Reading the headline “Ambedkar was a true Hindu reformist: Arlekar” in the Herald a couple of days ago, literally pushed me off the chair I was having my breakfast in. Published on 30 April, the article was a report of the Speaker of the Assembly Mr. Rajendra Arlekar speaking at an event held by the Dalit Seva Sanghatana in Margao, to felicitate the former Fatorda MLA Mr. Damu Naik with the Dalit Sakha Puraskar.
It was a strange way to frame Babasaheb Ambedkar, given that it was the same man who, at a Dalit conference in Yeola (Nasik district), in 1935 declaimed that “I was born a Hindu. I couldn’t help it, but I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.” And this was not the first time that Dr. Ambedkar made explicit his intentions to not allow the Dalits to be identified with Hindu society. Indeed, in the course of the Round Table Conferences that were held between 1930 -32, as part of the British attempts to lay the ground for democratic transition in colonial India, Dr. Ambedkar presented a demand for separate electorate for what were then known as the ‘untouchables’. This demand, which came along with a similar demand by the Muslim leadership for the Muslims in the subcontinent, was however vehemently protested by Gandhi. While Mr. Jinnah’s, and Mr. Ambedkar’s fears were those of Hindu upper-caste majoritarianism that could threaten the interests of the groups they were representing, Mohandas K. (also known as Mahatma) Gandhi’s reasons for his opposition were contrary. Gandhi was afraid that recognizing the right of the Dalits to a separate electorate would effectively disintegrate what he thought of as Hindu society. To obviate this possibility, Gandhi resorted to a fast-unto-death at the Yervada Jail where he was being held at the time. The inordinate amount of pressure that this created, resulted in Dr. Ambedkar being forced to concede his demand, and settle for assurances from Gandhi and the upper-caste nationalist leaders that gained the form of the Poona Pact in 1932.
Dr. Amberkar finally succeeded in effecting the Dalit split from Hindu society by converting, along with half a million of his supporters, to Buddhism in October 14, 1956 at Nagpur. Dr. Ambedkar died some three months later in December that year and remained true to his words in 1935, he did not die a Hindu. And yet, as Mr. Arlekar’s words demonstrate, the attempt by Hindu leaders to appropriate Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalits to their cause continues unabated. One of the common strategies through which this appropriation is effected is by casting Buddhism as a reform branch of Hinduism. Another strategy is to point out how rather than converting to Islam or Christianity, both religions that have traditionally been routes for lower-caste and untouchable converts seeking liberation from caste strictures, Dr. Ambedkar chose Buddhism instead. The logic attributed to Dr. Ambedkar is that he did not want to lead his folllowers into the arms of foreign religions, but rather into a tradition that had grown in the soil of India, an ‘Indian’ religion. Indeed, this rhetorical strategy is similar to the one employed by Mr. Arlekar when he reportedly said “that representatives of other religions had approached Dr. Ambedkar to bring the Dalits into their fold, but he had declined.”
There are a number of possible reasons for Dr. Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism and rejection of the Christian-Islamic option. The first that we ought to consider is that conversion to Christianity or Islam, while it may have minimized, through its ideological acknowledgments of the equalty of persons, the whip of caste oppression has not ended caste-based prejudice against the Dalits. The second is that Buddhism was preferred for the rationalism that accompanied the version privileged by Dr. Ambedkar. This was not a version that stressed ritual, but like Protestant Christianity, underlined the central location of the individual. To stress the individual and his/her role in contemplation as a route toward salvation, Dr. Ambedkar was making a historical choice for those who have traditionally not been recognized as individuals. It is possible that the foreign origins of Christianity and Islam may have also prevailed on Dr. Ambedkar, and this would not be surprising given the nature of scholarship and thought at the time. However, to suggest that he chose Buddhism because he was a Hindu reformer is to not only pervert but to insult his memory and the radical choice he made. There is a strong trend of scholarship that has suggested that Buddhism is merely reform Hinduism. This impression however is largely the product of orientalist historians who operated under the fundamental assumption that India was primarily Hindu. Buddhism that emerged as a response to Brahmanical and Vedic religious practices, did take on brahmanical rituals in the course of its twining with Empire, but nevertheless maintained a tense and often hostile relationship with Hinduism. Indeed, it has been argued by some historians that the destruction of the ancient university of Nalanda was not entirely the work of the Turko-Afghan forces under Bhaktiyar Khilji. Another lesser known and somewhat controversial argument suggests that once the Turko-Afghans had left, it was the local brahmanical groups, natural enemies of the Buddhist establishment, that got together, and set upon the struggling remains of the university ending the saga of the ancient university.
Mr. Arlekar is not out of place though in suggesting that Dr. Ambedkar was a Hindu reformer. It is in keeping with the Hindu right-wing’s view of the world that all religions that originated within India are in fact parts of Hinduism. Furthermore, as the Hindu right wing, seeks to consolidate its power within the Indian nation-state, it has attempted to woo the Dalits into its fold. To achieve this aim, it has sought to appropriate to its agenda the venerable figure of Dr. Ambedkar, no matter that his agenda was substantially different from that of the Hindu right-wing.
This attempt to appropriate the figure of Dr. Ambedkar may have nevertheless had some tempering effects upon the Hindu right-wing. An example of the strange situation that the saffron groups have found themselves in as a result of an attempt at this appropriation has been commented upon in a recent editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly. Reflecting on the inarticulate response by the Hindu right-wing to the contentious “beef festival” held at the Osmania University by some dalit and left student groups in Osmania University of Hyderabad, the editorial commented that this was perhaps explained by the fact of the location of the groups that have backed this food festival. While the cow-related politics of Hindutva has been largely aimed at striking at Muslims and Christians in the country, these groups are clueless as to how to respond when nominal Hindus such as the Dalits claim the beef is a part of their traditional diet and forms part of their right to nutrition. An aggressive response such as the Hindu right normally uses would be to hit out at the Dalit icon Dr. Ambedkar, which in this case is not quite the best option, given the attempts at wooing the dalits.
Calling upon Dr. Ambedkar as a Hindu reformer it thus appears, is not quite historically correct, nor would it be seen as a serious claim from within the frame of Ambedkarite politics. And yet, when doing so, the Hindu right wing may perhaps be inviting a change in its operation that it might not entirely be comfortable with. C’est la vie…?
(A version of this post first appeared in the Gomantak Times dtd 9 May 2012)