Was B.R. Ambedkar anti-national? While we are celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti today, the question sounds absurd as it relates to an Indian statesman who showed constant dedication to the wellbeing of his country and who contributed more than anyone else to the drafting of its Constitution — arguably one of the best in the world. But this is a time of absurd questions, it seems, and the responses may be eye-opening.
The first reason why Ambedkar may be accused of being anti-national has to do with his attitude towards the freedom movement, beyond his antagonistic relationship with Mahatma Gandhi. During the first session of the All-India Depressed Classes Congress (AIDCC), on August 8, 1930, at Nagpur, he opposed the project of India’s independence, which the Congress had promoted a few months before, in December 1929, during its Karachi session, under pressure from Jawaharlal Nehru. The AIDCC argued that “The depressed classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus”.
Ambedkar felt strengthened in these views after the Congress won the 1937 elections and started to rule eight out of 11 provinces, and passed conservative bills, including the Industrial Dispute Bill that made strike illegal under certain conditions in the Bombay Presidency. In 1939, Ambedkar made his stand clear in the legislative council of this province: “Whenever there is any conflict of interest between the country and the untouchables, so far as I am concerned, the untouchables’ interests will take precedence over the interests of the country”.
But by saying such a thing, Ambedkar was not anti-national. First, like Jyotirao Phule, he did not think that India was a nation: “How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?” he asked. For him, the national movement was dominated by an elite, of which the masses were the first victims. For, as he said in 1943 before trade union activists, the working classes “often sacrifice their all to the so-called cause of nationalism. [But] they have never cared to enquire whether the nationalism for which they are to make their offerings will, when established, give them social and economic equality”.
During World War II, Ambedkar continued to collaborate with the colonial power in exchange for concessions to Dalits and the working class at large. In July 1941, he joined the Defence Advisory Committee that had been set up by the viceroy to involve Indian leaders in the war effort and to give to this forced participation of India in the conflict a greater legitimacy. In 1942, he entered the executive council of the viceroy as labour member. In this capacity, he worked relentlessly to develop social legislation. One of the most significant bills that he managed to have passed was the Indian Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill, making compulsory the recognition of a trade union in every enterprise under certain conditions. He also introduced the Payment of Wages (Amendment) Bill and numerous Factories (Amendment) Bills — which were all passed. In fact, many of the labour laws independent India was to elaborate upon after 1947 have been initiated by Ambedkar under the British. He also obtained a larger recruitment of Dalits in the army and, in particular, the reinstatement of the Mahar battalion.
However, Ambedkar, during WWII, had decided to cooperate with the British for another reason. Like Nehru, he thought that the Nazis, the Italian Fascists and Japan were more dangerous than the British. Opposing Mahatma Gandhi’s decision, in August 1942, to launch the Quit India Movement, he declared that the “patriotic duty of all Indians” was rather to prevent such movements from creating “anarchy and chaos which would unquestionably help and facilitate the subjugation of this country by Japan”.
For Ambedkar, there was an “ism” above nationalism: Humanism, with its values of equality and liberty. Hence his collaboration with the British to promote the cause of the Indian plebe and to fight the Axis pow-ers — hence also his conversion to Buddh-ism. While Hinduism tends to be conside-red as the national religion of India par excellence today, Ambedkar looked at it as disrespectful of human dignity, in contrast to Buddhism.
While he considered that religion was “absolutely essential for the development of mankind”, his vision of religion was overdetermined by social considerations.
He rejected Hinduism because he thought that the caste system was co-substantial to this religion, whereas equality was inherent in Buddhism.
He said: “By remaining in the Hindu religion nobody can prosper in any way. In the Buddhist religion 75 per cent bhikkshus were Brahmins. Twenty-five per cent were Shudras and others. But Lord Buddha said, “O bhikkshus, you have come from different countries and castes. Rivers flow separately when they flow in their provinces, but they lose their identity when they meet the sea. They become one and the same. The Buddhist Sangh is like an ocean. In this Sangh all are equal”.
There is probably no better metaphor of the nation that is supposed to be made of peer citizens paying allegiance to the same encompassing body politic, without any intermediate entity.
On October 14, 1956, while he converted to Buddhism in a grand ceremony in Nagpur, Ambedkar said: “By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression today I am reborn”. And one of the 22 oaths that he took on that day, and even asked those who converted like him to take, was: “I thereby reject my old religion, Hinduism, which is detrimental to the prosperity of human kind and which discriminates between man and man and which treats me as inferior”.
Certainly, Ambedkar may be seen as anti-national because of his opposition to the leaders of the freedom movement in the 1930s and ’40s and because of his rejection of the religion that tends to be officially presented today as the embodiment of the Indian way of life, as new laws (including those pertaining to “beef bans”) suggest. But he discarded these brands of nationalism in the name of higher values, arguing that nationalist leaders can also be oppressive and showing the world that human dignity matters more than anything else — including for the making of a proper nation.
The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace