Did Hindu nationalism learn any lessons from Dr Ambedkar?
by Krishnarjun on 24 Oct 2015 9 Comments

On October 11th, ground breaking ceremony for a grand memorial to Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar was performed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mumbai.  It was an occasion mixed with joy as well as agony, for it took six decades after his death for India to build a memorial for a great son at his final resting place, chaityabhoomi. The prime minister expressed this sentiment when he said it was his good fortune to undertake this task. Mr Narendra Modi is the first prime minister to visit chaityabhoomi, a place of pilgrimage for millions of dalits and oppressed in the country.


Mr Modi declared his intention to develop chaityabhoomi in Mumbai; Mhow, Babasaheb’s birth place in Madhya Pradesh; his Delhi residence at Alipore road; his parent’s village in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra; and the house in London where he stayed as a student of the London School of Economics, as panch teerth, five places of pilgrimage. The prime minister observed that it took a non-Congress government at the centre to bestow the Bharat Ratna on Dr Ambedkar in 1990, over four decades after independence.


He expressed anguish that whenever a BJP government comes to power, there is intense propaganda that the party is against reservation, dalits and OBCs, even though the party has been in the forefront of giving opportunities to dalits and OBCs in the country’s polity. Shrugging aside the RSS chief’s call for a review of reservation quotas, Mr Modi asserted that without Babasaheb, people like him (Mr Modi), who came from under-privileged social and economic backgrounds, could not have come so far. He rightly stressed that there is no question of reviewing reservations.


Yet some days after prime minister’s assertion, the Hindi daily, Jagran, reported that Mr Mohan Bhagwat repeated his reservation review comments. This clearly indicates a power struggle within the BJP-RSS system, and the RSS boss is using the reservation issue, amidst the Bihar elections, as a mask to sabotage the BJP in Bihar with the objective of shattering the consolidated Hindu and nationalist support achieved by Narendra Modi, which is perceived as a threat to the relevance of upper caste self-styled champions of Hindus.


Nothing else can explain the repeated fishing by the RSS chief in troubled waters after the prime minister himself refused any rethink on reservations. Mr Bhagwat’s actions in the midst of a very important election could impact votes of many upper caste Hindus who may be misled to believe that the prime minister can and should do something about this thorny issue. Perhaps that was the objective – to force the prime minister, who managed to remain above identities of caste, to take sides and shatter the fascination of upper caste Hindus towards a leader from under-privileged and backward class roots.


The RSS chief’s comments came as a shock to many sincere foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP, who see victory in Bihar as absolutely necessary for the party to gain a majority in the Rajya Sabha in order to implement crucial policies.              It is revolting that caste is being used by an entrenched elite within the RSS to destroy the nascent common ground being achieved by different groups, coming together in the national interest to fight against deeply embedded traitors, and achieve a dignified place for their country among the comity of nations. This reinforces the need for a serious intellectual dissection of caste as it is emerging as a threat to Hindus and India. Dr BR Ambedkar, a rare intellectual giant, has done this brilliantly.


Yet Mr Bhagwat’s attitude is not really surprising. The Sangh Parivar has always been ambiguous on caste. Some Parivar ideologues promote caste as social capital and take comfort in the claim that caste discrimination is universal among Hindus and not limited to upper castes. Some point to attempts of lower castes in the past to gain Kshatriya or Brahmin status as a vindication of the varna system. Currently, some intellectual “Kshatriya” claimants are out to fight western propaganda against the “benign” concept of varna and free Hindus from guilt.


Dr Ambedkar has analyzed caste and varna, not with the bitterness of a person who experienced abject discrimination under the system, but with the mind of a scholar. In his magnum opus “Annihilation of Caste” he notes all arguments in favor of varna and caste promoted by the apologists and demolishes them with clinical logic and reason.


Dr Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste” was intended to be a presidential address at the meeting of Jat-Pat-Thodak Mandal in Lahore, but the meet was cancelled by the organizers as he refused to change portions of the address that indicated he would leave the Hindu fold. He published the address at his own expense and it stands out as the defining scholarly criticism of the caste system.


Ambedkar starts with why the Social Reform Party that was started as part of the Congress party failed and was wound up by prominent leaders like Tilak. He argues that the Social Reform Party only attempted to reform the Hindu family and not the Hindu society and hence political reform took precedence over social reform. But political reform can’t take precedence over social reform when it comes to the reconstruction of society. He argues that,


The political revolution led by Chandragupta was preceded by the religious and social revolution of Buddha. The political revolution led by Shivaji was preceded by the religious and social reform brought about by the saints of Maharashtra. The political revolution of the Sikhs was preceded by the religious and social revolution led by Guru Nanak. It is unnecessary to add more illustrations. These will suffice to show that the emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people.


On how caste destroys public spirit, public opinion and public charity,


“The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s … loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity, but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy, but not for men of other castes.”


“Would a Hindu acknowledge and follow the leadership of a great and good man? The case of a Mahatma apart, the answer must be that he will follow a leader if he is a man of his caste. … The capacity to appreciate merits in a man, apart from his caste, does not exist in a Hindu. … It is not a case of standing by virtue or not standing by vice. It is a case of standing by, or not standing by, the caste. Have not Hindus committed treason against their country in the interests of their caste?”


Dr Ambedkar not only makes mincemeat of the existing caste system but takes on those apologists who discreetly justify it as a perversion of chaturvarna ideal, which they claim was not based on birth to begin with.


“In the first place, if under the Chaturvarnya of the Arya Samajists an individual is to take his place in the Hindu Society according to his worth, I do not understand why the Arya Samajists insist upon labelling men as Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. A learned man would be honoured without his being labelled a Brahmin. A soldier would be respected without his being designated a Kshatriya. If European society honours its soldiers and its servants without giving them permanent labels, why should Hindu Society find it difficult to do so, is a question which Arya Samajists have not cared to consider.”


“The former [=Chaturvarnya] is based on worth. How are you going to compel people who have acquired a higher status based on birth, without reference to their worth, to vacate that status? How are you going to compel people to recognize the status due to a man, in accordance with his worth, who is occupying a lower status based on his birth? For this, you must first break up the Caste System, in order to be able to establish the Chaturvarnya system. How are you going to reduce the four thousand castes, based on birth, to the four Varnas, based on worth? This is the first difficulty which the protagonists of the Chaturvarnya must grapple with.”


“There is a third difficulty in the way of the establishment of the system of Chaturvarnya. How are you going to maintain the system of Chaturvarnya, supposing it was established? One important requirement for the successful working of Chaturvarnya is the maintenance of the penal system which could maintain it by its sanction. The system of Chaturvarnya must perpetually face the problem of the transgressor. Unless there is a penalty attached to the act of transgression, men will not keep to their respective classes. The whole system will break down, being contrary to human nature. Chaturvarnya cannot subsist by its own inherent goodness. It must be enforced by law.”


“If it is to be nominal, then it is useless; and then the protagonists of Chaturvarnya must admit that their system does not apply to women. If it is real, are the protagonists of Chaturvarnya prepared to follow the logical consequences of applying it to women? They must be prepared to have women priests and women soldiers. Hindu society has grown accustomed to women teachers and women barristers. It may grow accustomed to women brewers and women butchers. But he would be a bold person who would say that it will allow women priests and women soldiers. But that will be the logical outcome of applying Chaturvarnya to women. Given these difficulties, I think no one except a congenital idiot could hope for and believe in a successful regeneration of the Chaturvarnya.”


“Inter-dependence of one class on another class is inevitable. Even dependence of one class upon another may sometimes become allowable. But why make one person depend upon another in the matter of his vital needs? Education, everyone must have. Means of defence, everyone must have. These are the paramount requirements of every man for his self-preservation. How can the fact that his neighbour is educated and armed help a man who is uneducated and disarmed? The whole theory is absurd. These are the questions which the defenders of Chaturvarnya do not seem to be troubled about. But they are very pertinent questions. Assuming that in their conception of Chaturvarnya the relationship between the different classes is that of ward and guardian, and that this is the real conception underlying Chaturvarnya, it must be admitted that it makes no provision to safeguard the interests of the ward from the misdeeds of the guardian.”


Prompting Hindus to consider stopping worship of past for their ideals, he quotes Prof. Dewey about baneful effects of worship of past


“An individual can live only in the present. The present is not just something which comes after the past; much less something produced by it. It is what life is in leaving the past behind it. The study of past products will not help us to understand the present. A knowledge of the past and its heritage is of great significance when it enters into the present, but not otherwise. And the mistake of making the records and remains of the past the main material of education is that it tends to make the past a rival of the present and the present a more or less futile imitation of the past.”


As a leader who championed the interests of oppressed, he thoroughly rejected the past and chose a path more appealing to his intellect, reason and spirit, one without any stigma of caste.


Babasaheb converted to Buddhism with half a million supporters in October 1956 at Nagpur. At a press conference before his conversion, he said that he had told Mahatma Gandhi that he would choose the least harmful way for the country.

“And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism, for Buddhism is part and parcel of the Bharatiya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.”


Ambedkar saw the value of Buddhism with its emphasis on principles and enlightenment, without the baggage of the past, for the oppressed sections. As a scholar he could compare and judge world religions and found Buddha and his Dhamma as the path best suited for this age and the future of his people.


Ambedkar could become a scholar and help his fellowmen at a crucial moment in the history of India because his father, a subedar major in the Mahar regiment of the British army, gained Marathi and English education as part of his job. His pious father, a Kabir panthi, made Ambedkar read the Ramayana and Mahabharata, while a friend of his introduced the young Bhimrao to the life of Buddha. This is an example how education and opportunity to oppressed sections can produce brilliant meritorious minds in a generation or two.


Prime Minister Modi must not restrict his respect and admiration for Babasaheb to grand memorials or token representation of dalits in his party. Dalits, who carried the palanquin of the Congress dynasty on their shoulders for decades, are looking to the prime minister for help and guidance. The chaturvarna worshippers of his ideological fold, if not reined in strictly, could drive dalits and backward classes away from him, no matter how many memorials he consecrates.


Dalits who are mostly agricultural labourers need skills with proper support system to upgrade themselves into micro and small entrepreneurs. This needs an emphasis on micro and small enterprises in the economy, with proper financial support to the sector. The move to promote dalit entrepreneurs through every bank branch is a step in the right direction.


If Hindu nationalism is to emerge as an ideological framework for all Hindus it cannot live and idealize archaic ideas that evoke bad memories in a significant section of society. Those who deny shortcomings of Hindu society in the past or blame every drawback on Islamic and colonial rulers are stubborn chauvinists who live in denial.


Babasaheb Ambedkar, with all the memories of the humiliation he suffered despite his accomplishments, showed how to reconcile through his intellect and scholarship, without bitterness, in the larger interests of society. It would be a tragedy and insult to all egalitarian and universal claims of Hindu philosophy, culture and society if this brilliant and compassionate personality remains only an icon for dalits. With his inspiration, Hindu nationalism should think about Hindu ideals for the future and not just live in the sloth of a dead past.



-        Annihilation of caste, Dr. B.R Ambedkar


-        Ambedkar and Buddhism by Sangharakshita

-        Buddha and his Dhamma, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar     

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