On the day that the Congress-led UPA government meekly and quickly capitulated before the demand by a small group of MPs to take an Ambedkar cartoon off the NCERT’s political science textbook for Class XI, I received an angry phone call from my friend Sudhir Tailang, one of India’s best political cartoonists. “Your party (BJP) has deeply disappointed me,” he said. “I can understand the Congress not standing up in defence of democracy and freedom of thought and learning. But what has happened to the BJP? Not a single BJP MP had the courage to oppose this outrageous demand, even though many of them privately admitted it was wrong and could set a dangerous precedent. Why have those leaders who fought against the Emergency, when many cartoonists like Abu Abraham had lent their creative might to the call for the restoration of democracy, chosen to remain silent in the face of this blatant assault on the freedom of thought and debate?”
I replied by sharing Tailang’s anguish and concern, conceding a point that is by now well-known to all—the compulsions of electoral politics had successfully muzzled the voices of MPs belonging to almost every segment of the political spectrum. Indeed, their very silence goaded the small band of vocal MPs seeking a ban on the cartoon to raise their pitch. “NCERT should be closed down,” thundered Ram Vilas Paswan in the Rajya Sabha. “I apologise,” said Kapil Sibal, our HRD minister, in a hasty bid to put a lid on the cartoon controversy.
As cartoons go, the message of the cartoon in question was figurative and very period-specific: it showed Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, urging the committee drafting India’s Constitution, of which Dr B.R. Ambedkar was the chairman, to speed up its work. Its creator, Shankar, wasn’t a rabble-rouser, but one of India’s most illustrious cartoonists. A Padma Vibhushan, no less. One of Nehru’s favourites, even though Shankar (Kesava Shankara Pillai) had lampooned the prime minister, too, in scores of cartoons.
So what did Sibal apologise for? Let’s remember that there was no apology from, and no action taken against, those who had, in a blatantly casteist act, ransacked the office of a distinguished academician in Pune, an NCERT advisor who had to resign in the wake of the cartoon controversy.
This episode is only the latest in a long series of disturbing happenings in recent decades in India’s academic, political and public arena in which Ambedkarites have exhibited extreme intolerance towards real or imaginary instances of insult to the memory of a leader who is not only a Dalit hero but has been a revered leader among non-Dalits long before his politically expedient appropriation as a Dalit icon. This intolerance is the result of a perilous deification of Ambedkar. For it has made it almost impossible for thinking, truth-seeking and socially sensitive Indians to debate his life, work and legacy in a free and objective manner. Say or write anything critical of Ambedkar, and you immediately run the risk of being dubbed “anti-Dalit”, “manuvaadi”, “reactionary” and so on.
There are four dangers inherent in the spread of such social and intellectual intolerance. Firstly, it does grave disservice to the noble cause for which Ambedkar struggled all his life and for which history has placed the crown of greatness on his head—ridding the Indian society, especially the Hindu society, of caste-related inequalities, injustices and dehumanising practices such as untouchability. This struggle for equality and social justice must continue. However, acts that create social disharmony can hardly promote social justice.
The second danger is that Ambedkar was by no means the only leader who fought against caste discrimination. There have been many mutually supporting streams of social reform in the Indian society, and he represents one of the most important among them. He administered a much-needed shock treatment to Hindu society, which should therefore be grateful to him and carry forward his mission of eradication of caste-related evils in its fold. However, what the current conduct of some (though not all) Ambedkarites reveals is an insidious and barely hidden campaign to malign everything about Hinduism, including those streams of social reform that are represented by the saint-poets of the Bhakti tradition, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Narayana Guru and others. Ambedkarites’ criticism of Gandhiji, in particular, is visceral and vile, and says a lot about why it is so. Let the truth about their campaign against Hinduism be told in unvarnished terms. This is part of a foreign-funded conspiracy of religious conversion that uses (rather misuses) Ambedkar’s name for carrying out a well-planned disintegration of the Hindu society. It attests to the basic tolerance of Hindu society that activists involved in this defamatory mission go scot free. If their concern for social reform were genuine, would they be so conspiratorially silent on the ills in Islam and Christianity? Or do they mean to say that these religions are free of all ills?
The third danger is often an outcome of the first. Faced with an atmosphere of intolerance, which renders free and honest debate nearly impossible, many people tend to admire Ambedkar in public but criticise him in private circles. I’ve heard pro-Congress intellectuals say: “Gandhi, Nehru and thousands of other Congress leaders spent many years in British jails during the freedom struggle? But did the British send Ambedkar to jail even once? And why did he join the Viceroy’s Council when all the stalwarts of the freedom movement were imprisoned by the same viceroy after Gandhiji’s Quit India call?” I’ve heard Dalit intellectuals from Bihar say: “Babu Jagjivan Ram’s contribution to the uplift and empowerment of the Scheduled Castes in north India is being deliberately belittled. By the way, do you know what his widow Indrani Devi wrote in her memoirs about Ambedkar pleading with Jagjivan Ram in the late 1940s to put in a word with Gandhiji to have him (Ambedkar) included in Nehruji’s first cabinet?” I’ve also met pro-BSP Dalit intellectuals who, despite their respect for Ambedkar, say: “The contribution of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati to Dalit empowerment is greater because it is they, and not any of Ambedkar’s political followers in Maharashtra, who managed to win political power for Dalits.”
Similarly, if we talk to any expert on the Constitution and the making of it, we’ll hear this: “Why are we keeping this myth and falsehood alive that Ambedkar was the chief architect of the Constitution? True, his contribution as the chairman of the drafting committee is unique and praiseworthy. But we shouldn’t forget that the seven-member committee had other stalwarts such as Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar (who were hailed in glowing terms by Ambedkar himself as “men who were bigger, better and more competent than myself”). It was also assisted by a great jurist like B.N. Rau, who served as the main advisor to the Constituent Assembly in preparing the Constitution. Above all, we shouldn’t forget that neither Ambedkar nor the committee he headed wrote the Constitution on their own. They weren’t independent formulators of its defining provisions. They simply followed, and faithfully encapsulated, the intense debates in the Constituent Assembly that went on for nearly three years. Therefore, the credit for constitution-making should be shared with other leaders of the freedom movement, especially Dr Rajendra Prasad, who was the president of the Constituent Assembly, and Nehru, who was the prime minister and steered many of the important debates in assembly.”
Sadly, criticism of this kind, and the documentary evidence to support it, has rarely become part of the current public discourse about Ambedkar. Indeed, many of those people who publicly criticised Arun Shourie’s scholarly work, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar, and the Facts that have been Erased, or who colluded in the criticism with their studied silence, privately told him that they admired his courage for highlighting several important truths about India’s modern history. Such dishonesty, hypocrisy and intellectual helplessness cannot enrich public discourse, nor elevate it in ways that guide our society and politics in the right direction.
There is a fourth danger in the deification of Ambedkar. It distorts our understanding of the freedom movement. Ambedkar, we must remember, consciously remained outside the mainstream of the freedom movement. However, this was understandable because he genuinely wanted to add an important and much-neglected dimension of social freedom (for the untouchable and oppressed castes) to the cause of India’s political freedom. And nobody understood this, or even sympathised with this, more than a far-sighted, social-reformist and saintly leader like Gandhiji. Which is why we do not find a single harsh word, a single word of personal criticism, in Gandhiji’s approach towards Ambedkar—there’s not a single harsh word, nor one of ill will or personal criticism, even though he disagreed with some aspects of the latter’s mission and methods. On the contrary, Ambedkar reserved a lot of venom, bitterness and ridicule in the way he dealt with Gandhiji and other Congress leaders.
It is a glowing tribute to the large-hearted and visionary leadership of Gandhiji that he prevailed upon Nehru and other senior Congress leaders to give an important responsibility to Ambedkar in drafting the Constitution and also to include him in independent India’s first government as law minister. This begets an important question for which Ambedkarites have no answer: If India’s social and political system was so heartless, if it was truly bent on excluding the depressed classes (Ambedkar’s term for what has now come to be known as ‘Dalits’) from the power structure after the British left, why would Gandhiji and Nehru give this opportunity and honour to Ambedkar after the British actually left? After all, just as Mohammed Ali Jinnah had been saying in the case of Indian Muslims, Ambedkar too was pleading with the British not to leave the depressed classes to the care of the uncaring and oppressive Hindu leaders. He wanted constitutional guarantees for “my people” before the British departed. Ironically, it is the same Hindu leaders of the Congress whom Ambedkar had been berating, who ensured his inclusion—and not exclusion—in the making of independent India’s Constitution. Gandhiji, and his two principal lieutenants, Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, did this not because of any goading or pressure from the British, nor for any political gain. They did so because they truly sympathised with the social reform struggle that Ambedkar had so earnestly waged all his life.
All this is being denied or negated by Ambedkarites in their bid to deify Ambedkar and demonise Hinduism. This will not work. Ambedkar was great, but not greater than some of his contemporaries. Specifically, he was not greater than Nehru, one of the principal architects of modern India and its democratic institutions. And he was certainly not greater than the leader he hated the most—Gandhiji.
A concluding thought: this debate about ‘Who is the greatest Indian after Mahatma Gandhi’—by the way, the very formulation has angered many Ambedkarites—should not remain a superficial war of words. Modern India has produced many great men and women. All of them were imperfect in some ways. They committed mistakes; some more than others. Some mistakes were more fundamental than others. These leaders followed paths that were both divergent and convergent at the same time. Those of us who are today discussing their paths and personalities should be free of dogma and prejudice, so that we can learn to appreciate the greatness of even those we disagree with. Nobody should be above criticism. After all, healthy criticism is the life-breath of a free and democracy society. Nevertheless, by seeking inspiration from all the great men and women of the past, we should strive to make India a great nation and our society a better society.
(sudheenkulkarni AT gmail.com)