After decades of neglect, one of the finest minds and statesmen of India, B.R. Ambedkar, is now invoked by almost everybody on the public scene. The winter session of Parliament was prefaced by two days of debate on the Constitution to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar, during which he was unanimously eulogised. On December 6, the 59th anniversary of his death, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat compared him to the founder of his own organisation, K.B. Hedgewar. All kinds of public figures use Ambedkar to defend their actions and beliefs. But what did he say, really?

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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As I tried to show in my book, Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability, this great man, like so many others, changed his mind on different subjects during the course of his life. That’s why I’ll focus on the last years of his life and on two issues only: the Constitution and religion. In 1955, Ambedkar explained in the Lok Sabha why he “wanted to burn the Constitution”: “We built a temple for a god to come in and reside, but before the god could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple?”

This stand is perfectly in tune with Ambedkar’s life mission and what he had declared in 1949, while presenting the final version of the Constitution to the Lok Sabha: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality… We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment…”

As a key member of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar had tried to promote social harmony. In December 1946, he had declared in one of his most important speeches that was heartily applauded and cheered: “I know today we are divided politically, socially and economically. We are a group of warring camps and I may go even to the extent of confessing that I am probably one of the leaders of such a camp. But, sir, with all this, I am quite convinced that given time and circumstances, nothing in the world will prevent this country from becoming one. With all our castes and creeds, I have not the slightest hesitation that we shall, in some form, be a united people.”

This speech made Ambedkar immediately popular and catapulted him to the drafting committee of the assembly. At that time, he probably believed that a new India was possible, and that he could influence the making of the Indian Constitution in such a manner that, in the end, not only politics but also society would change.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ambedkar tried to promote social reforms concretely via the Hindu Code Bill. In 1948, Nehru entrusted the drafting of this code to a sub-committee of the assembly headed by Ambedkar. In the bill, Ambedkar included all the essential principles of such reform like the elimination of caste discrimination in marriages. This initiative aroused a vehement response. Rajendra Prasad, the first president of the Indian republic, in a letter to Vallabhbhai Patel, who himself showed strong reservations vis-à-vis the bill, wrote against the project whose “new concepts and new ideas are not only foreign to the Hindu law but are susceptible of dividing every family”.

Nehru was attached to this bill and asked Ambedkar to be patient. Nehru even split the bill into four subsets in order to defuse the opposition before submitting it to the assembly on September 17, 1951. On September 25, the portion of the bill concerning marriage and divorce was deformed by amendments and finally buried. Considering that he had not been supported enough by Nehru, Ambedkar sent him his letter of resignation from the government on September 27.

Clearly, as early as 1951, Ambedkar thought that he had been betrayed and that “his” Constitution would not result in democracy in the absence of a profound reform of Hinduism, the root-cause of the worst kind of inequalities. By the mid-1950s, Ambedkar had lost hope in the so-called Hindu reformers and turned to Buddhism for promoting social change. He considered that religion was “absolutely essential for the development of mankind”. But his vision of religion was overdetermined by social considerations. He rejected Hinduism because he thought that its rigid hierarchies were co-substantial to this religion, whereas equality was inherent in Buddhism. That’s why, for him, “Remaining in the Hindu religion will bring no kind of progress to anyone. Progress can come only in the Buddhist religion.”

Considering that the “religion of the Buddha gives freedom of thought and freedom of self-development to all”, Ambedkar argued that “the rise of Buddhism in India was as significant as the French Revolution”. During a 1954 All-India Radio broadcast, he declared: “Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha… He gave the highest place to fraternity as the only real safeguard against the denial of liberty or equality or fraternity which was another name for brotherhood or humanity, which was again another name for religion.” On October 14, 1956, the day of Vijayadashami, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in Nagpur, along with hundreds of thousands of his followers, who took 22 oaths, including that one: “I thereby reject my old religion, Hinduism, which is detrimental to the prosperity of humankind and which discriminates between man and man and which treats me as inferior.”

In August, the Gujarat government withdrew a schoolbook on Ambedkar because it contained the oaths he had prescribed in 1956. The “official” Ambedkar is more and more different from the original, his sanitisation being a form of censorship.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.