Today falls Ambedkar Jayanti and hence an apt occasion for us to remember and reassess the contribution of Dr Ambedkar, who led the drafting of the Indian constitution, a leader of the downtrodden, and a scholar par excellence in his own right. A fair assessment of his life and work, requires us to shed some of our preconceived notions about him that are partly built on misinformation circulated by the vested interests and the politicians of various hues.
Dr Ambedkar’s personality reminds one of Karna, the famous fallen hero of Mahabharata. He was a person of great merit and talent and yet embittered by his experiences that forever colored his outlook, and clouded rational thinking at times. In other words, he suffered from the ‘Karna Syndrome’. He, like Karna, was also a beneficiary of the system he opposed. The surname Ambedkar was given to him by his benign Brahmin teacher to improve his prospects in a society ridden with caste. He had married a Chitpavan Brahmin girl and had gone to America on a scholarship granted by the royal family of Baroda, and yet he persistently refused to acknowledge anything good that came to him from Hindu society at large. This is what hate does to us. It blinds us to our blessings and makes us ungrateful. However, his contribution towards uplifting those who were at the bottom of the social hierarchy remains unparalleled.
To his credit, Ambedkar was one of the few leaders who were able to foresee the threat posed by the radical Islamic ideology to the Hindu society and its future survival. His assessment of Islam is precise and he comes across as someone who didn’t mince words while voicing his concerns. He notes “Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin”, correctly identifying the causes that creates conflicts between Hindus and Muslims today. In his view Islam had all the social evils that Hinduism had, and some more. One is left admiring his courage in mounting critique against the popular leaders of his time including Gandhi and Nehru, even as one feels unsettled by his unqualified hatred for traditional Hinduism. The answer perhaps lies in his subjective early life experiences that have the potential to leave an individual stigmatized for a life time.
His choice of converting to Buddhism as his new faith is insightful for it reveals a contrarian trait of his personality. Perhaps too well aware that neither Islam, nor Christianity addresses any of the ills that afflict the Hindu faith, he decided upon Buddhism as the path to tread, rejecting even its traditional manifestations, and inventing Navayana. The twenty-two point vow that he took goes to great lengths to show his clear dislike for Hindu traditions and its keepers i.e. Brahmins, and yet he chose a path that would have kept his followers as close to the ethos of the Indian civilization as possible. Today, a large number of those who recognize Dr. Ambedkar as their emancipator, have remained within the Hindu fold underlying the capability of Hindu tradition, to reform itself organically.
One also needs to look at the conditions prevalent in Pre-independence India to assess him fairly. It would not be wrong to say that many leaders of great merit and talent either got sidelined or alienated from the national mainstream, or chose parochial causes for their political survival and relevance, because of the combined influence of Gandhi and Nehru.
Subhas Chandra Bose, resigned from the Congress after Gandhi’s opposition to his election as Congress President and chose a radically different trajectory to follow. Jinnah was initially a proponent of Hindu-Muslim coalition and had even rejected the idea of separate Muslim electorates. He was also opposed to Gandhi’s support to Khilafat movement, which he perceived as fostering radicalism among Muslims. However, getting increasing marginalized in the affairs of Congress with Gandhi’s rise, he left for London and came back a completely changed man. Among the influential Congress leaders of the time only Sardar Patel remained with Congress. He did not have the mass appeal of Gandhi nor the flamboyance of Nehru but had a silent courage of conviction and a heart sympathetic towards Hindus.
Among the other great personalities of that time, Ambedkar’s thoughts closely resemble with that of Savarkar. He was appreciative of Savarkar’s work towards abolition of caste and untouchability and found him more honest towards the cause than Gandhi, whom Ambedkar thought, was paying lip service towards uplifting the Dalits. Barring Dr Ambedkar, perhaps no other leader of the nationalist movement comes out as openly and vigorously against caste as does Savarkar. Both of them were near unanimous that the idea of India as a stable nation founded on the premise of cultural nationalism will be hugely undermined by the presence of caste-based segregations. One can only imagine, what Hindu society would have gained if they had followed Ambedkar and Savarkar, instead of Gandhi and Nehru.
Feeling marginalized despite his obvious caliber, in the national scheme of things which were increasingly driven by Gandhi and his protégé Nehru, Ambedkar instead decided to focus on winning more rights for the caste-oppressed. He began espousing the case of separate electorates for Dalits, an idea that later found expression by way of reserving electoral constituencies for those belonging to scheduled caste and tribes.
The most remarkable thing about Ambedkar is, he had the foresight to understand that Hindus will have a secondary position in the independent India which had adopted a flawed approach towards secularism and communal harmony, at the behest of Gandhi. And that’s why he had supported a full population exchange with Pakistan as the only lasting solution to communal peace. Since he could not influence the decision, he did what he could, to ensure the survival of those who mattered most to him.
A worrying trait of the Hindu society has been its blind faith in the leaders who have often established themselves as the sole representative of Hindu cause. Gandhi had donned the garb of a Mahatma, propagated a brand of Hinduism that did very little for Hindus in substance. His ideas were inane, bordering on stupidity and his morality vacuous. In the last few years of his life, he was increasingly obsessed with his celibacy. Also, his liking of Nehru was all too evident.Who would not have felt repulsed by his whims, and yet the popularity he enjoyed? An interesting episode goes like this.
During the first general elections, some congress leaders in Orissa, fearing defeat, had spread a rumor that Gandhi’s soul has taken residence in ballot boxes and would see who is voting for congress and who is not. Naive villagers who went to vote would prostrate before the ballot boxes before casting their votes. Such was his popularity ever after his death.
In the end, the Hindus of India paid a huge price for choosing to rally behind wrong icons and the Hindu society at large was left without a sound leadership for a long time. In worshipping Gandhi and in romancing with Nehru, we got betrayed.This perhaps has another lesson for all the Hindus, whether they are of rational inclination or traditional bent, and who believe in the ideal of a fair and equitable society. Our less fortunate brethren who remain on the fringes of the society and have been at the receiving end, need our helping hand, lest we risk losing them to opposing camps that seeks to undermine our foundations. Dr Ambedkar’s life is a fine testimony to that.