Was Ambedkar Really Anti-Muslim, as the Sangh Parivar Claims?

With the Sangh Parivar extolling Ambedkar as part of its political agenda, it is important to debunk the myth of him being anti-Muslim. With excerpts from Ambedkar on Muslims by Anand Teltumbde, published by Vak Publication.

The father the Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been invoking B.R. Ambedkar ever since he came to power. He has spoken about Ambedkar in the same vein as Hindutva leaders Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhaya or Syama Prasad Mookerjee. On Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary on April 14, 2016, Modi made the effort to address people from Mhow in Madhya Pradesh (Ambedkar’s birthplace), further reinforcing the fact that extolling the father of the Constitution from time to time is one of most important agendas of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in the present political context.

The persistent efforts of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to saffronise Ambedkar and his writings is nothing new. In the last three decades, whenever the BJP has been in power – both at the Centre and at the states – the Sangh Parivar has tried to appropriate Ambedkar with an eye on the Dalit vote. Ideologically, this marks a significant departure from the BJP’s political agenda from the independence struggle to the early 1990s. Most prominent leaders of the Jan Sangh, the BJP in its early years, and their ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were openly critical of Ambedkar and his writings. They came on record to oppose many of his initiatives, the most prominent being the reservation policy. More recently, the present RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat questioned the idea of reservation on the basis of caste and camouflaged this thought by saying that a reservation policy based on economic eligibility can be thought of.

However, many in the RSS also feel that the idea of forging a Pan-Hindu identity as advanced by the former RSS sarsanghchalak M.S. Golwalkar is not possible without the support of Dalits. Since the 1990s, the Sangh Parivar has come to realise that this project, so crucial to its dream of Hindu Rashtra, has suffered repeated reverses because of inherent caste, class and gender divisions.

Therefore, both Modi and BJP President Amit Shah have made it a point to overcome their party’s ideological contradiction and bring Dalits into the party’s fold, and have allied with important Dalit leaders, such as Udit Raj and RamVilas Paswan. In the last few state elections, Modi has also been talking about the interests of Dalits, even going so far as to pitch the interests of Dalits against the other backward classes – BJP’s political opponents – in the Bihar poll campaign.

In doing so, the Sangh Parivar machinery have misinterpreted and misconstrued Ambedkar’s teachings, largely to overcome its own ideological contradiction vis-à-vis caste and to deceptively present a common ground between Ambedkar’s thoughts and Hindutva.

One of the most important canards that the Sangh Parivar has been propagating is that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim. Firstly, Sangh Parivar activists have claimed Ambedkar preferred Buddhism over Islam, despite the fact that both religions do not acknowledge caste. Secondly, they emphasise Ambedkar’s role as a political opponent to the Muslim League during the nationalist struggle.

It is important to debunk the myth of Ambedkar being anti-Muslim, and the works of Anand Teltumbde, a prominent Ambedkarite scholar, go a long way in doing so.

The following is an excerpt from Teltumbde’s book Ambedkar on Muslims (2003), published by Vak Publication:

References to Islam and Muslims in Ambedkar’s writings abound from early days. Bahishkrit Bharat, the paper he started in Marathi as the mouthpiece of the movement Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha had articles on Islam by one Maharashtrian reformer Lokhitawadi, and these were serialized over a number of issues. If Dr. Ambedkar had been against Islam or Muslims, he would not have spared so much of valuable space of his paper on them. Ambedkar was certainly impressed by the egalitarian principles of Islam and was pained to see it degenerate in India by absorbing evils of native Hinduism. He spoke out against this degeneration at a number of places, but eventually blamed Hinduism for it. Even at the practical level, he tends to praise it for its spirit of solidarity. He appears overwhelmed by the spirit of cohesiveness among Muslims and tendentiously prefers it for conversion. When he had declared in Yeole in 1935 that he would leave the Hindu fold and accept a new religion before his death, some of his disciples decided to change their religion and approached him. His advice to them was to accept Islam. His Bahishkrit Bharat (15 March 1929) also exhorts people to convert to Islam if they are willing to change their religion. It is only after the in depth studies of various religions vis-à-vis his goals that he decided on Buddha’s Dhamma. Thus, it is purely mischievous to say that he was against Muslims.

Muslims occupied a peculiar space in the political sphere in his times. Ever since the British had decided to involve natives in the governance of India, both the major communities, Hindus and Muslims, contended for political power. Both had ruling class aspirations. Muslims had largely been the rulers of the country for nearly eight centuries immediately preceding the British advent and the Hindus, before that. Besides, even after losing political power, the socio-religious hegemony of the Hindus had continued all along. After the initial period of the social reform movement, when he realized that it was not possible to bring about the desired changes in the Hindu society through reformist methods, Dr. Ambedkar plunged whole hog into the political movement. It is vital to note that Dr. Ambedkar had to carve out his space between these two contending forces that were battling to maximize their gain in the colonial context and gradually expand it as he progressed. Ambedkar’s rise in the political sphere was naturally grudged by the Hindus, as represented by none other than Mahatma Gandhi.

Anxious to regain political power, the attitude of Hindu leadership has been largely accommodative of ever-expanding Muslim demands. If the Muslims thus intended to gain a larger share of the cake than their numbers deserved, it was at the cost of the untouchables. Thus, Ambedkar indirectly found himself pitted against the Muslim in the political parleys of his times…it is necessary to read his writings relating to Muslims in this broad situational context.

Dr. Ambedkar remained a firm votary of minority rights being made part of the structure of governance. He clearly saw that India’s future depended on how well various sections of people are integrated in the national structure. As is the case of Muslims, although he considered it premature for any community to demand separation from the country, as none including India was et a nation, all the same, as a true democrat, he respected the right to self-determination of people. From this perspective, he had supported Muslim demands such as partition of Kashmir and separate electorate for Muslims among others, and as per his biographer paid the price in losing his parliamentary election in 1952 parliamentary election to a small time Congress candidate – Shri N.S. Kajrolkar.

In another chapter of the book, he writes: “Dr. Ambedkar certainly had high regard for Islam for its egalitarianism and regretted that it lost it in India. He writes, ‘Although Islam is the one religion which can transcend race and colour and unite diverse people into a compact brotherhood, yet, Islam in India has not succeeded in uprooting caste from among the Indian Musalmans.’ Although he finds caste feeling among the Musalmans not as virulent as it is among the Hindus, he is pained to find it all the same.

With excerpts from Ambedkar on Muslims, by Anand Teltumbde, published by Vak Publication, Mumbai, 2003.