Ambedkar was more an iconoclast than an icon

It’s been a week in which political parties of all hues, including the BJP at the Centre and its predecessor, pulled out all stops in eulogising BR Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary. But what exactly did Ambedkar think of the Congress and the primary avatar of the Right that existed at that time, the Hindu Mahasabha? Not a lot to merit the kind of unbridled salutations being heaped on him today.

In fact, it is in the run-up to Partition that Ambedkar’s peeves with the Grand Old Party and the right wing — for their penchant for Muslim appeasement and Muslim antipathy, respectively — come unambiguously to the fore. It is through the lens of the Two-nation Theory, on which Ambedkar wrote the tome Pakistan or The Partition of India (1940), that the tributes that poured in through the week take on amusing and ironical hues.

Congress and League For his part, Ambedkar reckoned that Pakistan must be created if the Muslims wanted it, although he did go on to point out the many flaws in the demand. Just one of them: if the Muslims wanted Pakistan just because they had lost faith in the Congress (which came to power after winning the provincial elections in 1937), that wasn’t reason enough to split the country; instead, a better option would simply be to not support the Congress again for its “mischievous policy”. To be sure, the Muslims became disillusioned after the Congress government in the Hindu provinces refused to recognise the Muslim League as the sole representative body of the Muslims; and after the Congress put its foot down on coalition ministries with the League.

Ambedkar saw merit in the Muslims’ disenchantment, and used the analogy of a government to illus trate the Congress-League standoff: a government of a country represents only a majority, not all its people. Even if the League did not represent all Muslims, it did stand for a majority (it came second in the elections after the Congress, although the gap between the two was huge). What’s more, Ambedkar felt that if the Congress chose not to do business with the League, it would have to acknowledge the other representatives of the community, like the Ahrar Party or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. “The Congress must deal with one or the other. To deal with neither is not only stupid but mischievous. This attitude of the Congress only serves to annoy the Muslims and to exasperate them. The Muslims rightly interpret this attitude of the Congress as an attempt to create divisions among them with a view to cause confusion in their ranks and weaken their front,” wrote Ambedkar. As for the demand for Congress-Muslim League coalition ministries, the Congress said this would be possible only if the Muslims resigned and joined the Congress. One way of justifying the non-inclusion of Muslim ministers was that even without them in the Cabinet, the Congress had succeeded in protecting the community’s interests, and in fact had even advanced them.

Ambedkar found this line of reasoning absurd; the moot point was not whether the Congress had done good for the Muslims — the British had done similar “good” by building roads, railroads, canals et al, so did that mean Indians had to be eternally grateful to them? What mattered was that the minorities ran the risk of being reduced to a subject race, with the Hindus as the ruling race. The Muslims clearly were in no mood to accept that position. Ambedkar was also critical of the Congress’ plan for “mass contact” to unite Hindus and Muslims by circumventing the Muslim leaders.

Ambedkar failed to see how this could produce unity: “It can only create exasperation, bitterness and hostility… there can be no doubt that this mad plan of mass contact has had a great deal to do with the emergence of Pakistan.” The only difference between the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, felt Ambedkar, was that the “latter is crude in its utterances and brutal in its actions while the Congress is politic and polite”.

Savarkar and Jinnah Although Veer Savarkar, a president of the Hindu Mahasabha in the early 1940s, was against the idea of Pakistan, Ambedkar didn’t see much difference between him and the founder of the new nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Both agreed that there were two nations in India. But while Jinnah wanted to carve them out, Savarkar wanted them to be bound by a single constitution; which Ambedkar felt would mean that the Hindu nation would occupy a “predominant position” and the Muslim nation would have to live in a position of “subordinate cooperation with the Hindu nation”. Savarkar, of course, was big on the ideas of Hindutva (going beyond the religion into cultural, linguistic, social and political aspects) and Hindudom (a collective word for the Hindu world, “just as Islam denotes the Muslim world,” as Savarkar put it).

According to Ambedkar, allowing Hindus and Muslims to live as two separate nations in one country could only work if there was mutual respect and accord: “But that is not to be because Savarkar will not allow the Muslim nation to be co-equal in authority with the Hindu nation. He wants the Hindu nation to be the dominant nation and the Muslim nation to be the servient nation.” The Hindu Mahasabha is considered if not the parent a sister body of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. One of its presidents in the mid-1940s, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, went on to found the right wing Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which later evolved into the BJP. One of the unintended benefits of the homage and paeans to Ambedkar on his 125th anniversary is that they present an opportunity to shine a light on the prePartition concepts of “ruling race” and “subject race”, and “predominant positions” and “subordinate cooperation”; they are once again relevant after almost 70 years of Independence and the founding of Pakistan.