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Ambedkar, Hinduism and the ‘Riddles’ controversy

While the Shiv Sena's attempts to muzzle free speech are clearly in the wrong, the government has no business publishing books

In 1987, the government of Maharashtra commenced on a project to publish B.R. Ambedkar’s complete works. As part of this project, it brought out a volume that contained Ambedkar’s hitherto unpublished work, Riddles in Hinduism. This led to a confrontation between those who believed the publication hurt the sentiments of Hindus, calling for a ban, and those who were against such a ban. Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations followed.

S.V. Raju (1933-2015)—a liberal thinker and prominent member of the Swatantra Party, who also served as the editor of the Freedom First magazine for many decades—laid out his views on the matter, and on the liberal values of free speech in this piece published in April 1988.

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To the extent that the Shiv Sena sought to muzzle freedom of expression they are clearly in the wrong, But they are right when they say that the government has no business to publish books of this kind. The Liberal position goes further: The Government has no business publishing books of any kind.

We Indians have a genius for splitting hairs when not breaking heads over non-issues. The Ram-Janmabhoomi agitation in the north and the “Riddles of Hinduism" flare-up in Bombay are two such where people have been killed or injured. We even have a lunatic fringe agitating in defence of the evil practice of sati—and we are talking of entering the 21st century!

On some cars on the streets of Bombay, one can find stickers which proclaim “Say it with pride that I am Hindu". I am a Hindu and glad to be one but, I suspect, not for the same reasons that the sticker-writer had in mind. I carry my Hinduism not on my sleeve (or for that matter on my forehead) but in my heart and in my attitudes. I am proud to belong, not so much to a religion but to a philosophy of life which tells me to be catholic in my outlook, to be tolerant and accept with humility that the ‘truth’ as revealed by other religions is equally true.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of our Constitution who converted to Buddhism as even 20th century Hinduism, despite the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi, had failed to purge itself of the scourge of the caste system, wrote a critique which he called the Riddles of Hinduism. This forms the fourth volume of the Selected Works of B.R. Ambedkar, published by the Government of Maharashtra. Riddles has an appendix in which Dr. Ambedkar comments on the conduct of the heroes of the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Rama and Krishna, in not very flattering terms. His sources are unimpeachable. In the case of the Ramayana from the great lndian Sage Valmiki himself.

This is not the first time that someone has taken a swipe at Rama or Krishna. Compared to what some others have said, Dr. Ambedkar is mild. Rama’s conduct in slaying Vali and Sambuka has been criticised time and again and his treatment of Sita, compelling her to undergo an ordeal by fire after her release from captivity, was characterised by Rajaji as ‘disgraceful conduct.’

The Rt. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri wrote a whole chapter on this in his Lectures on the Ramayana and was put to great difficulties explaining away Rama’s conduct. The followers of E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, Founder of the anti-Aryan Dravida Kazhagam, imitating their leader, have been most abusive of Rama and Krishna. Yet all these have not in any way eroded the appeal these Gods have for the Hindus who continue to worship them with the same fervour. The popularity of the TV serial ‘Ramayana’ is an eloquent testimony.

The Shiv Sena, a militant political party which makes no bones about its pro-Hindu stance, demanded that the book be withdrawn as it wounded the religious feelings of Hindus. This provoked the followers of Dr. Ambedkar, the Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes now known as ‘Dalits’ or the downtrodden, to retaliate with a resounding ‘don’t you dare’ to the Maharashtra Government.

Caught in a controversy of their own creation, the Government was at a loss. By the time the solution had presented itself, Bombay’s citizens went through two days of tension with private and public properties damaged or destroyed, the Martyrs’ Memorial defaced and the Shiv Sena threatening dire reprisals. During the period of the controversy one even saw policemen protecting Dr. Ambedkar’s statues in various parts of the city to prevent their disfigurement by ‘antisocial elements.’

The solution was simple: the Maharashtra Government agreed to paste a slip on the offending volume that the views expressed were not those of the Maharashtra Government!

There can be no doubt that the occasion was grist for the mills of both the Shiv Sena and the Dalit politicians. The Shiv Sena’s objective was evidently to garner Hindu middle class support while the hopelessly splintered Dalit groups saw this as an opportunity to combine on an issue on which there could be no differences—the protection of the late Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy.

All this could easily have been avoided if the Government had only minded its own business and not become a publisher of books. But then governments in post-Independent India do almost everything (selling milk, baking bread, publishing books etc.) except the one job they are expected to do—govern.

What did Dr. Ambedkar write that led to such a storm? Constraints of space prevent reproduction of a meaningful extract. Readers will have to secure a copy of Volume Four of the Riddles of Hinduism if they are interested.

While the issue is peripheral, there is however an important democratic principle involved: the right of an individual to write and publish freely. To the extent that the Shiv Sena sought to muzzle freedom of expression they are clearly in the wrong. But they are right when they say that the Government has no business to publish books of this kind.

The Liberal position goes even further: The Government has no business publishing books of any kind except of course their laws, rules, and regulations and anything they wish to say about themselves. For, as the Swatantra Party’s Statement of Policy so rightly observed: “The business of the Government is government, not Business." Had this policy been followed there would not have been a ‘Riddles’ Controversy.

This piece has been selected for publication by IndianLiberals.in, an initiative of Centre for Civil Society. It is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and Indian regional languages, with an aim to preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition.

Source: April 1988 issue of Freedom First

From the Annals features republications of out-of-print Indian writing and journalism.

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