A Book review: Ambedkar and Hindutva Politics by Ram Puniyani
Irfan Engineer and Neha Dabhade
(Secular Perspective December 1-15, 2016)
Indian society is at a crossroads of kinds. On one hand there is brutal violence meted out to the Dalits as witnessed in Una and is indicative of similar dehumanization of Dalits taking place elsewhere in the country. On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed to be an “Ambedkar Bhakt” (Indian Express, 2016) and also went to an extent of calling Ambedkar Martin Luther King. This is an irony since Ambedkar, all his life espoused the cause of equality for Dalits and RSS which is the ideological foundation of BJP has never criticized this inequality or hierarchy. The recent celebration of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary by BJP and RSS and the portrayal that Amedkar’s ideology was close in its moorings to Hindutva ideology of RSS is to appropriate Ambedkar for its own political ends. The book, Ambedkar and Hindutva Politics, by Ram Puniyani explains in stunning clarity, the politics and position of organizations like RSS and BJP towards Ambedkar and Dalits, whose cause he championed all his life. The author deals with irreconcilable thoughts and ideas of the two to demonstrate how Ambedkar is selectively quoted, his ideas distorted and falsely presented to appropriate him and reach out to Dalits for vested interests. These very fundamental differences are dealt with very systematically in the essay by focusing on different aspects of Ambedkar’s thoughts. Some that are very significant are discussed below.
The book contributes to the discourse of the treatment of Hindutva politics of the question of caste, religion and Ambedkar. This is a valuable contribution in the face of the overtures made by RSS and BJP leaders to demonstrate how Ambedkar and Hindutva had no differences and there is congruence between the objectives of Hindutva politics and Ambedkar’s ideology and causes. The book explains that there was a stark difference between the ideas of Ambedkar and the ideology of Hindutva. Ambedkar had experienced the discrimination and inequality that caste system represented. Based on these experiences, he analyzed that caste system in India is a manifestation of Hinduism which was essentially brahminical in nature and inherently hierarchical. The RSS ideology finds its underpinnings in Brahminical Hinduism and Hindu Nationalism, both ideologies an anathema to Ambedkar’s ideas of equality and liberty. Ambedkar very lucidly stated that Hinduism is “nothing but a mass of superficial, social, political and sanitary rules and regulations, organised around caste…”. He goes on to state “no matter what the Hindus say Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that count it is incompatible with democracy”. Later he went on to denounce Hindu religion and converted into Buddhism. While this was the very fundamental difference between the conceptualization of Hinduism by RSS and Ambedkar, the book, Ambedkar and Hindutva Politics, makes an interesting observation how the two sides views Lord Ram. Lord Ram is the prominent symbol of cultural nationalism for RSS. He embodies the ideal man donning the role of an ideal husband and a ruler. However, Ambedkar states that for Ram, “the life of Sita simply did not count. What counted was his own personal name and fame. He, of course, does not take the manly course of stopping this gossip, which as a king he could do and which as a husband who was convinced of his wife’s innocence he was bound to.” Further to elaborate the violence that the “ideal” ruler Ram perpetrated on Dalits, the book cites an example of a Dalit, Shambuk, whose head was severed by Ram while Shambuk was practicing tapasya in the pursuit of going to heaven.
Taking on from this example, the author succinctly brings focus to the politics of RSS to Dalits. The approach of RSS, as the book outlines, has been characterized by convenience and cooption. Dalits have been historically brutally victimized by the caste system which derived legitimacy from works like Manusmriti. While Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar led struggles for equality and emancipation of Dalits from the exploitation and violence against the Dalits in the form of Chavadar talab movement (equal access of Dalits to public drinking water), Kalaram Mandir agitation (equal access of Dalits to places of worship) and burning of the Manusmriti, the RSS never participated or supported these movements. In fact, the struggles for assertion for equality by Dalits had a role in the formation of RSS which consisted of men from upper caste. The author explains that in spite of this polarity, RSS has been co-opting the Dalits to present a ‘united’ face of Hinduism. Samajik Samrasta Manch was an organization founded by the RSS in order to co-opt the Dalits by creating a smoke screen of inclusion. However, the intention of Hindutva politics is not to question the existing social order or eliminate the ‘graded hierarchy’ as was worked upon by Ambedkar, but to retain the subjugation of Dalits. By floating SSM and speaking the language of ‘social harmony’ between castes, RSS attempts to divert focus from the fundamental concerns of the Dalits like livelihood, education and social inclusion. Another design for the same is by raising the issue of identity which encompasses the demands for cow protection and Ram temple. The Dalits are made to believe that there is social harmony between castes and thus maintain the status quo by not challenging the existing social order or demand land or dignity. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram was also floated for similar cooption of Adivasis. The Dalits and Adivasis are cleverly manipulated and used as foot soldiers against minorities like Muslims and Christians as witnessed in Gujarat and Kandhamal. This is achieved by projecting the minorities as a common enemy to the identity and interests of the ‘unified’ Hindu fold.
It becomes very evident that the RSS and its politics is not in favour of the economic development of the Dalits or their inclusion on basis of equality. The book highlights how affirmative action in favour of the Dalits drew protests from upper castes and they are in fact demanding reservations themselves. The RSS has been supporting the demand of abolition of reservations. RSS ideologue M.G Vaidya says, “There is no need for caste-based reservation now, because no caste has remained backward. At the most, continue it [reservation] for the SCs and STs, but only for 10 years. Abolish it [caste-based reservation] completely after that.” (Dahat, 2015). RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has made similar demands. (The Times of India, 2015). The economic policies pursued by the State have been exploitative of the Dalits and the other marginalized groups. Though the Constitution on paper ensures equality, in reality even today Dalits are forced to undertake dehumanizing vocations like manual scavenging out of no choice since they are denied better opportunities. Ambedkar had always insisted on education of Dalits so that they could move away from traditional occupations that denied them dignity. There is also an attempt to encourage the Dalits to continue with the same traditional occupations by wrongly glorifying them to preempt any contempt for them or desire for change. Prime Minister Modi had stated that manual scavenging is a spiritual experience (Gatade, 2013). This kind of social engineering results in restricting the Dalits to the social and economic periphery while the privileges and power of the upper castes remain untouched and unhindered. By propounding its idea of integrated humanism, Hindutva preempts opposition and ensures continuation of traditional professions strictly.
One of the major contributions of Ambedkar to India was the drafting of the Constitution of India with equality, liberty, social justice, democracy and secularism as its foundations. The Constitution of India encapsulated the idea of India as envisaged by Ambedkar. The RSS on the other hand didn’t favor the Constitution. It called the Constitution anti Hindu since it contained provisions that guaranteed freedom to religion, abolition of untouchability and affirmative action for the Dalits. The Organiser (organ of RSS) in its editorial went on to say, “But in our constitution there is no mention of the unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat. Manu’s laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day, his laws are enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits, that means nothing.” The book highlights these clearly very conflicting positions on the Constitution very effectively by elaborating on the RSS stand on the constitution and its insistence of Manusmriti as central to the laws in modern India. It is completely misleading to portray Ambedkar as an inspiration to Hindutva ideologues since Ambedkar cited the Manusmriti as an instrument of oppression of the Dalits and went to an extent of burning the same!
There are rampantly prevalent biases and prejudices against Muslims in the country whose patriotism is unfairly questioned and they are accused of being loyal to Pakistan. The issue of partition is raked up to reinforce how Muslims divided the country which led to India being partitioned. In order to give legitimacy and traction to this false propaganda, the RSS selectively quotes Ambedkar to give an impression that Ambedkar also favoured the partition and convinced by the two nation theory believed in the inevitability of the partition due to the questionable loyalty of Muslims. The book interestingly points out by referring to the writings of Ambedkar that Savarkar in fact first propounded the two nation theory which was later reiterated by Jinnah. Ambedkar writes that he found the positions of both Jinnah and Savarkar to be very similar and in agreement albeit one difference. While Jinnah demanded partition and formation of India and Pakistan to be occupied by Hindus and Muslims respectively, Savarkar pictured a country where both the communities lived in one undivided country, under one constitution that would accord a predominant position to the Hindus and a subordinate position to the Muslims. By shedding light on this aspect of nationalism as viewed by Savarkar, the book through the lens of Ambedkar’s writings, exposes the inherently discriminatory and supremacist nature of Hindu nationalism which Ambedkar did not uphold. He was alarmed by Hindu nationalism and warned about the dangers posed by the same. In “Must there be Pakistan”, Dr. Ambedkar plainly and without ambiguity states, “if Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”
This book is significant contribution on a number of counts. The book by studying the different writings of Ambedkar has countered the claims of the Hindutva forces about its proximity to Ambedkar and his views. The book meticulously demolishes the falsehood of organizations like RSS which it seeks to strengthen by distorting the message of Ambedkar. The author in a direct manner outlines the fundamentally irreconcilable visions that Ambedkar and RSS nurture for Dalits and other groups. Overall, it helps the reader in understanding Ambedkar better in a very easy fluid way with the help of his own quotes and weaving a compelling narrative of the context which is marked by the appropriation of Ambedkar by the Hindutva forces which pose formidable challenge to democracy and equality as Ambedkar saw them.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism