The life, struggle and work of Dr BR Ambedkar has of late engaged wide-ranging scholarly reflections as well as biographies. In the last few weeks alone, for instance, such exercises have ranged from an account of to the specific focus of an .
As early as Ambedkar’s lifetime, accounts were written of his life, including Dhananjay Keer’s biography which Ambedkar himself read and approved. But the historical distance of the last few decades offers more ways to revisit his life and its impact. If not new archival material, the current prism of looking back at Ambedkar’s life has to carefully navigate the multiple claimants of appropriating his towering legacy.
However, there is the challenge of offering a general introduction to his remarkable journey – the varied strands and seminal themes that went into its making as well as what it evokes in its wake.
To this end, Shashi Tharoor’s elegantly written and informative Ambedkar: A Life, published by Aleph Book Company, is an important attempt. Without getting ambitious with the scale of chronicling, the book draws contours in which the broader frame of Ambedkar’s life, intellectual evolution, political responses, and legislative statesmanship can be placed, explored and evaluated.
Tharoor is aware of the multiple ways in which Ambedkar’s journey can be revisited. This implies tracing a trajectory which, even when marked by sufferings and far-reaching incidents, was far more impactful for what Tharoor calls the “surfeit of ideas” Ambedkar produced – his writings, speeches and public debates. The book straddles both realms with the neat structure of two broad sections: life and legacy. The narrative flow, helped by analytical notes, is well served by these two sections. Each has chapters telling the stories of key moments in the great man’s personal life and momentous phases of his emergence as a public figure. It builds on such material to look at the deep impact Ambedkar had as a voice for social justice and social democracy.
Tharoor foregrounds Ambedkar’s determined fight for the dignity, equal treatment and empowerment of the oppressed sections of Indian society – sections that have been addressed by different names in different periods and contexts, including untouchables, depressed classes, Dalits and scheduled castes. The author concisely traces how young Bhim, one of 14 children of whom only five survived infancy, was born to an untouchable subedar of the Mahar caste in what was then Bombay province. He doggedly pursued academic excellence with some support from benevolent sections of royalty like the Maharaja of Baroda.
This phase also saw him at the receiving end of the humiliation, poverty and indignity that formed a part of a Dalit’s everyday negotiations with what Ambedkar later called a “graded inequality” in the social order. But that didn’t weaken his iron will to pursue education. Tharoor recounts a young Ambedkar’s hard work as a student at Columbia University in the United States and later at the London School of Economics.
While emerging as a world-class economist and an expert on colonial finance, Ambedkar extended his scholarly repertoire to study political science and law. The latter stood him in good stead in his legal practice in Bombay and, more significantly, in his well-known role as chairperson of the drafting committee of the constitution of independent India.
The book empathetically recounts Ambedkar’s unflinching struggle to secure equal rights and dignity as well as political representation for Dalits. Much of these details are known or well-documented: his interventions as a member of the Bombay Legislative Council, the demands he articulated as a delegate to the Round Table Conference convened by the British government, also his writings in journals that he launched and edited, including Bahishkrit Bharat.
More strikingly, Tharoor examines the fault-lines that emerged in the wake of Gandhi and Ambedkar’s divergence on ways to ensure Dalit political representation as a part of Hindu society or as a distinct bloc of the electorate. In reflecting on how both leaders approached these questions, Tharoor shows two different worldviews at work. Despite Ambedkar’s lingering resentment about the Poona compromise, it seems that the author is more inclined towards a position where he does not see a Gandhi-Ambedkar divide on the issue as essentially irreconcilable. Recent scholarship on Ambedkar, like Ashok Gopal’s account, have further delved into the complex nature of the Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship.
In showing how Ambedkar attacked different forms of inequality, Tharoor argues that he was unsparing in his critique of discriminatory practices among Muslims as well. “He was an equal opportunity offender, condemning caste-consciousness in the Muslim community with as much vehemence as he savaged the Hindus,” Tharoor writes.
Along with recounting Ambedkar’s presence in public life, the book intermittently turns its gaze to lesser known aspects of his personal life. This is replete with long phases of penury and want and his family’s struggle to survive against mounting odds, not the least being the costs of his long absence to study in the US and UK. The loss of four of his five children with his wife Ramabai – whom he affectionately called Ramu – was the most lingering of the tragedies they endured. Ambedkar admired his wife’s fortitude and stoic approach to a life of neglect and penury. When Ramabai passed away at the age of 37, Ambedkar’s sense of deep loss was tinged with guilt too.
The book recalls how Ambedkar remembered his wife’s many sacrifices in a piece in 1928:”She didn’t flinch from carrying basketfuls of cow dung on her head during financial distress…And this writer could not find even half an hour in 24 hours for this extremely affectionate, amiable and venerable wife.”
Tharoor writes that in 1933, Ambedkar dedicated his book Pakistan or the Partition of India to Ramabai’s memory. He noted her “nobility of mind, purity of character, and cool fortitude to suffer along with me in those friendless days of want and worries”.
Tharoor remarks that Ambedkar’s relationship with Ramabai had elements of friendly debate and disagreements, including over the latter’s belief in Hindu ways of worship and rituals. That explains why Ambedkar ensured Ramabai was cremated according to traditional Hindu rituals.
With slices from personal life like these, Tharoor sees an early feminist in Ambedkar which later manifested itself in the public realm through his speeches, writings and, more famously, in the drafting of and support for the Hindu Code Bill. The bill legalising Hindu women’s property rights was not legislated in Ambedkar’s lifetime. But when it finally happened five decades later, his imprint on it was unmissable.
The book is sprinkled with various strands from the evolution of Ambedkar’s political and philosophical outlook, and his eventual embrace of Buddhism. Far from being restricted to western influences, Tharoor shows that Ambedkar drew on an eclectic mix of Indian influences, like that of 17th century poet Tukaram, and the Buddhist philosophical stream. Even in the political sphere, he referred to democratic practices in ancient India, especially Buddhist sanghas, while talking of republicanism.
“Buddhism also inspired his faith in democracy, which infused his role as the father of India’s Constitution,” Tharoor writes. “Whereas some saw Ambedkar, with his three-piece suit and formal English, as a Westernised exponent of Occidental constitutional systems, he was inspired far more by the democratic practices of ancient India, in particular the Buddhist sanghas. As chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar argued that the constitutional roots of Indian republicanism ran deep.”
In retelling Ambedkar’s journey, Tharoor is also careful about the risk of straying into a hagiographical account. Despite identifying himself as an admirer of Ambedkar, Tharoor tries to temper his assessment by talking about the “four flaws” in his subject’s conduct or contentions while discussing his well-deserved legacy.
The flaws include Ambedkar’s blind spot about Adivasis – what is believed to be his almost “cringeworthy” and patronising attitude towards India’s aboriginals (tribals) – and his simplistic and homogenising denigration of Hinduism (what Bhikhu Parekh called his “quasi-Manichaean” view of Hinduism). Tharoor flags the ungraciousness of Ambedkar’s manner in expressing disagreements with Gandhi, even after the latter’s death, being too overwhelmed by bitterness to show generosity of spirit towards Gandhi’s sincerity. And, finally, Ambedkar’s statism – his absolute faith in the state and its apparatus as vehicles of social transformation.
Tharoor substantiates why he thinks these four are legitimate faults in Ambedkar’s conduct and body of work that even his admirers can identify. With deep respect for his subject, he leaves it to readers to debate.
That, however, doesn’t undermine how Ambedkar redefined the very sense of achievement with his sheer range of accomplishments, enabling millions of oppressed people to hope to make something of their lives with dignity and self-respect. “Dr Ambedkar’s greatness cannot be reduced to any one of their accomplishments, because all were equally extraordinary,” Tharoor writes.
In offering a new register to record the life and work of this extraordinary voice of modern Indian republic’s egalitarian aspirations, Tharoor doesn’t look away from what he now views as some of the blind spots that the great man couldn’t overcome. But, by any means, that doesn’t at all chip away at the high esteem in which Tharoor holds Ambedkar’s seminal role in shaping the ethos of our social democracy.
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