New Delhi: It is considered highly unusual for a sitting president or vice-president to weigh in on a contemporary political controversy. However, M. Venkaiah Naidu may have crossed two Rubicons when an op-ed he wrote defending the Modi government’s move to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special constitutional status attributed a fake quote to Dr B.R. Ambedkar – one that does not form part of the official record of his statements and was actually produced by a top RSS leader in 2004.
Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, Naidu seemed anxious to claim that Ambedkar, a key drafter of the constitution, would have approved of the government’s decision to de-operationalise Article 370. Thus, in his article in The Hindu of August 17, the vice-president quoted Ambedkar as telling the Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah:
“Mr. Abdullah, you want that India should defend Kashmir. You wish India should protect your borders, she should build roads in your area, she should supply you food grains, and Kashmir should get equal status as India, but you don’t want India and any citizen of India to have any rights in Kashmir and Government of India should have only limited powers. To give consent to this proposal would be a treacherous thing against the interests of India, and I, as the Law Minister of India, will never do. I cannot betray the interests of my country.”
As the source for this quote, Naidu cited S.N. Busi’s 2016 book, Dr. B.R Ambedkar: Framing of Indian Constitution.
The only problem is Busi is not the original source of the quote. The quote came from an RSS leader – and Busi himself is now prepared to concede that it may well have been the product of a “political agenda”.
When The Wire spoke to Busi, a retired Indian Revenue Service officer settled in Hyderabad currently, he admitted that the original source of the quote was Balraj Madhok, a key Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist of yesteryears and one of the top leaders of BJP’s former avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
“The quote (that Naidu uses) is mentioned in Volume 4, page 472 of my book. I took it from an article titled ‘Article 370 – With Role of Dr. B.R Ambedkar in Shaping Peaceful Jammu and Kashmir State’ by an engineer, H.R. Bhonsa. Bhonsa’s article appeared in Dalit Vision, dated February 20, 2013,” Busi said, adding, “Bhonsa had picked the quote from Balraj Madhok’s article published in [the RSS mouthpiece] Organiser, in its Deepawali edition of November 14, 2004.”
In other words, the actual source for the quote Vice President Venkaiah Naidu used was the RSS leader Balraj Madhok and not even Busi or Bhonsa. Incidentally, Madhok’s version of Ambedkar’s words came decades after the latter’s death in 1956.
Madhok was a Jammu-based Sangh parivar activist who spent his lifetime campaigning against Article 370. When asked if Madhok could have used the quote for partisan purposes, Busi did not hesitate to agree that he may have had a “political agenda” in mind.
By drawing Ambedkar into the debate on Article 370, the vice president attempted to send a positive message about the Union government’s move to a large section of Dalits who revere him as an icon. Modi did much the same by invoking Ambedkar’s name in his broadcast to the nation on August 8.
Curiously, the quote in question – which Union minister of state for parliamentary affairs Arju Ram Meghwal also cited in an Indian Express op-ed on August 20 – has not been backed up any official record despite the compilation and publication of 17 volumes of his collected writings, speeches, interviews and letters by the Maharashtra government and the Government of India.
These volumes are available in PDF format on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs. The Ambedkar ‘quote’ Naidu (and Meghwal) cited does not figure in any of the works. Many Dalit thinkers and website have also called the quote “fake”.
Venkaiah Naidu’s reliance on a fake quote reflects a wider irony: the official volumes show Ambedkar’s views on Kashmir to be totally at variance with the BJP’s “nationalist” thinking. The father of Indian constitution, for example, advocated a “zonal plebiscite” in Jammu and Kashmir so that the ‘Muslim’ Valley could go to Pakistan if it so desired. Ambedkar also pushed the erstwhile Nehru government to resolve the Kashmir dispute as quickly as possible, so that India’s hefty defence budget, necessitated by the instability in the Kashmir valley, could be cut down.
Arguing that the high defence budget is a great “stumbling block in the path of the welfare of this country”, Ambedkar told Parliament in 1950:
“…on our part we never seem to be able to realise that the sooner we settle this Kashmir problem the better for us, because if the excuse for this enormous increase in our Defence Budget is to be attributed to the Kashmir tangle, is it not our duty to do something, to contribute something, positively in order to bring that dispute to an end?”
While saying that defence expenditure could take a cut, Ambedkar said that since the Kashmir matter “is within the charge of the UNO”, it was unlikely that Pakistan would attack India.
He then went on to push for a plebiscite as a solution to the “Kashmir tangle”.
“All that they (the Government of India) are dealing with is the (Kashmir) question of military allotment. The question of plebiscite is in no way new in the history of the world. One need not go back to the ancient past to find precedents for settling questions of this sort by plebiscite. After the First World War, I certainly remember there were two questions to be settled by plebiscite. One was the question of Upper Silesia and the other was the question of Alsace-Lorraine. Both these questions were settled by plebiscite, and I am sure that my hon. Friend Shri Gopalaswami Ayyangar (then a minister in-charge of Kashmir affairs), with his mature wisdom and sagacity, must be knowing of this. It is not possible for us to borrow something from the line of action taken by the League of Nations with regard to the plebiscite in Upper Silesia and Alsace-Lorraine which we can usefully carry into the Kashmir dispute and have the matter settled quickly so that we can release Rs. 50 crores from the Defence Budget and utilise it for the benefit of our people?”
Ambedkar’s words indicate that the Government of India under Nehru was perhaps not keen to implement his radical suggestion.
By 1951, Ambedkar started to advocate a “zonal plebiscite” to resolve the Kashmir dispute. He, in fact, pressed for the partition of Kashmir so that the Muslim majority valley could go to Pakistan.
The “Election Manifesto of the Scheduled Castes Federation”, which he authored in 1951, said thus:
“On the Kashmir issue, the policy adopted by the Congress Government is not acceptable to the Scheduled Castes Federation. This policy if continued will lead to a perpetual enmity between India and Pakistan, and the possibility of war between the two countries. The Scheduled Castes Federation believes that it is essential for the good of both countries that they should be good and friendly neighbours. For this purpose the proper policy to adopt towards Pakistan should be based upon two considerations. (1) There should be no talk about the annulment of the partition of India. Partition should be accepted as a settled fact not to be reopened and that the two countries to continue as two separate sovereign States. (2) That, Kashmir to be partitioned– the Muslim area to go to Pakistan (subject to the wishes of the Kashmiris living in the Valley) and the non-Muslim area consisting of Jammu and Ladakh to come to India.”
The same year, at a press conference on October 27 in Jalandhar in Punjab, reporters asked Ambedkar about his view on what could be the solution to the Kashmir problem. This was his reply:
“I fear that a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir may go against India. In order to save Hindu and Buddhist population of Jammu and Ladakh, from going to Pakistan, in such an eventuality, there should be zonal plebiscite in Jammu, Ladakh, and Kashmir.”
In one of his essays, he reiterated the same point, explaining why he preferred a zonal plebiscite.
“The issue on which we are fighting most of the time (with Pakistan) is, who is in the Right and who is in the Wrong. The real issue to my mind is not who is in the Right but what is right. Taking that to be the main question, my view has always been that the right solution is to partition Kashmir. Give the Hindu and Buddhist part to India and the Muslim part to Pakistan as we did in the case of (partition of) India. We are really not concerned with the Muslim part of Kashmir. It is a matter between Muslims of Kashmir and Pakistan. They may decide the issue as they like. Or if you like, divide it into three parts; the cease-fire zone, the Valley and the Jammu-Ladakh region and have a plebiscite only in the valley. What I am afraid of is that in the proposed plebiscite, which is to be an overall plebiscite, the Hindus and Buddhists of Kashmir are likely to be dragged into Pakistan against their wishes and we may have to face the same problems as we are facing today in East Bengal.”
Critical of unilateral outreach
In the absence of a permanent solution, Ambedkar also viewed any unilateral outreach work by the government of India in Kashmir as a potential threat.
In a 1953 parliamentary debate on India’s foreign policy, Ambedkar was highly critical of the Congress government’s efforts to build connecting infrastructure between Kashmir and the rest of India. He was particularly restive about India not finding a solution to the Kashmir dispute.
“The key note of our foreign policy is to solve the problems of other countries, and not to solve the problems of our own. We have here the problem of Kashmir. We have never succeeded in solving it. Everybody seems to have forgotten that it is a problem. But I suppose, some day, we may wake up and find that the ghost is there.”
And I find that the Prime Minister has launched upon the project of digging a tunnel connecting Kashmir to India. Sir, I think, it is one of the most dangerous things that a Prime Minister could do. We have been hearing of a tunnel under the English Channel to connect France with England. We have been hearing it for 50 years, I think someone has been proposing, and yet the English have never done anything to carry out the project, because it is a double-edged weapon. The enemy, if he conquers France, can use the tunnel and rush troops into England and conquer England. That might also happen. The Prime Minister, in digging the tunnel, thinks that he alone would be able to use it. He does not realise that it can always be a two-way traffic, and that a conqueror who comes on the other side and captures Kashmir, can come away straight to Pathankot, and probably come into the Prime Minister’s house – I do not know.”
However, he was also a stickler for rules and was against any government action that may override the constitutional framework.
Ambedkar and Article 370
In a 1950 parliamentary debate on the Representation of the People Bill, while categorically emphasising that Kashmir was a part of Indian territory, Ambedkar contended that “there is really no room for this Parliament to make any provision with regard to the representation of Kashmir” because of Article 370. He also added that the opinion of the government of Jammu and Kashmir is supreme in all matters regarding representation of the Kashmiri people in the assembly and parliament.
Contrary to Naidu’s assertion, Ambedkar does not come across as an opponent of special status for Kashmir. Going beyond Article 370, he not only wanted a zonal plebiscite in Kashmir, but also saw the problem as an impediment to India’s welfare in the long run.
Moreover, Ambedkar’s view on the defence budget is unlikely to go down well with the right wing, which swears by the importance of a hefty defence expenditure. For a government which has often bent the constitutional framework according to its political convenience, Ambedkar’s opinions are a stark contrast.
The Hindu right has made sustained attempts to appropriate Ambedkar to fit its discourse of Hindu Rashtra. Much of this intended appropriation stems from the right wing’s need to consolidate the Dalits under its electoral umbrella. However, while doing so, right wing advocates have often peddled fake statements by India’s founding fathers. They have also quoted them out of context.
It is highly unfortunate that even the vice-president has resorted to such tactics. Even if one gives the benefit of doubt to Naidu – that he may not have known the quote is fake – he is surely guilty of misrepresenting Ambedkar’s views on the Kashmir issue. For we know from the books the government itself has published that his views on Kashmir were very different to how the vice president attempted to present them.