The Ambedkar-Congress Relationship

Mani Shankar Aiyar

The Sangh Parivar passionately cherishes our Hindu heritage as the foundation of India's nationhood. Ambedkar, on the other hand, was of the firm conviction that it was precisely that heritage which was the ruin of the nation. 

"You must tell the Hindus," he said, "that what is wrong with them is their religion." Caste divisions and the caste hierarchy were woven into the warp and woof of the Hindu way of life. In consequence, "the ideal Hindu must be like a rat living in his own hole". What is more, "Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed" but precisely because "they are deeply religious." He, therefore, had "no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed". (These quotations are from his most celebrated tract, Annihilation of Caste).

He loathed Hindutva and all it stood for. He more seriously engaged with Gandhi. The two profoundly disagreed. Where Gandhi held that the reform of Hindu society was both possible and necessary, Ambedkar, quoting chapter and verse from the Hindu shastras, held that such reform was not feasible as it was the Hindu religion that had "inculcated this notion of caste." 

He patiently explained: "Reformers working for the removal of Untouchability, including Mahatma Gandhi, do not seem to realize that the acts of people are merely the result of their beliefs, inculcated in their minds by the shastras, and that people will not change their conduct until they cease to believe in the sanctity of the shastras on which their conduct is founded." Therefore, concluded Ambedkar, "You must not only discard the shastras, you must deny their authority". 

Holding the diametrically contrary view that "caste has nothing to do with religion," Gandhi, in his response to Annihilation of Caste, asserted that caste "is harmful both to spiritual and national growth". But while they disagreed fundamentally on whether Hindu society could or could not be reformed, and whether caste was indeed integral to Hindu religious conviction, they were also similar in many ways. Most importantly, both believed profoundly in the importance of religion and spirituality. They shared none of the agnosticism of Nehru. Yet, if there was a spiritual tradition that Nehru found appealing, it was the same as Ambedkar's: Buddhism.

To therefore limit the Ambedkar-Gandhi, or, more broadly, the Ambedkar-Congress relationship, to a simple binary of mutual dislike is to miss the democratic dialectic that enabled us to become a democracy at the dawn of Independence and to sustain that democracy over seven decades of fierce political disputation. Where, in other countries, charismatic leaders single-handedly led unitary independence movements and one-party rule on the morrow of victory became the norm, often in the shape of vicious dictatorships, it was only because our freedom movement saw endless disagreement between those otherwise united on the goal of national liberation from the colonial yoke that we have survived as the Republic of Argumentative Indians.

Not only Gandhi-Ambedkar, throughout his life as India's unchallenged leader, Gandhi was entangled in deep public and well-publicized controversies with his closest associates - Nehru; Patel; Rajaji; Subhas Chandra Bose, to name just a very few. It is, therefore, no surprise that Gandhi should have insisted on the inclusion of Babasaheb Ambedkar in Nehru's first cabinet or Nehru's unequivocal acceptance of the suggestion. Both agreed that despite Ambedkar's impassioned anti-Congressism that Ambedkar had never sought to hide, it was he who was best qualified to so draft the Constitution as to promote a thoroughgoing social revolution by legislation without resort to violence. And when the exercise was over, Ambedkar paid generous tribute to the constructive cooperation he had received from dyed-in-the-wool Congressmen with whom he had worked in committee and the Constituent Assembly, successfully promoting to majority opinion, and often unanimous endorsement, his initially minority views. 

The first test of the efficaciousness of the new Ambedkar-drafted Constitution for root-and-branch social reform came with the Hindu Code Bill, tabled in 1951 but under preparation ever since Ambedkar became Law Minister in 1947. For Ambedkar, not the Constitution but this legislation was the touchstone for determining whether the law could bring justice to the oppressed millions. The immediate and vocal opposition to the proposed legislation, both within and outside the House, persuaded Ambedkar that reforming Hinduism by law was a chimera. The Hindu would not change. 

Nothing proved this more than the 79 meetings held by the RSS in a single year, 1949, "where" to quote Ramachandra Guha, "effigies of Nehru and Ambedkar were burnt, and where the new bill was denounced as an attack on Hindu culture and tradition". Guha adds that "there were also some respectable opponents of the new Code, who included Rajendra Prasad" and although "in 1950 and 1951 several attempts were made to get the Bill passed...the opposition was so intense that it had to be dropped." Ambedkar resigned "in disgust" saying Nehru lacked the "earnestness and determination" to push the Bill through. This parting of ways between Ambedkar and Nehru is generally regarded as the definitive proof that Ambedkar and Nehru were not on the same page, that if the Ambedkar-Gandhi differences are well-documented, the much less-documented Ambedkar-Nehru differences are no less decisive.  

This, however, is not true. Nehru, in 1950-51, was faced with a virtually British-nominated assembly to which elections of a sort had been held, but on extremely limited franchise hedged in by numerous segmentations. It had a large feudal, conservative and even reactionary component, quite unprepared for radical change, especially when it came to their religion-based customs and usages. Ambedkar decided that this cross-section was representative of the Hindus and, therefore, incapable of being brought to their senses. Nehru, on the other hand, recognizing realistically and pragmatically his lack of influence as a religious skeptic on those who passionately upheld hallowed tradition, however cruel and unjust, believed his voice would count for much more in a legislature elected on the basis of full adult franchise, untrammeled by no social restrictions other than reservations for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which he welcomed. 

Nehru was right. In the first truly democratic elections held in India in 1952, a few months after Ambedkar walked out of Nehru's cabinet, Nehru so routed the Hindu Mahasabha, the newly-formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the political forces representing the RSS, that he was able to also overcome the large and influential conservative element among Congress MPs. Splitting the original singular Hindu Code Bill into five sets of legislation, by 1956 he pushed through the most thoroughgoing revolution in Hindu personal law. 

Meanwhile, Ambedkar, with an estimated four lakh of his followers. quit the Hindu fold and became votaries of a new school of Buddhism that Ambedkar described as Navayana (to distinguish his new school of Buddhist thought from both the Mahayana and the Hinayana and the two other schools of Buddhist theology). He passed away a few months later.

Nehru, a religious skeptic unlike Ambedkar, was, however, like Ambedkar, much repelled by much of contemporary Hindu practice and much attracted to the philosophy of the Buddha. He gave eloquent expression to this in his monumental work, The Discovery of India, written while in incarceration in Ahmednagar Fort jail, and published in 1946 on the eve of Independence.

He describes Buddhism as a "rational ethical doctrine" and evokes the Buddha's voice urging us "not to run away from the struggle but, calm-eyed, to face it, and to see in life ever greater opportunities for growth and advancement." Nehru adds, "a person who has impressed himself on the thought of mankind as the Buddha has, must have been a wonderful man." Praising the Buddha for having "had the courage to attack popular religion, superstition, ceremonial, and priestcraft", Nehru was unconsciously aligning himself with Ambedkar whose life was a similar saga against all these evils. The Buddha's "appeal was to logic, reason and experience; his emphasis was on ethics". Ambedkar, I believe, would have agreed. Perhaps he would also have agreed with Nehru that by "Buddhism, not adapting itself to caste, and more independent in thought and outlook, (it) ultimately passes away from India". Thus, Nehru implicitly endorses Ambedkar's view that Hinduism and castelessness could not co-exist. 

Of enduring academic and practical interest is Nehru in a footnote on the same page, 125, quoting Gandhi as saying "quite recently": "The caste system, as we know, is an anachronism. It must go if both Hinduism and India are to live and grow from day to day."

The Hegelian dialectic holds that the clash of "thesis" and "anti-thesis" eventually resolves itself in "synthesis". That is what appears, in the light of an objective reading of the evolution of Gandhi's thinking, to have happened at the end of Gandhi's epic ideological battles with Ambedkar, battles in which Nehru was always closer to Ambedkar than to his own mentor, Gandhi. This is what justifies the Congress adopting Ambedkar as a national icon, "a scholar of comparative religions...far more systematic than Gandhi, far more thorough than Nehru as an amateur historian of India, far more imaginative and conflicted than the talented Tagores." (Ananya Vajpeyi, Righteous Republic, Harvard, 2012, p. 209) 

What is bewildering is Modi and his cohort attempting to do the same. There never was, and never can be, any synthesis between Hindutva, the avowed philosophy of the Sangh Parivar, and the sophisticated, subtle thought processes of Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who detested the traditions they celebrate and the socio-political agenda of a Hindu Rashtra that they so eulogise. Modi's utterances are no more than vulgar vote-bank politics.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Rajya Sabha.)


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