Saffronising Ambedkar: Why the Sangh portrays Ambedkar as anti-communist and anti-Muslim

17 June, 2018

In his book Republic of Caste, the civil-rights activist and writer Anand Teltumbde explores the foundational idea of the republic—equality—and how caste has subverted this idea and its implementation in every institution in the country. Teltumbde examines education, reservation, politics and policy, alongside ideological movements such as Marxism and Ambedkarism, violence and atrocities against Dalits, and protests such as Una in Gujarat. He shows that caste—especially the oppression of Dalits—has defined modern India.

In the following extract, taken from the chapter “Saffronising Ambedkar: The RSS Inversion of the Idea of India,” Teltumbde notes that BR Ambedkar’s bitter critique of Hinduism pervaded the latter’s writings, and that his actions exhibited an “ultimate abhorrence” for Hinduism. This history, Teltumbde writes, comes in the way of the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh’s goal to make India a “Hindu rashtra.” To bring Dalits into the fold, Teltumbde adds, the Sangh is left with no option but to co-opt Ambedkar and project him as opposed to Muslims and communists—effectively, to “saffronise” him.

Dalits constitute an important part of the Sangh Parivar’s game plan. Its strategic apple cart—meant to polarise the Indian population into Hindus versus others: Muslims, Christians and communists (i.e. those who do not agree with it)—could be toppled by the dalits. It cannot be taken for granted that dalits would identify themselves as Hindus anymore. With their historical, social, ideological and cultural profile, they have the potential to play spoiler for the BJP’s agenda for the nation. It is for this reason that Ambedkar assumes critical importance in the Sangh Parivar’s strategy. Unless Ambedkar were adequately saffronised, the rejection of Hinduism by the dalit masses under his leadership would continue to plague its efforts. The new-found love for Ambedkar stems from this political expediency.

It was during the tenure of Madhukar Dattatraya alias Balasaheb Deoras, perhaps the most low-profile sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, from 1973 to 1994, that active work among dalits was initiated under Seva Bharati, the Sangh’s non-governmental organisation devoted to the purpose. The ensuing shifts of stance included placing Ambedkar among the Sangh’s pratahsmaraniya (literally, one who is venerated in the morning prayer), and floating—on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in 1983—a purpose-built vehicle, the Samrasata Manch, to woo middle class dalits who yearned for social recognition from the upper castes. Until then, Ambedkar had been anathema to the Sangh Parivar, for his vitriolic attacks on everything they held sacred. Once the shift was accomplished, the Parivar began projecting him as the friend of its founder, KB Hedgewar—“the two doctors” was how this outlandish pairing was styled, as if the two had held learned confabulations together. It may be worth recalling here that Hedgewar was a mere licentiate practitioner with a diploma, not a medical degree holder, while Ambedkar held two doctoral degrees from world-renowned universities; but registering the gaps between fact and fantasy was never the Parivar’s strong suit. In the same vein, Ambedkar came to be projected as the greatest benefactor of Hindus, an admirer of the RSS, one opposed to Muslims and communists, a supporter of ghar wapsi, an advocate of the saffron flag as the national flag, a hyper-nationalist, and so on. These were clever misrepresentations, with at best a tenuous link to the facts of the case, and often none at all, but they were projected as truths with unflinching zeal.

However easily one may recognise the gimmickry, it cannot be ignored or dismissed. It created the specious grounds for co-opting dalit leaders into the saffron fold. The BJP has made steady gains in the reserved constituencies over the years and, in the general elections of 2014, won more reserved seats than any other party. However, just winning reserved seats are not enough. The BJP’s polarisation strategy is contingent on de-radicalising dalits and winning them over. Since this formula turns on the deliberate alienation of religious minorities—who, along with dalits, constitute up to 30 per cent of the electorate—not having the dalits on their side would seriously impede their plans for a Hindu rashtra.

All the preceding factors have left Hindutva-vadis desperate to co-opt Ambedkar as a saffron icon. Yet, Ambedkar, who was committed to evolving his views until his last days, wrote in Pakistan or Partition of India (1945):

If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.

Another tract of Ambedkar, Philosophy of Hinduism (published posthumously), analyses the worth of Hinduism “as a way of life” and lambasts it as antithetical to “liberty, equality, fraternity,” failing on the front of justice as well as utility and moral and practical worth. Of course, this may not deter the saffron followers in persisting with the lie that Ambedkar was a great Hindu. Turning a deaf ear to facts is a practised art with them, and is essential to their survival.

The problem for the RSS, as evident from the above, is that Ambedkar happens to be studied intensively by an increasing number of dalit and other student groups around the country. Wresting him from scholarly engagement is an imperative if right-wing groups are to get away with their spurious treatment of his life and works. In the wake of the controversy around the “derecognition” of the Ambedkar–Periyar Study Circle in May 2015 by the authorities at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, which provoked protests all over the country and even beyond, the Organiser, the mouthpiece of the RSS, wrote an exasperatingly muddled editorial against the protesters: “Unmasking Pseudo Ambedkarites” (June 2015). It accused them of “caste-based identity politics,” and of not knowing that Ambedkar was pro-Hindu and against communists, and, of course, justifying the derecognition of the APSC. To buttress its point with the appearance of erudition, the editorial began with a quote from Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, lifted, lazily enough, from and not the original text. The editor’s quotation of choice was set out in bold typeface: “Brahminism is the poison which has spoiled Hinduism. You will succeed in saving Hinduism if you will kill Brahminism.” Conveniently lost to view is the fact that Ambedkar goes on to argue in the next two paragraphs how the Hindus “must give a new doctrinal basis to [your] religion—a basis that will be in consonance with liberty, equality and fraternity; in short, with democracy.” and to effect this ‘complete change in the values of life,’ he says, “you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras, which deny any part to reason.”

A preposterous and cynical ploy of the editorial was the claim that protesters against the ban on the APSC were “reds.” Were the well-known scientists of the country, the ones who wrote to the IIT-M director against his undemocratic action, “reds”? Just as “liberal” in the United States gets construed to mean communist, the RSS takes “rational and democratic” to be “red.” While Ambedkar did have a difficult relationship with the Indian communists, he did not disagree with the ideals of Marxism (especially the goal of revolution). He was also more than clear in his denunciation of Hinduism. It is patently false of the RSS to claim that Ambedkar was an anti-red and pro-saffron personality, or that his critiques of the communists left him proportionately pro-Hindu. The question arising here is: Can brahminism be isolated from Hinduism, as the editorial line of the Organiser tried in its slippery way to achieve? While addressing reformist Hindus in 1936, Ambedkar tried to explain what ailed Hinduism and said that brahminism was the disease. The two terms were synonyms, he explained. Historically speaking, there is nothing called Hinduism; it is a medieval term, heteronomously applied to brahminism, the religion that was predominant beyond the Sindhu river. One is left wondering why a quote that implied no eulogy or sympathy for Hinduism was used by the RSS mouthpiece at all.

It is important to note that while the Sangh Parivar and its BJP government wax eloquent over Ambedkar, they are slyly and systematically engaged in eroding his secular legacy. Ambedkar’s vitriolic comments on Hinduism and Hindutva should have made him the greatest enemy of the Parivar. Tragically, with the ideological disorientation of the dalits and some nimble footwork from the Parivar, this threat was transformed into a golden opportunity. By inducting Ambedkar into its pantheon, the Parivar has been disfiguring Ambedkar even as it appropriates him. The NDA government’s Pancha Tirtha project, setting up a pilgrims’ circuit between five places of significance in Ambedkar’s life—his birthplace in Mhow, the house in London where he stayed while studying in the UK, Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur where he converted, “Mahaparinirvan Sthal,” or the house where he died in Delhi, and Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai where his mortal remains were cremated—is another attempt to control the terms on which people engage with him, replacing the uncompromising thinker with a deified object of rituals, a saffron Ambedkar, a handy Trojan horse for ghar wapsi.

How does casteism synchronise with the right-wing government’s new-found love for Babasaheb Ambedkar? This is not difficult to fathom. The BJP is desperate to woo dalits and needs them to accomplish its hindutva agenda. For that, Ambedkar is shamelessly projected as having been in favour of ghar wapsi. They declare that he is the greatest benefactor of the Hindus. Why? Because, rather than a semitic religion, he accepted Buddhism which they claim is just a sect of Hinduism. A staggering lie. They proclaim that he was against Muslims. They boast of his “friendship” with Hedgewar as well as that other guru of poisonous ideology, Golwalkar, and claim that he was all praise for the Sangh and so on. Yes, it is true that Hedgewar, Golwalkar, Savarkar and others in the RSS went and met Ambedkar—not vice versa, it must be noted—but that scarcely amounts to his being friends with them. He never praised their creed. It is true that BS Moonje, along with his friends, met Ambedkar at the Bombay airport, when he was a member of the flag committee, and handed over a saffron flag to him with a plea to make it the national flag. This cannot be construed to mean that Ambedkar supported their cause, or that he proposed Sanskrit as the national language. If he can be accused of being partisan, it is in imbuing the new republic with many Buddhist symbols between 1947 and 1950. As Christophe Jaffrelot notes in Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste, these include “the chakra (the wheel of dhamma) on the Indian flag, the lions of Ashoka—the Buddhist emperor of ancient India—as the national emblem, and the inscription of a Buddhist aphorism on the pediment of Rashtrapati Bhavan.” By weaving enormous cobwebs of lies around tiny particles of truth, the Parivar obscures Ambedkar, dwarfing him to their own stature as a petty communalist, all in the hope of bringing the dalit community into their fold.

This is an extract from Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva, written by Anand Teltumbde and published by Navayana. The extract has been condensed.