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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.