Kashmir, Ambedkar and the Nation
The true essence of nationalism lies in annihilating social and economic disparities
The government has learnt to utilise Babasaheb Ambedkar effectively. During the earlier regime, sections from his writings were selectively quoted to present him as a supporter of the government’s demonetisation policy. Likewise in the current debate over Article 370, Ambedkar is frequently being quoted so as to show that he would have been in agreement with the government’s audacious plan over Jammu and Kashmir.
The appropriation of Ambedkar in Hindutva nationalist rhetoric is not new. Within the rightwing discourse he has been nominated as one of the Hindu social reformers who toiled hard to unify a segregated Hindu population into one single nation. Even his conversion to Buddhism is seen as a “homecoming” to the great ancient civilisational heritage of India, in opposition to the proselytising of foreign religions, mainly Christianity and Islam.
Within the Hindutva fold, Ambedkar is now valued more and flagged often for his anti-Communist stands, for his harsh criticisms of the Congress Party, and now increasingly as an anti-Muslim nationalist leader. Ambedkar is now being heralded as an important leader who had uncompromising differences with Nehru on various issues, including India’s foreign policy. At the same time, he is frequently equated with right wing leaders like Syama Prasad Mookerjee on various national issues.
Militant Hindutva proponents imagine India as the exclusive territory of the Hindus wherein the people of other religions must be subjected to the superior civilisational ethos. The Modi regime is functioning under such a hypermasculine impression, and its current plan with regard to Jammu and Kashmir shows that it will not allow “the only Muslim dominated state” to function according to the guarantees and enshrined federal values of the Constitution.
It has often been observed that the current regime wishes to represent India as hypernationalist, aggressive and exclusively devoted to aggrandising Hindus. Importantly, in such an act they wish to utilise Ambedkar in their defence. Will they succeed?
‘A tyranny of the majority’
Ambedkar can be rescued from such false, banal and non-intellectual appropriation. His intellectual oeuvre is enormous and on various issues he took a substantive critical position.
For example, on the sensitive topic of nations, nationalism and sovereignty, Ambedkar showed no duality or complexity. His approach to the national question is firmly antithetical to the Hindutva ideology and was based on secular democratic values.
Ambedkar justified the formation of Pakistan on the principles of self-determination. He suggested that resurgent nationalities should not be “entrapped, suppressed and held against their will”.
In today’s context, those who oppose the preferential treatment given under Article 370 to Jammu and Kashmir are unwilling or unable to remember the historical necessity under which such arrangements were crafted to build a new nation.
It was a formidable contract, which allowed the vast majority of Muslims and other minorities to feel comfortable and accommodated within newly independent India. Now that this contract has unilaterally been broken, a lot of sentiments are going to be deeply hurt in the Valley.
A nation, Ambedkar thought, emerges if there is strong social fusion between different people. He realised that because India function as a caste society and accommodates multicultural and multi-religious communities, forming a modern nation on a single collectivist bond would be a difficult task.
Ambedkar as chairman of the Constituent Assembly envisaged a modern state with democratic and secular credentials that would protect the religious minorities and also safeguard the interests and rights of socially marginalised communities. He believed a democratic state must respect and foster the presence of different religious sects and should not become a “tyranny of the majority”.
Ambedkar would not value the abstract cultural and religious sentiments that bind people, but he would look critically into the substantive issues of social inequalities, religious discrimination and economic disparities. These social and economic hierarchies disallow any cohesive unity, and eventually kill the soul of the nation. The true essence of nationalism, Ambedkar suggested, lies in annihilating these social and economic disparities.
Ambedkar was thus one of the tallest proponents of democratic socialism. The directive principles of state policy in the Constitution endorse this aspect. The task of the state is to promote the economic empowerment of the worst-off sections, while cultivating democratic and secular values within the differentiated population for their peaceful and harmonious coexistence.
‘He makes a solitude, and calls it — peace.’
Any ideological force that negates the visible religious and cultural differences or social injustices, and wishes to unify them coercively, is bound to fail. Ambedkar cautioned the political elites about the “illusion” of state power to mould the Indian people into a nation. His views on Pakistan are relevant even today as he wrote:
“What the Central Government has done, is to tie them (Muslims) together by one law and to house them together in one place, as the owner of unruly animals does, by tying them with one rope and keeping them in one stable. All that the Central Government has done is to produce a kind of peace among Indians. It has not made them one nation.”
If the Kashmir question is viewed from such a perspective, then Ambedkar appears to be in opposition to the policies of the government.
Today, the Modi regime has turned into a disciplinary force against its own citizens to create an illusion of one nation. Its nationalism is orchestrated through brute military force. Constitutional morality and the need for democratic deliberations to achieve a larger consensus are divorced here.
As an exemplary defender of democratic rights, Ambedkar would have been the firmest critic of this militant nationalism.