In 1980, the government of Indira Gandhi decided to bestow the Bharat Ratna on Mother Teresa for her contributions to India. About ten years after that, when the Congress lost power briefly, the Janata Dal government decided to recognize a certain social reformer from Maharashtra who had been dead for 34 years. His name was Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. You may have heard of him.
In modern India, his likeness is everywhere. Blue coat, round-frame glasses, with one hand raised in the air, while holding the constitution with the other. But, let us dig deeper. Here is how he saw himself in relation to Hinduism.
“Though, I was born a Hindu, I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu”
Wow, that’s harsh. And here he is, comparing Hinduism to the ideals of the enlightenment as captured in the slogan of the French Revolution.
“Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity.“
Again, ouch. But, you don’t think that someone of Dr. Ambedkar’s caliber would limit his musings only to Hinduism, would you? So let us find out what he had to say about the concept of brotherhood in Islam.
“The brotherhood of Islam is not the universal brotherhood of man. It is brotherhood of Muslims for Muslims only. There is a fraternity, but its benefit is confined to those within that corporation.“
And here he is, speaking on how a might Muslim might see his place in India.
“the allegiance of a Muslim does not rest on his domicile in the country which is his but on the faith to which he belongs. …. In other words, Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin.”
We have already learned something important about Dr. Ambedkar. He did not believe in appeasing anyone. Even more than that, he did not sugarcoat his words.
Now, the first set of his quotes, on Hinduism, are what you would find in any discourse on social “science” in India. These would be required reading before class, the topic of discussion during the lecture and also the subject of the homework assignment. However, the second set of his quotes, on Islam, are not so easily available. You can only find them in dark corners of the internet, banished from textbooks, classroom discussions, acknowledged only in embarrassed whispers. These quotes had all but vanished from academic discourse before the “internet Hindus” brought them back to life. Sometimes, a bit of Whatsapp education can really unravel stuff they don’t teach you in regular classes.
In fact, there is a particularly craven piece of writing by Anand Teltumbde in Scroll where he argues that Ambedkar considered Islam as the religion of choice for Dalits before he decided against it. The following extract from his article is both sad and funny.
“he appeared to be extolling Islam and thereby gave an impression that Islam might be his choice for conversion, he ended his speech with the famous exhortation of the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta – “Appo deepo bhava” (Be your own light). It was not surprising that he ultimately chose Buddhism, ignoring his own rationale that the religious conversion of Dalits should serve their need of existential utility.”
I can understand the author’s bitter disappointment here, as well as his emotional outburst. But don’t you think it is a bit much to accuse Dr. Ambedkar of “ignoring his own rationale”? In fact, Ambedkar explained his reasons for choosing Buddhism over any other religion, in these words:
“I will choose only the least harmful way for the country. And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism; for Buddhism is a part and parcel of Bharatiya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.”
Sharp and clear. Dear Anand Teltumbde, you may now cry a river.
Anyway, that was just an example of how modern liberal intellectuals force themselves to think. Let us address the bigger question. What would Dr. Ambedkar say about Hindu society and about Muslim society today?
Dr. Ambedkar spoke of the annihilation of caste. He wrote a book about it. Have we, in modern India, managed to annihilate caste? No, we have not. Have we Hindus managed to mitigate some of the worst atrocities of the caste system and taken several steps towards a more just society? Undoubtedly, yes. The system of caste based reservation in government jobs, college admissions and in elections in India is the most comprehensive social justice program implemented anywhere in the world. And the real churning in Hindu society is much bigger than what has been enforced by law.
There is no better way to see this evolution than in the politics. Few people today would realize that the “Pandit” in “Pandit Nehru” had nothing to do with a perception of him being a learned individual. Rather, it was a caste honorific commonly applied to Brahmins at the time. Those days are clearly behind us. Even though the Congress party has stressed Rahul Gandhi’s “janeudhari” status, I think any attempt to label him as “Pandit Rahul Gandhi” would be universally mocked.
Put your finger on 1947 and trace the political history of India since then. The political emancipation of Dalits does not begin until the late 1980s. Until then, we have an India consolidated under the hereditary Brahmin leadership of the Congress. This leadership is modern in speech and feudal in spirit, passing seamlessly from father to daughter to son. Then, the fabric begins to tear and two distinct strands emerge. One is Mandal, which treats social justice issue as the main issue of identity. The other is Hindutva, the so called ‘Kamandal,’ whose priorities lie with building a united Hindu voting bloc.
In the stale air of social science classrooms, these two forces are still at war today. Outside, the war has ended long ago. India now has an OBC Prime Minister, who happens to represent in particular the ancient city of Varanasi. Across India, caste based parties are either losing relevance or reinventing themselves around other issues. The downfall of the BSP is the biggest example of this phenomenon. The Mandal parties, instead of opposing the Mandir, have all made peace with it. They know which way people are going. Even the cheerleaders of the RJD in recent Bihar elections noted the absence of caste in the election. Tejashwi Yadav did not even mention it himself. When caste stops being an issue in Bihar, what is left?
Indeed, the BJP, once labeled an upper caste party, now challenges Indian liberalism in the latter’s fortress of Bengal. The mainstay of the BJP is not the upper caste vote, but Dalits and tribals across the state. The politics reflects the change in fundamentals of Hindu society. Do you think Dr. Ambedkar would not have noticed this if he were around today?
Of course, it is not just Hindu society that can evolve. The Muslim society can evolve as well. But, has it?
At the time when the Hindu code bill was introduced, it faced opposition from conservative elements. But the fact is that the bill did pass and was implemented. Over the years, Hindu personal law has been modernized further and further. With possible exception of some obscure provisions, we have now achieved a law that treats everyone equally. This would not have been possible without change in Hindu society itself.
Did Muslim personal law keep up? Not at all. Even today, a Muslim woman’s inheritance is only half that of a man. Muslim women have virtually no rights on divorce. Their minimum age for marriage is still not fixed by law and Muslim girls as young as 13 or 14 can be legally married. In fact, until the anti-Triple Talaq Bill was passed in 2019, I wonder if there is a single example of Muslim personal law being modernized since 1947. And when the first reform was passed in 2019, it was done by the BJP, which gets a very tiny fraction of Muslim votes. So, where is the impetus within Muslim society for progressive change?
Indeed, Dr. Ambedkar recognized this distinction himself when he wrote thus:
“The existence of these evils among the Muslims is distressing enough. But far more distressing is the fact that there is no organized movement of social reform among the Musalmans of India on a scale sufficient to bring about their eradication. The Hindus have their social evils. But there is this relieving feature about them—namely, that some of them are conscious of their existence and a few of them are actively agitating for their removal. The Muslims, on the other hand, do not realize that they are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal. Indeed, they oppose any change in their existing practices.”
When Dr. Ambedkar wrote these lines, a “few” Hindus were agitating for social reform. They faced opposition, but ultimately people listened to their ideas. The values of the few became those of the many and ultimately, universal values. Even relatively innocuous cultural practices such as sindoor or kanyadaan are now being seriously challenged in contemporary society, on grounds that they may be based in regressive thought. Is there a similar challenge to the idea behind the burqa? Instead, we have utter surrender, where the allegedly enlightened are trying to claim the burqa as the epitome of feminism.
And what about the prejudices prevalent in Muslim society against non-Muslims, especially those who worship idols? Dr. Ambedkar had also referred to this, remember?
“The realist must take note of the fact that the Musalmans look upon the Hindus as Kaffirs, who deserves more to be exterminated than protected. The realist must take note of the fact that while the Musalman accepts the European as his superior, he looks upon the Hindu as his inferior.”
How far have we come in getting rid of this prejudice? Well, last time I checked, Indian liberals were using destruction of idols as a metaphor for fighting evil and singing “Bas naam rahega … ka.” Suffice to say, therefore, that we have not come very far.
What do you think Dr. Ambedkar would say today about the relative performance of Hindu and Muslim society in the years since 1947? Can you be as frank and clear in stating your thoughts as he was? Close your eyes, picture yourself putting your hand on the Constitution and then speak. No vague justifications. No excuses. Tell me the truth.