(Editor’s note – Today is the birthday of  Dr B.R Ambedkar. CRI is proud to present a 3 part series titled Bodhi Sattva’s Hindutva. In this part, Aravindan Neelakandan explores Ambedkar’s views on cultural unity, his analysis on Savarkarite strand of Hindu Nationalism and admiration for Hindu Reformer Swami Shradhanand)

Terming Baba Saheb Ambedkar as a Hindu nationalist would be the ultimate blasphemy in ‘secular’ India. But if there is an ideology that can resonate with Dr.Ambedkar’s mindscape it is Hindutva – the much maligned Hindu nationalism.

Dr.Ambedkar always struggled for justice and liberty. He naturally knew that the caste system was inherently unjust and anti-democratic. He wanted Hindu society to be free of this malaise. But to remove it one should understand the problem in its socio-historic context. In quest for such an understanding the good doctor arrived at a cardinal truth. It became a fundamental truth all his life. It is the ‘indubitable cultural unity’ of India. As early as 1916, in his famed paper presented at an anthropology seminar of Columbia University, Dr.Ambedkar made an observation that may well become the definition of what is today called the ‘cultural nationalism’ in Indian context:

It may be granted that there has not been a thorough amalgamation of the various stocks that make up the peoples of India, and to a traveller from within the boundaries of India the East presents a marked contrast in physique and even in colour to the West, as does the South to the North. But amalgamation can never be the sole criterion of homogeneity as predicated of any people. Ethnically all people are heterogeneous. It is the unity of culture that is the basis of homogeneity. Taking this for granted, I venture to say that there is no country that can rival the Indian Peninsula with respect to the unity of its culture. It has not only a geographic unity, but it has over and above all a deeper and a much more fundamental unity—the indubitable cultural unity that covers the land from end to end.[1]

Caste then becomes a problem for Dr.Ambedkar – not of this ‘homogeneity’ but it is a problem because it ‘is a parceling of an already homogeneous unit’. In other words it fragments the cultural unity of Indian society and thus inhibits the development of national feeling among Indians.

Yet he was a pragmatist and a visionary. Dr.Ambedkar would return to the same topic in 1940. While discussing the problem of partition, he became as he labeled himself, ‘the philosopher of partition’. And here rejecting the idea of territorial nationalism, he would emphasize a qualitatively different type of nationalism:

If unity is to be of an abiding character it must be founded on a sense of kinship, in the feeling of being kindred. In short it must be spiritual. Judged in the light of these considerations, the unity between Pakistan and Hindustan is a myth. Indeed there is more spiritual unity between Hindustan and Burma than there is between Pakistan and Hindustan.[2]

The idea of Hindus and Buddhists belonging to a larger single spiritual culture is something axiomatic to Ambedkar. He justified partition because even Sikh axe could not resist the Islamist imperialism which was preventing the return of ‘Northern India to that spiritual and cultural unity by which it was bound to the rest of India before Hwen Thasang’.[3]

Dr.Ambedkar also cautioned Hindus that in the coming battles they would be a disunited force and their unity even if achieved would be unsustainable if the Hindu society remained casteist.

In 1933 Mahatma Gandhi asked Dr.Ambedkar to give a message for his magazine ‘Harijan’. And Baba Saheb gave a statement which was crisp, blunt and more important prophetic:

The Out-caste is a bye-product of the Caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the Out-caste except the destruction of the Caste system. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu Faith of this odious and vicious dogma.[4]

The ‘coming struggle’ Ambedkar had visualized was the partition and the pre-partition riots which were actually a series of well-planned riots unleashed on a population of disunited Hindus. It was his quest for justice and his constant worry about the survival of Hindus which led him on a quest for an alternative that will bring unity among Hindus of India.

In his classic work ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (1944). Dr.Ambedkar makes it clear that it was caste which is making conversion of other religionists to Hinduism impossible. He is vision of Hinduism is a united strong Hinduism – battle ready and prepared to take on Abrahamic religions.  To realize this battle-ready Hinduism and a united Hindu society, there is only one major crucial obstacle and that is caste. So it has to go not only for Hinduism to survive but for it to prosper:

So long as caste remains, there will be no Sanghatan and so long as there is no Sanghatan the Hindu will remain weak and meek. …Indifferentism is the worst kind of disease that can infect a people. Why is the Hindu so indifferent? In my opinion this indifferentism is the result of Caste System which has made Sanghatan and co-operation even for a good cause impossible.[5]

In this context it should be noted that Baba Saheb Ambedkar was extremely appreciative of all held at Ratnagiri district/ genuine reform works that were taken up by Hindu nationalists. It was true of Veer Savarkar and Swami Shradhanand –both Hindu Maha Sabha leaders.

Veer Savarkar diagnosed without mincing words that the scripture based caste system is a mental illness and he offered a cure to this social psychological disease plaguing the Hindu psyche, “the disease gets cured instantly when the mind refuses to accept it  .[6] While the whole traditional orthodoxy of Hindu traditional leadership was making a fetish out of Varna system as the basis of Hindu Dharma, Veer Savarkar boldly declared:

Both chaturvarnya and caste divisions are but practices. They are not coterminous with Sanatana Dharma … Sanatana Dharma will not die if the present-day distortion that is caste division is destroyed.[7]

With regard to untouchability his clarion call to Hindu society was a heart-breaking cry, a lone voice in the wilderness:

To regard our millions of co-religionists as ‘untouchables’ and worse than animals is an insult not only to humanity but also to the sanctity of our soul. It is my firm conviction that this is why untouchability should be principally eradicated. Untouchability should go also because its eradication is in the interests of our Hindu society. But even if the Hindu society were to partially benefit from that custom, I would have opposed it with equal vehemence. When I refuse to touch someone because he was born in a particular community but play with cats and dogs, I am committing a most heinous crime against humanity. Untouchability should be eradicated not only because it is incumbent on us but because it is impossible to justify this inhuman custom when we consider any aspect of dharma. Hence this custom should be eradicated as a command of dharma. From the point of view of justice, dharma and humanism, fighting untouchability is a duty and we Hindus should completely eradicate it. In the present circumstances, how we will benefit by fighting it is a secondary consideration. This question of benefit is an aapaddharma (duty to be done in certain exceptional circumstances) and eradication of untouchability is the foremost and absolute dharma.[8]

When Savarkar was at Ratnagiri, his movements as well as participation in political activities were both restricted. Yet he championed the cause of the Dalits and presided over the Mahar conference held at Ratnagiri districts. In his letter to Savarkar, expressing his inability to visit him owing to previous engagements, Dr.Ambedkar wrote:

I however wish to take this opportunity of conveying to you my appreciation of the work you are doing in the field of social reform. If the Untouchables are to be part of the Hindu society, then it is not enough to remove untouchability; for that matter you should destroy ‘Chaturvarna’. I am glad that you are one of the very few leaders who have realised this.[9]

In 1933, Dr.Ambedkar’s Janata magazine in a special issue paid a tribute to Veer Savarkar to the effect that his contribution to the cause of the Dalits was as decisive and great as that of Gautama Buddha himself.[10] Later Baba Saheb Ambedkar would come to the rescue of Veer Savarkar, when Savarkar was arrested for Gandhi murder. The most authoritative historian on Gandhi murder, Manohar Malgonkar, the author of the definitive volume on the subject ‘The Men Who Killed Gandhi’ (1978) revealed in 2008 that it became ‘incumbent upon him to omit certain vital facts such as, for instance, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s secret assurance to Mr. L B Bhopatkar, that his client, Mr. V D Savarkar, had been implicated as a murder suspect on the flimsiest ground.”[11]

Another person held in high esteem by Dr.Ambedkar was Swami Shradhanand. Swami was at the fore front of the Hindu Sanghatan movement. He was one Hindu leader who fully realized that to achieve Sanghatan in the truest sense casteism had to die.

Swami Shradhanand a fearless patriot was one of the foremost leaders of Gandhian movement during Khilafat agitation. Just after Amritstar massacre, when none in Congress was ready to preside over Congress session in Punjab, he came forward and bravely presided over the Congress Committee session at Amritstar. He repeatedly attacked casteism and upheld the rights of Dalits.  He went on to establish ‘Dalit Uddhar Sabha’ in Delhi. He worked ceaselessly for the upliftment and liberation of Dalits till his life was cut shot tragically by the bullets of an Islamic fanatic in 1926. He was also initially an active supporter of Gandhian movement to win Dalits their rights. However he soon found that Gandhian leadership was not as committed to Dalit liberation as Swami expected it to be. In frustration Swami wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in 1921:

The Delhi and Agra Chamars simply demand that they be allowed to draw water from wells used by the Hindus and Mohammedans and that water be not served to them (from Hindu water booths) through bamboos or leaves. Even that appears impossible for the Congress Committee to accomplish…. At Nagpur you laid down that one of the conditions for obtaining Swarajya within 12 months was to give their rights to the depressed classes and without waiting for the accomplishment of their uplift, you have decreed that if there is a complete boycott of foreign cloth up till the 30th September, Swarajya will be an accomplished fact on the 1st of October…I want to engage my limited energy in the uplift of the depressed classes. I do not understand whether the Swarajya obtained without the so-called Untouchable brethren of ours joining us will prove salutary for the Indian nation.[12]

In 1922 he had to resign his position from Depressed Classes Sub-Committee of Congress. Subsequently on 19th August 1923 at the Benares Hindu Maha Sabha annual session, Swami unveiled a grand action plan to remove the stigma of untouchability from Hindu society for ever.  He brought a resolution which was attacked by the wolves of orthodoxy with such venom that the session almost went to the brink of collapse. The resolution Swami brought was for the basic dignity and fundamental human rights of Dalits:

With a view to do justice to the so-called Depressed Classes in the Hindu Community and to assimilate them as parts of an organic whole, in the great body of the Aryan fraternity, this conference of Hindus of all sects holds:

a. That the lowest among the depressed classes be allowed to draw water from common public wells,

b. That water be served to them at drinking posts freely like that as is done to the highest among other Hindus,

c. That all members of the said classes be allowed to sit on the same carpet in public meetings and their ceremonies with higher classes and,

d. That their children (male and female) be allowed to enter freely and at teaching time to sit on the same form with other Hindu and non-Hindu children in Government, National and Denominational education institutions.[13]

 He also formed ‘Dalit Uddhar Sabha’ to work for Dalit liberation. Ailing Swami was murdered treacherously by a Muslim fanatic on 23rd December 1926. Till the end of his life Swami fought for Hindu solidarity through abolition of social stagnation.

Dr. Ambedkar admired Swami Shradhanand very much. Though critical of Hindu Maha Sabha as a political party, (for there were many prominent Hindu Maha Sabha leaders who were very orthodox and socially stagnant), he finds Swami a very sincere fighter for the Dalit cause. In his highly critical book ‘What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables’ Dr.Ambedkar examines the hasty way in which the Congress leadership abandoned their Dalit upliftment programme.:

Was it because the Congress intended that the scheme should be a modest one not costing more than two to five lakhs of rupees but felt that from that point of view they had made a mistake in including Swami Shradhanand in the Committee and rather than allow the Swami to confront them with a huge scheme which the Congress could neither accept nor reject? The Congress thought it better in the first instance to refuse to make him the convener and subsequently to dissolve the Committee and hand over the work to the Hindu Mahasabha. Circumstances are not quite against such a conclusion. The Swami was the greatest and the most sincere champion of the Untouchables. There is not the slightest doubt that if he had worked on the Committee he would have produced a very big scheme. That the Congress did not want him in the Committee and was afraid that he would make big demand on Congress funds for the cause of the Untouchables is clear from the correspondence that passed between him and Pandit Motilal Nehru, the then General Secretary of the Congress…[14]

That Ambedkar found the Swami ‘the greatest and most sincere champion of the Untouchables’ is very interesting for this is a title which Baba Saheb though deserving never claimed for himself. This also calls to myth the Gandhian propaganda that Ambedkar-Gandhi conflict was because Ambedkar did not want someone else to be called the leader of the Untouchables. Dr.Ambedkar was able to see beyond empty words and party identities, the hearts of those who wanted really to stand by the Dalits in their quest for liberation.

This holistic vision of understanding Dalit liberation as crucial for Hindu Sanghatan, in the largest sense of the term, always shaped Dr.Ambedkar’s attitudes and actions. His statement issued on the temple entry rights for Dalits in 1927 approaches the issue from a cultural-historical point of view and rejects any theistic need from his side:

The most important point we want to emphasize is not the satisfaction you get from the worship of the image of God… Hindutva belongs as much to the untouchable Hindus as to the touchable Hindus. To the growth and glory of this Hindutva contributions have been made by  Untouchables like Valmiki, the seer of Vyadhageeta, Chokhamela and Rohidas as much as by Brahmins like Vashishta, Kshatriyas like Krishna, Vaishyas like Harsha and Shudras like Tukaram. The heroes like Sidnak Mahar who fought for the protection of the Hindus were innumerable. The temple built in the name of Hindutva the growth and prosperity of which was achieved gradually with the sacrifice of touchable and untouchable Hindus, must be open to all the Hindus irrespective of caste.[15]

The important element of the statement is that Dr.Ambedkar replaces the term ‘Hinduism’ by Hindutva. In doing this he attempts to make the Hindus realize that the issue of Dalit liberation should be at the core of Hindu nationalist politics for that should be the logical development of the larger historical processes shaping Indian history. It was an appeal to do away with obscurantist traditional casteism and embrace a dynamic Hindu nationalism. Unfortunately Hindu orthodoxy and Hindu leadership failed him. So on 13th October 1935 Dr.Ambedkar made that famous declaration that while it was beyond his power to have been born an untouchable it was within his power to make sure that he would not die a Hinduu and he resolved that he would not die a Hindu.

This was indeed a well calculated and well deserving blow to Hindu orthodoxy. But only Hindu nationalists actually understood both the seriousness of the situation as well as the just nature of Dr.Ambedkar’s reaction.  Despite the despicable treatment of Hindu orthodoxy towards Dalits, Dr.Ambedkar still respected the monument of Hindutva and took national interest paramount in his choice of an alternative religion. He had detailed discussion with Dr.BS Moonje – the mentor of Dr.KB Hedgewar.

Dr.Ambedkar observed:

What the consequences of conversion will be to the country as a whole is well worth bearing in mind. Conversion to Islam or Christianity will denationalize the Depressed Classes. If they go over to Islam the number of Muslims would be doubled; and the danger of Muslim domination also becomes real. If they go over to Christianity, the numerical strength of the Christians becomes five to six crores. It will help to strengthen the hold of Britain on the country. On the other hand if they embrace Sikhism they will not only not harm the destiny of the country but they will help the destiny of the country. They will not be denationalized.[16]

Dr.Ambedkar always took this care that he should never allow his people to get denationalized in their quest for justice and liberation. Closely related to this is the definition of the term ‘Hindu’. He wanted the Dalits to go out of the oppressive orthodoxy infested ‘Hindu religion’ but remain within ‘Hindu culture’.

In discussing the problem of partition, Dr.Ambedkar makes a careful study of Savarkar’s definition of Hindus:

According to Mr. Savarkar a Hindu is a person: “. . . .who regards and owns this Bharat Bhumi, this land from the Indus to the Seas, as his Fatherland as well as his Holy Land;—i.e., the land of the origin of his religion, the cradle of his faith. The followers therefore of Vaidicism, Sanatanism, Jainism, Buddhism, Lingaitism, Sikhism, the Arya Samaj, the Brahmosamaj, the Devasamaj, the Prarthana Samaj and such other religions of Indian origin are Hindus and constitute Hindudom, i.e., Hindu people as a whole.”…

This definition of the term Hindu has been framed with great care and caution. It is designed to serve two purposes which Mr. Savarkar has in view. First, to exclude from it Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews by prescribing the recognition of India as a Holy Land as a qualification for being a Hindu. Secondly, to include Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, etc., by not insisting upon belief in the sanctity of the Vedas as an element in the qualifications. Consequently the so-called aboriginal or hill-tribes also are Hindus: because India is their Fatherland as well as their Holy Land whatever form of religion or worship they follow.[17]

However, Dr.Ambedkar is not satisfied. Though culturally homogenous through historical processes, in his opinion Hindus had not yet made themselves a nation, in the modern sense of the term. They are fragmented. Hindus are a potential nation favoured by cultural unity but disunited politically. They need more modern homogenizing factors. Later in formulating those to whom the Hindu Code Bill would apply, Dr.Ambedkar has used the same frame of definition Veer Savarkar had used in his definition of Hindu:

This Code applies, (a) to all Hindus, that is to say, to all persons professing the Hindu religion in any of its forms or developments, including Virashaivas or Lingayatas and members of the Brahmo, the Prarthana or the Arya Samaj; (b) to any person who is a Buddhist, Jaina or Sikh by religion; (c) (i) to any child, legitimate or illegitimate, both of whose parents are Hindus within the meaning of this section. (ii) to any child, legitimate or illegitimate, one of whose parents is a Hindu within the meaning of this section; provided that such child is brought up as a member of the community group or family to which such parent belongs or belonged; and (d) to a convert to the Hindu religion. This Code also applies to any other person, who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion.[18]

When sectarian complainted about Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs being grouped together with Hindus in his Bill, he replied:

Application of Hindu code to the Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains was a historical development and it would be too late sociologically to object to it.  When the Buddha differed from the Vedic Brahmins, he did so only in matters of creed and left the Hindu legal framework intact. He did not propound a separate law for his followers. The same was the case with Mahavir and the ten Sikh Gurus.[19]

Why should Dr.Ambedkar who found Hinduism based on Smrithis and its stranglehold of orthodoxy, so despicable love Hindu culture and Hindustan so dearly? And how did this reflect in his actions throughout his life? That is what we shall see in the next two parts of this series.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

[1] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, (Originally  a paper presented at an Anthropology Seminar at Columbia University on 9th May 1916), Siddharth Books, 1945:2009 p.7

[2] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Thoughts on Pakistan, Thacker & Co., 1941, p.60

[3] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, ibid. p.59

[4] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Message published in Harijan dated 11-Feb-1933

[5] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: With reply to Mahatma Gandhi, 1944:pdf document: p.30

[6] V.D.Savarkar, Samagra Savarkar Vangmaya, Vol-3 ed. SR Date, Maharashtra Prantik Hindu Sabha, Pune, pp 497-9

[7] V.D.Savarkar, SSV, Vol-3 1930: Essays on the abolition of caste, p.444

[8] V.D.Savarkar, SSV, Vol-3 1927, p.483

[9] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s letter quoted by Dhananjay Keer, Veer Savarkar, Popular Prakashan, 1950:1966, p.190

[10] Janata special number, April 1933, p.2 (quoted in Dhananjay Keer, 1950:1966 p.195)

[11] Manohar Malgonkar, The Men Who Killed Gandhi, in the ‘Introduction’ to 2008 edition, Roli Books, 2008

[12] Swami Shradhaanand letter to Mahatma Gandhi dated 9-Sep-1921

[13] Amrita Bazar Patrika report, 17-Aug-1923

[14] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Gautam Book Center, 1945:2009, p.23

[15] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Bahiskrit Bharat, 27-Nov-1927: quoted in Dhananjay Keer, Dr.Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, 1990, p.96

[16] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Times of India, 24-July-1936: quoted in Dhananjay Keer, Dr.Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, 1990, p.280

[17] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Thoughts on Pakistan, Thacker & Co., 1941, p.136

[18] The Draft of the Hindu Code Bill 1950, by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar: Part-I preliminary : 2.Application of Code

[19] Dr.Ambedkar in The Times of India, 7 February 1951: quoted in Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, 1990, p.427

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal www.tamilhindu.com.

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