On Tuesday, the Uttar Pradesh government passed a curious order. It decided to change the name of Bhimrao Ambedkar in all state government records to “Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar”, arguing that his full official name should be used from now on. Moreover, the administration ordered all state government offices to put up the leader’s photo labelled “Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar”.
Till this move, the initials “BR” were widely used to contract his name to “BR Ambedkar”. In fact, that is how Ambedkar generally signed his own name in English. Ramji was the name of Ambedkar’s father and, argued UP minister Siddharth Nath Singh, “in Maharashtra, a father’s name is mentioned in the middle of his son’s name”. UP governor and a former BJP member Ram Naik has pointed out that Ambedkar signed with his middle name “Ramji” in the original copy of the Indian Constitution. However, Prashant Ambedkar, grandson of BR Ambedkar, dismisses that as an exception, arguing that Ambedkar mostly did not use “Ramji” in his name or signature.
Of course, it does not take much to see more than a desire for nomenclatural accuracy in this move. Ambedkar’s newly publicised middle name is also the name of a popular Hindu god and one that is intimately connected with the Hindutva movement. From the demand for the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya to belligerent shows of force during the celebration of Ram’s birthday, Ram is the Hindutva capstone when it comes to the politics of religious identity. The Bharatiya Janata Party government’s move would, therefore, create an illusion of Hindu religiosity as well as Hindutva allegiance around Ambedkar.
Optics overturns substance
Optics in politics is often as important as substance. Some would argue, even more important. From Gandhi dressing like a poor farmer – he actually came from a wealthy family and his father was chief minister of a princely state – to former United States President George W Bush allegedly putting on a regional accent to appear less elite than he was, image management is an important skill in politics. Yet, putting out a Hindutva projection of Ambedkar is not only optics – it is a gross misrepresentation of what the leader actually stood for.
To begin with the most obvious, Ambedkar has actually frontally criticised the Ramayana in the manner of other Indian rationalists such as Periyar. In 1956, as Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in a mass ceremony in Nagpur, one of the specific vows he made his followers read out was to not worship Ram. To then try and link him with the god, using the coincidence of his father’s name – even while not mentioning Ambedkar’s actual thoughts on the matter – is simply dishonest.
This, though, is hardly the only instance of the BJP trying to appropriate the leader. For some time now, the BJP has been trying to link itself with Ambedkar in order to appeal to Dalit voters in states such as Uttar Pradesh. This is a brave attempt, given that Ambedkar in most cases directly contradicts the BJP’s central ideology of Hindutva. This incongruity is made clear by a two-decade old book written by Arun Shourie titled “Worshipping False Gods”. Shourie, one of the BJP’s tallest intellectuals and a minister in AB Vajpayee’s government, criticised Ambedkar for working with the British rather than joining the Congress in its agitations such as the Quit India movement . Significantly, Shourie also attacks Ambedkar for converting to Buddhism.
“I will not die as a Hindu”
The greatest irony of projecting Ambedar as a Hindutva icon is, of course, that he actually converted from Hinduism and adopted the Buddhist faith. This was no knee jerk reaction. In 1936, Ambedkar had declared since the “caste system among the Hindus has the foundation of religion”, only conversion can emancipate Dalits. “For getting human treatment, convert yourselves. Convert for getting organised. Convert for becoming strong. Convert for securing equality. Convert for getting liberty. Convert so that your domestic life should be happy,” railed Ambedkar speaking at the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference. He would go on to adopt Buddhism two decades later.
Amebdkar’s voluminous criticism of Hinduism or the fact that he considered conversion the only way out, is of course, papered over by the BJP. In fact, the party has often piloted anti-conversion laws and pushed “ghar wapsi”, homecoming programmes that seek to restrict the choices of Dalits in converting to other faiths.
To take another example, attempts have been made to quote without context from Ambedkar’s 1940 book Pakistan or the Partition of India, highlighting the book’s criticism of Islam. While Ambedkar has certainly criticised Islam in the book, overall, the book was warmly received by the Muslim League at the time as a sign that Amebdkar supported the Pakistan demand. Jinnah was himself thrilled with 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’”.
Dhananjay Keer, a biographer of Ambedkar, and man fairly on the Right himself had this to say about the book:
“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”
Opposing the caste elite
Indeed, Ambedkar would consistently ally with the League. In 1939, Ambedkar allied with the Muslim League to celebrate a “Day of Deliverance” at the resignation of Congress governments in eight provinces. Both Jinnah and Ambedkar conducted a joint rally in Mumbai and “belched fire at the Congress leadership”
Much of Ambedkar’’s agenda including the demand for separate electorate – a system where only Dalits would vote for Dalit legislators – would today be seen as “anti-national”. In fact, it led to constant clashes between the Right-Wing Vallabhbhai Patel – today an ideological lodestar of the BJP – and Ambedkar. Patel refused to support Ambedkar’s candidature to the Constituent Assembly and he eventually was elected to the body with support from the Muslim League. While there, attempts by Ambedkar to introduce a weak form of separate electorate for Dalits led to harsh criticism from Patel. “You have very nearly escaped partition of the country again on your lines,” Patel said, blocking Ambedkar’s plan.
In 1951, Ambedkar would go on to argue that Kashmir needed to be transferred to Pakistan. In the same year, Ambedkar would resign from Nehru’s cabinet, angry that the progressive Hindu code bills were being delayed under pressure from the Hindu Right. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as well as the Hindu Mahasabha and indeed powerful section of the Congress itself had opposed the reforms.
Given his politics, Ambedkar was resolutely against the majoritarian politics that characterises Hindutva, famously arguing that “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country….Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost”.
Overriding this history with the sleight of hand of using Ambedkar’s middle name as an ideological billboard to falsely identify him as a Hindutva mascot is an unfortunate sort of politics. It hollows out the substance of Ambedkar, cynically overturning his actual ideas in order to only bring in votes for the BJP.