual unity’ and this is prevented by the Hindu caste system, which stands in the way of Hindu unity (‘Sangathan’). In Neelakandan’s own words:
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.
Indeed, Ambedkar claimed that caste consciousness is the reason why neither the Hindus nor the Indians can be said to form a nation or a society. How sensible is this? If we leave aside the Protestant-Christian conception of ‘the Hindu caste system’, which is anything but scientific, we can make one simple observation: it is characteristic of Indian culture in general and the Hindu traditions in particular that they accommodate a tremendous variety of jatis and other groups, which follow their own traditions and have their own swamis, temples, and mathas (or similar such institutions).
People are part of the jati in which they are born; mostly, they continue the practices transmitted to them by their ancestors and taught to them by their parents; they go to their swamis for guidance and to their temples to do puja. Now, what is wrong with this?
Of course, there has been discrimination and conflict among members of these groups. But how does this prevent nationhood or national unity? In every nation under the sun, there was and is discrimination and conflict between groups that are not just social classes. In the United States, for instance, we see ethnic groups, linguistic groups, and religious denominations, which are discriminated from each other and have known conflict. In India, there are jatis. In America, apparently, the existence of such empirical groups and the undeniable discrimination among them do not prevent nationhood. How could caste (and caste discrimination) then prevent India from becoming a united nation?
Only one framework can make sense of this idea that members of a nation should all belong to one and the same community without discrimination: namely, the notion of the nation intrinsic to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of these religions claims that their believers are united as a community in God, where they relate to each other as equals: the chosen people of God for the Jews, the communitas or ecclesia for the Christians, and the Umma for the Muslims. As such, in these religions, all are equally part of the same community and this is what makes them a nation. Hence also, Christianity and Islam developed a typical condemnation of Hinduism: it does not create this kind of community and instead chops up the believers into a hierarchy of castes; this shows that it is a false divisive religion that denies the equality of believers before God.
This condemnation was reproduced in a ‘secular’ form not only by Western scholars, but also by colonized Indians like Ambedkar. Stripped of rhetoric, factoids, and anecdotes, his writings on caste say one thing over and over again: Hinduism is not (like) Christianity; it should become (like) Christianity. But this is what the missionaries and colonials had been saying all along. Inevitably, our supposed ‘fighter for Hindu unity’ also peddled the accompanying Western-Christian moral judgements about the Hindus: they are anti-social, inhumane, and indifferent to others’ suffering; they are slaves of their religion and its priesthood; they have ‘fouled the air all over.’
In the name of taking on the so-called ‘Abrahamic religions’, then, Ambedkar and his acolytes are selling out to these religions. If Neelakandan is right about the natural alliance between Ambedkar and Hindutva, there is only one conclusion we can come to: Hindutva can be neither Hindu nor Indian. Succumbing to a colonial orientalist discourse rooted in Christianity, Ambedkar pleads for the eradication of all characteristics that distinguish the Hindu traditions from this religion. The other non-Christian and non-Muslim traditions of India – including the Buddhist traditions – also share most of these characteristics. Consequently, no matter what they may write about Hindu unity and such like, Ambedkar and his followers are advocating one simple message: Indian culture deserves destruction.
To promote the annihilation of a culture and its traditions without any understanding is one of the worst things one can do to humanity. Our cultures and our roots are all we have to save us from the loss of bearings that is overtaking the contemporary world. For India, the rediscovery of its cultural resources will be essential to its future survival.
Yet, instead of taking this seriously, the country is witness to the rising celebration of a ‘thinker’ whose ‘thought’ stands diametrically opposed to this endeavour. If there is one piece of evidence that establishes the intellectual and ethical bankruptcy of India’s ideologues on all sides of the political spectrum, it must be their glorification of Ambedkar’s thought. Does that make him into the ‘jewel of India’, the Bharat Ratna?