“I told my father that I did not like any of the figures in (the) Mahabharata. I said, ‘I do not like Bhishma and Drona, nor Krishna. Bhishma and Drona were hypocrites. They said one thing and did quite the opposite. Krishna believed in fraud. His life is nothing but a series of frauds. Equal dislike I have for Rama. Examine his conduct in the Surpanakha episode, in the Vali-Sugriva episode, and his beastly behaviour towards Sita.’ My father was silent, and made no reply. He knew that there was a revolt.”
—Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
in the unpublished Preface dated April 6, 1956, to
The Buddha and His Dhamma
End 1999, in a millennium special issue, Outlook had asked four intellectuals to pick 20 Indians who shaped India in the 20th century. Each member of the panel—Khushwant Singh, Mrinal Pande, P.V. Indiresan and Mushirul Hasan—picked their Top 5. Mohandas Gandhi figured in each of their lists; Jawaharlal Nehru in three; Lata Mangeshkar (who should have stopped singing decades ago as Yesudas had suggested) in two; B.R. Ambedkar in none. In fact, Indiresan, former director of IIT Madras, even said he “had reservations about Ambedkar’s divisive legacy”.
For the Independence Day special in 2002, Outlook came up with another list, calling it ‘First Among Equals’. This was termed “a popular survey of greatest Indians of independent India”. Mother Teresa—a safe bet who reinforces middle-class India’s loosely defined secular credentials—topped this poll. However much I believe that such exercises infantilise people and trivialise history, they have come to stay. We live in times when memory is as fickle as a Facebook update. We live in times when popular historians make lists of ‘greatest speeches’.
So how and why did Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, finally, top what we are told is a comprehensive poll? What has changed since the ‘defeats’ of 1999 and 2002? Has India become more accepting of one of its intellectual giants, who, in Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s recent words, was “intellectually head and shoulders above” Nehru, Gandhi and most Congress leaders? Sceptic that I am, this “victory” for Ambedkar is most likely a result of the presence of a burgeoning internet-savvy, mobile-wielding, dedicated Dalit middle class that is almost invisibly making its presence felt. Still largely kept away from mainstream media, the private sector and our universities—which have undisguised disdain for Ambedkar’s greatest weapon, reservation—the Dalits, in India and abroad, have fashioned their own websites, mailing lists and blogs such as Round Table Conference, Dalit & Adivasi Students’ Portal and Savari, a YouTube channel called Dalit Camera, besides scores of Facebook groups. They no longer depend on corporate media that takes one month to report, if at all, the 2006 murders and rapes of Khairlanji; a media that found the lynching of five Dalits in Lakshmipeta, Srikakulam district, in June 2012 banal. It is on the worldwide web that new ways of negotiating citizenship are being forged; it is from these new banlieues that unyielding Eklavyas are waging war with the Bhishmas and Dronas, gaining thumb-inch by thumb-inch. Some of these warriors had expressed dismay and fatigue over a survey that wanted to select ‘The Greatest Indian After Gandhi’. The caveat, which presumed Gandhi’s victory should he have been included, rankled. It was fresh salt on an old, unhealed wound.
All the same, the emergence of Ambedkar in this poll offers India an opportunity to come to terms with the legacy of a man who has been defeated and betrayed time and again by Indians. Many of these bitter defeats have been swept under the thick, dirty carpet of nationalist history.
Let us begin at the end, with one of the worst humiliations in Ambedkar’s life, less than three months before his death. On September 14, 1956, exactly a month before he embraced Buddhism with half-a-million followers in Nagpur, he wrote a heart-breaking letter to prime minister Nehru from his 26, Alipore Road, residence in Delhi. Enclosing two copies of the comprehensive Table of Contents of his mnemonic opus, The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar suppressed pride and sought Nehru’s help in the publication of a book he had worked on for five years:
“The cost of printing is very heavy and will come to about Rs 20,000. This is beyond my capacity, and I am, therefore, canvassing help from all quarters. I wonder if the Government of India could purchase 500 copies for distribution among the various libraries and among the many scholars whom it is inviting during the course of this year for the celebration of Buddha’s 2,500 years’ anniversary.”
High table Nehru, Ambedkar at a dinner hosted by Sardar Patel in 1948 in honour of C. Rajagopalachari becoming governor-general. (Photographs Courtesy: Lokvangmay Grih)
Ambedkar had perhaps gotten used to exclusion by then. The greatest exponent of Buddhism after Asoka had ruthlessly been kept out of this Buddha Jayanti committee presided over by S. Radhakrishnan, then vice-president and a man who embarrassingly believed that Buddhism was an “offshoot of Hinduism”, and “only a restatement of the thought of the Upanishads from a new standpoint”. Worse, when Nehru replied to Ambedkar the next day, he said that the sum set aside for publications related to Buddha Jayanti had been exhausted, and that he should approach Radhakrishnan, chairman of the commemorative committee. Nehru also offered some business advice, gratuitously: “I might suggest that your books might be on sale in Delhi and elsewhere at the time of Buddha Jayanti celebrations when many people may come from abroad. It might find a good sale then.” Radhakrishnan is said to have informed Ambedkar on phone about his inability to help him.
Why the greatest Indian after Gandhi? The caveat, that Gandhi would have won, was somewhat irksome.
This is the vinaya that the prime minister and vice-president of the day extended to the former law minister and chairperson of the drafting committee of the Constitution. It was suggested with impertinence that Ambedkar could set up a stall, hawk copies and recover costs. When Karna needed to attend to the wheel of his chariot, Krishna goaded Arjuna to strike the fatal blow. But this time Karna managed to pull away from what he called the “dung-heap of Hinduism”, away from holy books like the Bhagavad Gita that offered an “unheard-of defence of murder”, to steer the Wheel of Dhamma. The man who lamented the lack of ethics and morals among Hindus and sought refuge in the “sacred morality” of Buddhism did not live to see a printed version of The Buddha and His Dhamma. The huge flock that walked away into Buddhism on October 14 that year was, for the moment, denied the message their Shepherd wished to bequeath to them.
The violence and injustice done to Ambedkar by India cannot be atoned for by the same Radhakrishnan, now as president, inaugurating Ambedkar’s statue in Parliament in 1967, by an afterthought Bharat Ratna, by random political parties garnishing their garrulous posters with his pictures, by the hypocrisy of textbook writers who admonish Dalits for lacking a sense of humour. Only an earnest return to Ambedkar, through a pursuit of his ideas of emancipatory justice in an intrinsically unequal society, can help repair the damage.
Much like the religion he embraced had been vanquished from India for close to 1,200 years until British archaeologists and Orientalists literally excavated it, Ambedkar and his intellectual legacy have been lying buried, sedimented beneath layers of indifference, hatred and contempt. Nearly half of his writings were first published only after the 1980s; some of his manuscripts are said to have been lost. His works are still not available in mainstream bookstores. As Sharmila Rege (Songsters from the Mudhouse) shows in her essay, his life, ideas and books have been kept alive solely by Dalits in their segregated enclaves, in counter-public spheres. The partial exhumation that has happened since the 1991 centenary year is largely of Ambedkar’s pratima (image), not his pratibha (genius), to use political theorist Gopal Guru’s felicitous distinction.
The foundation for Ambedkar’s defeats was laid by the 1932 Poona Pact. While Gandhi saw the double vote and separate electorates as dividing Hindus, Ambedkar had no reason to see himself and fellow Dalits as ‘Hindus’—a nebulous category that gained currency only in the colonial and nationalist period, with one newspaper even unabashedly flaunting this as its raison d’etre.
Subsequently, Ambedkar lost every poll of consequence he contested. Contrary to popular belief that he was welcomed into the Constituent Assembly to spearhead the making of the Constitution, every effort was made to thwart him. Ambedkar had hoped that the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 1946 would facilitate a tripartite agreement between Hindus (Congress), Muslims (Muslim League) and the Scheduled Castes (Scheduled Castes Federation or SCF). However, the crushing defeat of SCF candidates in the March 1946 provincial assembly elections undermined Ambedkar’s position. Such a loss was only to be expected in a post-Poona Pact scenario where caste Hindus, who invariably outnumbered the Dalits even in reserved constituencies, elected only obliging ‘harijans’, not Dalits. In a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, Ambedkar too lost.
May 8, 1950 Babasaheb being sworn in as independent India’s first law minister
When members were being elected to the CA by provincial assemblies, Ambedkar stood little chance with SCF members in the Bombay province unable to make up the numbers. Bombay premier B.G. Kher, under instructions from Sardar Patel, ensured that Ambedkar was not elected to the 296-member body. Says Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer, “The Congress elected its men. The majority of them were elected not because they knew much about constitution-making but because they had suffered imprisonment in the patriotic struggle.”
At this juncture, Jogendra Nath Mandal (1904-1968), a man forgotten today except in the Dalit circles of Bengal, came to Ambedkar’s rescue. As the leader of SCF in Bengal, he had forged an alliance with the Muslim League and commandeered the numbers to get Ambedkar elected to the CA from the Bengal assembly. After Partition, Mandal became a member and temporary chairman of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, and served that country as its first minister of law and labour. That Pakistan’s first law minister, like Ambedkar, was also Dalit is almost forgotten today. Bengal’s Partition disabled Ambedkar’s membership of the CA. However, now finding him indispensable, the Congress allowed for his fresh election from Bombay following the resignation of M.R. Jayakar.
Contrary to popular belief that Ambedkar was welcomed into the Constituent Assembly, he was thwarted at every step.
In 1951, in the first-ever parliamentary elections, Ambedkar—having resigned from Nehru’s cabinet as law minister, disgusted by the repeated scuttling of the Hindu Code Bill—contested from Bombay City North, a double-member constituency that was required to return both a general and an SC candidate. Contesting the reserved seat, he lost to Congress candidate Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar by 14,374 votes. S.A. Dange, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India, canvassed against Ambedkar, accusing him of ‘separatist’ politics, saying he favoured not just separate electorates for untouchables but also for the Muslims; and that he suggested Kashmir could be divided. Arun Shourie was not the first to hurl such abuse.
Ambedkar tried his luck again in a 1954 byelection from Bhandara, but lost to unknown Congressman Bhaurao Borkar. The Congress merely wished to prove that a ‘seventh standard pass’ could defeat Babasaheb. Dalits and Adivasis may enjoy ‘reserved seats’ today in proportion to their ratio in the population, but the FPTP method ensures that those elected are inevitably pliable candidates propped up by parties with majoritarian interests—the Kajrolkars and Borkars, Jagjivan Rams and Bangaru Laxmans, Sushilkumar Shindes and Meira Kumars who would do their masters’ bidding.
In such a hollowed-out democracy, liberal scholars comfortably celebrate Ambedkar’s constitutionalism, steering clear of the radicalism of works like States and Minorities (1945), which he proposed as the ‘Constitution of the United States of India’ at a time when he was not sure of a place in the CA. Besides its sharp, left-leaning socialist tenor—“key industries shall be owned and run by the State...insurance shall be a monopoly of the State...agriculture shall be a State industry”—this document needs to be revisited for the political solutions it offers to pre-empt the rise of a Narendra Modi, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the stalemate in Kashmir and even the Bodo-Muslim problem in Assam.
At the heart of Ambedkar’s idea of democracy was his passion to preserve the rights of minorities, for he saw Indian society as a conglomeration of minorities. He offered a formula that would thwart the communal majority (“born, not made”) from claiming a political majority. In the Central Assembly, the Hindus, who form 54 per cent of the population, should get 40 per cent representation; Muslims with 28.5 per cent, 32 per cent; 14 per cent SCs, 20 per cent; 1.16 per cent Indian Christians, 3 per cent etc. In Bombay, Hindus who form 76.42 of the population would get 40 per cent representation; Muslims at 9.98 per cent, 28 per cent; SCs at 9.64 per cent, 28 per cent.
Shared space At a Bombay function in 1951, Babasaheb seated S.K. Bole in his lap
In other words, minorities must get representation positively disproportionate to their ratio in population while for the majority community it is capped at 40 per cent. Undergirding this mechanism—which would have surely prevented Partition and allayed Jinnah’s justifiable fears of Muslims being overrun by Hindus—is the belief that “majority rule is untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice. A majority community may be conceded a relative majority of representation but it can never claim an absolute majority”. Ambedkar prophesied that the rise of Hindutva was hardwired into the machinery of FPTP parliamentary democracy.
In Gujarat today, where we have a mere 2.7 per cent legislators who are Muslim against a population share of 9 per cent, Ambedkar’s worst fears have been borne out with a communal majority posing as political majority. Parliamentary democracy as it stands today in India offers no relief to minorities; the minorities are “overwhelmed by the majority”; in Ambedkarite terms this rule of a brute communal majority cannot be termed democracy at all.
An earnest and sincere engagement with Ambedkar means we rethink the way our society is organised; we must rethink caste and ask ourselves if India is ready to do today what Ambedkar asked of it in 1936: “You must not forget that if you wish to bring about a breach in the system then you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the Shastras, which deny any part to reason; to Vedas and Shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the Religion of the Shrutis and the Smritis. Nothing else will avail.”
The time has come to jettison Ramayana and embrace Bhimayana; the time has come to reject Gandhi’s Ram Rajya and usher in what Ambedkar’s forebear Jyotirao Phule called Bali Rajya. The time has come to dump the Dronacharya and Arjuna awards that memorialise deceitful gurus and their unscrupulous chelas. While ushering in Bhim Raj, we should be prepared to reclaim Eklavya, Surpanakha, Karna and Shambuka. Ambedkar felt a social revolution was not possible in India. On this one count, we ought to prove him wrong.
Separate And Unequal
- At Satara High School, is made to sit apart, denied water. Local barbers do not cut his hair; sister Manjula does. At Bombay’s Elphinstone High School, high-caste children rush to ‘save’ their tiffin boxes behind the blackboard when Bhim is asked to write on it.
- After a BA from Bombay University in 1913, the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad, sends Ambedkar to Columbia University on a scholarship of £11.5 per month for three years. “In Columbia,” he says, “I experienced social equality for the first time.”
- On Mar 20, 1927, leads 3,000 Dalits in Mahad to draw water from the Chavdar Tank. Hindus attack. “Under Brahmin Peshwa rule,” he says, “I’d have been trampled by an elephant.”
Good Press, Bad Press
- The Hindu in a Sep 26, 1936, editorial on the Poona Pact doesn’t mention Ambedkar’s name; it alludes to him as “those who do not look with favour on India’s aspirations”.
- At the 5th conference of the UP SCF in Lucknow in Apr ’48, Ambedkar says, “What I want is power—political power for my people.” An editorial in The Leader retorts: “Dr Ambedkar has chosen precisely this moment to tell the Scheduled Castes, ‘a united nation is all rot’.”
- Time on Mar 16, 1936: “Dr Ambedkar is probably the only man alive who ever walked out in a huff from a private audience with the Pope of Rome. His Holiness Pius XI, having heard from Dr Ambedkar about the miseries of Indian outcastes, replied: ‘My son, it may take three or four centuries to remedy these abuses, be patient’.”
(S. Anand is the publisher of Navayana and co-author of Bhimayana, a graphic biography of Ambedkar.)