Deconstrution of an icon
BR Ambedkar (right) with Maulana Hasrat Mohani, 1949 (Photo: Alamy)
THERE IS NO doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels,’ wrote a famous Indian, ‘the Hindus come out second best. My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.’ These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India. But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of BR Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny. Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a ‘liberal and secular Hindu’, but let that pass: what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits. His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect: ‘The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus. They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.’ The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past.He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.
Ambedkar was a serious student of history and politics and one might reasonably suppose that the best way to apprehend his views on Indian Muslims is to wade through his voluminous writings. There is something to be said about such an approach, but the conceptual framework must stem, in the first instance, from two anterior considerations. First, though it is not fashionable to speak of him in this vein, he was a man of intense religiosity. He is associated with his (to Hindus) infamous pronouncement that he had been born a Hindu but was not going to die as one. Though of course the fact of his conversion to Buddhism, to which I shall advert later, is well known his remark has often been interpreted as a sign of his disavowal of religion altogether. Indeed, there have been many attempts to sequester him into the camp of Marxism, and there was much in Marx’s worldview that he admired. However, his concern for the oppressed and his championing of the idea of equality do not suffice to turn him into a Marxist. What is rather more striking is Ambedkar’s lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment, though here again this scarcely comports with the public view of him as the most trenchant critic of the institution of caste and as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. His statues in which the country is awash commonly depict him as a lawgiver, as the Moses of modern India, not as a figure of serenity or religious contemplation.
Secondly, Ambedkar was not content to only abandon Hinduism, but found it necessary to embrace another religion. He found it impossible to think of a life of fulfillment, either for himself or his people, outside religion: as he declared before his followers at a speech on March 18th, 1956, “Without religion, our struggle will not survive.” Later that year in October, just two months before his passing in December, he led some half a million Dalits on a mass conversion to Buddhism, or rather a neo-Buddhism which he termed Navayana, ‘the New Way’. Scholars have been very much interested in how Ambedkar’s Buddhism differs from the more conventional understandings of Buddhism, but for the present purposes the more salient question are these: Why did he convert at all? And, when he did so, why did he not convert to Christianity, Sikhism and even more so Islam? What might have led him, considering the country’s circumstances, to embrace a religion that had but few followers in India and could not have offered the comfort or security of numbers?
The postcolonial scholar may object to representations of Ambedkar as someone who thought that life in India was wholly inconceivable without religion as a species of Orientalism, but Ambedkar was unequivocally clear about how religion had shaped him and the place it was destined to occupy in the liberation of Dalits. “Character is more important than education,” he was to tell a gathering of Depressed Class youth at a Conference of Untouchable Railway Workers in February 1938, but what he adds thereafter is what is most instructive: “It pains me to see youths growing indifferent to religion. Religion is not an opium as it is held by some. What good things I have in me or whatever have been the benefits of my education to society, I owe them to the religious feelings in me. I want religion but I do not want hypocrisy in the name of religion.”
The postcolonial scholar may object to representations of Ambedkar as someone who thought that life in India was wholly inconceivable without religion as a species of Orientalism, but Ambedkar was unequivocally clear about how religion had shaped him and the place it was destined to occupy in the liberation of dalits
In passing, at least, it is impossible to escape the observation that, word to word, Ambedkar’s injunction to the young could have come from the mouth of Gandhi. We know as well who is being targeted with these words: “Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.” There is a very considerable strand of work on Ambedkar that, uncomfortable as it is with his attachment to religion, laboriously struggles to locate his religiosity within the matrix of liberalism. What is hereby obscured, to take one illustration, is the extent to which Ambedkar committed himself to the accoutrements of institutionalised religion. He undertook a visit to Sri Lanka in 1950 with the express purpose of witnessing a Buddhist ceremonial: as he explained at a public gathering, “Ceremonial is an important part of religion. Whatever rationalists might say, ceremonial is a very essential thing in religion.” If the Buddha slayed ritual, and the rituals of the Vedas were odious to him, Ambedkar nonetheless saw the place of ritual in creating a community of sojourners even, I might say, a sense of citizenship that far exceeds liberalism’s staid if not platitudinous understanding of citizenship. He crafted a set of rituals that would constitute the diksha ceremony for those seeking to enter the portals of Navayana.
Ambedkar’s sense of what constitutes ‘religion’ and what place it has in the struggle to achieve equality similarly did not permit him to place bhakti on the same footing as he might have placed Islam, Buddhism or Christianity. He may well have accepted some elements of the interpretive framework that has long dominated the common understanding of bhakti, such as the indifference of the great bhaktas to notions of respectability, their rejection of the idea that Brahmins were the repository of wisdom and their disavowal of the authority of the Vedas, but he was far less certain of the emancipatory place that had been assigned to bhakti. Ambedkar’s biographers have noted that his father was a member of the Kabir Panthis and Ambedkar’s own outlook is said to be imbued with the spirit of Kabir, who was equally dismissive of pandits and maulvis, Hindus and Muslims. The scathing missives that Kabir directed at believers startle with their candidness and frontal assault:
Qazi, what book are you lecturing on?
Yak yak yak, day and night . . .
If God wanted circumcision,
why didn’t you come out cut?
If circumcision makes you a Muslim,
what do you call your women? . . .
If putting on the thread makes you Brahmin,
what does the wife put on?
That Shudra’s touching your food, pandit
How can you eat it?
Hindu, Muslim—where did they come from?
Who started this road?
Look in your heart, send scouts:
where is heaven?
If all this quite likely went straight to Ambedkar’s heart, and his attitude towards Kabir bordered on reverence, he still could not see bhakti, not even the path laid out by Kabir, as offering a home to himself or to Dalits. What weighed on his mind was far more than the rejection of ceremonies and rituals in bhakti sects. Caste had a way of insinuating itself into every institution and the tiniest pores of Indian society and Ambedkar did not see bhakti cults as immune from the poisonous contamination of caste. Moreover, in view of the rather uncritical framework with which he viewed industrial and Enlightenment modernity, it is safe to say that he shared some of the critical perspective of late 19th century Indian nationalism with regards to the unsuitability of bhakti for a nation striving to become free and modern. The novelist and intellectual Bankimchandra Chatterjee, no friend of Muslims, was quite certain that the excessive devotionalism of Hindus had enfeebled them and made them vulnerable to foreign domination. Thus, in his Krishnacharitra, a treatise on Krishna, Bankim forcefully advanced the view that the salvation of Hindu India lay in jettisoning the Krishna who frolicked on the green with the gopis and danced with them under the dazzling light of a full moon and instead embracing the Krishna of the Mahabharata who had showed himself adept at modern statecraft and was full of political cunning. Though Ambedkar would have had little use for ruminations on awakening the Hindu from his stupor, there can be no doubt that he viewed bhakti as incompatible with his idea of a religion that was modern, rational and scientific in outlook.
If we have established that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalised religion in some form or the other, what of his relationship to Marx? In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.
As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule. He had a more complicated relationship with Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-1914. Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.
Ambedkar continued his studies in economic history, social thought and sociology over the years, and he accepted most of Marx’s theses about the oppressive nature of capitalism and the inevitability of class struggle even if he found his ideas of historical materialism and what may be called the iron laws of history somewhat rigid and overly determined by Marx’s grounding in the history of the West. Besides all this, of course, was the brute fact that, as a Dalit, Ambedkar was assimilated to the experience of oppression from birth. Books could sharpen his understanding of humiliation and exploitation, and move him to explore what drove men to find satisfaction even enjoyment from degrading others, but he knew firsthand what it meant for a people to be born into poverty, reduced to indignity at every turn, thwarted in every endeavour to improve themselves and ground into the dust. ‘Had Karl Marx been born in India and written his famous treatise Das Capital sitting in India,” Ambedkar was to say, “he would have had to write in an entirely different fashion.” How would the dictatorship of the proletariat contend with caste?
THE LATE ESSAY, Buddha or Karl Marx, a fragment from a larger book that Ambedkar may have written but the manuscript of which has not been found, offers the reader a keener sense of the shortcomings that he attributed to Marxism and the reasons for his attraction and conversion to Buddhism—all this, perforce, also being the backdrop to his outlook on the history of Islam in India. We need only to turn to it very briefly. He argues that little survives of Marxism of the mid-19th century and ‘much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces. There is hardly any doubt that [the] Marxist claim that his socialism was inevitable has been completely disproved.’ What remains of the ‘Marxist creed’, says Ambedkar, can be summarised in a Buddha-like four-fold path: the function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world; there is class conflict; the private ownership of property entails exploitation and sorrow; and, lastly, as private property is the source of such sorrow, it must be abolished.
In the achievement of these objectives, Ambedkar argues, communism commits its gravest sins. The Marxist creed is addicted to violence and to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Buddha, by contrast, was a proponent of ahimsa, but he did not adhere to as rigid a conception of ahimsa as did Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.
To this end, he was more reasonable since he recognised that the use of ‘force’ may be necessitated at times and that it is critical to distinguish between ‘force as [creative] energy’ and ‘force as violence’. As for dictatorship, the idea was entirely foreign to the Buddha: ‘He would have none of it’ and he was a ‘thorough equalitarian’.
The Buddha and Marx may have sought similar ends, but Ambedkar declares that the Buddhist way is far more efficacious and far more in keeping with notions of human dignity and freedom: ‘One has to choose between government by force and government by moral disposition.’ The Buddha sought only that each person brought up under his teachings should ‘become a sentinel for the kingdom of righteousness’, a paragon for others in that he would do what was good not because he had been forced to do so but because his ‘moral disposition’ had shaped him to do the same ‘voluntarily’. Ambedkar rounds off the essay with a denunciation of communism’s moral failings with what should by now be recognised as a characteristic affirmation of the centrality of religious life: ‘But to the Communists religion is anathema. Their hatred of religion is so deep-seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not.’
The reasons that led Ambedkar to steer clear of Marxism also explain, in part, his turn towards Buddhism. So much has been written on what finally led him to embrace Buddhism that it is unnecessary to visit this terrain except in the briefest terms to clear the path that leads us to his views on Islam. The Buddha, to reiterate, was to him a figure who was democratic to the core and without peers as a moral exemplar. In one speech after another, Ambedkar described how his political philosophy was enshrined in three words: “liberty, equality and fraternity”. People might naturally imagine that he had derived these values from the French Revolution, but they were mistaken in holding to this conception: “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, not Marx.” Classical liberal thought compromised on equality, and communism had little regard for liberty: ‘It seems that the three can co-exist only if one follows the way of the Buddha.’
It is, however, the historical specificity of Buddhism in India that Ambedkar drew upon to make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits. There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention. First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India. Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home. This was going to be a different form of gharwapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security and nourishment of the womb. Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste. On Ambedkar’s reading, the ‘Four Noble Truths’ that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.
Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes. Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.
It should not be supposed that Ambedkar, especially as he continued his studies in both comparative religion and Indian history, never entertained any doubts about the suitability of Buddhism for Dalits. The predominant understanding of Hinduism, especially in the public domain, insisted upon treating Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as variations on Hinduism, certainly as cognate religions that, to use the language of Wittgenstein, enjoyed a ‘family resemblance’.
Ambedkar was fully aware that many Hindus were wholly comfortable with the idea of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. It is immaterial, for our purposes, how Ambedkar negotiated this slippery terrain and what views he held on the deviousness of the Hindu mind, and far more germane that he may have understood Buddhism’s putative similarity to Hinduism equally as an asset and a liability. Dalit converts might benefit from conversion to Buddhism without incurring the hostility of orthodox Hindus: if the sheer crassness of this analogy may be forgiven, it would be akin to shopping at a different branch of the same gigantic store. On the other hand, at least in the 1920s and through the 1930s, Ambedkar very much doubted that anything was to be gained by ‘becoming Buddhist or Arya Samajist’ as such conversions would do nothing to eradicate ‘the prejudices of the people who call themselves as belonging to [the] upper varna’. The July 1927 article in his journal Bahishkrit Bharat continues thus: ‘If we want to successfully confront the prejudices of Hindus, we have to convert to either Christianity or Islam in order to secure the backing of some rebellious community. It is only then the blot of untouchability on Dalits will be washed away.’ Two years later, writing in the same journal on March 15th, Ambedkar put forward the programmatic formula for possible Dalit liberation blandly and without equivocation: ‘If you have to convert, become Musulman.’ The communication would be preceded by what some might have taken to be a rather ominous headline, ‘Notice to Hinduism’.
What appears not to be acknowledge is that Ambedkar found even less in Indian Islam that he could commend to anyone else, and in Pakistan or the Partition of India he took it upon himself to nail the truth about the endemic ‘social stagnation’ in which the Muslims of India were trapped
To what extent increasing Muslim separatism eventually turned Ambedkar away from Islam as a possible home for Dalits is an interesting question.
In arguing that Ambedkar saw Buddhism as singular in its repudiation of caste, I have already suggested the grounds on which he rejected both Sikhism and Christianity as viable alternatives.
Nothing more need be said on this count except to aver that, in Ambedkar’s view, neither religion had been able to escape the dragnet of caste; moreover, the hostility of upper-caste Christian converts and Sikh leaders alike to mass conversion, which it was feared would lead to the Dalitisation of the faith in each case, was all too palpable. Whatever benefits the converts to Christianity might have been said to have enjoyed before Independence by belonging to the faith of the ruling colonial elite would obviously be short-lived in the wake of the liberation of the country from the yoke of foreign rule. Muslims in India, on the other hand, enjoyed the security assured to a very sizable and vocal minority—indeed, even as Muslims were a minority in India, Islam was a worldwide religion and Indian Muslims had the power to make their grievances known to Muslims elsewhere in the world. The contrast between Dalits and Muslims appeared all too stark for another reason: if the notion of the Muslim ummah was something of a guarantee that oppression of Muslims would at least not go unnoticed, there seemed to be no one outside India who was prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Dalits.
After all this, Ambedkar still did not find Islam hospitable. By the mid-1930s, the Hindu-Muslim question had been rising to the fore and had become much more than a festering sore, and the so-called ‘Pakistan Resolution’—so-called since Pakistan was never mentioned by name—of the All India Muslim League, passed at the annual session of the organisation at Lahore in March 1940, had spawned in the minds of Muslims the idea that a Muslim homeland in the Indian subcontinent might be theirs for the asking. This might have been the time to lead his fellow Dalits to the promised land; to the contrary, Ambedkar made a decisive turn away from Islam. There is a noticeable and disturbing streak of positivism in some of his writings, something to which the scholarly assessments of his work have paid no attention whatsoever, but he was no adherent of Social Darwinism. Had he been so, he might have counselled the Dalits to convert to Islam at this opportune moment and add considerably to the already sizable number of Muslims in South Asia.
However, as Muslims sought to close ranks behind them, it had become inescapably clear to Ambedkar that they were so self-absorbed in their own history that any consideration for Dalits could only arise from rank self-interest. The “Depressed Classes”, he had claimed in late 1930 at the Round Table Conference, “had no friend”: even the “Muhammadans refuse to recognise their separate existence because they fear that their privileges may be curtailed by the admission of a rival.”
It has been an article of belief for the most loyal Ambedkar scholars that any talk of his antagonism towards Muslims is a form of mischief-making when it is not an expression of virulent misrepresentation and even hatred of the great man. Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar of formidable reputation who is also married to one of Ambedkar’s granddaughters, attempted to preempt criticisms of Ambedkar’s views on Islam with a short, poorly written and rather ill-conceived book called Ambedkar on Islam (2003) that purports to take apart 11 ‘myths’. Leaving aside the question of whether Teltumbde has any comprehension at all of ‘myth’ outside the rather jejune and positivistic framework which places it in opposition to ‘history’, the question is whether, as ‘Myth 1’ states, ‘Ambedkar was against the Muslims’. Does the critical apparatus of thinking necessitate that one should be against or for something? That Ambedkar may have shaped a highly critical history of Indian Muslims should come as no surprise and need not be construed as a sign of Islamophobia. Ambedkar was seldom reticent in his views and in this vein appears to have subscribed to a hierarchy of religions. He welcomed the discipline of ‘comparative religion’ as it had helped to break down ‘the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true’, but he also found it a matter of discredit to such a ‘science’ that it had ‘created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them’. It may be inadvisable on the grounds of political expediency to advert to Ambedkar’s critical assessment of Islam, but Ambedkar himself never shirked from adopting positions which he had arrived at after careful study and reflection.
Barbarism Upon Barbarism: That is the standpoint from which Ambedkar considers the encroachment of Islam in India
To understand further his misgivings about Islam, we can profitably turn to Ambedkar’s reading of the Indian past and the vexed question about the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth. Ambedkar agonised that Buddhism had not only ‘ceased to live in India but even the name of Buddha has gone out of memory of most Hindus’.
He does not, as modern scholars are wont to do, furnish a plethora of reasons to account for Buddhism’s disappearance: the growing distance between the monks and the laity; the re-emergence of Hindu kingship and the shrinking patronage for Buddhist monasteries; the defeat of the Buddhists in debates with Shankaracharya; and so on. Ambedkar distinguishes between the decline and the fall of Buddhism, but he does not hide his punches: ‘There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musulmans. Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘but’ [idol].’ Islam was destructive of Buddhism wherever it went and Ambedkar quotes with approval the verdict of the British historian Vincent Smith: ‘The furious massacre perpetrated in many places by Musalman invaders were more efficacious than Orthodox Hindu persecutions, and had a great deal to do with the disappearance of Buddhism in several provinces (of India).’ He anticipates the objection that Islam was hostile as much to Brahminism as it was to Buddhism, but this, far from falsifying the claim that the ‘sword of Islam’ was responsible for the evisceration of Buddhism, only suggests that we need an interpretation that would render an account of the circumstances that permitted Brahminism but not Buddhism to survive ‘the onslaught of Islam’.
Ambedkar did not advert to the ‘sword of Islam’ thesis lightly. The chapter of Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India from which his assessment is drawn speaks repeatedly of the Buddhist priesthood that ‘perished by the sword’, ‘the greatest disaster that befell the religion of Buddha in India’. Where the priesthood—‘however detestable it may be’, adds Ambedkar—is put to death, the religion likewise perishes: ‘The sword of Islam fell heavily upon the priestly class’, and no one remained ‘to keep the flame of Buddhism burning’. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in Ambedkar’s narrative offers an exculpation of the Brahmins: indeed, he follows this up with a brief narrative detailing the persecution of Buddhists and Jains by Hindu kings. We see in this work, of uncertain date and left unfinished at the time of his death, intimations of the view that Ambedkar would press forth in Pakistan or the Partition of India (1940). It is in this book that the reader is offered the most sustained treatment that is to be found in Ambedkar’s writings of the Muslim demand for a homeland, the troubled history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the first decades of the 20th century, the impossibility of Muslim-Hindu unity and, most significantly, what Ambedkar evidently took to be the impoverished worldview of Indian Muslims. Disdainful as he was of everything that the Hindu stood for, Ambedkar could declare that ‘the Muslim alternative is really a frightful and dangerous alternative’.
Strangely, though liberals and secularists, and others who style themselves progressives, have advocated for Ambedkar as the unflinching spokesperson for truth, they have been wholly reluctant to subject to critical scrutiny many of the emphatic pronouncements on Islamic history or the nature of the Indian past which line the pages of Pakistan or the Partition of India. We may take an instance or two of these before moving, by way of a conclusion, to a brief assessment of some of his rather uncharitable if not merciless readings of Muslim character and the near impossibility of ‘social reform’ among Indian Muslims. ‘The Muslim invaders, no doubt,’ writes Ambedkar, ‘came to India singing a hymn of hate against the Hindus.’
If a Hindu had advanced such an argument, he would indubitably have been branded a ‘communalist’, accused of reading communalism back into the Indian past. What is that element of certainty that Ambedkar presumes will make the reader accede to his insistence—‘no doubt’, he says—on the impossibility of any other reading of the design entertained by the Muslim invaders.
Was the Hindu especially earmarked for the hatred of the Muslim invader? Did not the same Muslim invaders also kill Shias and destroy everything else that stood on their warpath? Is Ambedkar unable to distinguish the politics of conquest from the politics of religion? Do invaders act otherwise than how Muslims did when they came in search, as Hegel would have said, of India’s fabled wealth? If the Muslim invaders ‘came to India singing a hymn of hate against the Hindus’, should we not simply resign ourselves to admitting, as the colonial state and its functionaries had been arguing all along, that the Indian past is one long record of bitter Hindu-Muslim animosity. Ambedkar seems almost to relish in this view: in another chapter, he characterises Hindus and Musalmans as ‘not merely two classes or two sects’ but as ‘two distinct species’ who cannot be conjoined ‘in one bosom’. British officials described the immense gulf between Hindus and Muslims in their own inimitable fashion: while the Hindu loved to worship the cow, the Muslim loved to eat it. Did Ambedkar think any differently?
THE DEFENDER OF Ambedkar is, at this juncture, likely to rush forward with the claim that he has been read ‘out of context’ and that the passage in question has only been quoted in part. But does the situation for the Muslim at all improve as Ambedkar further improvises on the deleterious consequences over the centuries of the Muslim invasions: ‘But, they did not merely sing their hymn of hate and go back burning a few temples on the way. That would have been a blessing. They were not content with so negative a result. They did a positive act, namely, to plant the seed of Islam. Its growth is so thick in Northern India that the remnants of Hindu and Buddhist culture are just shrubs.’ Had they looted and plundered, it might well have been tolerable; it would even have been a ‘blessing’, since the structures of Indian society would have remained fundamentally unaltered. But the invaders were determined to plant their religion on alien soil. India was not to be spared the zeal of the crusaders, whose every victory emboldened them to think that right corresponded to might. That monstrous growth of Islam snuffed out Buddhism and left ‘remnants’ only of Hindu culture in the north.
As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land.
‘Islam speaks of brotherhood’, and ‘everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste’, but in truth ‘Islam divides as inexorably as it binds’ and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between ‘Muslims and non-Muslims’.
The brotherhood it promises is ‘for Muslims only’, and for ‘those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity’. But this is far from being its only offence in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of ‘Muslim Canon Law’, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren. In terms highly reminiscent of colonial writings, such as WW Hunter’s The Indian Musulmans (1876), Ambedkar suggests that the tendency to divide the world into two camps, Dar-ul-Islam (abode of Islam) and Dar-ul-Harb (abode of war), makes it impossible for the Muslim to think of India as the ‘common motherland of the Hindus and the Musulmans’—and certainly not one where both might live ‘as equals’. When Ambedkar revisits the Indian past, he does not do so from the standpoint of taking up the challenge, as the Congress-appointed Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee (1931) did so in its extraordinary report, of seeking, and then affirming, the myriad ways in the convergence of Hindus and Muslims wrought a distinct Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis. What is conspicuous is his firm, even unbending allegiance to the idea that Hindu-Muslim unity is a mirage, and that nothing in the character, disposition, customs and manners of Indians even remotely suggests that they ever strove for ‘unity’ or ‘fusion’.
Barbarism upon barbarism: that is the standpoint from which Ambedkar considers the encroachment of Islam in India. The insularity and stagnation that mark the history of Muslims in India become, in his narrative, yet another dead weight sitting atop that putrid mass called Hinduism. Ambedkar’s unsparing indictment of Hindu caste society is widely known and, according to the canons of liberal thought and civilised behaviour, largely acceptable. What appears not to be acknowledged is that he found even less in Indian Islam that he could commend to anyone else, and in Pakistan or the Partition of India he took it upon himself to nail the truth about the endemic ‘social stagnation’ in which the Muslims of India were trapped.
Katherine Mayo’s notorious Mother India (1930), he notes, exposed the world to the ‘social evils’ that had beset Hindu society, but the work had created the ‘unfortunate impression throughout the world that while the Hindus were groveling in the mud of these social evils and were conservative, the Muslims in India were free from them, and as compared to the Hindus, were a progressive people’. Ambedkar declares his astonishment that such an impression should prevail: ‘One may well ask if there is any social evil which is found among the Hindus and is not found among the Muslims?’ To the contrary, he says, ‘the Muslims have all the social evils of the Hindus and something more’, adducing as an example ‘the compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women’.
One might go on in this vein, ad infinitum. This may not seem like an opportune moment to deliver a critical reading of Ambedkar’s views of the history of Islam in India. Indian Muslims legitimately feel that they are under assault, from a good number of their Hindu countrymen as much as from a state that is perceived to be intensely committed to rebirthing India as a Hindu nation.
Dalits and Muslims have also been the targets of roving mobs—and I say this withfull awareness of how the very word ‘mob’ has, at other times and at other places, also been deployed to minimise and even criminalise public gatherings—that, acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, have engaged in barbaric acts of public lynching. The recent demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and in support of the inalienable right that every person has to register protest in a nonviolent way, have shown that Ambedkar, whose portrait is often held aloft by demonstrators, is held in great regard not only by Dalits but by many Muslims and other Indians who are committed to notions of equality, social justice and secularism.
But to those who are tempted to rush to judgement, declaring this essay to be an affront to Ambedkar, an unnecessary provocation at such a juncture, and even as a source of solace to the ‘enemy’, these questions may be posed: Is there ever an ‘opportune moment’ for inviting one to reflection, to a reconsideration of the received narrative and to a quest for the truth? What has brought us to our present state if not the fact that there has never been an opportune moment for subjecting Ambedkar to the same stringent critiques that he rightfully levelled at others? Or should we in our ‘post-truth’ times just resign ourselves to saying that there is a last ‘post’ beyond which we may not pass?