For the RSS, Denouncing and Appropriating Ambedkar Go Hand in Hand

The RSS has been very picky about which parts of Ambedkar they praise and quote, careful to ignore his repeated and detailed criticisms of Hinduism.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks past an image of Ambedkar. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks past an image of Ambedkar. Credit: PTI

Come December 6 (the death anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar), it’s the season to pay homage to Ambedkar again. Over the years, the ranks of the payers of homage have swelled exponentially. Among them, curiously, are several of those whose ideological forefathers, such as Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, had in the 1950s harshly berated Ambedkar, then the law minister, for his attempts to reform Hindu personal laws through the enactment of the Hindu Code Bill. So stringent was the opposition to his efforts to bring some measure of gender equality within the Hindu fold, that Ambedkar was left with no choice but to resign his ministership. Those who attacked him were the bearers of an inheritance of cultural nationalism, which carries on till today. Today’s nationalists, ironically, are staunch advocates of equality between men and women, that is to say, of equality between Muslim men and Muslim women; their hearts bleed for the ‘sorry plight’ of  Muslim women and their day-to-day oppression, in particular under the ‘cruel’ regime of the triple talaaq.

One of the breast beaters for the condition of the Muslim woman, Arun Shourie, wrote a book, not very long ago, entitled, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts which have been Erased (1997). Now a notable BJP dissident, but a RSS poster boy at that time, Shourie, in his voluminous tone, as good as brands Ambedkar a stooge of the British Empire.

“…Ambedkar repeatedly and explicitly declares that neither he nor the untouchables, on whose behalf he always claims the sole authority to speak, have or have ever had anything to do with the Freedom Struggle. His whole effort is to manufacture reasons to justify opposing that movement and for the pejoratives which he has hurled at Gandhiji for twenty years. Far from trying to hide his working for and with the British, those days Ambedkar used to recall these “facts” at every opportunity to convince the British of his loyalty and continuing usefulness.”

Significantly, one of the few people Shourie acknowledged for their support in the writing of Worshipping False Gods was Sita Ram Goel, a well-known ideologue of the Hindu right.

Much has happened in Indian politics since the publication of Shourie’s work on Ambedkar. The RSS and the BJP have emerged as forces to reckon with in the domains of the state and civil society. The consolidation of the Hindutva project, sponsored by these organisations, has necessitated skillful social engineering on their part. Far from being dismissed, Dalits and OBCs have been increasingly wooed by the BJP because they constitute a powerful vote bank, notwithstanding ‘minor’ skirmishes between them and the BJP cadres over incidents such as Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the ‘punishment’ meted out to suspected cow slaughterers.

Correspondingly, Ambedkar’s stock has risen in the market for history’s icons. His profile is included not only in the pantheon of nationalist leaders honoured by the RSS in its leaflets and pamphlets, but also features prominently in a poster on Hinduism’s historic heroes that has been issued by the Sangh. Indeed, some Dalit scholars feel, sardonically of course, that the day is not far when Ambedkar will be anointed as the 11th avatar of Vishnu.

The official publication division of the RSS, Suruchi Prakashan, has of late brought out some monographs on Ambedkar. These include Manusmriti Aur Dr. Ambedkar (2014), Prakhar Rashtra Bhakt Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (2014) and Rashtra-Purush Babasaheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (2015). Each of these predictably contains a high proportion of panegyrics on Ambedkar. Premium is put especially on the fact that once he had decided to convert along with his followers out of Hinduism, Ambedkar opted not for Islam or Christianity but for Buddhism, a move which V.D. Savarkar, the patron saint of Hindutva, described as a change of sect – from Vedic to non-Vedic Hinduism – and not a change of religion.

But strangely, there is no discussion at all in any of these books on Riddles of Hinduism, the controversial Ambedkar text whose posthumous publication in 1987 sparked off riots in Mumbai and the demand for its ban by Hindu fanatics. The text is an interrogation of the ‘greatness’ attributed to various figures of Hindu divinity, including Krishna and Rama. Apart from this, the RSS booklets on Ambedkar give a short shrift to Annihilation of Caste, his magnum opus, the draft of an undelivered speech in which he argued that Hinduism was incapable of its own reformation and that the only way to rid Hinduism of its caste consciousness would be to debunk all its scriptures.

Out of the three aforementioned RSS booklets on Ambedkar, the most intriguing is the one on Ambedkar’s reading of the Manusmriti. The booklet begins with a preface which, in translation, has the header ‘Why this book?’ Their answer to this question is unstated but, in my view obvious: Since Ambedkar was, by his own confession, an inept scholar of Sanskrit, his understanding of the Manusmriti is necessarily flawed; hence the need to retrieve this ancient charter of Hindu social codes from the imputations of caste and gender prejudice that an amateurish Ambedkar leveled against it!

With admirers such as these, does Ambedkar need any detractors?

Tapan Basu is a faculty member at the Department of English, University of Delhi.