On Babasaheb’s Mahaparinirvan Divas: December 6
The spiritual side of
By Dr Shiv Shakti Bakshi?
As the nation remembers Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar on his Mahaparinirvan Divas on December 6, it would be a fitting tribute to his memory to make efforts to understand his message, legacy and work. Babasaheb is remembered as chief architect of Indian Constitution, a social revolutionary and a thinker. While the country feels indebted for his immense contributions in the nation building process, many other aspects of his multifaceted personality remains yet to be explored. In the process it may not be completely denied that his image is stereotyped around certain issues mainly looking at him as a dalit icon and relegating his other contributions to background.
Babasaheb was a mass leader, political and social thinker, academician, scholar and above all a nationalist rooted in the cultural ethos of Indian civilisation. Apart from earning a number of doctorates from prestigious Columbia University and the London School of Economics for his study and research in law, economics and political science he wrote fearlessly on various issues as an academician and as a political activist. He was also spiritually motivated as he sought refuge in Buddhism in his last days and he was also regarded as a Bodhisattva by his followers.
So far Babasaheb’s writings in India have been selectively read within a particular framework showing him a champion of deprived and oppressed sections of Indian society. He is seen as a chief architect of Indian constitution who laid the foundation of liberal democracy in the country expecting the state to take welfare measures in the interest of weaker sections of the society. But other side of his personality remains unexplored. The academician and thinker in him, his advocacy for exchange of population at the time of Partition, his concerns for preserving cultural contours of Indian civilisation, his decision to embrace Buddhism not only as a political act but as a result of a honest spiritual quest, his rejection of Islam, Christianity and Marxism and his reading of India’s past – and many more such other dimensions of Babasaheb’s personality still awaits to be studied, researched and explored.
On receiving the news of the severe persecution of Scheduled Caste people in Pakistan and by the Nizam of Hyderabad he felt extremely agitated and helpless. He was aware of the fact that to rescue them from persecution and forcible conversion to Islam was a remote possibility given the nature of Muslim League and Islam. As a Law Minister in Nehru’s cabinet Babasaheb issued a statement on November 27, 1947 urging all Scheduled Caste people in Pakistan to come over to India and not to embrace Islam under any circumstances. He issued an appeal to all the Scheduled Caste people in Pakistan writing, “As regards conversion to Islam, I ask all the Scheduled Castes not to succumb to it as an easy way to escape. I cannot say that they should die rather than be converted. What I say is that they must look upon it as a last resort forced upon them by violence. I say that they must not regard themselves as lost to the fold forever. Fortunately, for us we are not hampered by the rules of the Hindu Shastras. To all those who were forcibly converted I pledge my word that if they wish to come back I shall see that they are received back into the fold and treated as brethren in the same manner in which they were treated before the conversion.” It may be noted that Babasaheb had warned Jogendra Nath Mandal, a prominent Scheduled Caste leader from Bengal, against supporting Muslim League in their demand for Pakistan. Lured by the offer of ministership in Pakistan he did not heed Babasaheb’s advice only to repent later for his folly of having relied on Muslim League leadership.
Unlike many apologists of Islam and Christianity, Babasaheb never got swayed away by their propaganda. Like a true believer in facts, analysis and research he had his own ideas which guided his own understanding and action. He was aware of the evil of purdah system among Muslims and the secondary status accorded to women by the Muslim law.
Babasaheb was also aware of caste discrimination and untouchability practiced among Muslims. He never looked at Islam plainly on the basis of its claim but studied and tried to understand the social practice prevalent among the Indian Muslims. He found castes among Muslims to be divided into three groups viz. Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. Ashrafs were accorded higher caste status while Ajlafs were lower class Muslims. Arzals were considered most degraded ones in the caste structure. He refused to accept the claim of equality and brotherhood in Islam. He said brotherhood of Islam is not the universal brotherhood of man – it is a brotherhood of Muslims for Muslims only.
He also lamented the fact that Islam lacked the willingness to change and undertake reforms. He writes, “The existence of these evils among Muslims is distressing enough. But far more distressing is the fact that there is no organised movement of social reform among the Muslamans of India on a scale sufficient to bring about their eradication. The Hindus have their social evils. But there is this relieving feature about them – namely, that some of them are conscious of their existence and a few of them are actively agitating for their removal. The Muslims, on the other hand, do not realise that they are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal. Indeed, they oppose any change in their existing practices.”
He further concludes, “The question may be asked why are the Muslims opposed to social reform? The usual answer given is that the Muslims all over the world are an unprogressive people. The view no doubt accords with the facts in history.”
Babasaheb was not willing to go out of the basic Indian culture. He felt that “if the depressed classes embrace Christianity or Islam they not go out of the Hindu religion, but also they go out of the Indian culture. ‘Conversion to Christianity or Islam would de-nationalise the depressed classes”, he said. On scrutiny, Dr Ambedkar found that Christianity in India had not been able to do away with the evils of caste, the primary reason for the downtrodden to renounce Hinduism.
It was basically due to Babsaheb’s emphasis on the superiority of Indian civilisational ethos and tradition that he chose to convert to Buddhism while renouncing Hinduism as a mark of protest against caste discrimination and untouchability. Perhaps he was aware of the linkages between Buddhism and Hinduism and the fact that within Hindu pantheon also Bhagwan Buddha was regarded as a god incarnate. Probably he was also convinced of the fact that converting to Buddhism would not take his followers far away from Indian civilisation and culture as he emphasised on the Indian version of Buddhism while starting the Bharatiya Bauddha Mahasabha in 1955. Unlike the opponents of Hinduism who blame Hindus for the decline of Buddhism in India on baseless ground, Babsaheb considered Islam to be responsible for the fall of Buddhism. He writes, “There is no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musalmans. Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘but’. The word ‘but’ as everybody knows is an Arabic word and means an idol. Not many people however know what the derivation of the word ‘but’ is. ‘But’ is the Arabic corruption of Buddha. Thus the origin of the word indicates that in the Muslim mind idol worship had come to be identified with the religion of the Budhha.”
There is a need to re-assess the legacy of Babasaheb so as to comprehend his multifaceted personality in a more meaningful manner. His writings may be broadly divided into various parts, viz. the writings of a political activist, an academician, a nationalist, a spiritual leader and so on. As a political activist and as a mass leader, Babasaheb was raising issues far ahead of his times, hence a radical approach was required to galvanise support for his agenda of social reform so as to bring the issue of caste discrimination and untouchability in the central focus. While as an academician he tried to frame scholarly and well researched responses on the burning issues of the day which remain relevant even today. As a nationalist he always attempted to keep national interest at the foremost. Speaking on the third reading of the draft constitution Babasaheb said in voice choked with emotion, “Will the Indians place the country above their creed. I do not know. But this much is certain that if parties place creed above country our Independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever. This eventually we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our Independence with the last drop of our blood.” As a spiritual leader he tried to rescue his followers from the clutches of Islam and Christianity as he tried to reorient his followers from one tradition to another within the vast and rich cultural traditions of Indian civilisation. It is therefore that he is regarded as Bodhisattva by his followers for initiating them to Buddhism.?