Kancha Ilaiah - No one can convert Ambedkar

The 124th Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations on April 14 (leading to the 125th next year) are trying to transform Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar into an acceptable Buddha of our times by totally opposite political camps. Both the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have formed visible committees to take ownership of his legacy from totally opposite standpoints. The Congress celebration committee is headed by Sonia Gandhi, while the BJP is working through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, apart from the financial assistance from the government, to own his legacy as “ghar wapsiwala”.

The Congress is not very clear as to what kind of place they can give to Ambedkar in their galaxy of national icons like Mahtama Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Indira Gandhi and so on. But the Sangh Parivar seems to place him at the centre of their cultural nationalism debate. Though Mr Modi does not use his name quite often, the BJP spokespersons, of late, have been using him as an anti-Islamist, anti-beeferian, anti-Christian thinker. They have been arguing that they are for a beef ban because Ambedkar included cow protection in the Directive Principles of the State Policy. If the Congress would like to slot him as a secular political and social practitioner, the RSS wants to project him as Hindu, though he converted to Buddhism, as part of their co-option strategy.

Of late, they have been approvingly quoting him as a thinker against Islam and pro-Hinduism and are also saying that he opposed the Hindus converting to Islam. I do not think that both the camps are trying to do this just for votes. They have been forced to do this because Ambedkar’s message as a socio-spiritual reformer is becoming internationally respectable and the sense of shame of practising human untoucha-bility is pricking the socio-political conscience of the upper castes in every sphere of life except, perhaps, that of the national-level communist leaders. Hence their irrele-vance could be seen every-where.

The fact that Ambedkar has become a god-like cult figure among the dalits of the nation is well known. Thousands of Ambedkar associations have been spreading his message for years and now both the national ruling parties are forced to own and place him among their respective icons. Quite interestingly, the RSS has now started a campaign called “One Well, One Temple, One Crematorium” and wants to use Ambedkar to advance their cultural nationalism and social engineering. But there is no “One Book’’ campaign because they want to continue idol worship in the temples and do not want to promote book reading as part of development. Praveen Togadia is continuing his trishul distribution programme for the Other Backward Classes youth as he wants to use them basically as anti-Muslim musclemen.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to play down the ghar wapsi mischief in international forums by saying “we respect all religions”, the RSS is working on a big agenda by co-opting Ambedkar as an ambassador of “ghar wapsi” to persecute the church. They are going to the extent of saying that Ambedkar maintained good relations with Hedgewar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. The moot question is: Does Ambedkar have a ghar in Hinduism even now?

Unlike the stand I took that “I am not a Hindu” by birth, though I do not come from the untouchable background, Ambedkar said that “Though, I was born a Hindu, I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu”, and he died as a Buddhist. His statement that he was born Hindu is slightly misleading. This was because he examined Hinduism from its textual position, not from the living reality. A born untouchable could never be part of a religion that treats him/her untouchable even to god. Hence he also said that the untouchables were never Hindus but were historically Buddhists, and hence rendered to be untouchables in the post-Manu period.

The Panchama varna (untouchables are known as panchamas) of untouchables, according to him, came into existence only in the process of Manu’s counter-revolution. Though this aspect of history needs serious examination, his main tenor of argument was anti-Hindu. From among his massive writing selective quotations could be picked up by anybody to buttress one’s own arguments.

His so-called anti-Islam arguments, like Islam has no scope of reform, women’s equality is not possible in it, are being picked up selectively by RSS ideologues and being used for their anti-Muslim propaganda. They have suddenly discovered his opposition to some Hindus in Pakistan getting converted to Islam. They wrote “when in Pakistan and some provinces such as Hyderabad, scheduled caste Hindus were forcibly converted, Ambedkar warned them against it and told the converted Hindus that they would be welcomed back.”

If the RSS wants to declare Ambedkar as Hindu, which in essence means declaring all Buddhists, including those in China, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Japan and so on, as Hindus because Ambedkar, like the Dalai Lama, was Buddhist, they need to change the meaning of “religion” itself. Then the question arises whether the RSS is going to change all multiple idol worshipping Hindus into only one Buddha’s idol worshippers or will they convert all global Buddhists into Ram, Shiv, Krishna, Kali and Durga’s idol worshipper? If they want to talk about “One Temple”, which is that one temple? Is it that of Buddha or Ram? Since Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956, almost all Buddhist viharas in India are headed by dalits as monks worshipping Buddha in Pali language. And if the brahmins convert to Buddhism, they will be equals with dalits in all spheres of Buddhist religion.

The Ram temples are headed by brahmins. And even if dalits are treated as Hindus they can never be the equal of brahmins in Ram temples. There are millions of dalits who consider themselves to be Hindus and have no accessibility to temples even now. Even if the dalits learn the best of the Sanskrit language they cannot become priests in Hindu main temples. So what does Ambedkar’s identity being defined as Hindu mean after 59 years of his death? Has the RSS, which has its headquarters in Maharashtra, appointed at least some Mahars as priests of “one Hindu temple” that they want to promote? Where is that temple? Can the nation know?

The fact of history is that the existence of Hinduism was threatened after Ambedkar got converted to Buddhism. Though a large number of dalits got converted to Christianity, not Buddhism, that trend is continuing. Spiritual equality, English education to their children, along with overall improvement in their literacy rate and social life is what’s leading to these conversions. Most of the dalits do not bother about swarg prapti. But they want a dignified life in this world. Ambedkar thus opened the modern lock of conversions. He legitimised dalit conversion to Christianity. The RSS wants to use the same Ambedkar to reconvert Christian dalits into Hindus.

But the heads of non-political Hindu structures like Shankara pittadhipathis, the priest associations that consist of only brahmins, do not want to lose their exclusive privileges and are hence opposing the RSS agenda of ghar wapsi. They know that once Hinduism is defined as “one ghar” the question of spiritual equality has to be addressed seriously. This is the reason why Ambedkar will become a bigger headache after this celebration to Brahminic forces within the RSS also. He will now enter into Brahmin puja rooms not just as an idol like Shirdi Saibaba but as a modern prophet with a written word of his own.

Though the RSS does not have “one religious book” to promote along with the notion of “one temple”, Ambedkar wrote his own “one book” of his Navayana Buddhism called “The Buddha and His Dharma”. Will RSS own this as their “One Book”? Ambedkar can be appreciated or criticised for what he was as one can do about Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Ram, Krishna. But no one can convert him from his religion to Hinduism now. Only a criminal force can think to convert somebody after his/her death.

The writer is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad

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