Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Indian Muslim Society and Politics

Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Indian Muslim Society and Politics

Mingling the Incompatibles: A Curious Attempt at Islamist ‘Ambedkarism’

It was last year when I was strolling about on the campus of my alma mater – Jawaharlal Nehru University – immediately before or after International Women’s Day (I do not exactly remember). Suddenly, a poster stuck on one of the unplastered bare brick walls, so characteristic of the construction on the JNU campus, caught my attention. It had been released by the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organization (BASO) to mark 8 March. All students’ organizations active in the JNU release posters or pamphlets around Women’s Day to affirm their commitment to gender equality and women’s rights and the BASO had not been an exception. The imagery employed by this poster was such that I drew out my phone and clicked a picture. It bore the drawing of a hijab clad young woman and “saluted”, along with some other women, Hadia (presumably for struggling against patriarchy). Now, let me observe, at the risk of causing umbrage to a lot of people in the academia, that the hijab is perhaps more of an emblem of a woman’s subjection to patriarchy rather than her struggle against it. Coming to Hadia, the reader might know that she was formerly known as Akhila. She changed her faith under rather dubious circumstances and married (or was married to) a man equally dubious. In 2016, her conversion and marriage had occasioned a court case as well as a massive public controversy since her parents doubted if she actually exercised any agency during the entire affair. I think that the BASO could have left her out of its list of women who according to it have cocked a snook at patriarchy.

Though the BASO seems to evoke Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary legacy, to me it appears to be mainly into ‘Ambedkarism’ – I say this on the basis of what I have seen of its posters and pamphlets in the JNU. What is ‘Ambedkarism’? Simply put, it is the pursuit of, what is in the eyes of the ‘Ambedkarite’ (a believer in ‘Ambedkarism’), social justice. This social justice could be in the form of, to borrow words from Valerian Rodrigues, editor of an omnibus edition of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s writings, “equality of consideration, equality of respect and equality of dignity.”[i] On the basis of the aforestated, to what extent is the image of a hijab clad woman an appropriate motif for the BASO’s ‘Ambedkarism’? Not quite, since Ambedkar would definitely have thought that such a woman is socially privy to neither consideration, nor respect, nor dignity on the same level as a man. The BASO, through its mischievous choice of imagery (and identification of Hadia as a challenger of patriarchy) was actually promoting Islamism in the guise of ‘Ambedkarism’. As far as pairings go, that of Islamism and Ambedkarism is a very odd one. It sure would have made Ambedkar cringe as he had once done a very thorough critique of the regressive and supremacist social and cultural attitudes prevalent among Indian Muslims and their application in politics (that is what Islamism is). But we do not know of this side of Ambedkar since it embarrasses our politically correct academia. It has studiously concealed it from public knowledge while ceaselessly tom-toming Ambedkar’s critiques of Hinduism.

Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Indian Muslim Society and Politic JNU Hadia Hijab

Last year, the ‘Women’s Day’ poster of the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Union featured a hijab clad woman and identified Hadia (name circled in red) as a feminist icon.

 Ambedkar’s Critique of Indian Muslim Society and Politics

In the year 1940, soon after the Muslim League passed the ‘Pakistan resolution’ in its Lahore session (on 22 March), Dr. B. R. Ambedkar came up with a lengthy study titled Thoughts on Pakistan. It was republished in 1945 as Pakistan or the Partition of India (henceforth PPI). The biographers of Ambedkar barely tell the reader what is contained therein. Gail Omvedt writes that in this work Ambedkar concluded that “the creation of Pakistan was inevitable” due to the “developing political mood of Muslims.”[ii] Eleanor Zelliot terms it Ambedkar’s “defense of the idea of a separate Muslim nation” as the Indian Muslims “were emotionally a nation.”[iii] By displaying an understanding of the Muslim demand for Pakistan, Zelliot further (disingenuously) argues, Ambedkar indicated that “Untouchables and Muslims shared a sense of separateness, of isolation….”[iv] Christophe Jafferelot, author of a volume of essays on Ambedkar (Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability. Analysing and Fighting Caste), does not at all mention PPI anywhere. Valerian Rodrigues does in his introduction to The Essential Writings of B. R. Ambedkar, but he barefacedly lies about it. He says that in PPI Ambedkar suggested that “the appeal of Pakistan for the Muslim masses” was due to the “failure of Congress to strive for social reforms and democratize society.”[v] However, his selection from Ambedkar’s writings does include an excerpt from PPI. Rodrigues gives it a title of his own devising – ‘Is There a Case for Pakistan?’ Mind you, in the original volume there is not a chapter, or even some section of one, bearing such a rubric. This excerpt has been strategically chosen (without the context being sketched out) to convey to the reader the impression that Ambedkar was recognizing that the Muslims of India share a unity of emotions and consciousness and, consequently, was conceding their claim to nationhood (as Zelliot too will have us believe). The actual reality of PPI is not quite that. It is true that in it Ambedkar advised the Hindus to grant the Muslims of India Pakistan. But the reasons he adduced to support this suggestion were, to put it mildly, rather uncharitable towards Indian Muslim society and politics. One could term Ambedkar’s reasoning a very thorough critique of them. That is why, dear readers, the aforementioned learned people are so queasy about PPI. They barely, or not at all, touch upon what is in it. One even lies about it. They do not want us to know what this text really contains.

Ambedkar wanted the Hindus to accede to the Pakistan demand because, due to a variety of reasons, he thought that an independent India with a large Muslim population will be an impractical idea. Hence, he argued that it will be better if the Hindus willingly let go of the Muslim majority territories in the North West and East of India which the Muslim league wanted to constitute as Pakistan (present day Pakistan and Bangladesh). He observed that the Muslim majority territories of the north have no “spiritual unity”[vi] with the rest of India. “Indeed”, he wrote, “there is more spiritual unity between Hindustan and Burma….”[vii] What had caused the spiritual alienation of these Muslim majority territories from the remainder of the country? For Ambedkar it was the outcome of the bloody invasions that India had suffered over the many centuries. He was no negationist and held that those who led these invasions – Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammad Ghori, Taimur, Babur, Nadirshah and Ahmadshah Abdali – “were all united by one common objective and that was to destroy the Hindu faith.”[viii] To achieve this end they had been extremely cruel and barbarous resorting to, in his words, “destruction of temples and forced conversions, with spoliation of property, with slaughter, enslavement and abasement of men women and children….”[ix] While these memories caused the Hindus shame, for Muslims they were “a source of pride.”[x] So, a lot of Indian Muslims, as seen by Ambedkar, were not just uprooted from their parent civilization but even took pride in their state along with the agents and events that had brought it about.

Moving on, the apparent extra-territorial loyalties of the Indian Muslims were a concern for Ambedkar – the fact that they saw themselves as members of a universal Islamic brotherhood. The Indian army as it existed then, he pointed out, was “predominantly Muslim in its composition”[xi] being recruited in the Punjab and North West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P). This made the Muslims of the Punjab and N.W.F.P the ‘gate-keepers’ of India. He, thus, wondered if the neighboring Afghans “singly or in combination with other Muslim states” were to invade an independent India “will these gate-keepers stop the invaders or will they open the gates to let them in?”[xii] Besides being of doubtful loyalty if confronted with a Muslim enemy, Ambedkar also thought that a Muslim dominated army will be hard to control and discipline for a united India. The reason was Muslim supremacism vis-à-vis the Hindus. “The realist must take note of the fact that”, we see him urging, “while the Musalman accepts the European as his superior, he looks upon the Hindu as his inferior.”[xiii] Hence, he declared, “It is doubtful how far a regiment of Musalmans will accept the authority of their Hindu officers if they be placed under them.”[xiv]

Thirdly, Ambedkar found conceding Pakistan a politic option for the Hindus due to the communal situation prevailing in India. As the frequent outbreak of riots was indicating, Hindus and Muslims were obviously not getting along. Indeed, in Ambedkar’s estimate the situation was so bad that he termed it a “civil war” that was “interrupted by brief intervals of armed piece.”[xv] Though both sides had suffered, Hindus, Ambedkar thought, had suffered a bit more than the Muslims. More “carnage, pillage, sacrilege and outrage of every species”, he writes in PPI, was committed by “Musalmans against Hindus than by Hindus and Musalmans.”[xvi] Ambedkar found this state of affairs irremediable and any attempt at forging Hindu-Muslim unity doomed to failure. This was since, as he saw, their religious outlooks were fundamentally and irreconcilably different. “From a spiritual point of view,” he concluded, “Hindus and Musalmans…are two distinct species.”[xvii] This made the unity of India impractical as “Without social union (rendered impossible by the religious difference), political unity is difficult to be achieved.”[xviii] Further, Ambedkar was doubtful if Muslim demands for political concessions will ever cease since they were a manifestation of Machi Politic (power politics).[xix] He wanted the Hindus to understand that “there is a difference between safeguards to allay the apprehensions of the weak, and contrivances to satisfy the ambition for power of the strong; that there is a difference between providing safeguards and handing over the country (to the Muslims).”[xx] And, then, Muslim nationalism could any day disrupt a united India as Greek, Balkan and Arab nationalism had “blown up the Turkish State”[xxi] (Ambedkar was referring to the disintegration of the Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire). As he saw, India required a strong central government and it could not have one “so long as Pakistan [remained] a part of India.”[xxii]

In PPI, we also find Ambedkar dwelling at length upon the stagnation that Indian Muslim society was suffering from. Just as the Hindus, he observed, Muslims too countenanced a variety of social evils – subjugation of women, caste and purdah. But they differed from the Hindus in the sense that there was “no organized movement of social reform among the Musalmans of India….”[xxiii] On the other hand, at least some Hindus were “actively agitating” for the removal of the evils prevalent in Hindu society.[xxiv] Politically too he found the Indian Muslims stagnant as their politicians “did not recognize the secular categories of life…because to them it means the weakening of their community in their fight against the Hindus.”[xxv] Thus, Muslims never formed class solidarities outside their religion – poor Muslims did not unite with poor Hindus to get justice from the rich.[xxvi] We see Ambedkar concluding that this political and social stagnation of the Indian Muslims was because they thought that they “must perpetually struggle” with the Hindus to “establish their historical position as the ruling community.”[xxvii] To win this struggle, Muslims needed strength and “to ensure strength” they were willing to “suppress or put in cold storage everything that causes dissension in their ranks”[xxviii] – namely, efforts at reform. Ambedkar noticed that Hindus too were now ready to suspend social reform efforts and prioritize their struggle with Muslims.[xxix] This was another reason to concede Pakistan – Hindus and Muslims regarded each other a menace and this state of affairs was likely to last as long they “were required to live as members of one country.”[xxx]

Ambedkar also decries in PPI the Indian Muslims’ propensity for political aggression which issued from a “spirit of exploiting the weakness of the Hindus.”[xxxi] Whenever the Hindus objected to some Muslim practice, he observes, the Muslims insisted upon it “and gave it up only when the Hindus [showed] themselves ready to offer a price for it by giving the Muslims some other concessions”[xxxii] (over and above the ones they already enjoyed). As an example, he cites the Hindu objection to cow slaughter and the Muslim insistence upon it though “Islamic law does not [require] the slaughter of the cow for sacrificial purposes….”[xxxiii] As Ambedkar saw, the Congress’s policy of making concessions to the Muslims had been ineffectual and had only “increased Muslim aggressiveness.”[xxxiv] This was because Muslims interpreted this attitude “as a sign of defeatism on the part of the Hindus and the absence of the will to resist.”[xxxv] We see Ambedkar going to the extent of wondering if the Indian Muslims will at all obey a government of independent India that is “manned and controlled by the Hindus.”[xxxvi] He nurtured this concern since “To the Muslims, a Hindu is a Kaffir”[xxxvii] and, consequently, “low-born and without status.”[xxxviii] Ambedkar went on to quote the following infamous remark by Maulana Mohammad Ali about Mahatma Gandhi to underline the degree of contempt that a Muslim might nurture for a non-Muslim (even if it were to be Gandhi himself) –

“However pure Mr. Gandhi’s character may be, he must appear to me from the point of view of religion inferior to any Musalman, even though he be without character.”[xxxix]

Here I must tell the reader that Maulana Mohammad Ali was a close associate of Gandhi and features in academic mythology as a ‘nationalist Muslim.’ A little thing more, we can say that Ambedkar made the foregoing criticism of Indian Muslims as a non-Hindu since he had made public his intention of leaving Hinduism in 1935. Ambedkar was not being a partisan on behalf of the Hindus; he was more like a neutral observing the politics that informed the relations of the Hindus and Muslims at a remove.

Epilogue: Why the attempt at Islamist ‘Ambedkarism’?

As we saw above, Ambedkar was very comprehensively critical of what one can term the Islamism of the Indian Muslims. Then why did the BASO make that devious attempt at Islamist ‘Ambedkarism’? It is highly unlikely that the folks in the BASO are unaware of the existence of Pakistan or the Partition of India. All in higher academia know of it, it is only that they do not tell the common public about this text so that Ambedkar can be presented as someone who only lambasted the Hindus and Hinduism. The reason why we see the BASO dishing out ‘Ambedkarism’ with a dose of Islamism is because it is an enterprise run by Mr. Umar Khalid (of 9 February 2016 fame). You see, dear readers, in recent times there has been an incursion of the Islamists into ‘Ambedkarism’. This is because it allows them to wish death upon the ‘Brahamanical fascist’ Indian state while posing as social progressives. This infiltration could also take place in the first place because several radical ‘Ambedkarites’ are on the same page with the Islamists (in the JNU at least). I, for example, closely knew this Maharashtrian ‘Ambedkarite’ in the JNU who once piously hoped before me that one day the ‘Brahmanical’ Indian state will disintegrate. Beware, dear readers, these days ‘Amebedkarism’ is the preferred subterfuge for a lot of the ‘breaking India’ elements.


[i] Valerian Rodrigues (ed.), The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, OUP, New Delhi, 2018 (twenty-first impression), Introduction, p.21.

[ii] Ambedkar. Towards an Enlightened India, Penguin Books, 2008, p.94.

[iii] Ambedkar’s World. The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement, Navayana, New Delhi, 2004, p.188.

[iv] Ibid., p.189.

[v] The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, p.13.

[vi] Pakistan or the Partition of India, Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi, 2013, p.81.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., p.71.

[ix] Ibid., p.80.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., p.112.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., p.114.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., p.206.

[xvi] Ibid., p.206.

[xvii] Ibid., p.214.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid., p.225.

[xx] Ibid., pp.225-226.

[xxi] Ibid., p.242.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., p.253.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid., 256.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid., p.257.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid., p.268.

[xxx] Ibid., p.269.

[xxxi] Ibid., p.291.

[xxxii] Ibid., p.292.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p.294.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid., p.330.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Ibid., p.332.

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Saumya Dey

Saumya Dey is an associate professor of history at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. His primary research interests are intellectual and cultural history. He has, till date, authored one monograph and a collection of essays - Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2015) and The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and other Essays. Historical Legitimacy of an Idea (Shubhi Publications, 2019). He earned his PhD at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.