Appropriating Ambedkar: Challenges for Indian Right and Hinduism

April 14, birthday of Dr. B R Ambedkar, a day which witnessed multiple celebrations across different political streams of India, is essentially the prime example of ideological incoherence and confusion among all the streams of political thoughts of India. The legacy of Ambedkar is such diverse in nature that every group picks certain elements which suits their agenda while maintains a strategic silence over others.

The interesting thing in recent year has been the interest of BJP and RSS in appropriating the legacy of Ambedkar through number of means. This year, PM Modi launched Aadhar Pay, merchant interface for BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money), and paid a special visit to Nagpur to pay tribute to Ambedkar on his birthday. The state governments of BJP have been equally enthusiastic for his birthday celebration and Maharashtra decided to celebrate it as Knowledge Day while Uttar Pradesh government made it compulsory to keep the schools open on April 14.

The effort towards appropriation of Ambedkar by Indian political right is not limited to only political sphere, rather stretches in the social domain too with the celebration of Samrasta Divas. All BJP MPs were asked to stay in their respective constituencies for 48 hours to listen the problems of people on this occasion. PM Modi has also quoted Ambedkar frequently in his speeches recently, in which he lauded Ambedkar as champion of social justice and an able economic thinker. However, the effort by Indian right to appropriate Ambedkar is problematic in many aspects, inconsistent with the ideology of Hindutva, and having negative implications for Hinduism in future. I’ll try to investigate the historical problem associated with it then estimate the future implications.

Historically, the core of Hindutva has been the Hinduism and the cultural nationalism emerging out of it. From Savarkar to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, this is the central body of thought on which the entire movement of Hindutva rests. If we examine Ambedkar’s writing, he has been vehemently opposed to Hinduism in every manner and even went on calling for annihilation of Hinduism in the disguise of annihilation of caste. For Ambedkar, Hinduism was essentially Brahminism, which had adopted other castes in late 19th century for political purpose, but it has been historically repressive of untouchables. So, every criticism of Brahminism by Ambedkar should be considered as criticism of Hinduism as all the scriptures of Hinduism were penned down by Brahmins to assert their hegemony over others in his worldview. Quoting Ambedkar from ‘Annihilation of Caste’, considered as his seminal work and the clearest exposition of his thought:

‘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 …’

As it can be inferred from above excerpts, Ambedkar didn’t consider Hinduism to be a religion as per the existing parameters of religion but a collection of orders to form a stratification of society based on caste. By linking caste system of Hinduism with its scriptures, Ambedkar necessarily wants to assert that caste system has always existed in India and it can’t be eradicated without destruction of its foundation i.e Hinduism. A critique of Ambedkar’s thesis on caste and its divine origin is beyond the scope of this article but understanding his views about Hinduism is quite important to understand the future implications. Ambedkar further writes:

“The wrongs to which the Untouchables are subjected by the Hindus are acts which are sanctioned by the Hindu religion. They are done in the name of Hinduism and are justified in the name of Hinduism. The spirit and tradition which makes lawful the lawlessness of the Hindus towards the Untouchables is founded and supported by the teachings of Hinduism.”

Without an iota of doubt, Ambedkar believed that untouchability and Hinduism are inseparable with each other and if one has to get rid of untouchability then he has to renounce Hinduism. This became quite certain when Ambedkar announced at Nashik in 1935 that he is born as Hindu but will not die as Hindu. The Mahar confrence organised in 1936 in Mumbai, he told his followers that the struggle between Hindus and untouchables is eternal one, and Hindus don’t consider untouchables as part of Hinduism, thus, it’s in the interest of the untouchables to get converted for getting the social status.

When Ambedkar finally embraced Buddhism in a public ceremony on October 14, 1956 in Nagpur with his 6,00,000 followers, he prescribed 22 vows for the new converts. Some of them are:

“I renounce Hinduism, which disfavors humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion.”
“I firmly believe the Dhamma of the Buddha is the only true religion.”
“I shall have no faith in Brahma , Vishnu and Maheshwara , nor shall I worship them.”
“I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna , who are believed to be incarnation of God, nor shall I worship them.”

Till the last moment of his life, Ambedkar remained opposed to Hinduism and even tried to erase all the relationships between Hinduism and Buddhism which had existed throughout the history. While in case of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, there was no clear conflict with Hinduism, in Navayana (Dalit Buddhist Movement), Buddhism is directly confronting Sanatan Dharma. When BJP is trying to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar, it can’t stop people from considering these views of Ambedkar about Hinduism. Due to the Ambedkar’s conversion into Buddhism, a large section of Schedule Castes have converted themselves into Buddhism by following the footprints of Ambedkar.

The crucial question remains, how will BJP or Sangh Parivar will be able to hold back the schedule castes in the fold of Hinduism when they’re celebrating an icon which clearly prescribed them to leave the fold of Hinduism? The argument can be given by RSS that as untouchability has been declared a crime by Indian Constitution, his views are not relevant in present anymore. However, had Ambedkar thought so, he would have revised his views about Hinduism after 1950. Instead of doing that, he got converted in 1956 with the notion of eternity of untouchablity in Hinduism.

How will BJP convince the schedule castes from restraining their conversion into Buddhism when they’re elevating Ambedkar as Dalit icon? This challenge has become even more magnified as well as complex due to the presence of Christian missionaries who are trying hard to alienate the Dalits from Hinduism by using the ideology of Ambedkar and atrocity literatures. The consequences of Ambedkar’s writings can be seen in the academia where Dalit thinkers like Braj Ranjan Mani writes books like “Debrahmanising India” while Kancha Ilaiah writes “Post-Hindu India”. The central theme of these books always remains the human rights violations by Brahmins, caste oppression, appropriation of native culture by Brahmins, and how Dalits are not Hindus. Due to such kind of discourse in academia, Mahissaasura has been elevated to the status of tribal/Dalit God, representing non-Aryan native Bahujans of India. Eklavya, Shambuka, Raja Bali etc are in the process of getting resurrected as bahujan  heroes who were oppressed by Brahmins in history.

Be it whether racist scholars like Kancha Ilaiah who considers Krishna as a fictitious entity created by Brahmins to curtail the Yadava uprising in some mythical past to Ambedkar who considers the eternal conflict between upper and lower caste Hindus, both the streams get united in calling for eradicating Brahminism and instigating the Bahujans (Dalits and OBCs) to fight against the upper castes. As this narrative is being more and more mainstream with the support from Christian missionaries working in India, the danger looming on Hinduism is only getting bigger where a violent conflict between upper and lower caste Hindus can’t be denied in upcoming time.

It should also be noted that Ambedkar was never able to win an election by his own and his image as Dalit icon has been deliberately shaped by academia and popular discourse after independence. The correct attitude in my view will be to dismantle the false sense of grandeur associated with Ambedkar rather than providing him further legitimacy as a social thinker. Rather than countering the false scholarship of Ambedkar about Hinduism and the Dalit thinkers who have surfaced in the academia to set the narrative straight, BJP has been trying to appropriate someone who will erode the core of Hinduism and associated political movement.

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