The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections
Suraj Yengde and Anand Teltumbde (Editors)
Penguin Random House
BR Ambedkar was one of the most, if not the most, educated person in India during his time. Though a good number Indians, mostly from the traditionally elite or prosperous families, went abroad to study, not many were awarded PhDs. He earned two, from the London School of Economics in the United Kingdom and another from Columbia University in America. His scholarship did not end with the dissertations he submitted in these foreign universities. Nor did he write only on the question of Dalit emancipation. He was an economist, a legal expert and a social thinker.
He was also more than an intellectual. He had the skills of a journalist and was associated with four newspapers, which he himself had started. He was a prominent educationalist of his time and set up a large number of educational institutions. Even though he worked as a full time member of India’s Constituent Assembly, he remained actively involved with the movement for Dalit rights. Most importantly, perhaps, he wrote on a wide range of subjects and his writings were almost always shaped by the demands of the subject at hand and not by his political activism.
While his deification by the Dalit masses across the subcontinent and beyond is understandable, it also makes him inaccessible for critical engagements that would advance our understanding of the range of subjects he had been preoccupied with and wrote books and articles on. Since the early 1990s, Ambedkar has grown in stature and everyone from the right to the left wants to appropriate him. He has also emerged as the most popular symbol of the Indian state. The number of universities, colleges and other public institutions/building named after him will, perhaps, surpass any other political leader in recent times. Compare this with the fact that when he died in 1956, his friends and followers had to partly pay for taking his body from Delhi to Bombay.
However, the editors of the book underline that this elevation of Ambedkar needs to be accompanied by recognition of his intellectual contributions, of the ideas and opinions on what ails our times and building a society free of discrimination and divisions. For this to happen, Ambedkar needs to be available for critical engagement, even scrutiny, by scholars and thinkers of contemporary times. In absence of such constant critical engagements with his ideas and scholarship, Ambedkar becomes amenable to appropriation by the ruling classes as a brand ambassador. The editors are particularly critical of him being eulogised as the “messiah for Untouchables, a Constitution maker, a Bodhisattva, a neoliberal free-market protagonist…”. In the same breath, he is also unjustly “vilified as being casteist, a British stooge and a communist hater” (p. xxiii). Besides the possible political motives, such misrepresentations of Ambedkar are also a result of a lack of serious engagement with his works.
Thus, this book is an effort at “unlocking Ambedkar”, to open up a space where he and his writings become a rallying point for scholars, thinkers and activists to discuss the questions and concerns he articulated and wrote about and what they can learn from him. Unlike many other thinkers and theorists of modern times, Ambedkar did not believe in any fixed ideological system. Nor did he attempt to produce one. His approach to social problems was that of pragmatist. Such an approach or perspective does not necessarily advocate consistency, which he famously dismissed as “the virtue of an ass”. Context and circumstances thus need to be taken into consideration while contemplating policy or political actions.
This is not to suggest that he had no clarity of vision or agenda. On the contrary, his agenda was precisely to pursue the vision of building an inclusive and just society that valued human life, a society built around the values of equality, freedom and fraternity. Though these ideals were first articulated during the French Revolution, Ambedkar provides us with an understanding of them in the Indian context.
The book carries 21 essays, written by scholars with a range of disciplinary background and activists from different parts of the world. They are divided into six sections. Though not all of them engage with Ambedkar’s writings, they are relevant to his political and social concerns. They also represent the contemporary concerns of people who value Ambedkar and share his vision.
For example, the first set of essays focus on global perspectives of identity based discriminations. Several of them discuss the race question in the United States and other countries of the West and compare it to the caste question in India. The section also has a chapter on South Africa, where Ambedkar arrived much after Gandhi, but his message and persona seem to gel better with the values that the current generation of anti-racial discrimination movements pursue. Gandhi, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly unpopular for his perceived racist utterances against the native Blacks during his stay in South Africa.
The next two sections focus on Ambedkar’s scholarship and his views on “revolution”. For example, he wrote extensively on caste but his writings have not yet been assimilated into the mainstream sociological and anthropological discourses on the subject. Similarly, Partha Chatterjee tries to bring his writings on the minority question together and finds a well worked out theory in it. This is an important contribution to the social science understanding of the subject. Several essays reflect on his insistence on the question of democracy in India and the critical need for equality, liberty and fraternity. Even though question of class was important in his view of inequality/ equality, unlike the Marxists, he also underlined the need for liberty and fraternity/ solidarity. Human solidarity had been absent in India, the reason for which he located in the caste system and Hindu religion. As one the contributors argues, it was also for this reason that he embraced Buddhism, which promoted human solidarity.
The next three sections have chapters on ‘the motifs of freedom’, ‘radical humanism’ and on developing a ‘critical radical perspective’. They deal with a range of subjects, from economics and politics to philosophy and feminism.
Given the size of the book and the range of the subjects discussed, not all the chapters speak to each other. The style and perspectives also vary. However, they do make a point. Ambedkar needs to be taken seriously not only by Dalit activists or as a symbol of Dalit identity by the mainstream political parties but also by the academy and thinkers at large. It is only through such engagements that the ‘radical’ in Ambedkar can be recovered and foregrounded, which is needed as much today as it was in 1940s and 50s. India still has a long way to go to build an inclusive society.