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Mainstream, VOL LIII , No 38, New Delhi, September 12, 2015

Kilvenmani to Javkheda: An Antithesis to Ambedkar’s Nation

Sunday 20 September 2015

by Navneet Sharma and Pradeep Nair

“If Hindu raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and frater-nity.......” —B.R. Ambedkar

The mighty Hindu cultural organisation’s attempt to label Ambedkar as a ‘Hindu’ reformist gets disbanded even by a faint understanding of Ambedkar. A better comprehension of Ambedkarism challenges the prognosis of Hindutva, Hindudom and the Akhand Hindu Rashtra. Before envisioning Ambedkar as a hero of unified Hindus, the ‘cultural’ organisation needs to re-visit its own understanding of Hindu and Hinduism, that is, ‘Hindu’ land which is marred by the rising number of violence towards Dalits even after gaining ‘political’ independence from the British Raj more than 68 years ago; it also needs to ponder over incidents like the Kilvenmani massacre, where more than 45 Dalits fighting for land rights were killed by upper-caste landlords in 1968, or last year’s Javkheda incident, where three members of a Dalit family were killed upon rumours of an illicit affair between an upper-caste woman and a Dalit man.

The organisation which conducts ghar-wapsi, supports the antithetical mongering of Love-Jihad and believes that Buddha is an incarnation of another Hindu god, Vishnu, and that only non-Hindus eat beef, would hardly be inclusive of Dalits or Ambedkarism. The question that arises is: why all of a sudden is this mighty Hindu organisation growing fond of Ambedkar? The attempt to appropriate Ambedkar this time by this outfit is more sincere than its earlier efforts. This is probably because the Hindu henchmen have either understood that the idea of a secular-inclusive Dalit nationalism is a more potent challenge to Hindu nationalism rather than the idea of Indian nationalism or feel that appropriating Ambedkar helps better to construct the imagery of the paradigmatic others, ‘Muslims’ in this case. This is the same organisation which lauded Arun Shourie on his skimpy work, Worshipping False Gods, that criticised and critiqued Ambedkar with a vendetta as Ambedkar’s work, Pakistan or The Partition of India, exposed chinks in the armour of Hindutva and Hindutva-guided nationalism.

Nation and Nationalism

In any discourse, nationalism is more or less defined as a political movement and an ideology embodied in a national ‘identity’. In a democratic country like India, this identity is analysed more often in terms of the inclusion and exclusion of ethno-cultural minorities. In political discourse, nationalism is mostly seen as a collection of different approaches to the core idea that the state and the nation should be linked as a viable political unit rather than as one coherent ideology. There are two schools of nationalism—Western and Eastern. The Western model of nationalism is based on civic engagement in the political affairs of the state whereas the Eastern model of nationalism is based on the ethno-cultural identity of the nation and state. The Western school allows civic and voluntary membership whereas the Eastern school of nationalism forces membership on certain ethnic groups and excludes those ethnicities it considers ‘other’. Hence, the definitions of nation and nationalism mostly emerge and evolve in and around who is included and who is excluded from the society. Ambedkar, who studied in the ambience of Western conceptions of nationality and nationalism, did see ethno-cultural identity-based nationalism leading to fascism.

The ideology of ethnic and cultural nationa-lism is based on the core idea that nation is a primordial entity, an antecedent of politics and based on distinct and homogeneous ethno-cultural boundaries, that deserves a state in order to protect its distinctiveness and auto-nomy. The ethno-cultural nationalist theorists, such as Johann Herder, viewed ‘nation’ as a ‘natural state’ in which one exists because it gives meaning to life and provides an education in humanity and is recognised through cultural similarities in a particular language, whereas Fichte states that ‘wherever a separate language is found, there a separate nation exists, hence, if a nation wishes to absorb and mingle with people of different descent and language, it has to disturb its homogeneous culture’.

The Indian national movement for freedom from British colonial rule had to confront language issues which led to the rise of language revolts in peninsular India. Simultaneously, concocting the Indian subcontinent as a ‘national’ nation-state led to the partition of India. Ambedkar’s participation and interventions in the then contemporary issues reflect his understanding of and appreciation for the ideas of nation, nationality, and nationalism. Whether it was an issue of separate electorate or sharing political space with Muslims, for Ambedkar, swaraj without elimination of casteism was meaningless. Akin to Bhagat Singh’s idea that political freedom without economic socialism would be like replacing the White with Brown rulers, Ambedkar realised that without social inclusion of Dalits into the mainstream, political freedom from the colonial rule would aggravate the marginalisation of Dalits.

The idea of Ambedkar’s nationalism is based on a national line creating a public space for Dalits in which they can come together to deliberate and act for justice and democracy whereas the idea of Hindu nationalism is based on the myth of the Hindu/Aryan race with an intention for the removal of other ethnic minority groups. This ideology believes in a particular race, caste hierarchy, language and homogeneous culture and focuses more on racial purity and its maintenance and produces hate for ‘outsiders’.

Hindu Nationalism: Caste, Class and Social Exclusion

Hindu nationalism mostly identifies the Indian nation on the basis of ethnicity. For the followers of Hindu nationalism, Hindu identity is a way of overcoming the linguistic and regional diversity of India. They wish to share a cultural heritage which distinguishes Indians from non-Indians. But the problem in India is that not all Indians are Hindus and many regions of the country do not have Hindus in majority. The supremacy of the ‘Hindu’ is created with the help of the hegemonic dominance of the people of Central India. Any other Hindu from a different language and region is a lesser Hindu, akin to Dalits who are not considered Hindu enough. That is why the Hindu nationalists cast the minorities and others (in many cases Dalits) as anti-national and enemies. They are concerned with developing the latent power of the Hindu community rather than conserving Hinduism.

The ideological roots of Hindu nationalism lie in the religious revivalist and reform movements which emerged in the 19th century. The liberal reform movements in Bengal, which sought to ‘purify’ Hinduism, viewed Hindu civilisation as a civilisation which has degenerated from the earlier period of glory because of the corruption brought by Dalits and Muslim invaders. The ideology was further expounded by Savarkar in his book titled, Essentials of Hindutva, in which he emphasised on building a modern nation-state in India, nationhood defined in primor-dialist terms. After independence, the Jana Sangh promoted Hindu nationalism which excludes Dalits and minorities and looks at Indianness as a cultural heritage based on Sanskrit and re-termed it as HinduRashtra based on Bharatiya sanskriti. The BJP, the successor of the Jana Sangh, took this concept further and promoted Hindu nationalism by promoting unity and a sense of nationhood among all Hindus with a dominance of the upper castes and classes and by demonising the minorities and Dalits.

A race is on among the political parties and social organisations to claim their ideological match with Ambedkar especially at a time when the State elections in Bihar and UP lie ahead. Both the BJP and Congress had lined up functions and programmes to propagate the message of Ambedkar to polarise the Dalit vote-bank which is now shifting from the BSP. The claim of the RSS that Ambedkar has an ideological proximity to Hindutva is a well-thought strategy to get a share in the Dalit-Muslim equation of the BSP which has been sidelined after its rout in the Lok Sabha polls.

The BJP, with an eye on the 2017 Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, wants to spread the message of a caste-less and class-less society to reach out to the Scheduled Caste and backward class vote-bank. The RSS, through its outreach programme ‘ghar wapsi’, is trying to re-convert large sections of the populace to mainstream Hinduism but in political mainstream it has just given some token representation to Dalits in politics, and has done less at the policy level while ruling at the Centre to improve their economic and social conditions. Since Ambedkar has a pan-Indian acceptance among the Dalit communities, the cultural organisation wants to saffronise him by picking up some of his statements and putting those in a different context to appropriate him in the Hindutva ideology.

Nationalism without Nation: Dalits, Women and Minorities

Dalits, women and minorities never constitute the nation as visualised by the Hindu nationa-lists. The idea of Hindi, Hindu, Hindusthan excludes all others. Women are supposed to produce ‘veer’ (10 male children at least) as veerdhatri, Muslims are perceived as Dawood Ibrahim unless they profess to be a Shahnawaz Hussain or Sabir Ali (a politician from Bihar—recently inducted into the BJP—eyeing the Assembly elections). Dalits are a vote-bank, a whopping 22 per cent in UP and Bihar alone. Udit Raj, Lakshman Acharya and the forgotten and victimised Bangaru Laxman are mere ‘mukhotas’ (as Atal Bihari Vajpayee was once hailed by Govindacharya) of fundamentalist Hindus. Ambedkar wrote: “Nationality is a subjective psychological feeling. It is a feeling of a corporate sentiment of oneness which makes those who are charged with it to feel that they are kith and kin.” With the kind of idea and religious bigotry political Hindutva and Hindu nationalism are conceived, Dalits do not and cannot see their fellow countrymen as their kith and kin as it would pollute the sacrosanct cohort of the Bharat Mata worshippers.

Ambedkar differentiates between nationality and nationalism. According to him, they are two different psychological states of the human mind. Nationality means “consciousness of kind, awareness of the existence of that tie of kinship”. Dalits in the Indian subcontinent suffer from ‘social invisibility’ which might be ‘fruitful’ as they skip the social upheavals (like partition; ‘Dalit women were saved from mass rape because their male kin were positioned outside the honour/dishonour/revenge circuit’ — Butalia) but simultaneously what harmed them more was apathy; Butalia further accounts, state-run refugee camps refused them (Dalits) entry... When they did relocate, unlike the wealthy who were compensated for lost land with equivalent land across the border, Dalits as un-propertied tillers received nothing. Moreover, ‘Both govern-ments encouraged their stasis, to ensure a class of subservient workers.’ Dalits were never consi-dered as citizens lest they seek separate electorate. Gandhi and Jinnah did vie for nationalism without the feeling of nationality and religion, whereas, for Ambedkar, nationalism meant “the desire for a separate national existence for those who are bound by the tie of kinship”.

Dalits and outcasts are not ‘kin’ in any religious manifestation in the Indian sub-continent. This is more peculiar with the Hindu religion as Ambedkar observes: ”Ask a Moham-medan or a Sikh, who he is? He tells you that he is a Mohammedan or a Sikh as the case may be. He does not tell you his caste although he has one and you are satisfied with his answer. When he tells you that he is a Muslim, you do not proceed to ask him whether he is a Shia or a Sunni; Sheikh or Saiyad; Khatik or Pinjari. When he tells you he is a Sikh, you do not ask him whether he is Jat or Roda; Mazbi or Ramdasi. But you are not satisfied, if a person tells you that he is a Hindu. You feel bound to inquire into his caste. Why? Because so essential is caste in the case of a Hindu that without knowing it you do not feel sure what sort of a being he is. That caste has not the same social significance among Non-Hindus as it has among Hindus is clear if you take into consideration the consequences which follow breach of caste. There may be castes among Sikhs and Mohammedans but the Sikhs and the Mohammedans will not outcaste a Sikh or a Mohammedan if he broke his caste. Indeed, the very idea of excommunication is foreign to the Sikhs and the Mohammedans. But with the Hindus the case is entirely different. He is sure to be outcasted if he broke caste. This shows the difference in the social significance of caste to Hindus and Non-Hindus.” Ambedkar, while replying to a question post-conversion to Buddhism, said: ‘I am out of (Hindu) hell.’ Appropriating radical Ambedkar as a Hindu reformist reflects two concerns of the Hindu wing, a) Dalits have occupied the political space in electoral contests and thus are valuable votes; so should be mollycoddled with Ambedkar gloves, and b) to promote and strengthen political Hindutva and Hindudom all symbols and signifiers of the Dalit movement must be taken away whether by hailing Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu or by demolishing Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, so that contem-porary memory commemorates that day as ‘Vijay’ Diwas (Victory Day) rather than Mahaparinirwan Diwas — the day Babasaheb died as a Buddhist though born a Hindu.

The diversity in India, if it is to be sustained, needs to evolve a discourse on nationalism and nationality. The jingoistic Hindu nationalism (Kashmir, Tamilnadu, Assam, Bodoland, Punjab and many others) would only exclude more people than it includes. The newer discourse should accommodate Dalits, minorities and women as equal participants in nation-building. Ambedkar’s Dalit nationalism would be more cohesive and inclusive of cultural, ethnic, religious and gender differences and their construct of nationalism and nation. The nation —‘Akhand Hindu Rashtra’—miserably fails to accommodate Irom Sharmila (the woman on fast since 14 years), Graham Staines (the priest burnt alive in Odisha in 1998), Ehsan Jafri (the Muslim ex-MP killed in the Gujarat genocide) or Senthil Kumar, Balmukund Bharati, Jaspreet Singh, G. Suman, Ankita Veghda, D Syam Kumar (many other Dalit students who committed suicide in top-notch educational institutions of this country).

Dalit nationalism or Ambedkarism is the only option available as a counter to Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalism would not only further fragment the idea of India but the idea of humanity as well. This nation, nationality and nationalism can survive and grow only when the iconoclast Ambedkar replaces the Gandhis and the Modis, when Jai Hind (as of Hindu) is replaced by Jai Bhim.


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Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.