Weeks before India became independent, Jawaharlal Nehru invited B R Ambedkar to join his new cabinet as the minister of law. Unlike most other members of the cabinet, Ambedkar was not part of the Congress party, nor did he share much of the values that Nehru and other senior leaders of the Indian Independence movement believed in. For that matter, Ambedkar was not Nehru’s choice for the portfolio at all. It was Mahatma Gandhi who believed that since it was India and not the Congress that had attained freedom, outstanding men of other political leanings must also be asked to lead the government, especially Ambedkar.
Despite being part of the first cabinet, Ambedkar’s relationship with most leaders of the Congress stood on rather rocky grounds. Much has been written about Ambedkar’s contentious relationship with Gandhi. In contrast, little is known about his connection with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Historian Ramachandra Guha went as far as to allege, “The Nehru-Ambedkar relationship has been consigned to obscurity. There is no book about it, nor, to my knowledge, even a decent scholarly article.”
Nehru and Ambedkar did not differ much in terms of ideology, but had significantly contrasting views about their execution, particularly with regard to their ideas on caste reservations, codification of Hindu law, and foreign policy. Kashmir too was an issue on which these two founders of modern India differed drastically. However, Nehru also held a deep respect for Ambedkar. Upon hearing about his death in 1956, Nehru wrote a tribute stating that Ambedkar “had been a very controversial figure in Indian politics, but there can be no doubt about his outstanding quality.”
Nehru and Ambedkar came from two very different backgrounds with the former being born into an upper-class, cosmopolitan Brahmin family and the latter, into a socially ostracised, Dalit family residing in a small village in rural Maharashtra. Nehru, who had known the trappings of wealth as a child, could be described more as a secular humanist and intellectual than someone who had any inclination towards religion. His approach to life was methodical, prioritising efficiency, and modernisation over romanticised ideals of the past.
On that, he and Ambedkar shared many similarities. Having witnessed discrimination as a youth, Ambedkar was also disillusioned with the concept of Hinduism as proffered by the RSS at the time and was equally committed to the accumulation of knowledge, having studied at Columbia University and the London School of Economics (LSE).
However, whereas Ambedkar had witnessed social injustice up close, Nehru, as a Brahmin, had been more insulated. So while Nehru did write about the detrimental effects of caste politics, he was not in favour of abolishing the system altogether as Ambedkar advocated.
In a book compiling his writings and speeches, Vasant Moon elaborates on Ambedkar’s sharp criticism of the Congress’s, and by extension Nehru’s, approach to caste. He writes, “According to Dr Ambedkar, a political revolution couldn’t succeed unless it was preceded by a socio-religious revolution. But the Congress never worked for a social revolution aimed at dismantling caste.”
One way in which backward classes could face some respite according to Ambedkar was through separate electorates. Under his proposed system, not only would Dalits receive reserved seats in political representation, but they alone would be able to vote for Dalit candidates in Dalit-reserved constituencies. Under the British, this right was extended to Muslims.
Gandhi had vehemently rejected this proposal and resolved to fast unto death in 1932 unless it was abandoned. The resulting compromise was codified by the Poona Pact, which allocated reserved seats for marginalised communities but adopted a two-round election process in lieu of separate electorates. In 1947, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, another senior Congress leader, proposed abolishing reserved seats altogether. Incensed by the notion, Ambedkar threatened to walk out of the Constituent Assembly, and subsequently, Patel’s plans were shelved.
However, Patel and Gandhi were not the only ones who opposed reservations. In a letter to chief ministers in 1961, Nehru emphasised the virtues of meritocracy, writing, “They (Scheduled Castes and Tribes) deserve help but, even so, I dislike any kind of reservation, more particularly in service. I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards.”
Years later, Ambedkar would accuse Nehru of devoting his “whole time and attention” to the protection of Muslims. Stating that while he too was determined to safeguard the rights of Muslims, he also believed in elevating other marginalised groups. “What concern has he shown for these communities?” he asks of Nehru. “So far as I know, none, and yet these are the communities which need far more care and attention than the Muslims.”
Despite these fissures, Nehru couldn’t deny the impact Babasaheb had on liberating the backward classes, later describing Ambedkar as a “symbol of the revolt against all the oppressive features of Hindu society.”
Ambedkar is well known for his role in drafting the Constitution but before even completing the draft, he had begun working on the Hindu Code Bill, which attempted to modernise several sections of the traditional Hindu law. The Bill was introduced in Parliament in April of 1947, addressing laws related to the rights of property, marriage, divorce, adoption, and the order of succession. Ambedkar described the legislation as “the greatest social reform measure ever undertaken.”
Nehru, in many ways, agreed with him. As he put it, “The real progress of the country means progress not only on the political plane, not only on the economic plane but also on the social plane.”
But while Nehru believed religion should exist in the private sphere only, many members of Parliament disagreed. In a journal article titled Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code, historian Reba Som writes that members of Nehru’s government “opposed tooth and nail the Hindu Code Bill”. Their opposition, she states, “Opened up the pandora’s box of age-old superstitions, complexes, patriarchal feelings and deep-rooted prejudices running along caste, class, religious and regional lines.”
Ever the parliamentarian, Nehru decided to break up the Code into four separate parts to facilitate their passage. However, by 1951, the Bills still hadn’t passed, and Ambedkar, dejected and demoralised, resigned as the law minister. Nehru did eventually steer the Bills through Parliament between 1955 and 1961, but given the opposition, he had to dilute them significantly, resulting in a set of legislation that Som describes as being “more symbolic than substantial in character.”
Where the two men differed was not on ideology but on execution. Nehru had famously declared to the House that on the matter of the Hindu Bill, “I stand by every word the Law Minister has said”. Nehru was at heart a pragmatist, and according to Som, he felt that rushing proceedings, in the face of considerable opposition, would harm the cause of reform.
Ambedkar, for his part, was scathing in his criticism of the prime minister. Speaking about the gap, as Ambedkar put it, between the “promises and performances of the Prime Minister,” he ascribed the initial non-passage of the Bill to Nehru’s own failures in governance. In turn, when Ambedkar resigned, Nehru did not attempt to entice him otherwise. On the contrary, he insisted on getting a copy of Ambedkar’s resignation speech in advance, fearing that its contents would be detrimental to his reputation. That would prove to be an understatement.
In a scathing resignation letter, Ambedkar wrote that he was surprised to have been invited to join the Cabinet, as people like him had been “condemned as unworthy of association” when the government was formed. He also claimed that the Law Ministry was of “no importance” giving its chief “no opportunity for shaping the policy of the Government of India”. Further in, he questioned Nehru’s integrity in assigning ministries, positing that appointments were made based on “friendship” and “pliability” rather than competency.
Speaking in the Lok Sabha after Ambedkar died, Nehru was more magnanimous than his late opponent had been. He praised Ambedkar for his work in drafting the Hindu Code stating that he was “happy that he (Ambedkar) saw that reform in a very large measure carried out, perhaps not in the form of that monumental time that he had himself drafted, but in separate bits.”
Ambedkar widely regarded Nehru and Congress to be interchangeable, writing “the Congress is Pandit Nehru and Pandit Nehru is Congress.” As such, his many battles with the Congress party can be interpreted as a form of personal dissatisfaction with Nehru. In terms of grievances between Ambedkar and Congress, the list goes on and on.
Another issue Ambedkar had with the prime minister was with his global strategy. Nehru was much lauded domestically and internationally for his utopian foreign policy, but Ambedkar remained one of his few critics.
Unlike Nehru, Ambedkar believed that a developing country like India ought to form strong ties with powerhouses like the United States while rejecting the notions of communism. In Ambedkar: A Critical Study, historian W N Kuber writes that Ambedkar’s chief concern internationally was the expansion of communism. By extending friendship to Russia and China, Ambedkar believed that Nehru had isolated himself from the western world, prioritising peace over democratic ideals. According to Kuber, Ambedkar accused Nehru of wanting to solve the problems of other countries instead of focusing on the problems India itself was facing.
Adding to that, Dhananjay Keer, a biographer of Ambedkar, argues he believed that Nehru was subverting the very ideals of democracy. In Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Keer alleges that Ambedkar repeatedly questioned Nehru on his decision to befriend communist states, telling him, “if you want Parliamentary democracy, then you should be friendly with those who have Parliamentary Governments and are trying to protect it against the Communist attacks.”
Ambedkar’s views on Nehruvian foreign policy is best understood in a speech he gave in 1951, shortly after resigning from the cabinet: “Every country in the world was our friend. Today, after four years, all our friends have deserted us. We have no friends left. We have alienated ourselves. We are pursuing a lonely furrow with no one even to second our resolutions in the U.N.O. When I think of our foreign policy, I am reminded of what Bismarck and Bernard Shaw have said. Bismarck has said that ‘politics is not a game of realising the ideal. Politics is the game of the possible’. Bernard Shaw not very long ago said that good ideals are good but one must not forget that it is often dangerous to be too good. Our foreign policy is in complete opposition to these words of wisdom uttered by two of the world’s greatest men.”
Ambedkar also opposed Nehru’s stance on Kashmir, advocating for a zonal plebiscite that would account for the sentiments of non-Muslims living in the region. In an interview from 1951, Ambedkar, in opposition to Congress policy, stated: “I fear that a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir may go against India. In order to save the Hindu and Buddhist population of Jammu and Ladakh from going to Pakistan, in such an eventuality, there should be zonal plebiscite in Jammu, Ladakh, and Kashmir.”
In terms of Article 370 granting special status to Kashmir, Ambedkar was similarly critical of Nehru’s diplomacy. He felt that the provision would create another sovereignty within India which would be disastrous for the unity of the country.
The irony in that is on domestic matters like caste representation and the Hindu Code, Ambedkar, not Nehru, favoured ideals over pragmatism. Internationally, however, he was critical of Nehru for the very same charges.
Nehru and Ambedkar did not always agree but they both respected each other’s right to disagree. A testament to that is that despite having contrasting approaches to governance and policy, Nehru saw enough value in Ambedkar’s differences to offer him a position in his Cabinet, and Ambedkar recognised enough commonalities between the two to accept.
Makers of Modern India, Ramachandra Guha, 2010
Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code, Reba Som, Modern Asian Studies, 1994
Ambedkar: A Critical Study, W.N Kuber, 1992
Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Dhananjay Keer, 1954
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vasant Moon, 2011