A teacher and chronicler: Eleanor Zelliot introduced Ambedkar and the Dalit movement to the West

She learnt to intermingle with ordinary Dalits, talk to them in their language, share their feelings, and become a part of their movement in order to develop the capacity to see things from their perspective.

Written by Anand Teltumbde | Updated: June 27, 2016 1:04:53 am
Eleanor Zelliot, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Dr Ambedkar, Dalit movement, west, Dalit movement west, west countries Babasaheb Ambedkar, west countries Dalit movement, indian express columns She could be credited with introducing Ambedkar and the Dalit movement to the western world.

Eleanor Zelliot passed away on June 5, 2016, at her home in Randolph, Minnesota, US, surrounded by friends and family at the age of 89. She was a pioneer in the study of Indian Dalits in general, and the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement in particular. She was the first among scholars who recognised the greatness of Babasaheb Ambedkar and made him the topic of her research. She could be credited with introducing Ambedkar and the Dalit movement to the western world.

Eleanor developed a strong sense of social justice early in life through her lifelong commitment to the Quakers. It is through them that she first became a writer, editor, teacher, and visited India first in 1952 on a Quaker mission trip. While she fell in love with India, she could not miss out the reality of Dalits and their political struggles. None before her had taken the Dalit movement as a research subject. When she decided to pursue it, she developed a unique methodology of participative research. It involved the researcher becoming a part of the subject of research.

She learnt to intermingle with ordinary Dalits, talk to them in their language, share their feelings, and become a part of their movement in order to develop the capacity to see things from their perspective. That’s how she could do the nuanced and foundational writing on the Dalit movement. Although Eleanor was a trained historian, her research transcended the boundaries of history and incorporated perspectives of sociology, political science and philosophy.

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Eleanor taught history at Carleton College Northfield, MN, from 1969 after finishing her PhD in South Asian Regional Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, until her retirement in 1997 as the Laird Bell Professor of History, Emerita. As a teacher, she generously gave her time and attention to her students, colleagues, and friends around the world, offering love, advice, laced with a bit of wry humour. She was an extremely popular teacher, who inspired generations of students to think and write about the history of South and Southeast Asia.

They not only learnt from her in classrooms, but during the informal sessions at her house, where they would learn to cook and eat Indian food, experience Indian culture through the many events she organised, or travel with her to Pune. Gail Omvedt, a distinguished Ambedkar scholar in her own right, best represents her undergraduate students. Gail, as we know, has followed in her footsteps, made India her home and in every way, carried forward Eleanor’s legacy. Even after her retirement from university, Eleanor would spend long spells in India, during which she would meet up with old friends, make new friends and update herself with the changes.

Eleanor specialised in the history of India, Southeast Asia, Vietnam, women of Asia, “Untouchables”, and global social movements and was, undoubtedly, the foremost international expert on the history of the Dalits of India and their leader, B.R. Ambedkar. Her first book, Ambedkar’s World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement, based on her doctorate work, is considered an essential document for researchers and students of the Dalit movement.

Many other books followed, including From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashtra, Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon, and An Anthology of Dalit Literature, which she edited with Mulk Raj Anand. Eleanor is gone but her work will inspire students in the history of social movements for years to come.

Teltumbde is author of ‘Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt’

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