Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance

(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)

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Poster of Ambedkar outside Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, with the exhortation:  “Save the nation, Save the Constitution.”  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 23 January 2020.

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.

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The Muslim Conqueror Comes “Singing a Hymn of Hate”

(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.”

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The Ruins at Nalanda, in Bihar, India, the seat of a famous university and a large monastery that was destroyed in 1193 by the conqueror Bhaktiyar Khilji. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.

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Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

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The Centrality of “Religion” in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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B. R. Ambedkar

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels”, wrote a famous Indian, “the Hindus come out second best.  My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman [the everyday Hindustani world for Muslim] as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.”  These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat Movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India.  But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of B. R. [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny.  Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a “liberal and secular Hindu”, but let that pass:  what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits.  His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect:  “The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus.  They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.”  The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past. He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims, religious minorities in India, as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.

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*A ‘World Historical’ Figure? The Politics of Lincoln’s International Legacy

The US has been awash this year with celebrations of Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial. The feeling is widespread that Lincoln, more than anyone else, represents the idea – and thus the dream and hope – of America better than any other figure in American history.  He has been lionized as the savior of the Union, the emancipator of the slaves; he is also, perhaps, the most eminently quotable American.   At his death, as I recall from my American history textbook from over three decades ago, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declared that he ‘now belongs to the ages’.  Lincoln has topped most American polls as the most widely admired person in American history.  Tolstoy was unequivocal in his pronouncement that Lincoln “overshadows all other national heroes.”  The great storyteller that he was, Tolstoy has mesmerized Lincoln’s acolytes with his account of the conversation that transpired between him and a tribal chief in the Caucasus who was his host.  Tolstoy told the tribal chief about great military rulers and leaders, but his host remained unsatisfied.  “You have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world”, he told Tolstoy, adding the following:  “He was a hero.  He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as a rock . . .  His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived.  Tell us of that man.”

The hagiographic portrait of Lincoln that has circulated since his death has, to be sure, also been punctured with criticisms.  While the ‘Great Emancipator’ to some, to others his commitment to equality between blacks and whites is profoundly questionable.  For the present, though, one might profitably turn one’s attention to another, not unrelated, question:  to what extent can Lincoln reasonably be viewed as a ‘world historical’ or universal figure?  As I have elsewhere argued, in an “interchange” among scholars of Lincoln published in the Journal of American History (September 2009), Lincoln had many constituencies, to take one country as an illustration, in India.  Gandhi and Ambedkar, however opposed to each other, nevertheless shared in common an admiration for Lincoln.  In 1905, while Gandhi was waging a struggle on behalf of the rights of Indians in South Africa, he penned an article in his journal Indian Opinion which pronounced Lincoln as the greatest figure of the nineteenth century; Ambedkar, on his part, quotes Lincoln in his closing speech as the Constituent Assembly was on the verge of adopting the Constitution of India of which Ambedkar was the principal drafter.  In Britain, not unexpectedly, there was much veneration for Lincoln, among, for example, the Welsh and in Liberal Nonconformist working-class communities; and one can, similarly, point to the enthusiastic reception given to him in most countries of Europe and Latin America.

It is wholly understandable that Americans should be unable to minimize representations of Lincoln as the preserver of the Union, the emancipator of slaves, and the self-made man who, moving from a log cabin to the White House, brilliantly exemplified the possibilities of humankind in the relatively unencumbered circumstances of the New World.  But once we are beyond this, the question persists:  what, if anything, qualifies Lincoln as a world historical figure, in the manner of, to name some highly disparate figures, Marx, Mao, Darwin, and Gandhi?   Is there in his writings something that might be called a body of thought that can be viewed as having made a substantial difference to intellectual activity worldwide?  Histories of human rights will doubtless always have a place for him as the figure who precipitated the formal end of slavery in the US.  But, nevertheless, the fact that he is an inspiration to so many, or that his humanism is immensely appealing, should not be conflated with any estimation we might have to offer of Lincoln’s contributions to the principal questions that have animated those who work and deliberate on such issues as nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, the creation of postcolonial states, and so on.  The invocations over the last few decades have been to the likes of Cesaire and Fanon, not to Lincoln.  Once the Lincoln who is forever enshrined in popular memory as the author of the observation that “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” has been reckoned with, what is there in the body of his work that would appeal to those especially outside the Anglo-American world?  It does not appear to me that Lincoln figured prominently, if at all, in the discussions about human rights that ensued in the 1930s and 1940s and culminated in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late 1940s; likewise, debates about decolonization, the principal political issue of the 1950s and 1960s, except of course to those who view everything through the prism of the enmity of the US and the Soviet Union, seemed to have bypassed Lincoln.

There is yet another consideration:  many American figures have much larger reputations than they might otherwise have had owing to the immense influence wielded by the US in nearly every sphere of life, particularly in the post-World War II period.  America’s history has been everyone’s history, and not only because the US has been a distinct immigrant society; just as significantly, America has been part of the national imaginary of every country, foe, friend, or otherwise.  When the attacks of September 11 transpired, Le Monde unhesitatingly described it as an attack on the world:  “We Are all Americans”, the newspaper declared.  Can one even imagine such a response had the attacks been conducted on Chinese soil?  When, however, America’s star begins to fade, will it also not lead to a fundamental reassessment of American history and culture.  How is Lincoln going to fare in a world where America’s history is no longer perceived to be everyone’s history?