- Unquenched In 1927, Ambedkar led the Mahar march at the Chowdar Tank to wrest the right to draw water for Dalits
- Setting Orthodoxy To Fire As the protest took place next to the Tank, he burned copies of the Manusmriti in public
Riddles in Hinduism is one of his many works B.R. Ambedkar did not get to publish in his lifetime. As I began the process of selecting and annotating Riddles, the book itself posed a major riddle. While the first and second editions of an iconic work like Annihilation of Caste (1936, 1944) that Ambedkar oversaw to the last detail could be traced, we had no choice but to base our edition of Riddles on the version that appears in Vol. 4 of the ongoing multi-volume series called ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches’, known by the acronym BAWS, produced by the Maharashtra government’s education department. The BAWS editors say at the outset: “We, however, regret that the final manuscript of this volume has not been found.”
How the Ambedkar papers come into the possession of the state of Maharashtra and how the state was literally forced into publishing his works makes for an interesting, sad story. After he resigned from Nehru’s cabinet in September 1951 following the impasse over the Hindu Code Bill, Ambedkar’s last years in Delhi were spent at 26, Alipur Road, a bungalow he rented from the former Raja of Sirohi (in south Rajasthan). He lived here with his wife Savita Ambedkar, a Saraswat Brahman doctor he’d married in 1948 in his fifty-sixth year (a marriage the New York Timesdescribed as more significant than the wedding of a royalty to a commoner).
Once he resigned, Ambedkar did not have any official secretarial staff to help him. He asked Nanak Chand Rattu, a Punjabi Ad-Dharmi Dalit who had expressed his keenness to assist Ambedkar since their first meeting in January 1940 and who now worked as a typist in a central government office, if he would help him with secretarial work and be his factotum. Rattu readily agreed and would show up at Ambedkar’s house every evening after office hours and work till well past midnight. From October 1951 to December 1956, he typed out almost all of Ambedkar’s letters and papers. Ambedkar died on December 6, 1956, intestate. Rattu published two worshipful memoirs about this time: Reminiscences and Remembrances of Dr B.R. Ambedkar (1995) and Last Few Years of Dr Ambedkar (1997). The following account is based on these books.
According to Rattu, in 1966, one Madan Lal Jain came to purchase the ten-room Alipur Road bungalow. Jain allowed Savita Ambedkar, who’d been living there, to retain two rooms. He gave one portion to his son-in-law, and rented one part of the building to an additional sessions judge. But soon, he sought to evict Mrs Ambedkar; the Additional Rent Controller served her a notice on January 17, 1967. On January 20, Savita Ambedkar left for Alwar (Rajasthan), perhaps in the hope that nothing would happen in her absence. (Rattu, in his account, sounds paranoid and suspicious of Savita Ambedkar’s motives, even implying that she saw to it an ailing Ambedkar did not get the right kind of medical treatment in the years leading to his death.)
With Mrs Ambedkar away, Jain and his son-in-law entered the premises with three bailiffs and twenty musclemen and forcibly opened the rooms, wresting the keys from Mrs Ambedkar’s servant Mohan Singh. Jain and his men removed all the papers that had been neatly arranged in several racks in a big storeroom. These were recklessly dumped in an open yard. The room contained “countless precious documents, papers…and manuscripts” (Rattu 1997). Luck was such it rained that night. Several of Ambedkar’s papers were irrevocably destroyed. That for over ten years they had remained unexamined and untouched in a storeroom in Delhi—even if Rattu says he dusted them on and off and fumigated them—is tragedy enough. They should have been part of the National Archives.
Upon her return from Alwar, Mrs Ambedkar sought the help of home minister Y.B. Chavan and Lt Governor of Delhi A.N. Jha to access the premises and excavate her belongings. Soon, the building where Ambedkar lived was brought down, and the property changed hands. Though the sequence of events from hereon is not clear, the custodians of the Delhi High Court took possession of what remained of the Ambedkar papers. The BAWS editors narrate the story thereafter, without thinking it necessary to accord for the lost time:
The radical Dalit Panthers was formed in 1972. Inspired by the Black Panther Party, it explored the convergence of Ambedkarism, Marxism and Buddhism.
“Later, the papers were transferred to the Administrator General of the Government of Maharashtra. Since then, the boxes containing the unpublished manuscripts of Dr Ambedkar and several other papers were in the custody of the Administrator General. It was learned that Shri J.B. Bansod, an advocate from Nagpur, had filed a suit against the (Maharashtra) Government in the High Court bench at Nagpur which was later transferred to the High Court of Judicature at Bombay. The petitioner had made a simple request—seeking permission from the court to either allow him to publish the unpublished writings of Dr Ambedkar or to direct the Government to publish the same as they had assumed national significance. This litigation was pending before the Bombay High Court for…years.”
In other words, the Maharashtra government was asked by a Dalit advocate, representing the aspirations of several Dalits (unfortunately but unsurprisingly not shared by non-Dalits) to explain why it was sitting on Ambedkar’s papers (or what remained of them), for years, virtually doing nothing. Meanwhile, the published writings of Ambedkar were kept in print by Dalit activists across India. Touchable India did not quite care for this Untouchable who constantly and relentlessly questioned Brahminism and Hinduism till his last breath—and Riddles in Hinduism is testimony.
Ambedkar with his wife Savita.
The 1970s also saw great political ferment. The radical Dalit Panthers was formed in Bombay in 1972. Inspired by the Black Panther Party, it explored the convergence of Ambedkarism, Marxism and Buddhism. In 1978, the issue of renaming the Marathwada University in Aurangabad after Ambedkar—what could have been a benign gesture of symbolism—ran aground with the Shiv Sena and the Maratha community vehemently opposing the move. Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray had responded with this infamous statement: “Gharaat nahi peeth, magtaay vidyapeeth.” (They’ve no bread to eat, but they demand a university.) The fact is, in 1950, Ambedkar had started the first ever degree college—Milind College, on behalf of People’s Education Society—in Aurangabad, the administrative headquarters of Marathwada. A caste war broke out, lasting 67 days. About 1,200 villages were affected in three districts, 19 Dalits were killed, Dalit women were molested and raped, Dalit homes were burnt and pillaged. It was only in 1994 that the university was renamed Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University (BAMU), but it is still called Marathwada University in administrative speak and town parlance.
It was against this background that in 1976—twenty years after Ambedkar’s death—the state government formed the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Source Material Publication Committee, appointing Vasant Moon as Officer on Special Duty. The first volume was published in 1979 and subsequently 22 volumes of speeches and writings have been printed, volumes almost impossible to find in regular bookstores.
The question before us now is which version of Riddles in Hinduism are we reading, especially since the BAWS editors “regret that the final manuscript of this volume has not been found”? Why did Ambedkar not publish this work in his lifetime? When exactly did he work on this mammoth exegetical exercise that runs to ground everything people with caste hold dear?
Rattu records that Ambedkar began writing Riddles in Hinduism in the first week of January 1954 and completed it by the end of November 1955. He made “four press copies” that Rattu typed out “on a fine strong paper”. When Rattu submitted that making four typed copies of the same manuscript seemed unnecessary, Ambedkar responded “with a smile”:
“Look,” he said, “what is the title of the book—Riddles in Hinduism—which is itself a reply. I haven’t got my own press and naturally it has to be given to some Hindu press for printing. It can be lost, burnt or destroyed and my several years of hard labour will thus go waste. Doesn’t matter what the cost involved. I must have a spare copy with me.”
Rattu says the book was complete in all respects, but its publication was held up as Ambedkar wanted to add two important photographs. The first was of Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of the republic, visiting Benares in 1951, worshipping Brahmins, washing their feet and drinking the water. The second photo related to Nehru who on August 15, 1947, sat at the yagna performed by the Brahmins of Benares to celebrate the event of a Brahmin becoming the first prime minister of free and independent India. Nehru is said to have worn the Raja Danda given to him by Brahmins and drank the water of the Ganga brought by them. Rattu notes that while “Dr Rajendra Prasad’s photo had become available, search was on for the photo of Nehru.”
Ambedkar too makes note of these two incidents in his work Thoughts on Linguistic States (a critique of the report of the States Reorganisation Commission) completed in December 1955. He writes: “Did not Prime Minister Nehru on the 15th of August 1947 sit at the yajna performed by the Brahmins of Benares to celebrate the event of a Brahmin becoming the first Prime Minister of free and independent India and wear the Raja Danda given to him by these Brahmins and drink the water of the Ganges brought by them?”
“How many women have been forced to go Sati in recent days and immolate themselves on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. Did not the President [Rajendra Prasad] recently go to Benares and worship the Brahmins, wash their toes and drink the water?” (BAWS Vol. 1, 1979, 149).
Through the 1950s, Ambedkar was under tremendous financial stress and in a hurry to publish as many books as he could, given his failing health. Ambedkar gave priority to The Buddha and His Dhamma—an unfair but tactical choice he was forced to make. Even to publish this opus, he wrote several letters seeking financial assistance including a few to M.R. Masani, Chairman of Tata Industries. In a reminder on March 17, 1956, Ambedkar says, “I’m dreadfully in a hurry and if Mr Tata refuses my request I’d like to go with my bowl to another door.” After assuring themselves that a book on the Buddha might not be ‘controversial’, on May 1, 1956, the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust sanctioned Rs 3,000. Needing another Rs 20,000 to cover printing expenses, Ambedkar then abjectly wrote to Nehru on September 15, 1956, asking “if the Government of India could purchase 500 copies for distribution among various libraries and among the many scholars whom it is inviting during the course of this year for the celebration of Buddha’s 2,500 years’ anniversary”. He was turned down, politely of course.
While The Buddha and His Dhamma was published soon after Ambedkar’s death, Riddles in Hinduism (and several other works) had to wait for three decades before being exhumed. When it was finally published in 1987 under BAWS Volume 4, copies of the book were burnt publicly at a Maratha Mahamandal meeting in Amravati in January 1988. The state government withdrew the book when the Shiv Sena rioted in Bombay for the removal of chapter, The Riddle of Rama and Krishna. When thousands of Dalits staged counter-protests across Maharashtra, the chapter was reinstated, with a caveat saying the government did not ‘concur with views expressed in this chapter’. The government edition carries this disclaimer till date. Ambedkar’s fears that the book could be lost or destroyed by the Hindus is not unfounded. It has a historical basis. After all, scholars acknowledge that most BuddhIST manuscripts from the subcontinent that have survived were found outside the subcontinent, owing to the efforts of Buddhist missionaries to find a safe place for them: the Brahmins sought to destroy whatever they could lay their hands on. If The Buddha and His Dhamma was Ambedkar’s gospel, Riddles in Hinduism is the kind of critique that is similar to what the Buddha himself and other traditions such as the Lokayata school undertook.
When the Buddha went about calling Brahmins to dialogue with him, they came forward. He defeated them in intellectual debates and even won some of them over to his Sangha. But Ambedkar did not enjoy that luxury. Unlike Siddhartha who was a Kshatriya prince, Bhimrao Ambedkar was an Untouchable, and only Dalits embraced his re-invented Navayana Buddhism, which was premised on the negation of Brahmanic Hinduism. This explains India’s collective neglect of the nonviolent egalitarian revolution he charted, and the Prabuddha Bharat he sought to usher.
(Excerpted from the Preface to B.R. Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection published by Navayana)