“The first and the foremost thing that must be recognized is that Hindu society is a myth,” wrote Ambedkar mercilessly criticizing the Hindu religion in his Annihilation of Caste. This thus, becomes a challenge, a paradox to the Hindu mind which is still trying to stomach his radical ideas. Many, in the process, have tried to ignore, erase, or forget, even distort, and appropriate him to suit their prejudices, confining him to dogmas and politics, tragically leaving behind, as Roy puts it, “the passions that were at the core of his life and thinking”.
‘History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First, it contained him, and then it glorified him’Arundhati Roy, ‘The Doctor and The Saint’
It is Ambedkar’s 131st birth anniversary today, and people across India, like every year, will be putting messianic quotes, glorified tweets, and over-romanticized images, to showcase for one day their cherry-picked ideas of the man who represents merely the soul of the Indian Constitution to them. On this, I take offense, not because I do not accept his contributions to India as the Head of the Constitution Drafting Committee, but because I firmly believe that it is unjust and also narrow-minded to see Ambedkar and his massive socio-political legacy being ignored and obliterated under the single, superimposing title of the “Maker of the Indian Constitution.”
In other words, what disappoints me is the persistence of people to contain Ambedkar within this or that dogma and glorify him for the same, causing them to not see the true intellectual genius that he was. More so when he was, as his writings reveal, a multifarious and complicated man whose contributions and achievements surpass almost everything that we typically give him the credit of. On this, eminent historian Irfan Habib has written,
“Only his (Ambedkar’s) legacy is used and passed on but not his ideas and writings.”
I think a major reason for this selective ignorance is due to the incomprehensible challenge which Ambedkar and his subversive writings pose to the Hindu mind. He remains a paradox who evades being pinpointed to a specific school of thought or a particular brand of politics. Moreover, this dilemma originates, in part, because Ambedkar stays, as far as I know, the bitterest and, till now, the most ruthless critic of Hinduism. In his book – Riddles of Hinduism, he bluntly declares – ‘Hinduism is a curse to the Hindu society.’
Thus, the Hindu mind is in a moral fix when it comes to approaching Ambedkar because, on one hand, in him, they have a lot to admire and be grateful for, but at the same time, a lot to stomach because this very man mercilessly shattered the foundations of their dear faith with his implacable arguments. Ambedkar made his stance clear,
“I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.”
Nevertheless, the obstinacy of people has led them to come up with a deceptive and dangerous solution to this dire predicament, which has instigated many distortions.
To begin with, I can simply put it like this – rather than going to the trouble of altering or, at the best, forsaking their parochial ideologies by engaging with the enlightened ideas that Ambedkar stood for, people have taken the easier way out. In the sense that not only have they been ignorant of Ambedkar’s thoughts but have also distorted and hijacked the little they know to suit their self-serving politics, propaganda, and prejudices. It is an act that is as absurd as if a tailor starts cutting the body of the wearer to fit the size of the clothes and not the other way round.
These astute appropriations and perversion of facts regarding the philosophy of Ambedkar have led to the creation of several Ambedkars in contemporary India, which are diverse in the kind of lies they are used to sell but are similar in the trait that they are all equally imaginary. Let’s behold a few of the ugliest ones raging in the country now:
A Senior Goa BJP leader earlier this month said in a meeting, “Ambedkar converted to Buddhism and not Islam or Christianity… otherwise there would have been another Pakistan in India.”
In a similar tone in the year 2018, another senior RSS and BJP leader gave the following statement in a public meeting, “Babasaheb was not against Hinduism. But he was against the caste system. He converted to Buddhism, and not Islam or Christianity because Buddhism is also part of the Hindu religion.”
This list of right-wing illicit and historically inaccurate claims on Ambedkar and his legacy goes on and on. Such perverse statements are clear evidence of their obsession to saffronize Ambedkar and misuse his ideas totally out of context, to justify their pathetic anti-religious, aggressive nationalist propaganda, and, of course, to lay seizure to the Dalit vote bank. Moreover, by this act, the Hindutva parties also try to entitle their religious prejudices with an air of intellectual superiority and historicity that comes with the name of Ambedkar. This sad act sounds all the more hideous when we realize that the man whom they are falsely laying claim to was, in fact, their worst critic. Ambedkar wrote in his book Pakistan or Partition of India,
‘No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality, fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with Democracy… Hindu Raj must be prevented at all cost.’
Besides this angle, on the other end of the spectrum, we encounter the second form of manipulation of Ambedkar’s image, done with a different intent and purpose but with similar warped results, which are equally far from the truth as the former. It entails a projection of Ambedkar by those who have over-romanticized him into a saint, an institution, a Bodhisattva, even to the extent of considering him a kind of faith in himself. For them, Ambedkar is beyond the purview of right and wrong, and they owe their very existence to him. Some even go to the extent of saying that “they breathe because of him.”
Such passionate allegiance sounds heroic, even applaudable, but it can, and often has, led to the display of massive ignorance and backwardness on the part of these audiences. It spawns the terrible social phenomenon wherein a person becomes greater than his ideas, and his image becomes so overpowering that his wisdom gets lost in the noise of pomp and revering.
Therefore, just like misinterpreting Ambedkar by the right-wing forces is a threat to his intellectual legacy, similarly, glorification of him also poses severe hazards of side-tracking people from his very ideas and arguments, causing them to be lost in the inconsequential and the mundane.
For instance, often when there is a debate on Ambedkar, a good number of Ambedkarites (ardent followers of Ambedkar) take issue with – ‘Why Gandhi is called Gandhiji, and Nehru is called Nehru-Ji, but Ambedkar is not called Ambedkar-Ji?’, or at other times people take offense on others calling him ‘Dr B.R. Ambedkar’, because they stringently insist to call him “Babasaheb” and nothing else.
Now my argument is not to contend with the inconsequential paradox of the usage of ‘Ji’ (I think, if alive, even Ambedkar wouldn’t have bothered about that), but the very idea that rather than concentrating on the contemplations of Ambedkar, and having a discourse about that, people are quarrelling in a fit of superficial devotion on such petty issues, as whose name gets more respect with a Ji or whether we should call Ambedkar by his official name or his nickname.
I remember here a quote Arundhati Roy wrote in her beautiful book on Ambedkar and Gandhi – The Doctor and the Saint,
‘History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First, it contained him, and then it glorified him. It has made him India’s Leader of The Untouchables, the king of the Ghetto. It has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence.’
But I believe, and therefore, I proclaim, that even if history has been unfair to him, at least, we should not be, and for that, we must not only show mere respect and adoration but close attention and careful readings of his seminal works without any pre-conceived lenses of distortions. Because, not as a worshipper but just as an academic, I can say undoubtedly that his rich corpus of writings is still a priceless treasure that holds sincere insights, if not answers, for the India of today.
Vinay Rajoria is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Maryam Hassan