Note: This article was originally published on April 27, 2020 and is being republished on December 6, 2020, Ambedkar’s death anniversary.
Of late, Dr B.R. Ambedkar has become an icon that every political party wants to claim as its very own. Across different political ideologies, many have tried to capitalise on the rich political and intellectual legacy that he left behind after his death. Considering his iconic stature and unique popular appeal, invoking his name has become a necessity. But the engagement with his ideas, across political ideologies, has often been mostly confined to superficial symbolism.
The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and BJP have been at the forefront to try and claim Ambedkar’s legacy. Since the NDA came to power at the Centre in 2014, many attempts have been made to project Ambedkar as a passionate supporter of the Hindutva ideology. There have been concerted efforts to depict an image of Ambedkar that would make him appear in concordance with the cultural and political vocabulary of the RSS and BJP. A recent article published in The Print by a prominent RSS supporter does the same by arguing that Ambedkar had a close relationship with the early leaders of RSS, such as K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar. Most importantly, it was argued that he had an “ideological sympathy” with the RSS leadership. These assertions have generated a furore in the academia and larger public sphere.
The invocation of Ambedkar’s fictional proximity with Hindutva is not new. Such a trend, of invoking Ambedkar’s ideas with the ideology of RSS and Hindutva, had commenced within the Hindutva circles in the 1980s. The RSS and its affiliated organisations have directed their focus to incorporate Ambedkarite symbols into the Hindutva discourse. In the representations and narratives weaved by the RSS, Ambedkar is selectively invoked as a ‘Hindu social reformer’ who vehemently opposed untouchability, and who also happened to “share similar views” on Muslims.
Moreover, during the past few years, fictional narratives about Ambedkar’s ideological camaraderie with RSS leaders have begun to emerge. In such narratives, it is pointed out that Ambedkar had visited an RSS camp and was impressed by the “egalitarian” treatment given to the untouchables. These assertions are made without any documentary evidence of the visit, and his association with the RSS leadership. Where documentary evidence exists, RSS has conveniently brushed aside those facts which prove that Ambedkar was one of the most incisive critics of Hinduism. His criticism of Hinduism led to his public renunciation of the religion and subsequent conversion to Buddhism. Ambedkar’s views on Islam are similarly invoked out of context to project him as an ‘anti-Muslim’ Dalit icon. Like Hinduism, Ambedkar was also critical of Islam and disapproved the traditions of caste, bigotry, and conservatism that were adopted by the latter. Throughout his public life, Ambedkar had been a vehement critic of the Congress and Indian Communists, but that did not make him a supporter of Hindutva.
Ambedkar’s newspaper Janata, his movement’s mouthpiece, tells us what he thought about the RSS. On January 13, 1934, a letter authored by P.D. Shelare, a Dalit activist from Nagpur, was published in Janata. It complained about the caste segregation actively practised in some local units (shakhas) of the RSS in Nagpur, particularly during meals. Shelare claimed that the RSS leadership was aware of such practices in the shakhas, and no significant efforts were made to do away with it. Furthermore, the letter also sarcastically hinted that words such as ‘nationalists’ (Rashtriya) have attained a certain irony and duplicity in India. This rare reference to the RSS in Ambedkar’s newspaper exemplifies the scepticism Ambedkar and his supporters had towards Hindutva and RSS.
Additionally, there are many more indirect references in Ambedkar’s newspapers which clearly manifest his scepticism about Hindutva. These newspapers (particularly, Bahishkrut Bharat, Janata and Prabuddha Bharat) usually argued that Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) organisations (for example the Hindu Mahasabha) had a tendency to deliberately evade the concerns of Dalits vis-à-vis the plank of Hindu solidarity. In one commentary, Janata pointed out that it was not optimistic about Hindu nationalist politics, saying that its foundations were premised on sectarian principles of ‘Brahmanism’ and anti-Muslim politics.
Ideologically speaking, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hindu Mahasabha shared many of the RSS’s ideological concerns. Many prominent leaders of the Mahasabha in western India eventually became the backbone of the RSS in its early years. Janata once published a report of public meetings held, in 1936, by the supporters of Ambedkar that rebuked the Hindu Mahasabha and its office bearers. One of the office bearers was closely linked with the formation of the RSS. Vishwanath Kelkar, a local Hindu Mahasabha leader and one of the founding members of RSS, was publicly condemned for his sectarian political initiatives, particularly its tendency to swing towards the Hindu-Muslims question. This is yet another reference that is linked to the RSS, which clearly sheds important light on Ambedkar’s politics.
Hindutva leaders were consistently criticised in the pages of Janata not only for their anti-Muslim politics but also due to their convenient ignorance towards the demands of Dalits. In his book, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the untouchables, Ambedkar postulates that organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha were unfit in addressing the social question of caste and untouchability. He further argued that the only aim of this party was to combat Muslims in Indian politics. Therefore, factually speaking, Ambedkar never held ideological sympathy for Hindutva politics. As the editor of Bahishkrut Bharat, Ambedkar wrote some hard-hitting commentaries against the Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu nationalist organisations. He consistently targeted the counterproductive methods and sectarian politics practised by them.
Even in the later period, despite his absence from the everyday editorial management of Janata and Prabuddha Bharat, the criticism against Hindutva politics did not disappear. Janata and Prabuddha Bharat held consistently critical views about Hindutva and its leading ideologues like V.D. Savarkar. For example, Savarkar’s ‘Patit-Pavan’ temple, which was built exclusively for untouchables in Ratnagiri received biting flak in the Janata. On the other hand, his emphasis to use Sanskritised words in Marathi was also argued as a typical fanatic attempt to sanitise Islamic influences.
In the later years, Savarkar rose to lead the Hindu Mahasabha, and subsequently became one of the most vocal leaders of Hindutva. Savarkar and RSS had opposed Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in 1956. Savarkar had called his conversion a “useless act”, as he identified it as a “non-combative” religion. To this, in 1956, on the eve of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, his newspaper, Prabuddha Bharati, retaliated by publicly questioning the epithet ‘Veer’, associated with Savarkar. Further, to address the criticism offered by Savarkar that Buddhists had tainted past of betrayal, the newspaper argued that Hindutva supporters like him should rather introspect their position vis-à-vis their commitment to the nation.
There are many such references that make the fictional narrative of camaraderie between Ambedkar and RSS ineffective and historically weak. The newspapers published by Ambedkar foregrounds a simple fact, that Ambedkar never envisaged a possibility of allying with Hindu nationalist politics. On the contrary, his writings clearly manifested his apprehensions to the idea of Hindu Rashtra. The political stances taken by his organisations and newspapers on Hindutva further encapsulate the essence of his politics. That could be one of the reasons why he termed the RSS, along with the Akali Dal, a dangerous organisation in 1946. Ambedkar’s often quoted remarks on Hindu communal politics, such as his statement on the ‘menace’ of ‘Hindu Raj’, from his classic work, Pakistan or Partition of India are sufficient to comprehend his political position on Hindutva. In addition, a party manifesto published by Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) in 1951, authored by Ambedkar himself, is another testimony of his categorical cynicism against the RSS. The manifesto clearly argued, “The Scheduled Caste Federation will not have any alliance with any reactionary party such as Hindu Mahasabha or the RSS”.
Fabricated elicitations of Ambedkar’s link with RSS is a recurring phenomenon because Ambedkar had seldom referred to the RSS in his writings. In fact, unlike his intellectual engagements with Gandhi, Ambedkar had little dialogue with the RSS. The organisation was not even a significant force during Ambedkar’s lifetime. Even in the 1940s, when the activities of RSS were discussed at a national level, it had to struggle hard to attract significant membership from western India, as compared to the north. Non-Brahmin and Dalit movements in western India were deeply sceptical of the RSS and it was not able to flourish there in its early years. It was a fringe force then, with a limited mass appeal. It was in western India Ambedkar’s movement had the strongest foothold.
While Ambedkar was clearly not a supporter of the RSS and Hindutva, where does he stand today vis-à-vis the politics of Hindutva and RSS? Although conjectural in nature, this question has been addressed many times by prominent philosophers, political scientists, and few Dalit activists. However, we are yet to see a significant historical and archival work on the nature of the relationship between the Ambedkar-led Dalit movement of the early 20th century and the Hindutva political movement. Part of the problem is that there is virtually no archival documentation on the supposed relationship between the RSS and Ambedkar. It is precisely because of this non-documentation that fictional narratives of the RSS’s association with Ambedkar will not stop being foisted any time soon.
For that matter, other political parties too would circulate fictional narratives about their “happy” relationship with Ambedkar as there are dividends associated with Ambedkar’s iconic stature and popular appeal. Secondly, a part of the problem is that there is very limited historical scholarship on Ambedkar and his political movement. There is indeed a clamour around Ambedkar even within academia, but serious work on history, dealing with his organisational politics and activism is very limited.
Most of the scholarship is premised on Ambedkar’s writings that are already published by the Government of Maharashtra. Unlike Gandhi and Nehru, the Indian state has historically done very little investment by way of making easily available writings and other materials of Ambedkar. In fact, the publication of Ambedkar’s writings was only possible due to the pressures exerted by the Dalit Panthers in the 1970s.
However, the current state is such that the Maharashtra government has not published his entire collection for a very long time. Unless efforts are made by the government to provide access to historical documents and scholars invest their time in studying Ambedkar, it will be difficult to contain untrustworthy narratives.
Prabodhan Pol teaches history at Manipal Centre for Humanities (MAHE), Manipal, Karnataka.