Opinion

‘The Ambedkar they don’t want you to know about’ is a man who never actually existed

Have his ideas been ‘ignored and misrepresented’ because they did not fit the ‘left-liberal narrative’?

In 2016, the the political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote: “[BR] Ambedkar is not everyone’s thinker because we have not done enough to deserve him. He is everyone’s thinker in only one sense: he stands as a permanent admonishment to us all.”

Ambedkar spared almost no one in his indictments of the moral and spiritual corruption of Indian society, and for decades after independence his thought and contributions were largely marginalised beyond a vague notion that he was the “architect of our Constitution”.

These days, however, Ambedkar has been resurrected as an icon, and he is “everyone’s thinker” in an unfortunate sense – everyone wants to claim him.

Yet Ambedkar was too subtle and complex a thinker to accurately pin down or categorise. One cannot credibly contend that he would have been a supporter of this or that party. These attempts at appropriation tend to be opportunistic, and depend on partial or misleading accounts of Ambedkar’s thought. It is hard to find a more cynical example of appropriation through misrepresentation than Aravindan Neelakandan’s article in Swarajya titled, “The Ambedkar They Don’t Want You to Know About.”

This is only Neelakandan’s latest attempt to claim Ambedkar for Hinduism, and in particular for Neelakandan’s own brand of anti (or post)-caste Hindutva – 80 years after Ambedkar publicly left Hinduism, and 60 after he converted to Buddhism.

Neelakandan claims that Ambedkar’s true ideas have been “ignored and misrepresented” because they did not fit the “left-liberal narrative” of the intelligentsia. He then lists seven ideas that this intelligentsia has supposedly suppressed.

One of these ideas – that Ambedkar was in favour of a Uniform Civil Code – is so well-known that it is like claiming that the liberals have suppressed Gandhi’s support for cow protection. But much of the rest of Neelakandan’s piece is based on a series of selective and out of context quotations that have been twisted to convey an argument very different from, and in some cases totally opposite to, Ambedkar’s own views.

Blatant distortions

At the outset, Neelakandan claims that “Dr Ambedkar considered the mahavakyas of Upanishads the spiritual basis of democracy”, and said as much “in his famous speech to the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal”.

Leave aside the fact that Ambedkar was prevented from actually giving this speech because the force of his repudiation of Hinduism was unacceptable to the organisation that had invited him, and he was compelled to publish it at his own expense – we know it as Annihilation of Caste – Neelakandan does not actually quote from Annihilation to support this odd claim, because the text of the speech does not support the argument he makes.

The topic arises when Ambedkar states that Hinduism needs to be given “a new doctrinal basis” in concordance with democracy. Ambedkar writes:

“I am no authority on the subject. But I am told that for such religious principles as will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, it may not be necessary for you to borrow from foreign sources, and that you could draw for such principles on the Upanishads. Whether you could do so without a complete remoulding, a considerable scraping and chipping off from the ore they contain, is more than I can say.”

This passage makes it clear that Ambedkar was “told” by others that his desired new doctrine could be based in the Upanishads, and his scepticism towards that claim is plain to see – provided they actually read Ambedkar, and not Neelakandan’s distortion of him.

Ambedkar and Christian missionaries

Neelakandan later tries to use Ambedkar to prosecute one of his own pet causes: the supposed evil of Christian missonaries in India. He quotes, characteristically out of context, from Ambedkar’s 1948 introduction to Lakshmi Narasu’s Essence of Buddhism (not, as Neelakandan has it, Essentials of Buddhism), a remark on how Christian missionaries were fickle in their support of Hindu social reform movements. He then quotes at length from a letter to Ambedkar from the Congress leader Jagjivan Ram, which says only that one Baldeo Jaiswal, who purported to be a Dalit leader, was in fact a puppet of missionaries. None of this supports Neelakandan’s headline claim that “Ambedkar viewed with suspicion the missionary support for the movement of ‘Dalit’ causes.”

In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar said that even the violent forced conversions of Islam and the Catholic Inquisition were preferable to Hinduism’s exclusion of the so-called untouchables. He wrote at least Muslims and Christians had forced upon people “what they regarded as necessary for their salvation”. Morally speaking, he was clear that this was better than the “meanness” of the Hindus “who would not spread the light, who would endeavour to keep others in darkness, who would not consent to share his intellectual and social inheritance with those who are ready and willing to make it a part of their own make-up”.

Ambedkar thought favourably of the gospels, and their message of justice and liberation. Christianity, along with Sikhism, was one of the religions he considered seriously before settling on Buddhism as the ideal home for the Dalits. He rejected Christianity because he believed a faith with Indian roots was preferable so that his community could remain within “Indian civilisation”, and because he believed that many Dalits who had converted to Christianity lost all fellow-feeling with those who had not.

Cherry picking

Neelakandan’s most egregious misrepresentation, however, is his last: the claim that “Dr Ambedkar wanted the Indian state to run an Indian Priest Service for Hinduism”.

Now, this is unquestionably not the Ambedkar we were brought up on. It is also based on an act of selective quotation so brazen that Neelakandan can only have presumed that no reader would take the trouble to consult the original.

Neelakandan quotes Ambedkar’s proposal for a government-run priestly service:

“the number of priests should be limited by law according to the requirements of the State, as is done in the case of the I.C.S”.

However, Neelakandan omits this preceding sentence: “It would be better if priesthood among Hindus were abolished.”

To have included it would have been to acknowledge the Ambedkar that Neelakandan does not want his readers to know about.

Because Ambedkar believed that getting rid of priests altogether was unfeasible, he proposed regulating them instead. Crucially, this would mean replacing Hindu scripture with a government-written Hindu book of “principles”, free from the rules and restrictions that characterised so much Hindu teaching. Similarly, preaching the Vedas, Shastras and Puranas would be punishable by law. Neelakandan omits these inconvenient details in his piece. Instead, he has the gall to refer to this scheme as Ambedkar’s “dream”, and to link it to the Madhya Pradesh government’s proposal for a priest service.

True emancipation

Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste was so unacceptable to the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal and to Gandhi because it announced the author’s break from Hinduism, and his belief that the religion was essentially irredeemable. The depth of this belief can be seen also in Ambedkar’s disagreements with MC Rajah, the Tamil Paraiyar leader who opposed Ambedkar’s plans of conversion.

Ambedkar wrote:

“Mr Rajah says ‘I will live as a Hindu and die as a Hindu’…he has been  exhibiting his love for the Hindu religion but until he converts himself to some other religion he will  continue to live as a ‘Pariah’ and die as a ‘Pariah’. He must bear in mind the fact that the stigma of  Untouchability attached to him due to his caste is not likely to be effaced even a bit if he continues  to remain within the Hindu fold.”

Ambedkar concluded that both for himself, and for his fellow Dalits, the possibility of true emancipation only existed outside Hinduism and Hindu society. He did not look back with any regret or nostalgia on what he had fled. To reclaim him not merely for Hindu society but for political Hinduism is only possible through the kinds of wilful contortions and misrepresentations that Aravindan Neelakandan has engaged in.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.