The Contrasting Narratives on Upadhyaya and Ambedkar in Publications of the I&B Ministry

Throughout the Upadhyaya essay, the writer Mahesh Chandra Sharma eulogises the ideologue as a man who made revolutionary changes to the socio-political discourse of India. {{name}}
15 September, 2017

Since its ascendancy to power in the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party has made significant efforts to popularise Deendayal Upadhyaya, the ideologue behind the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the parent organisation of the BJP. Among others, these have included proposals to rename the Mughalsarai railway station in Varanasi, the Kandla Port in Gujarat, 12 colleges in Assam, and 45 libraries in Rajasthan after Upadhyaya. In September 2016, the party announced a year-long celebration of the centenary of the ideologue’s birth. The government constituted two committees to plan the celebrations, and announced a budget of Rs 100 crore for them. On 11 September this year, Narendra Modi delivered an address that was broadcasted live to 40,000 higher-educational institutes, in which he focused on the teachings of Upadhyaya and the Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda.

Upadhyaya’s association with the BJP is doubtless deep. In 1952, at the Jana Sangh’s first annual session, Upadhyaya was appointed as the party’s general secretary. He played a pivotal role in shaping its political ideology, which later formed the ideological foundation for the BJP. Before joining the Jana Sangh, Upadhyaya was a full-time member and pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He started the organisation’s monthly and weekly journals Rashtriya Dharma, and Panchjanya, both of which continue to be mouthpieces for the RSS today. His writings, in these journals and in general, reflect a fervent Hindu nationalism and troubling positions on caste and religion—including an opposition to Hindu-Muslim unity, an abhorrence for secularism, and the justification of casteism as swadharma, or the worship of one’s god.

Upadhyaya’s ties to the RSS have been central to the concerns surrounding the BJP’s efforts to promote his legacy. The decision to rename colleges in Assam after Upadhyaya drew criticism from intellectuals, student groups, and other political parties in the state. The noted scholar Hiren Gohain wrote in an Assamese daily that the RSS, which has been unable to establish a strong presence in the state, “is trying to utilise its government’s powers and force its influence upon the people.” This charge is not new—the Congress and Left parties accused the BJP of using state resources to propagate the RSS’s ideology as early as 2014, when the state broadcaster Doordarshan telecasted live a speech by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

The Publication Division, a publishing unit under the information and broadcasting ministry, appears to have been roped into the government’s efforts as well. Headquartered in the national capital, the division has 12 outlets across the country, and publishes 18 monthly journals, a weekly newspaper, and several hundred books. In several issues, two of its publications—Bal Bharati, a monthly Hindi children’s journal that has been running since 1948, and Builders of Modern India, a series of biographical essays on notable Indian personalities—have contained brief biographies or short stories on the lives and philosophy of RSS icons.

At the Patna outlet of the division, I bought the April, May and July issues of Bal Bharati. Each issue contained the biography of at least one RSS icon, which described their ideas on issues such as nationhood, secularism, democracy and religion. The biographies are excerpts from the books that form the Builders of Modern India (BMI) series. The series includes titles on the lives of RSS icons such as Upadhyaya, and Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the Sangh’s founder.

The BMI book on Upadhyaya was published in 2015. In June this year, the Publications Division invited a tender for the production of 2,000 Hindi copies of the book. The next month, Bal Bharati published an excerpt from it, titled “Loktantr ka Purodha”—Mastermind of Democracy. The excerpt is an exhaustive four-page essay on Upadhyaya’s life. It discusses his views on a range of issues: secularism; the role of the state; democracy; and political figures such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Karl Marx.

In May, the children’s journal published an excerpt from the BMI title on BR Ambedkar, written by WN Kuber, who has also authored another biography Dr Ambedkar: A Critical Study. The contrast between the two essays is stark—if not telling of the manner in which the ministry would like the two leaders to be seen. Less than three-pages long, the excerpted Ambedkar essay was shorter than all of the essays on the RSS icons that I read. More crucially, the extract did not provide any information about Ambedkar’s childhood, his education, his work or his philosophy, or on issues such as the Constitution of India, Hinduism, or the caste system—aspects that make Ambedkar one of the most important social reformers and political architects of modern India.

Instead, the excerpted essay focused on the arrival of cabinet mission—a mission of British cabinet ministers that came to India in 1946 and conducted provincial elections to form the Constituent Assembly for the transition to Independence—and Ambedkar’s proposal to it. Ambedkar had met the mission twice in order to ensure that minority communities would be protected and represented during the transition process. However, the mission proposed the constitution of a 14-member interim government comprising members of the Congress and Muslim League, without any representation for Ambedkar’s political party the Scheduled Caste Federation, and only one representative of the Dalit community. Ambedkar remained outside the newly-formed interim government, and wrote several letters to the then British prime minister Clement Atlee, demanding greater representation to the Dalit community. He also led several satyagraha movements in protest against the lack of representation of the Dalit community in the interim government.

It is surprising that the majority of the excerpt discusses the mission and simply notes Ambedkar’s opposition to it, without explaining his perspective or reasons for the same. It states that Ambedkar put “pressure” on the British to provide legal safeguards to the Dalit community, but it neither discusses the letters that Ambedkar wrote to the mission and to Atlee, nor states that he was not a member of the interim government formed by the mission.

The essay selectively juxtaposes Ambedkar’s demands to the mission and the critical response of Congress members. For instance, the essay notes that Ambedkar demanded a separate electorate for Dalits and then states that “the Congress member Jagjivan Ram told the Britishers that he didn’t approve of Ambedkar’s claim that he represented the entire Scheduled Caste community of the country.” It goes on to state that “the mission argued that Ambedkar has influence only on the ‘backward castes’ residing in Bombay presidency and central provinces.”

The biographies published in Bal Bharati generally discuss the childhood and education of the personalities in question, among other aspects. The essay on Vivekananda describes his childhood and his meeting with a temple priest Paramhamsha in Kolkata—it notes that Paramhamsha taught Vivekananda the “knowledge of truth.” In the essay on Ambedkar, there was nothing about his childhood or education.

Throughout the Upadhyaya essay, the writer Mahesh Chandra Sharma eulogises the ideologue as a man who made revolutionary changes to the socio-political discourse of India. He writes that Upadhyaya believed democracy gave birth to capitalism, and that he was critical of socialism because it may turn into dictatorship. Sharma writes about Upadhyaya’s opinions on democracy in some detail: “Deendayal Upadhyaya believed that even though public mandate is decided by majority votes, it doesn’t become valid by ruling of the majority or giving intellectual freedom to minorities. Democracy is not a rule of majority or minority but a governance of public perception.”

He continues: “Deendayal Upadhyaya was of the opinion that there was a need to ‘Indianise’ the western concepts of state, secularism, democracy and several isms. He used to give his Indianised commentary on all such matters.” According to Sharma, Upadhyaya believed that “universal adult suffrage and election system are important parts of democracy but democracy itself can’t be established only by them.” The essay elaborated Upadhyaya’s views on what India should and should not do to maintain its democracy, which included “taking the help of Sadhu and Sanyasis to balance public perception and not allow the country to turn from a democracy to a mobocracy.” By contrast, the essay on Ambedkar makes no mention of his writings, opinions, or contribution to the development of India’s socio-political discourse—a topic that normally cannot be divorced from any description of Ambedkar’s contribution to post-Independence India.

In its May issue, the children’s journal also contained a story on a battle at Haldighati between Rana Pratap, a sixteenth-century king, and the Mughal emperor Akbar. In the story, Pratap is glorified as a king who left the battlefield because he didn’t want his beloved horse Chetak to die. (In March this year, the BJP-led government in Rajasthan announced that history textbooks will be rewritten to teach students that Pratap defeated Akbar in the battle—a claim contrary to historical accounts.)

Sharma similarly glorifies Upadhyaya as well. He notes Upadhyaya’s “selflessness towards power” and quotes him: “One should always be ready to take the leadership on call of politicians and also be ready to give it up without thinking of any loss like Lord Rama.”

No such glorification is afforded to Ambedkar. To the contrary, the conclusion of the essay appears to take a critical stance on Ambedkar’s position during the Independence movement. It notes that Ambedkar “ended his confrontational attitude towards Gandhi and Congress Party” because he “understood the demand of time.” This account is misleading—Ambedkar had differences with Gandhi because he considered Gandhi to be an “orthodox Hindu” who was “never a reformer.” Ambedkar believed that Gandhi’s opposition to untouchability was only to draw the Dalit community into the Congress and that because Gandhi wanted that the community “should not oppose his movement for Swaraj.” “I don’t think beyond that he had any motive of uplift,” he noted. Ambedkar also believed that the Congress only represented a Hindu majority. According to him, the aim of the Hindu community was to discriminate against the Dalit community and to “deny and deprive them not only of the benefits of law, but also of the protection of the law against tyranny and oppression.”

The essay continues to note that the “Congress party got him into the Constituent Assembly from Bombay seat.” This, too, does not present the entire narrative. While contesting the provincial elections to the constituent assembly, Ambedkar lost his seat from Bombay, but was then elected from East Bengal. However, after the province became a part of East Pakistan—present-day Bangladesh—after the Partition, Ambedkar lost his seat. Ambedkar was re-elected to the assembly from a vacant seat in the Bombay province due to the resignation of MR Jayankar, the Congress member who had won from the province. The Bal Bharati essay concludes to suggest that Ambedkar “made amends for the positions that he took during the Independence struggle by taking the Congress’ seat in the Constituent Assembly.”

Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit rights activist and director of the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, told me that it would be incorrect to say that Ambedkar compromised his principles by accepting the Congress party’s offer, or that he had anything to make amends for. Ilaiah told me that Ambedkar fought for “his people”—the Dalit community—throughout the Indian freedom struggle, and that after 1947, he immersed himself in drafting the constitution and constitutional issues. Ilaiah continued, “What he did, he did for the cause of nation and his people.” It is a matter of grave concern that the central government chooses to glorify the individual who justified the caste system, but publishes a hollow and almost critical narrative of the social reformer who fought against it.