Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Bhimrao Ambedkar

Bhimrao Ambedkar achieved a lot despite the disadvantage of birth. He rose through grit, academic achievement and politics. A complex personality, he remained the perennial outsider. The "untouchable" Mahar caste to which be belonged was a martial community that served under the Mahratta empire and the British. Maharashtra demonstrated the spirit of intellectual defiance and social activism from the days of the Hindu saints Namdev, Eknath and Tukaram in medieval times to the reformer Jyotibha Phule in the 1800s. Ambedkar inherited that mantle to rebel even further.

A renaissance man, he had a superb grasp of economics, law and politics. He was perhaps the first "untouchable caste" graduate from the University of Bombay in 1912 where he read Political Science. He obtained a Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University in New York and a second Ph.D. in Economics from the University of London. He briefly studied at the London School of Economics and the University of Bonn. He qualified as a Barrister in England. He joined the civil service in Baroda. Ambedkar headed the Government Law College in Bombay. As a state legislator, he pushed for the abolition of agricultural serfdom, defended the right of workers to strike and advocated birth control. He founded schools and a newspaper. He agitated for social reform. Ambedkar chaired the panel of eminent jurists that collectively drafted India's constitution. He attacked Nehru as lacking resolve and foresight with regards to Tibet and Kashmir. While I dispute his legacy in certain respects, Ambedkar's commitment to the welfare of his people can never be disputed. He serves as a remarkable role model for millions of Dalits to this day.

Ambedkar had his shortcomings. He joined the Defence Advisory Committee of the colonial administration in 1941 and undermined his nationalist credentials. He was an active member of the Viceroy's Executive Council from 1942 to 1946. These were the years of the Quit India Movement. Blatantly pro-British, he dismissed the Indian freedom movement as a "dishonest agitation" and a "sham struggle". He failed to enter the Lok Sabha in 1952 and in 1953. He had to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha instead. His theories on history and religion were far fetched and unsupported by evidence. He was a bitter man.

Ambedkar's demand for caste-based electorates neatly fitted in with the colonial divide and rule policy. The British approved separate electorates for the "depressed castes" under the "communal award scheme" of 1932. Mohandas K. Gandhi's fast unto death campaign forced the colonial authorities to revoke the policy. The proposal would have further institutionalized caste divisions in the political arena had it been implemented. The objective is to jettison caste, not reinforce it.

A desperate Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in dramatic fashion just seven weeks before he died. Malcolm X in the United States rejected Christianity for similar reasons and adopted Islam to give dignity to the African-American. Ambedkar was harsh in his assessment of Hinduism and Islam. Many traditional Buddhists do not consider his radical interpretation of their religion to be in keeping with the teachings of the Buddha.

I would contrast Ambedkar and Malcolm X with the Rev. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. The actions of Ambedkar and Malcolm X did not lead to reconciliation and healing. Their's was an angry rhetoric. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, on the other hand, reached out to the oppressor. In so doing, they reaffirmed a profound humanism that healed the injustices of the past. Mandela had been jailed for 27 years in contrast to Ambedkar who was never imprisoned. In fact, the British made Ambedkar a cabinet minister. Both King and Mandela attributed their political inspiration to Mohandas K. Gandhi.

This said, Ambedkar was an outstanding lawyer, politician, economist and educationalist. He reminds us of our shared guilt i.e. the injustice of "untouchability". The Dalit agenda of dignity, respect and equal opportunity needs to be addressed once and for all to heal the scars on our collective psyche.

I would recommend two books for the interested. They are (i) Koenraad Elst, "Indigenous Indians: Agastya to Ambedkar," New Delhi: Voice of India, 1993 and (ii) Arun Shourie, "Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar, and the facts which have been erased", New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1998. I tend to disagree with Shourie's harsh assessment on Ambedkar though he provides extremely useful information glossed over by the national media. Elst presents Ambedkar is positive light while he dismisses the contemporary Dalit hard-liner.


doubtinggaurav said...


Can you suggest some other book.
Though I like Arun Shourie, he is a "Right Wing Hawk", which is what I consider myself to be.
I have not read any koenraad, so I am not sure about how good he will be.


Sabrang said...

You said: Ambedkar was an outstanding lawyer, politician, economist and educationalist.

About the lawyer stuff, is there any evidence of his outstanding, above-average traits as a lawyer, besides the fact that he was a member of the constituent assembly? Remember that he was nominated to that body because of his political connections.

Anonymous said...

There is no evidence of his lawyering abilities. He was made head of the drafting committee, where numerous subcommittees drafted initial drafts of the constitution. However, he did have a sharp mind regarding various issues especially regarding Pakistan and exchange of populations.

Jaffna said...


I could refer you to Gail Omvedt's book "Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India" which gives the radical-left perspective. She Scandinavian, if I remember right.

This said, Arun Shourie is worth a read. I would have preferred it if his book had been shorter and more succinct. However, it factual and very impressive.


Red said...

It's interesting to note that Ambedkar was first elected to the Constituent Assembly on a Muslim League ticket from Bengal.A seat he lost on partition.

The whole Backward Castes Federation (?) and the Muslim League connection is interesting to explore. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal both speculate that spectre Jinnah-Ambedkar alliance influenced Congress decisions on parition.

Re. Sabrang

Ambedkar should be admired for his stellar efforts in pushing for the Hindu Code.

Jaffna said...


I agree with you on Ambedkar's efforts on reforming the Hindu civil code. Thank God :-)

As to partition, I am not entirely convinced with the ideological position of Sugato Bose and Ayesha Jalal. While Ambedkar supported partition, he ended up being quite harsh on independent India's lack of resolve on the Kashmir issue. He also critiqued the record of the Muslim League in independent Pakistan. Koenraad Elst refers to the issue in some depth.


doubtinggaurav said...


I think he supported partition, but two caveats are neccessary here

1) Unlike present day dalit activists, he didnt see common cause between muslims and dalits against upper caste hindus, if anything he was as critical of islamic invasion as caste based discrimination.

2) I think he supported exchange of Muslim and Hindu population (not sure on this point), incidentally this view was supported by Rajaji.

3) While I am not a ardent supporter of Nehru, reforming Hindu code can rightly be counted as one of his "genuine"achievement


libertarian said...


Thanks for your post. My education is enhanced by your insight. I have the intent but not the will to delve into many of these topics. Your posts are kind of a 'Brief Subcontinental History for Idiots'. Hey maybe PR can put me and my ilk on his 'Idiocy Watch'! :-)

Cheers and keep it coming.

Jaffna said...


Muchas gracias, senor :-)

I think a lot more coverage is needed on the outsiders of 20th century Indian history i.e. Subhas Chandra Bose, Ambedkar, Jinnah, Patel (Nehru sidelined him) and even Savarkar. These individuals shaped our destiny to an extent even if we were not to agree with them. TThis is not to deny the importance of Gandhi and Nehru. But balance is needed.


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