Three men did most to make Hinduism a modern faith. Of these the first was not recognized as a Hindu by the Shankaracharyas; the second was not recognized as a Hindu by himself; the third was born a Hindu but made certain he would not die as one.

These three great reformers were Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and B. R. Ambedkar. Gandhi and Nehru, working together, helped Hindus make their peace with modern ideas of democracy and secularism. Gandhi and Ambedkar, working by contrasting methods and in opposition to one another, made Hindus recognize the evils and horrors of the system of Untouchability. Nehru and Ambedkar, working sometimes together, sometimes separately, forced Hindus to grant, in law if not always in practice, equal rights to their women.

The Gandhi-Nehru relationship has been the subject of countless books down the years. Books on the Congress, which document how these two made the party the principal vehicle of Indian nationalism; books on Gandhi, which have to deal necessarily with the man he chose to succeed him; books on Nehru, which pay proper respect to the man who influenced him more than anyone else. Books too numerous to mention, among which I might be allowed to single out, as being worthy of special mention, Sarvepalli Gopal’s Jawaharlal Nehru, B. R. Nanda’s Mahatma Gandhi, and Rajmohan Gandhi’s The Good Boatman.

In recent years, the Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship has also attracted a fair share of attention. Some of this has been polemical and even petty; as in Arun Shourie’s Worshipping False Gods (which is deeply unfair to Ambedkar), and Jabbar Patel’s film Ambedkar (which is inexplicably hostile to Gandhi). But there have also been some sensitive studies of the troubled relationship between the upper caste Hindu who abhorred Untouchability and the greatest of Dalit reformers. These include, on the political side, the essays of Eleanor Zelliott and Denis Dalton; and on the moral and psychological side, D. R. Nagaraj’s brilliant little book The Flaming Feet.

By contrast, the Nehru-Ambedkar relationship has been consigned to obscurity. There is no book about it, nor, to my knowledge, even a decent scholarly article. That is a pity, because for several crucial years they worked together in the Government of India, as Prime Minister and Law Minister respectively.

Weeks before India became Independent, Nehru asked Ambedkar to join his Cabinet. This was apparently done at the instance of Gandhi, who thought that since freedom had come to India, rather than to the Congress, outstanding men of other political persuasions should also be asked to serve in Government. (Thus, apart from Ambedkar, the Tamil businessman R. K. Shanmukham Chetty, likewise a lifelong critic of the Congress, was made a member of the Cabinet, Finance Minister, no less.)

Ambedkar’s work on the Constitution is well known. Less well known are his labours on the reform of Hindu personal laws. Basing himself on a draft prepared by Sir B. N. Rau, Ambedkar sought to bring the varying interpretations and traditions of Hindu law into a single unified Code. But this act of codification was also a act of radical reform, by which the distinctions of caste were made irrelevant, and the rights of women greatly enhanced.

Those who want to explore the details of these changes are directed to Mulla’s massive Principles of Hindu Law (now in its eighteenth edition), or to the works of the leading authority on the subject, Professor J. D. M. Derrett. For our purposes, it is enough to summarize the major changes as follows; (1) For the first time, the widow and daughter were awarded the same share of property as the son; (2) for the first time, women were allowed to divorce a cruel or negligent husband; (3) for the first time, the husband was prohibited from taking a second wife; (4) for the first time, a man and woman of different castes could be married under Hindu law; (5) for the first time, a Hindu couple could adopt a child of a different caste.

These were truly revolutionary changes, which raised a storm of protest among the orthodox. As Professor Derrett remarked, ‘every argument that could be mustered against the protest was garnered, including many that cancelled each other out’. Thus ‘the offer of divorce to all oppressed spouses became the chief target of attack, and the cry that religion was in danger was raised by many whose real objection to the Bill was that daughters were to have equal shares with sons, a proposition that aroused (curiously) fiercer jealousy among certain commercial than among agricultural classes’.

In the vanguard of the opposition was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In a single year, 1949, the R. S. S. organized as many as 79 meetings in Delhi where effigies of Nehru and Ambedkar were burnt, and where the new Bill was denounced as an attack on Hindu culture and tradition.

A major leader of the movement against the new Bill was a certain Swami Karpatri. In speeches in Delhi and elsewhere, he challenged Ambedkar to a public debate on the new Code. To the Law Minister’s claim that the Shastras did not really favour polygamy, Swami Karpatri quoted Yagnavalkya: ‘If the wife is a habitual drunkard, a confirmed invalid, a cunning, a barren or a spendthrift woman, if she is bitter-tongued, if she has got only daughters and no son, if she hates her husband, [then] the husband can marry a second wife even while the first is living’. The Swami supplied the precise citation for this injunction: the third verse of the third chapter of the third section of Yagnavalkya’s Smriti on marriage. He did not however tell us whether the injunction also allowed the wife to take another husband if the existing one was a drunkard, bitter-tongued, a spendthrift, etc.

But there were also some respectable opponents of the new Code, who included Rajendra Prasad, who in January 1950 became the President of India. In 1950 and 1951 several attempts were made to get the Bill passed. However, the opposition was so intense that it had to be dropped. Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet in disgust, saying that Nehru had not the ‘earnestness and determination’ required to back the Bill through to the end.

In truth, Nehru was waiting for the first General Elections. When these gave him and the Congress a popular mandate, he re-introduced the new Code, not as a single Bill but as several separate ones dealing with Marriage and Divorce, Succession, Adoption, etc. Nehru actively canvassed for these reforms, making several major speeches in Parliament and bringing his fellow Congressmen to his side.

In 1955 and 1956 these various Bills passed into law. Soon afterwards Ambedkar died. Speaking in the Lok Sabha, Nehru remarked that he would be remembered above all ‘as a symbol of the revolt against all the oppressive features of Hindu society’. But Ambedkar, said Nehru, ‘will be remembered also for the great interest he took and the trouble he took over the question of Hindu law reform. I am happy that he saw that reform in a very large measure carried out, perhaps not in the form of that monumental tome that he had himself drafted, but in separate bits’.

As I have said, by the strict canons of orthodoxy Gandhi and Nehru were lapsed Hindus; Ambedkar no Hindu at all. Yet, by force of conviction and strength of character, they did more good to Hindus and Hinduism than those who claimed to be the true defenders of the faith.

Published in The Hindu, 18/7/2004