A Part Apart: The Life And Thought of BR Ambedkar Ashok Gopal
864 pages|₹ 999
BR Ambedkar (Photo: Alamy)
THE ARRIVAL OF this monumental book on my desk—864 pages of meticulous and profound scholarship—just a few months after the publication of my own much more modest effort at summarising (in 226 pages) the life and legacy of Dr BR Ambedkar, is a humbling experience. Ashok Gopal’s is a magisterial, dare I say definitive, account of Ambedkar’s life and ideas. He has visited every place associated with the great man, pored through every book, trudged every byway of Ambedkar’s life. The result is a solid work that is bound to serve as an enduring source of authoritative reference for decades to come.
This is not surprising, if one takes into account two facts of which even most Indians are unaware. First, there is no Indian of whom more statues have been erected across the length and breadth of India than Ambedkar’s, barring, perhaps, Mahatma Gandhi. Second, when, in 2012, two respected television channels conducted a poll to name the greatest Indian, over 20 million voters participated and resoundingly picked Ambedkar, ahead of all other giants of contemporary Indian history, from Adi Sankara to Jawaharlal Nehru.
Arguably, there is no more important figure in contemporary India, after Mahatma Gandhi, than Ambedkar. His posthumous stature has grown enormously: a controversial figure in his own lifetime, who lost more elections than he won and attracted both opprobrium and admiration in equal measure, he is almost beyond criticism today. All Indian political parties seek to lay claim to his legacy. But they carefully avoid engagement with the daring content of many of his ideas, the sharpness of his analyses and the often brutally blunt language in which he expressed them.
Gopal does not flinch from any of this. His book is based on a comprehensive reading of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in both English and Marathi, as well as the works that influenced him and the context in which he lived and worked. The book comprehensively surveys Ambedkar’s life, but its real strength is its exploration of the core vision and principles that shaped Ambedkar’s thought, on subjects as vital for India as democracy, minority rights, religion, caste, individualism and ethics. Gopal’s rigorous research also provides new information and insights into Ambedkar’s life and work, thanks to the inclusion of previously unpublished material, including personal letters, photographs and documents. There is much material on both the contribution and the challenge of Ambedkar to the Indian nationalist movement, especially his critique of Gandhi and Savarkar on the issues of caste, religion and minority rights; and on Ambedkar’s reinterpretation and attempted reformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, especially his views on the Gita, the Manusmriti and the Dhamma.
It is difficult today to imagine the scale of what Babasaheb Bhimji Rao Ambedkar accomplished. To be born into an “untouchable” family in 1891, and that too as the 14th and last child of a poor Mahar subedar, or non-commissioned officer, in an Army cantonment, would normally have guaranteed a life of neglect, poverty, discrimination and obscurity. Not only did Ambedkar rise above the circumstances of his birth, but he achieved a level of success that would have been spectacular for a child of privilege. One of the first “untouchables” ever to enter an Indian college, he became a professor (at the prestigious Sydenham College) and a principal (of no less an institution than Bombay’s Government Law College, then the top law college in the country). One of the earliest Indian students in the US, he earned multiple doctorates from Columbia University and the University of London, earning advanced qualifications in economics, politics and law. An heir to millennia of discrimination, he was admitted to the bar in London and became India’s James Madison as the Chair of the Constitution Drafting Committee. The descendant of illiterates, he wrote a remarkable number of books, whose content and range testify to an eclectic mind and a sharp, if provocative, intellect. An insignificant infant scrabbling in the dust of Mhow in 1891 became the first law minister of a free India in 1947, in the most impressive Cabinet ever assembled in New Delhi.
When he died in 1956, aged only 65, Ambedkar had accumulated a set of distinctions few have matched: he had successfully challenged millennia-old discrimination against Dalits (formerly “untouchables” or “depressed classes”), instituted the world’s oldest and farthest-reaching affirmative action programme for his people and entrenched it in the Constitution, promoted liberal constitutionalism in a traditionally illiberal society, managed a balance between individual agency for India’s citizens and collective affirmation action for its most marginalised communities, and articulated the most cogent and enduring case for the principles and practices of democracy in a country emerging from imperial rule. When he was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990, the only question that was raised was why it had taken so long.
Ambedkar’s, was, therefore, a monumental life, fully worthy of this monumental biography (not to mention the other more slender books that are emerging on his life, notably Aakash Singh Rathore’s work). And his towering achievements were made despite suffering and enduring humiliations that might have been enough to crush the spirit of a lesser man, or turn him into a destructive rebel. Denied permission to sit at a desk like his other classmates and obliged to learn his lessons from a gunny sack on the floor, which no one would touch, and thrashed for daring to open a water tap at school when he was thirsty (since his touch was deemed polluting), Ambedkar still achieved rare academic excellence, winning scholarships for higher studies abroad and earning multiple doctorates in an era when upper-caste men wrote “BA (Failed)” after their names to show they had got that far. Returning to the service of the Maharajah who had sponsored his studies abroad, he found no one in Baroda willing to rent an abode to an “untouchable”, resorted to deception, was found out and thrown into the street. Sitting in a park at night with his papers and certificates strewn around him, he wept bitterly and quit the prestigious job he had earned on merit. Rising from such humiliations to become the most consequential political and social reformer of a glittering generation of freedom fighters was Ambedkar’s triumph.
It is important to realise that Ambedkar was not only an economist of the highest quality—Amartya Sen, India’s only Nobel Prize-winning economist, was to hail him as the “father” of his own economics—and a legal scholar of rare distinction, but also a pioneering social anthropologist, whose 1916 paper on caste at a conference in Columbia was arguably the first serious academic study of the origins and practice of the caste system in India. Ambedkar was also modern India’s first male feminist: his speeches and legislative initiatives on women’s rights nearly 90 years ago would be considered progressive even today in India. As a legal thinker, his emphasis on individual agency and his understanding of the true meaning of “effective representation” in a democracy are key to the constitutional system that has been established and entrenched over the last three-quarters of a century. As a social reformer, Ambedkar’s emphasis on education as the passport to social advancement and economic empowerment for “subalterns” continues to resonate in today’s India. The very idea of Indianness, so brilliantly articulated by Jawaharlal Nehru and his acolytes, was infused with an extra dimension when viewed through Ambedkar’s lens of social justice for those who had been oppressed and marginalised for millennia.
Finally, in the perennial tension between Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of India and Ambedkar’s, it is fair to say that it is the latter’s vision that endures, codified in the Constitution of the Republic. And that vision is his finest legacy. In the perennial tension between communitarian privileges and individual rights, Ambedkar stood squarely on the side of the individual. In the battle between timeless traditions and modern conceptions of social justice, Ambedkar tilted the scales decisively toward the latter. In the contestation between the wielders of power and the drafters of law, Ambedkar carved a triumphant place for enabling change through democracy and legislation. In a fractured and divided Hindu society he gave the Dalits a sense of collective pride and individual self-respect. In so doing, he transformed the lives of millions yet unborn, heaving an ancient civilisation into the modern era through the force of his intellect and the power of his pen.
Gopal delineates all this ably, making clear the originality and relevance of Ambedkar’s thought for contemporary India and the world, and adding layers of flesh and sinew to the bare bones of his vision of a society based on liberty, equality and fraternity. The book demands much of the non-specialist reader, but rewards her amply. For those who are content with brevity, there’s always my book; for those who want the full five-course scholarly meal, A Part Apart will be hard to beat.