(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)
As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land. “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”. The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren. Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India. What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive. Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.
In terms highly reminiscent of colonial writings, such as W. W. Hunter’s The Indian Musulmans (1876), Ambedkar suggests that the tendency to divide the world into two camps, Dar-ul-Islam (abode of Islam) and Dar-ul-Harb (abode of war), makes it impossible for the Muslim to think of India as the “common motherland of the Hindus and the Musulmans”—and certainly not one where both might live “as equals”. There is something yet more disturbing in Ambedkar’s understanding of Indian Islam, which he views more critically and unfavorably than Islam elsewhere, as for example in Turkey. One might have thought that Ambedkar might have found the world of Indian Islam more hospitable than its more austere and putatively “authentic” version in Arabia, but that is far from being the case since, to his mind, social reform movements succeeded in altering Islam for the better in some Islamic countries but certainly not in India. When Ambedkar revisits the Indian past, he does not do so from the standpoint of taking up the challenge, as the Congress-appointed Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee (1931) did so in its extraordinary report, of seeking, and then affirming, the myriad ways in the convergence of Hindus and Muslims wrought a distinct Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis. That the artistic and cultural achievements of the Indo-Persian and more broadly Indo-Islamic world taken as a whole constitute one of the glories of the world is not an idea that appears to have struck Ambedkar as being of any consequence. What is equally conspicuous is his firm, even unbending allegiance to the idea that Hindu-Muslim unity is a mirage, and that nothing in the character, disposition, customs, and manners of Indians even remotely suggests that they ever strove for “unity” or “fusion”.
Barbarism upon barbarism: that is the standpoint from which Ambedkar considers the encroachment of Islam in India. The insularity and stagnation that mark the history of Muslims in India become, in his narrative, yet another dead weight sitting atop that putrid mass called Hinduism. Ambedkar’s unsparing indictment of Hindu caste society is widely known and, at least according to the canons of liberal thought, largely acceptable. What appears not to be acknowledged is that he found even less in Indian Islam that he could commend to anyone else, and in Pakistan or the Partition of India he took it upon himself to nail the truth about the endemic “social stagnation” in which the Muslims of India were trapped. Katherine Mayo’s notorious Mother India (1930), he notes, exposed the world to the “social evils” that had beset Hindu society, but the work had created the “unfortunate impression throughout the world that while the Hindus were groveling in the mud of these social evils and were conservative, the Muslims in India were free from them, and as compared to the Hindus, were a progressive people.” Ambedkar declares his astonishment that such an impression should prevail: “One may well ask if there is any social evil which is found among the Hindus and is not found among the Muslims?” To the contrary, he says, “the Muslims have all the social evils of the Hindus and something more”, adducing as an example “the compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women.”
One might go on in this vein, ad infinitum. This may not seem like an opportune moment to deliver a critical reading of Ambedkar’s views of the history of Islam in India. There has been reason to believe since Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014 that the ruling party over which he presides is committed to the project of turning India into a Hindu state (rashtra) and some Muslims undoubtedly fear that in such a state they may be reduced to second-class citizens. The recent passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, against which the country has erupted in protests, gives not only Muslims but many others in India who recognize discrimination for what it is reason for grave alarm. Moreover, Indian Muslims would be within reason to experience the assault upon them as emanating not only from the state but from a good number of their Hindu countrymen. Dalits and Muslims have been the targets of roving mobs—and I say this with full awareness of how the very word “mob” has, at other times and at other places, also been deployed to minimize and even criminalize public gatherings—that, acting as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, have engaged in barbaric acts of public lynching.
One of the more distinctive aspects of the demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act, now in their third month, is that the protestors are everywhere seen holding aloft pictures of Ambedkar and often Gandhi. The historian, novelist, and public commentator, Mukul Kesavan, observed that Gandhi is “missing” from these protests, since the radical satyagrahi has been turned into a “sarkari saint”. He may have mis-read whether Gandhi is indeed missing from these protests, but that is another story: what is more sustainable is his claim that “Ambedkar is, quite literally, the face of the movement”. The gist of it is that Ambedkar is held in great regard not only by Dalits but by many Muslims and other Indians who are committed to notions of equality, social justice, and secularism. Some readers of this essay may thus be tempted to rush to judgment, declaring it to be an affront to Ambedkar, an unnecessary provocation at such a juncture, and even as a source of solace to the “enemy”, and to them these questions may be posed: Is there ever an “opportune moment” for inviting one to reflection, to a reconsideration of the received narrative, and to a quest for the truth? What has brought us to our present state if not the fact that there has never been an opportune moment for subjecting Ambedkar to the same stringent critiques that he rightfully and unhesitatingly levelled at others? Or should we in our “post-truth” times just resign ourselves to saying that there Ambedkar is the last “post” beyond which we may not pass?
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.
Part IV: “The Muslim Conqueror Comes ‘Singing a Hymn of Hate'”, here.
The five parts of this article together constitute a longer and slightly revised version of a piece first published as “Was Ambedkar Anti-Islamic?”, Open Magazine (27 December 2019), New Year’s Double Issue. The article can be accessed here.
Readers are also invited to view my lecture on “Ambedkar and Religion” delivered at the Kerala Literary Festival, Kozikhode [Calicut], January 2020, here.