Speaking at a function in Goa on December 6, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat compared B.R. Ambedkar to the founder of his own organisation. Calling him “a great intellectual who freed thousands of people from slavery”, Bhagwat said: “Like Dr Ambedkar, [K.S.] Hedgewar also worked selflessly for the welfare of the country.”
This is not the first time the RSS chief has praised Ambedkar — he did so in his Vijaya Dashami speech as well. Meanwhile, senior BJP figures in the Union government, such as the prime minister and home minister, have also extravagantly praised Ambedkar, in Parliament and outside it.
This acknowledgement of Ambedkar’s greatness by the Sangh Parivar is belated — and also hypocritical. For, during his lifetime, the RSS and its associated bodies bitterly opposed Ambedkar. This opposition was at its most strident in the years 1949-51, when Ambedkar, as law minister, sought to bring about reforms in personal law that would give Hindu women the right to marry outside their caste, divorce a brutal husband and inherit property — all rights largely denied to them both by scripture and social practice.
Some feminist scholars have argued that these reforms did not go far enough in promoting gender equality. But for the Hindu orthodoxy, they went much too far. An anti- Hindu code committee was formed, one of whose members, the shankaracharya of Dwarka, issued an edict against Ambedkar’s bill for daring to interfere with the shastras. The RSS’s own role in this agitation is described in this passage from my book, India After Gandhi: “The anti-Hindu code bill committee held hundreds of meetings throughout India, where sundry swamis denounced the proposed legislation. The participants in this movement presented themselves as religious warriors (dharmaveer) fighting a religious war (dharmayudh). The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh threw its weight behind the agitation. On the 11th of December, 1949, the RSS organised a public meeting at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, where speaker after speaker condemned the bill. One called it ‘an atom bomb on Hindu society’… The next day a group of RSS workers marched on the assembly buildings, shouting ‘Down with Hindu code bill’… The protesters burnt effigies of the prime minister and Dr Ambedkar, and then vandalised the car of Sheikh Abdullah.” I quote my book only to make the point that the RSS’s animus towards Ambedkar is a matter of historical record. Either Bhagwat does not know this history or he does and yet counts on the unhistorical sensibilities of his fellow Indians.
This posthumous appropriation of Ambedkar follows upon the Sangh’s similarly cynical appropriation of Gandhi, a reformer whom it opposed when he was alive, but has since sought to claim a kinship with. The RSS was founded in 1925. For many years thereafter, it kept its distance from Gandhi and the national movement. The RSS took part in neither the Salt Satyagraha nor the Quit India movement.
By 1947, however, this ambivalence had turned to outright hostility. The RSS blamed Gandhi for appeasing Muslims: In its view, he should not have allowed Partition; nor, once Partition occurred, should he have fought to protect the rights of the minorities who stayed on in India.
On the evening of December 8, 1947, the RSS held a meeting of its volunteers in Delhi. Here, RSS sarsanghchalak M.S. Golwalkar is reported to have said by an eyewitness at the meeting: “The Sangh will not rest content until it had finished Pakistan. If anyone stood in our way we will have to finish them too, whether it was Nehru government or any other government. The Sangh could not be won over… Referring to Muslims, he said that no power on Earth could keep them in Hindustan. They would have to quit this country. Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress may profit by their votes at the time of election. But, by that time, not a single Muslim will be left in India. If they were made to stay here, the responsibility would be the government’s, and the Hindu community would not be responsible. Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too.”
This is a report of an eyewitness at the meeting. However, when Gandhi was killed seven weeks later, it was by someone who had once been a member of the RSS, but had since left the organisation. The RSS had no direct hand in Gandhi’s murder, yet, as Golwalkar’s speech of December 8, 1947 demonstrated, it harboured a venomous hatred towards him.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the RSS continued to distrust Gandhi and his legacy. Then, from the 1970s, it slowly thawed. His name began to appear in its rituals. He was now seen as a good patriot, albeit a misguided one (especially in his insistence that Muslims and Christians were also equal citizens of India).
Like individuals, organisations can also change their minds. But in doing so, they must attempt an honest reckoning with the past, especially if the individual or organisation has a public profile (in this case, a massively influential one). If the RSS is unable or unwilling to make this reckoning, other Indians have to do it for the RSS. The reason the RSS once opposed Gandhi was that he lived and died for inter-religious harmony. The reason the RSS once detested Ambedkar was that he dared to fight for equal rights for women against the massed ranks of the patriarchal orthodoxy.
Posthumous appropriations, made instrumentally to cultivate new constituencies, cannot erase this deeply problematic past. For Bhagwat to really come clean, he should, while praising Ambedkar, simultaneously denounce his own prejudiced predecessors, such as Hedgewar and Golwalkar, who believed in an India where Muslims were not equal to Hindus, and women were not equal to men.
That, alas, is not likely to happen soon. For Golwalkar and Hedgewar are to the RSS what Lenin and Stalin are to the CPM. Scholars know the first duo to be patriarchal chauvinists, the second duo to be brutal dictators. But for the ideologues who follow them, these men are beyond all criticism.