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Commentary/Amberish K Diwanji

Ambedkar's opponents were not the British: it was the Hindus who were unwilling to change or compromise

Allow me to begin with an apology, for I have not yet read Arun Shourie's book, Worshipping False Gods and am still debating whether I should buy it and give him the extra royalty (maybe I'll just borrow my editor's copy). But I have read the excerpts carried by Rediff On The NeT, listing his complaints against Dr B R Ambedkar, and noted that during a seminar recently, he defended his book saying it was based on the works of Ambedkar himself.

To criticise someone for his work without having read it seems unfair, and to this I plead guilty. Maybe what Shourie says about Ambedkar is true, but that really is not the debate. He misses the point completely about Ambedkar not taking part in the Independence movement because Ambedkar was primarily concerned with the plight of some people who were then treated as 'untouchables', 'unapproachables', and the worst, 'unseeables'. India has got her freedom, millions of dalits and adivasis have not. For them, the British raj has been replaced by brahmin raj. So much for 50 years of non-independence.

Shourie's main grouch is that Ambedkar did not participate in the freedom struggle. Today, as Indians are caught up in the hype and hoopla of the country's golden jubilee of Independence, this appears to be a cardinal sin. But who did participate directly in the fight for freedom? In the turmoil that preceded India's independence, different people had different agendas, and rightly so, because India did not just need political freedom but a complete renaissance and reformation, and economic upliftment.

Ambedkar's goal was very clear: He wanted to help his people, the dalits or depressed classes. And he had to help them because no one else was willing to do so, least of all the brahmins and banias who thronged the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and rightwing parties, or the Congress.

In his prejudice, Shourie fails to realise that Ambedkar probably feared a political freedom which once again gave the brahmins the right to practice untouchability. The upper castes did precious little to reform Hinduism or improve the plight of the untouchables (who then were treated as such). Mahatma Gandhi spoke of Ram rajya with panchayats (village councils), never realising that these same villages kept the untouchables out of the village, did not let them draw water from the wells, never let them enter the temples, did not let them take part in the decision-making process, and denied them decent employment and education.

Nehru -- too caught up noticing the unity between Hindus and Muslims (revealing his brahminical prejudice of ignoring the dalits) -- would comment on how secular it was that a Muslim played the shehnai at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, but never realised that the same temple barred dalits from entering it.

During the Peshwa rule of the Maratha confederacy, Mahars were not allowed to enter villages and treated in a most inhumane fashion. That is a known historical fact, but not necessarily remembered. However, the British were more kind to the untouchable Indians than the Hindus. They created a Mahar regiment, employing and educating them. (Shourie may soon write a book on the treachery of the dalits for siding with the British!). Is it any wonder that the Mahars preferred to fight with the British against the brahmin Peshwas in the Anglo-Maratha wars, because if the latter won, the Mahars would once again have become untouchables?

The British rule was their emancipation, not the Peshwa's. The British army gave Ambedkar's father access to education, and he would later become a school teacher in the Mahar regiment. In turn, Ambedkar could study right up to his Ph D and more.

Certainly, the cruelty of the Hindus was not forgotten in a hurry. Ambedkar, and many others, must have been worried that if India got independence without a reformation, the plight of the dalits would be as bad as before. Let us also remember that social reforms, which started at the beginning of the 19th century, were slowly pushed aside as the political agenda moved centrestage. The Social Reforms Committee was not allowed to participate in the Indian National Congress meetings from the beginning of this century. Which is why even today, caste oppression continues and in 1986, a woman committed sati. India's reform process remains mostly incomplete as Indians prefer to hail the brahmanic Tilak over reformer Agarkar.

Mahatma Gandhi did contribute his mite towards helping the dalits. He gave them the name Harijan (which today has been rejected but was certainly an improvement then), cleaned the toilets of dalits (shocking the upper castes), and fought with his supporters and benefactors to ensure that dalits could stay in his ashram in Ahmedabad. Gandhi had, after all, suffered the pain of untouchability: he had been thrown out of a train in South Africa simply because of what he was, just as dalits are denied numerous facilities simply for being. Also, how could you fight racism in India while condoning casteism within the Hindus? Unfortunately, many Indians did not share the same principle or logic.They were keen to overthrow the 100-year-old British raj, but also sought to preserve their 2,000-year-old caste prejudices.

Gandhi's main aim was political, which culminated in Independence. One can see today that while he defeated the British totally, his work regarding the dalits remained incomplete. The sheer pressure of time and the political tasks ensured that Gandhi could never devote sufficient time and energy for the cause of the dalits. But more important, to do so would risk offending his main supporters: caste Hindus. Hence, Gandhi would make contradictory statements like he believed in the varnashram, but opposed untouchability!

Maybe there was little else he could do. A leader, after all, is a representative of his people. He leads them, even a little in directions they dislike, but can never be too different from their aspirations, or too radical for their consumption. Gandhi was a leader of India's masses, and Indians then were (and to a large extent even now are) extremely caste conscious. The people would follow him to fight the British, not their own caste prejudices. They were unwilling to reform Hindus society beyond certain symbolic gestures; even Gandhi could not force them. To do so would mean no longer being their leader, someone else would have led India to freedom.

Ambedkar too had a clear agenda. He wanted the maximum benefits for his people, and realised that caste Hindus would be less amenable than the British. A question to ask is what would Ambedkar have gained by being part of the freedom struggle? Would it have helped the cause of the dalits? Would the upper castes in the Congress have had time for this Mahar, no matter how erudite? Would they have listened to him, followed him? Was it only a coincidence that no dalit could reach the top echelons of the Congress party before 1947? There was little for Ambedkar to contribute to the political freedom struggle from within the Congress; no party outside really mattered for political independence except the Muslim League, for reasons rather different as it later transpired.

Even the case of reserved constituencies came after a bitter battle, made possible only after Gandhi went on a fast to oppose separate electorates for the dalits. After Ambedkar was forced to relent, caste Hindus temporarily showed some consideration towards India's worst-off. Gandhi too would try and do his best to alleviate their miseries after his fast, but with limited success. And then politics came back.

There is so much Ambedkar had to do to get freedom for his people. In his struggle, he would need to use use every trick available, and opposing the British was not going to help. Perhaps what he did appears unpalatable, but maybe they were necessary then. Ambedkar's opponents were not the British: it was the Hindus who were unwilling to change or compromise. In fact, since the British were the first to help the dalits, their longer presence was better.

Ambedkar has his place in history. When Columbia University put up his bust on its campus, they did not link him to the struggle to India's freedom, but to the far more important struggle for freedom for all Indian people. Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity may mean little to many, but they were what Ambedkar sought to put into practice and to give to every Indian, regardless of his caste or creed. Today, millions in India revere him for the same reason. They do so because he led the cause of emancipation of India's most oppressed, and also gave our country a Constitution which even the lousiest politicians have not been able to destroy. He struggled to give more humane and just laws to Hinduism, but was unable to do so completely because of rightwing opposition. Most important, he gave the former untouchables a voice, and an awareness of their rights. The result: from being denied the chance to attend school, today we have a learned dalit as India's first citizen.

Incidentally, along with Ambedkar, others too had their own missions, most of which were at cross purposes. For instance, what did Shourie's ideological gurus, the rightwing parties, do? They couldn't prevent Partition, they did little for freedom and even less for the dalits. What was their contribution to Independence besides some of its members assassinating Gandhi? Or opposing liberal laws in the name of protecting Hinduism? But for Shourie, revealing his rightwing prejudices, this is perhaps one topic he has not looked into nor is he likely to.

Today, Shourie believes that if you were not for Independence, you were against India. By his ridiculous logic, all the Indians who worked for the British in some way or the other, were traitors fit to be shot dead: the policemen, the soldiers, civil servants, the whole lot who kept the British administration running. There were many great Indians who did not participate directly in the freedom struggle but helped India no end -- economists (C D Deshmukh), technocrats (Visvesvarya), etc. In fact, think of the freedom struggle and one subconsciously thinks of Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, and the Congress party. But we know that others too were involved.

Also to damn someone for his shortcoming alone is to miss the complete picture. Every Indian leader had major flaws, which is why our Independence came with a price. Congress greed and Jinnah's ego and vanity created Pakistan, Gandhi's tactics had their limitations, Nehru's socialist ideas of yore hurt India's economy, his secularist ideas made a mess of Kashmir; Patel was considerably less secular, but is called India's Bismark! Each of our leaders are revered for their contribution, and should be criticised for their shortcomings. The same for Ambedkar. But you cannot dismiss any of them completely; to do so is to be arrogant and biased.

Last, it may seem even more unfair to criticise the writer himself: one must not judge a work by the author. But in Shourie's case this becomes inevitable simply because one must be clear whether his work was done by a disinterested scholar seeking the truth, or by someone seeking to propagate his ideology. Shourie has written against the Muslims, Communists, and the secularists, all seen or perceived to be the opponents of the Hindu rightwing. Now Ambedkar. Rightwing (mainly the upper caste) Hindus cannot accept Ambedkar because dalit emancipation for them means weakening of the brahmins' and upper castes' power and privileges. That it also strengthens India's social and political is obviously not their concern.


Worshipping A False God
Ekalavya and the Worshipping A False God
Dalits will respond to Shourie book in kind
At 50, It is Time to Stop the Spanking
'I think there is an Arun Shourie brigade doing all this'

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Amberish K Diwanji

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