The Early Indian Communists’ “Unremitting Criticism” of BR Ambedkar

17 November, 2017

In the early 1950s, BR Ambedkar started working on a book he wanted to call India and Communism. Though he did not finish it, he left behind a table of contents and 63 typed pages of the book. He also left behind an outline for and a section of another book, titled Can I Be a Hindu? This year, LeftWord Books published the works with an introduction by Anand Teltumbde, a civil-rights activist and political analyst. In the introduction, Teltumbde addresses the narrative that Ambedkar was opposed to Marxism, and argues that anyone who believes so is “grossly prejudiced.” He charts the course of Ambedkar’s thinking on communism and Marxism and the corresponding events of the Indian freedom movement that led to rifts between India’s early communists and Ambedkar. In the following extract from the introduction, Teltumbde discusses the acrimonious relationship between Ambedkar and the Communist Party of India (CPI). He writes, “These communists have never been as arrogant and bitter against the caste system as against Ambedkar.”

Ambedkar’s annoyance with communist practice only grew with the passage of time. The CPI’s criticism of Ambedkar could have been plausible only if it had practiced what it professed. But ideologically refusing the necessity of battling caste, ignoring the conceptual basis of linking other forms of (non-economic) exploitation and continuing with unmindful practices vis-à-vis caste, these criticisms rang hollow. Right from his coming to prominence as the leader of the independent Dalit movement, the CPI was angry with him. Instead of befriending Ambedkar, they began attacking him as the divider of the working class, misleader of Dalit masses, opponent of the nationalist movement and a stooge of imperialists. They derided him as “the reformist and separatist leader” who kept “the untouchable masses away from the general democratic movement and to foster the illusion that the lot of untouchables could be improved by reliance on imperialism.”

In March 1952, the CPI Central Committee adopted a special resolution on the SCF [the Scheduled Castes Federation was a political group founded by Ambedkar in 1942], but directed specifically against Ambedkar. It may be interesting to see some extracts from its content. [It states that] the economically “most exploited and socially the most oppressed” Scheduled Caste masses'

urge for economic betterment and social equality have been given a distorted and disruptive form by their pro-imperialist and opportunist leader, Dr Ambedkar who has organised them on a communal, anticaste Hindu basis in the SCF.

The party must sharply expose the policies of Ambedkar and wean the SCF masses away from his influence by boldly championing the democratic demands of the Scheduled Caste masses, by fighting caste-Hindu oppression against them and by drawing them into common mass organisations.

It would be a mistake, however, to adopt the same attitude towards all units of the SCF in all parts of the country . . . Many units of the SCF and several of its local leaders don’t subscribe to the views and policies of Dr Ambedkar. Every effort should be made to draw these units and individuals . . . to help the process of radicalisation among the Scheduled Caste masses.

The CPI’s resolution was clearly meant to drive a wedge between Ambedkar and his associates, and the lower-level SCF workers. These communists have never been as arrogant and bitter against the caste system as against Ambedkar.

Ambedkar, on his part, never went against one of his close followers, RB More, for leaving him politically and joining the Communist Party. As More himself gratefully acknowledged, not only did their personal relationship remain intact but Ambedkar himself respectfully discussed the issues of politics with him whenever they met. However, this was not the case with the communists. They not only begrudged the independent movement of Dalits but also plotted to split the SCF. In Bombay, they seeded an outfit of Dalit youth workers, which met as the Democratic Scheduled Caste Youth Conference on 23–24 January 1949. The CPI heaped adulation on it as “an event of great significance in the struggle of Bombay’s untouchable youth for human rights and against exploitation. It was the first conference of the working youth from the most oppressed and backward section of our people.”

As a matter of fact, having begun his political career as a workers’ leader, Ambedkar was amenable as a possible ally but the communists who operated under the cover of the Congress, which was a party truly representing the interests of the incipient bourgeoisie, saw him as a rival. Curiously, the CPI did not appreciate Ambedkar’s tryst with class politics during the 1930s, but when he switched to apparently caste-based politics through the SCF in 1940s, the CPI woke up to its importance. The central organ of the CPI, People’s War, gave wide coverage to the SCF and through that to the caste question in the party literature. [The Indian Communist leader and politician] BT Ranadive was entrusted by the party to write the first clear historical analysis of the role of the Indian National Congress and the Scheduled Caste Federation vis-à-vis the question of Scheduled Castes in India. In his ten-page analysis, Ranadive made a staid criticism of the Congress party’s policies towards the untouchables. He supported the Charter of Rights placed by the Nagpur session of the Scheduled Castes Federation in 1942 and suggested that it should inscribe on its banner “the demand for complete independence, rapid industrialization, liquidation of landlordism, etc., to really solve the problems of the untouchable masses.” Despite this realisation, Ranadive made a seething criticism of Ambedkar and his organisation for their failure to target British imperialism.

While recognising that “Hindu India has oppressed them for years and that oppression must be ended,” he observed that “this cannot happen unless the untouchables make their demands an integral part of the struggle for freedom and join other parties in securing power.” BTR’s argument that “Rapid industrialization of the country, liquidation of landlordism and radical change in the mode of production . . . alone will give free scope to the vast mass of Untouchables to find independent means of livelihood, and lead to the abolition of untouchability” obviously stands disproved by the experience of last seven decades.

It is noteworthy that while Ambedkar was harsh against the communists in his statements, he was not so when he spoke on Marxism. It is the greatest complement of a critique to place Marx and Buddha, whom he adored as his master, on the same plane, albeit for their goals. As a matter of fact, Ambedkar never questioned the communist philosophy. If at all, he praised it although he had serious reservations about its tenets. With hindsight, though one may observe that the strategies observed by both Ambedkar and the early communists had left little space for dialogue, there is no evidence to suggest that the communists really made an effort to create such a space.

The CPI continued its unremitting criticism of Ambedkar’s reservation about adopting a firm stand on the question of complete independence. On their part, they never considered his argument that if the nationalists would insist on getting freedom from imperialist rule, they should also appreciate the Dalits’ struggle for freedom from the shackles of Brahminism. Even while condemning the merciless attacks on the SCF activists for their black-flag protest against Gandhi when he came to occupy a PWD hut in the mixed working-class area of Bombay on 31 March 1946, the CPI never forgot to attack Ambedkar, who they said, “enabled the reformist and separatist leaders like Dr Ambedkar to keep the untouchable masses away from the general democratic movement and to foster the illusion that the lot of untouchables could be improved by reliance on imperialism.”

One notable event that the party immediately reacted to, at this time, was Ambedkar’s resigning the post of cabinet minister at the centre in 1951. The CPI political correspondent ridiculed his exit “in a dramatic manner” in a bid “to capture the imagination of the millions of Scheduled Castes as a great champion of social progress.” Ambedkar castigated the government for dropping the Hindu Code Bill and characterised it as a betrayal of the Schedule Castes. The political correspondent raked up the ugly visage of the Congress over the previous four years leading to great sufferings of the people, particularly of the “Scheduled Castes, forming the most backward and downtrodden sections, more than anybody else.” He smelt in Ambedkar’s decision an ambition to refurbish his pro-SC image after tolerating years of misrule by the Congress. In a hostile criticism, the correspondent reminded the readers that the leaders of the Federation “Kept the Scheduled Castes out of the national movement by exploiting their just grievances against the Congress, they developed separatist tendencies among them, prevented their radicalisation and helped, along with the communal Muslim League leaders, the astute British imperialists in playing their diabolical game of divide and rule. They advanced neither the cause of India’s political emancipation nor economic and social progress.” The caption of this article—Ambedkar's move to detach Scheduled Castes from the Left—contained the keynote of the criticism. That Ambedkar still inspired the imagination of the SCs more than the CPI was surely a cause of worry for the latter. The political correspondent took pains to enlighten the SCs that “Communists Have Fought For Them” but the SCF “decided not to enter into any election alliance with the Communist Party of India.” The CPI, he claimed, “has consistently fought for the demands of the Scheduled Castes, it has a programme for them, it has programme for the economic reconstruction of the country, which alone can guarantee the progress of all backward sections.”

Even when they sympathised with the struggles of Dalits, the CPI never missed an opportunity to attack Ambedkar’s leadership. When the SCF units in Pune and Lucknow protested against the Cabinet Mission’s refusal to recognise the Dalits as a minority community, they were arrested and tortured by the police on 15 July 1946. The People’s Age editorial, while condemning the torture and arrest, unleashed a bitter criticism of Ambedkar for his “reliance on the British” causing immense harm to the cause of untouchables. The way to the liberation of millions of untouchables, it asserted, “can only be achieved by the common struggle of workers and peasants against the British rulers, against the present plan and the present social system.”

This is an extract from Anand Teltumbde’s introduction to India and Communism, published by LeftWord Books. The extract has been edited and condensed.