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‘Indians First, Indians Last’: Those Appropriating Ambedkar Never Understood Him

Ambedkar had very categorically cautioned that he “is not prepared to make a fetish of nationalism”.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
‘Indians First, Indians Last’: Those Appropriating Ambedkar Never Understood Him
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Babasaheb Ambedkar was born on 14 April 1891 in Mhow, a garrison town near Indore, though his family hailed from Maharashtra. He is one of those few political and intellectual figures from our recent past who is being appropriated by all political formations. I do not need to explain why this is happening – it is too obvious. His name and legacy appeal to a huge section of our population that has been on the margins for centuries. He gave voice to the millions of these voiceless Indians, who were empowered with the franchise to elect their government.

But all those who extol Ambedkar for votes should also try to explore the intellectual and political ideas he left behind. He envisioned an India that was inclusive, where no religion or caste distinction mattered, an idea that was intrinsic to democratic governance.

This is particularly essential today when some of us are busy defining the identity of our fellow citizens, excluding a section on the basis of religious identity. The past few days have seen this ‘othering’ being manifested in the form of extreme hate and violence against Muslims. The idea of composite nationalism is being blatantly undone.

This conduct also undermines the values enshrined in our Constitution, which was drafted by a committee chaired by Babasaheb Ambedkar. When we tear apart this Book, we should remember the words of Babasaheb, "If I find the Constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it".
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Mere Lip Service to Ambedkar's Ideas Won't Do

Ambedkar did not write much about identity and nationalism, as we understand them today, except for a few remarks once in a while. As a matter of fact, his idea of nationalism was embedded in his politics, which stemmed from his spirit of dignity both for the people and for the country. He actually believed that nationalism, or even national freedom, does not mean much for those who have been deprived of basic human rights and respect for centuries.

All those who valourise Ambedkar should go beyond symbolism. But unfortunately, we pay mere lip service to most of those who laid the foundations of our new India after 1947. Ambedkar was of the view that if discriminatory social values are inherited by independent India unchallenged, then our freedom would be confined to the upper-caste elite and would not emancipate the oppressed castes who had been living on the margins for ages.

'A Hindu Raj Would Be the Greatest Calamity'

All those who talk of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu Nation) today and vouch for Ambedkar in the same breath need to remember these two lines of his, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.” Babasaheb Ambedkar made these observations in the midst of the vicious communal campaigns of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League.

He further explained his nationalist vision and the sort of India he envisaged, in one of his speeches in the Bombay Assembly:

“I do not believe there is any place in this country for any particular culture, whether it is a Hindu culture, or a Muhammadan culture or a Kanarese culture or a Gujarati culture … the common goal is the building up of the feeling that we are all Indians. I do not like what some people say, that we are Indians first and Hindus afterwards or Muslims afterwards … I want all people to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing else but Indians.”

When we talk of nationalism and culture today, we should pause to understand what our founding fathers meant by both. The unbridled nationalism being flaunted today may do more harm than good to the idea of an inclusive and peaceful India.

Nationalism Is a Double-Edged Feeling

Ambedkar categorically explained that nationalism is a double-edged feeling because “it is, at once, a feeling of fellowship for one’s own kith and kin and an anti-fellowship feeling for those who are not one’s own kith and kin”. He said:

“It is a feeling of ‘consciousness of kind’, which, on the one hand, binds together those who have it, so strongly that it overrides all differences arising out of economic conflicts or social gradations, and, on the other, severs them from those who are not of their kind. It is a longing not to belong to any other group. This is the essence of what is called a nationality and national feeling.”

This leaves a lot for us to ponder about, if at all we care for his ideas and not merely his charisma to propel our political fortunes.

Nationalism: 'The Dead Faith of the Living'

There was one more attempt by Ambedkar to spell out the contours of nationalism while explaining the position of his newly formed Indian Labour Party (ILP) in the 1930s. Ambedkar very categorically cautioned – and this is extremely relevant today – that he “is not prepared to make a fetish of nationalism”.

He also had a warning for those who want to skew and misuse the past. He said, “Labour [Independent Labour Party] will not allow the ever-expanding spirit of man to be strangled by the hand of the past, which has no meaning for the present and no hope for the future; nor will it allow it to be cramped in a narrow jacket of local particularism.” People who valourise Ambedkar today for their political gains should care to fathom what he really stood for.

Ambedkar cautioned us years ago when he said, “If nationalism means the worship of the ancient past – the discarding of everything that is not local in origin and colour – then Labour cannot accept nationalism as its creed. Labour cannot allow the living faith of the dead to become the dead faith of the living.” For him, nationalism was just a means to an end and not an end in itself. He never perceived it as a sacred creed, as some of us do today.

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Ambedkar and Hindutva

Babasaheb Ambedkar, in his book Pakistan, or, The Partition of India, warned, “Indians today are governed by two ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, justice, equality and fraternity, whereas their social ideal embedded in their religion denies it to them.” This affirmation becomes even more pertinent today when all the values he espoused seem to be under severe strain. This prophecy is more evident than ever.

The relationship between Ambedkar's philosophy and Hindutva politics has come into sharp focus during the past few years. Almost every political party swears by him, even though most of his concerns and the ideals he stood for have remained neglected for decades. There is still so much to do to fulfil his dreams and vision for a progressive and equitable India. And this is what is expected from those who are desperately vying with each other today to appropriate Ambedkar.

(S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently, he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. He tweets @irfhabib. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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