(Part 4 of 5 of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)
To understand further Ambedkar’s misgivings about Islam, we can profitably turn to his reading of the Indian past and the vexed question about the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth. Ambedkar agonized that Buddhism had not only “ceased to live in India but even the name of Buddha has gone out of memory of most Hindus.” He does not, as modern scholars are wont to do, furnish a plethora of reasons to account for Buddhism’s disappearance: the growing distance between the monks and the laity; the re-emergence of Hindu kingship and the shrinking patronage for Buddhist monasteries; the growing similarities between Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism; the spread of vegetarianism among Hindus; the Brahminization of Buddhism; the defeat of the Buddhists in debates with Shankaracharya; and so on. We can surmise, given his learning, that Ambedkar was not unaware of some of the scholarly literature surrounding the disappearance of Buddhism from India, but the scholarly narrative on this question appears to have been of little interest to him. Ambedkar distinguishes between the decline and the fall of Buddhism, but he does not hide his punches: “There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musulmans. Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘But’ [idol].” Islam was destructive of Buddhism wherever it went, and Ambedkar quotes with approval the verdict of the British historian Vincent Smith: “The furious massacre perpetrated in many places by Musalman invaders were more efficacious than Orthodox Hindu persecutions, and had a great deal to do with the disappearance of Buddhism in several provinces (of India).” He anticipates the objection that Islam was hostile as much to Brahminism as it was to Buddhism, but this, far from falsifying the claim that the “sword of Islam” was responsible for the evisceration of Buddhism, only suggests that we need an interpretation that would render an account of the circumstances that permitted Brahminism but not Buddhism to survive “the onslaught of Islam.”
Ambedkar did not advert to the “sword of Islam” thesis lightly. The chapter of Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India from which his assessment is drawn speaks repeatedly of the Buddhist priesthood that “perished by the sword”, “the greatest disaster that befell the religion of Buddha in India.” Where the priesthood—“however detestable it may be,” adds Ambedkar—is put to death, the religion likewise perishes: “The sword of Islam fell heavily upon the priestly class”, and no one remained “to keep the flame of Buddhism burning.” Nothing, absolutely nothing, in Ambedkar’s narrative offers an exculpation of the Brahmins: indeed, he follows this up with a brief narrative detailing the persecution of Buddhists and Jains by Hindu kings. We see in this work, of uncertain date and left unfinished at the time of his death, intimations of the view that Ambedkar would press forth in Pakistan or the Partition of India (1940). It in this book that the reader is offered the most sustained treatment that is to be found in Ambedkar’s writings of the Muslim demand for a homeland, the troubled history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the first decades of the 20th century, the impossibility of Muslim-Hindu unity, and, most significantly, what Ambedkar evidently took to be the impoverished worldview of Indian Muslims. Disdainful as he was of everything that the Hindu stood for, Ambedkar could declare that “the Muslim alternative is really a frightful and dangerous alternative.”
Strangely, though liberals and secularists, and others who style themselves progressives, have advocated for Ambedkar as the unflinching spokesperson for truth, they have been wholly reluctant to subject to critical scrutiny many of the emphatic pronouncements on Islamic history or the nature of the Indian past which line the pages of Pakistan or the Partition of India. We may take an instance or two of these before moving, by way of a conclusion, to a brief assessment of some of his rather uncharitable if not merciless readings of Muslim character and the near impossibility of “social reform” among Indian Muslims. “The Muslim invaders, no doubt,” writes Ambedkar, “came to India singing a hymn of hate against the Hindus.” If a Hindu had advanced such an argument, he would indubitably have been branded a “communalist”, accused of reading communalism back into the Indian past. What is that element of certainty that Ambedkar presumes will make the reader accede to his insistence—“no doubt”, he says—on the impossibility of any other reading of the design entertained by the Muslim invaders. Was the Hindu especially earmarked for the hatred of the Muslim invader? Did not the same Muslim invaders also kill Shias and destroy everything else that stood on their warpath? Is Ambedkar unable to distinguish the politics of conquest from the politics of religion? Do invaders act otherwise than how Muslims did when they came in search, as Hegel would have said, of India’s fabled wealth? If the Muslim invaders “came to India singing a hymn of hate against the Hindus”, should we not simply resign ourselves to admitting, as the colonial state and its functionaries had been arguing all along, that the Indian past is one long record of bitter Hindu-Muslim animosity. Ambedkar seems almost to relish in this view: in another chapter, he characterizes Hindus and Musalmans as “not merely two classes or two sects” but as “two distinct species” who cannot be conjoined “in one bosom.” Jinnah could have been speaking here; the same holds true of Savarkar. Interestingly enough, British officials also described the immense gulf between Hindus and Muslims in their own inimitable fashion: while the Hindu loved to worship the cow, the Muslim loved to eat it. Did Ambedkar think any differently?
The defender of Ambedkar is, at this juncture, likely to rush forward with the claim that he has been read “out of context” and that the passage in question has only been quoted in part. But does the situation for the Muslim at all improve as Ambedkar further improvises on the deleterious consequences over the centuries of the Muslim invasions: “But, they did not merely sing their hymn of hate and go back burning a few temples on the way. That would have been a blessing. They were not content with so negative a result. They did a positive act, namely, to plant the seed of Islam. Its growth is so thick in Northern India that the remnants of Hindu and Buddhist culture are just shrubs.” Had they looted and plundered, it might well have been tolerable; it would even have been a “blessing”, since the structures of Indian society would have remained fundamentally unaltered. But the invaders were determined to plant their religion on alien soil. India was not to be spared the zeal of the crusaders, whose every victory emboldened them to think that right corresponded to might. That monstrous growth of Islam snuffed out Buddhism and left “remnants” only of Hindu culture in the north.
(to be continued)
See also Part I: “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, here.
Part II: “Buddha not Marx: Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion'”, here.
Part III: “Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past”, here.
As a Dalit woman I believe we have much to be grateful to Dr. Ambedkar for, including the legal prohibition of untouchability and the implementation of reservation policies which have given a lucky few of us the opportunity to escape from generations of oppression. Nonetheless I’m forced to agree with your observations in this article of the flaws in Ambedkar’s analysis of Indian history and culture. His attempt to subsume Dalit spirituality under the rubric of Buddhism has too much similar with Savarna/dwija Hindus attempts to subsume our traditions under the rubric of Hinduism. He undoubtedly bought into the communalist interpretation of Indian history but in fairness this interpretation was very prominent in academic circles of the time. Ultimately Ambedkar is symbolic of legal provisions, most importantly reservations, which are crucial for Dalits today which is why he will always remain an important figure so long as caste hierarchies have not been annihilated.
Scanned through your website and blog. I find it disappointing that Sant Kabir and Indian Sufism have not found any place here !!
This is not a website on sufism or Kabir, but that’s not to say that I don’t admire Kabir or the many Sufi poets in India and around the world. When I have something to say on Kabir, I shall do so; meanwhile, perhaps you can go to kabirproject.com and find what you are looking for there, on other websites.
I am from Punjab, India .I watched your series on India post independence on youtube , I am sorry to say that your views on 1984 militancy movement are biased and are based completely on nationalist view and literature . It seems like most of the books you read are the ones written by the mainstream journalists and writers who tried to understood that issue with a nationalist view . One can never understand any minority movement without understanding the insecurities and betrayal faced by that community . Seccession was never a demand until 1984 . Punjab just wanted the implementation of “Anandpur Sahib Resolution ” but the pro-centre media created a hoax of Khalistaan just to deligitimize genuine demands .
P.S I am not a supporter of violent rebellion