Marches and processions giving rise to communal riots is a time-honoured Indian tradition. Usually, this happens with festivals like Ram Navami or Moharram, but this time, in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, the trigger was something unique: an Ambedkar shobha yatra. On April 20, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Raghav Lakhanpal took out a march ostensibly in memory of Dalit social reformer and politician Bhimrao Ambedkar. This in turn set off small communal skirmishes as the procession was stopped from entering a Muslim area.

This incident is one in a series of moves by India’s Hindutva Right to adopt the memory of Ambedkar in order to attract Dalit votes. The strategy peaked during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign and has been kept up ever since.

The BJP’s adoption of Ambedkar has seen a measure of success. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, for example, the party managed to attract a fair amount of Dalit support. An impressive achievement given that UP is the only state in the union with a powerful Ambedkarite party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which in turn got wiped out.

Inventing a Hindutva Ambedkar

Ambedkar, though, is an unusual mascot for a party that sees Hindu nationalism as its raison d’être. To make him fit into the BJP’s politics, therefore, his sharp critique of Hinduism and his conversion to Buddhism is often elided. Moreover, attempts have been made to paint him as anti-Muslim using his critique of Islam from his 1940 book Pakistan or the Partition of India.

This has little to do with the entirety of the book, which deals with Ambedkar’s support of the Muslim League’s plan for partition, but mostly to do with Ambedkar’s intellectual critique of the ills of Muslim society ranging from caste, women’s rights, parochialism and lack of loyalty to India.

Given the burgeoning majoritarian climate in India at present, it is easy to see why these bits of the book have gone around.

Pakistan or the Partition of India, incidentally, has gained a second wind in the internet age after Frances Pritchett, a professor from Columbia University in the United States, put up the text of the book on her website.

Yet, cherry picking lines from Pakistan or the Partition of India ­– while ignoring the rest of Ambedkar’s career – tells us very little other than the fact that knowledge of 1940s Indian politics is scarce.

Advocating for Pakistan

A fuller, contextual reading of the book along with his career actually brings out an Ambedkar that goes against the grain of India’s current majoritarian politics. And to begin with context, we don’t have to go very far. We simply have to look at the aim of the book from which these quotes are being taken. Pakistan or the Partition of India is a polemic written with the express purpose of supporting Mahomed Ali Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan. Not only is Ambedkar’s frankness surprising, so is his speed: the book was published within eight months of the Lahore Resolution, the Muslim League’s first call for Pakistan. At the time, very few people in the Muslim League itself were completely on board with “Pakistan”.

Jinnah was thrilled with the backing he got in the book, remarking, “Dr Ambedkar has understood the constitutional position in this country and the stand taken by the League in its Lahore resolution on the “Pakistan Scheme”.

Here is Dhananjay Keer, a biographer of Ambedkar, on the reception to Pakistan or the Partition of India.

The effect of this book was terrible. It shattered the brains of many Hindu politicians…The Muslims rejoiced at this support to their ideal….Some of the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha who were the stoutest opponents of Pakistan on national and rational grounds, were confused; but their leader Savarkar staked his all at the altar of the integrity of India and stoutly refuted the theory of the vivisection of India

Ambedkar’s arguments in the book were aimed at making a case for Pakistan – some of which even stretched the bounds of credulity. At one point he even compared the League’s demand of Pakistan to the Congress’ plan to create linguistic states. “If there is nothing shocking in the separation of Karnataka and Andhra, what is there to shock in the demand for the separation of Pakistan?” argued Ambedkar, making a case for Pakistan, which thrilled the League.

The League and Ambedkar as allies

More context: for watchers of the politics of the 1930s and 1940s, Ambedkar’s support for Pakistan is not unexpected. He had allied with the League as a counter to the Congress, which Ambedkar saw as an upper caste party.

Ambedkar, therefore, agreed to a large degree not only with the aim of Pakistan but also the League’s rhetoric. He argued that constitutional safeguards had “failed to save them [Muslims] from the tyranny of the Hindu majority” and nodded along with the League’s characterisation of the Congress as a Hindu party, writing:

It is no use saying that the Congress is not a Hindu body. A body which is Hindu in its composition is bound to reflect the Hindu mind and support Hindu aspirations. The only difference between the Congress and the Hindu Maha Sabha is that the latter is crude in its utterances and brutal in its actions while the Congress is politic and polite. Apart from this difference of fact, there is no other difference between the Congress and the Hindu Maha Sabha.

The cooperation was not only confined to the realm of ideas: Ambedkar and the Muslim League allied politically as well. In October 1939, a little more than a year before Pakistan or the Partition of India was published, Ambedkar had asked Jinnah to act as the spokesperson for Dalits in his talks with the Viceroy. In December, 1939, Jinnah along with Ambedkar celebrated a “Day of Deliverance” to mark the resignation of the Congress ministries in eight provinces to protest the inclusion of India in the Second World War. The two leaders conducted a joint rally in Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazar and, according to Dhananjay Keer, “belched fire at the Congress leadership”.

Ambedkar, Jinnah and Dravidian leader Periyar EV Ramasamy meeting in 1940 in Mumbai.
Ambedkar, Jinnah and Dravidian leader Periyar EV Ramasamy meeting in 1940 in Mumbai.

The long cooperation meant that in 1947, as the Congress refused to nominate Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly, it was the League that supported him. Ambedkar was therefore elected to the assembly from East Bengal, with votes from the Scheduled Caste Federation and the Muslim League.

Following the League’s lead

Why did Ambedkar ally so closely with the League, even going so far as to become one of Pakistan’s earliest supporters? One reason is obvious: both considered the Congress to be their rival. The other is a bit subtler. There are enough indications to point to the fact that Ambedakar considered Jinnah’s politics to be a template that he could follow.

Ambedkar, for example, supported separate electorates for Muslims – with a view to strengthen the Dalit case for them. “They [Muslims] are given separate electorates”, he wrote in March 1947, “because – and this is a fundamental fact – the social relations between the Hindus and the Musalmans are marked by social discrimination.” Since social discrimination ­– and not religion – was the criteria for separate electorate, Ambedkar argued that Dalits were also eligible for them, just as Muslims were.

Just before transfer of power, Ambedkar also made the case for population movements to make separate villages for Dalits. Political scientist Christopher Jaffrelot draws out how Ambedkar shaped his politics using analogy from the League:

Like the Muslims, Untouchable, in Ambedkar’s opinion, were a minority with equal rights in their own territory: given that they “are, as a matter of fact, socially separate [from the rest of Hindus], [they] should be made separate geographically and territorially also.”

Defanging the radical

While Ambedkar has been defanged in modern India, with politicians using a safe, platitude-mouthing caricature of the Dalit leader, the Congress at the time was wary of him. Vallabhbhai Patel attacked Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly as he tried to introduce a weak form of separate electorate for Dalits. “You have very nearly escaped partition of the country again on your lines,” Patel warned striking down Ambedkar’s proposal summarily. One imagines Patel would have used the phrase “anti-national” if he had access to the lexicon of 2017.

Ambedkar, though, did not soften. If his advocacy for Pakistan was not enough, after he resigned from the Nehru government in 1951, he would even argue that the Kashmir Valley should be handed over to Pakistan.

What explains the gap between the historical Ambedkar, a dangerous radical and his co-option by mainstream Indian politics? “Every ruling class has constructed him in a particular manner,” explains Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde, “Due to socio-political and economic changes, BR Ambedkar has now become an important and iconic figure for every party.”

While Dalit mobilisation means Ambedkar cannot be ignored anymore, instead his views are force fitted into the current ruling ideology. So while his (valid) critique of Muslim society is blown up and cherry picked out of context, his long alliance with the Muslim League, his support for Pakistan or insitutions such as separate electorates are pushed under the carpet.