Nehru and Ambedkar- Consensus beyond Politics

  • Posted on: 23 March 2018
  • By: Mohammad Asadul...

Delivering a speech in 1884 to the undergraduates of Cambridge on his Indian experiences, Sir John Strachey, a British Civil Service Officer, asserted that “there is not, and there never was an India.”[1] He claimed that for “the men of the Punjab, Bengal, the Northwestern Provinces, and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible.” At the eve of the Round Table Conferences, Winston Churchill turned soothsayer declaring that “India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.”[2] While on a retrospective assessment, these statements may seem brashly arrogant today, but they were not far from the truth. Overturning these predictions was exactly the challenge before Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel, and Babasaheb Ambedkar.

The first and the toughest task was to create the idea of India - a national identity which would not only bring several regions, religions, and tribes into one governance system, but also sustain for ages to come. As Tagore remarked in a 1921 letter to a friend, such identity should prevail over the “intense consciousness of the separateness” between various communities.[3] The national identity had to be created by finely balancing the strong grip of the union over the regions, while also allowing adequate space for the regions to assert their own cultural and linguistic identities.

Separated by Paths

To create such national identity, however, required a set of individuals with similar (if not the same) ideals.  As the tallest leader of the Congress and the ‘successor of Gandhi’, Nehru stood at the forefront of this project. Nehru, recognising that Ambekdar is one such person who must be at the helm of nation building, invited him to take charge as the Minister of Law. It was a surprising move not only to most of the people, but to Ambedkar himself. In his last speech as the member of the cabinet, Ambedkar noted that “the offer came as a great surprise… as I was in the opposite camp and had already been condemned as unworthy of association when the interim Government was formed.”[4] However, he accepted the offer “on the ground that I should not deny my cooperation when it was asked for in the building up of our nation.”

Nehru and Ambedkar were united by their common understanding of the nation, its religions, and its caste structures, making them sailors of the same ship doing their part. Barring these ideas, however, there were not many common denominators between them. Ambedkar consistently accused the Indian National Congress of a party run by caste Hindus, while Nehru was one of its most loyal leaders. He went on to contest fierce elections against the Congress both in 1937 (through the Independent Labour Party) as well as in 1946 (through the Scheduled Castes Federation). While entire Congress working committee (along with Nehru and Gandhi) were imprisoned after the declaration of the Quit-India movement, Ambedkar took up the position of the Labour member in the Governor-General’s Executive Council. Most importantly, Ambedkar had several differences with Gandhi and contested the epithet ‘Mahatma’ quite fiercely,[5] whereas Nehru was the ‘chosen successor’ of Gandhi.

United by Ideas

 Despite differing political alliances and methods chosen, Nehru and Ambedkar shared similar ideas. When the likes of Patel and KM Munshi objected to Ambedkar’s proposal of including reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Ambedkar promptly offered his resignation. To reconcile the differences, Patel called upon Ambedkar and made an effort to convince him to drop the idea. Ambedkar, to support the need of affirmative action, cited Nehru’s words where Nehru “despite being a Brahmin, said that for generations altogether, Hindus oppressed the untouchables and tribes.”[6] As a result of this, and also to keep the brilliance of Ambedkar within the Constituent Assembly, Patel readily gave in to Ambedkar’s demands.

That was not the only time Nehru came to back Ambedkar’s ideas. When a good number of members pressed the Constituent Assembly to adopt the word ‘socialist’ in the Preamble, Ambedkar argued that it would amount to “destroying (of) democracy” as the Constitution should not mandate the socio-economic structure, but should be “decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances.”[7] To support Ambedkar on this, Nehru made sure to attend this debate despite being hard pressed for time due to his Prime Ministerial duties.[8]

The Hindu Code

Another issue of common interest for Nehru and Ambedkar was the reformation of Hindu personal law, an idea opposed by the tallest of leaders such as Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. They also became a common enemy in the eyes of the R.S.S., which organised more than 70 meetings to burn the effigies of Nehru and Ambedkar together.[9] Nehru chose Ambedkar to chair the sub-committee to draft the Hindu code. However, failure of getting the Code passed in the Parliament led Ambedkar to resign from the cabinet. Nehru’s plea of patiently proceeding in a timely manner went unheeded. In his resignation speech, he remarked that “the Prime Minister, although sincere, had not the earnestness and determination required to get the Hindu Code Bill through.”[10]

Nevertheless, when the Code was split into four parts and passed in the Parliament in 1955-56, Nehru praised Ambedkar calling him “a symbol of the revolt against all the oppressive features of Hindu society.”[11] Ambedkar, in return, announced that Nehru “will be remembered also for the great interest he took and the trouble he took over the question of Hindu law reform.”[12] This interchange seemed to have erased any bitterness the resignation might have caused.

For the Nation

 Much has been written about Ambedkar’s lack of personal connect with Nehru, and his explicit distaste of the Congress. It is true that Nehru and Ambedkar did not share a political stage, let alone a personal understanding. Nevertheless, both acted professionally and displayed statesmanship of highest order to ensure that the nation they were building gets the best of them.

It would surely be a grave mistake to ignore the differences between Ambedkar and Nehru, but a graver mistake would be to create a narrative of conflict between them. Viewing their relationship in the extremes as either white or black does not do justice to the several hues of grey they shared. They did not stand together at the equator, but they were not poles apart either.

(Mohammad Asadulla Shareef is a lawyer based in Hyderabad)

[1] Page 15, Imdad Hussain, Reorganisation of North East India Since 1947 (Edited by B Datta Ray and S P Agarwal)

[2] Ramachandra Guha in The Hindu. Full article here: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2005/06/05/stories/2005060500170300.htm

[3] Page 288, Rabindranath Tagore, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (Volume Three).

[4] Read the full speech here: https://ambedkarism.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/dr-ambedkars-resignation-sp...

[5] Listen to Ambedkar on the BBC Radio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FNSQcEx02A

[6] Samvidhan - Episode 6. Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6R5tLBNZZAQ

[7] http://cadindia.clpr.org.in/constitution_assembly_debates/volume/7/1948-...

[8] Page 9, Christophe Jaffrelot, http://dalitstudies.org.in/wp/0904.pdf

[9] Ramachandra Guha in The Indian Express. Full article here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/bhagwats-ambedkar/

[10] Read the full speech here: https://ambedkarism.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/dr-ambedkars-resignation-sp...

[11] Ramachandra Guha, http://ramachandraguha.in/archives/reforming-the-hindus.html

[12] Page 240, Bindeshwar Pathak, Socio-Economic and Political Visions of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (Edited by S.N. Mishra).

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