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Ambedkar challenged history, probed society, and anthropologically argued with legal conventions

Ambedkar’s writings are an ideal interface to grant the desired humanity to the dehumanised and excluded people declared untouchable and unseeable — a group without history.

Written by Suraj Yengde |
Updated: April 18, 2021 9:27:24 am
Bhimrao Ambedkar

If there is any author in India who can sell his books at lightning speed, that too in multiple languages, he is Dr B R Ambedkar. But we live guided by a leadership that terribly lacks business acumen. The compilation of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in book form has been the subject of several controversies, from the very beginning in 1979.

One topic that has united scholars and activists across the board is the serious concern towards Dr Ambedkar’s writings and speeches published by the Government of Maharashtra. Everyone is united in dismay at the publishing scandal.

Over the past decade, I have been closely monitoring the developments. Most of the time, I found myself frustrated at the air of irresponsibility.

Whenever I visited India, I would spend thousands of rupees across different government printing shops buying the blue books. But, one could not get all the volumes. I shipped these books overseas and gifted to many in India. Some collections of volumes lie in different locations across India, waiting to be airlifted. However, I am unable to do so because of the incomplete and disorganised set of volumes.

Thus, to remedy this, I initiated a process to digitise the books. I checked my email from August 2015 and noticed I had sent an email to Hari Narke, then the member of the editorial board, requesting him to consider digitising Ambedkar’s and Jyotiba Phule’s writings for wider dissemination.

Latest in the news is an extremely important investigation by The Caravan’s reporter Aathira Konikkara over two years. The report looks at the publication scandal in putting together Ambedkar’s writings and speeches and the heartless complicity of governments in Maharashtra. Turns out that everyone despises Ambedkar yet wants to tokenise his life.

This report is troubling to anyone who is concerned about the story of the unwritten histories of a community that has not yet seen the light of acceptance. Ambedkar’s writings are an ideal interface to grant the desired humanity to the dehumanised and excluded people declared untouchable and unseeable — a group without history.

After a long struggle by the Dalit Panthers, the Maharashtra government first started publishing Ambedkar’s collected writings in 1979. The apprehension was that a lot of his writings were buried and many more barred from public. Eighteen of Ambedkar’s titles were in various stages.

One wonders whether, had Ambedkar got the required research assistance, he would have finished at least half of them before his death. It is a sad revelation that one of India’s fiercest writers could be left without monetary assistance to even publish his monograph The Buddha and His Dhamma, let alone get support for publishing his writings.

Ambedkar’s scholarship is a cue to history. It bridges so many gaps and creates a straight path for one to walk on without feeling lost or insecure. He is the only clue we have to our collective past and histories of many Indias. Ambedkar challenged history, probed society, and anthropologically argued with legal conventions.

It is argued by the scholars of Ambedkar studies that there could be 175 volumes waiting to see the light. Keeping the business aspect in mind, even if 10 per cent of Ambedkar’s followers purchase these books, we are counting approximately 40 million people across India. Any government with an eon of business sensibility and social responsibility would do this as a priority.

However, one thing that one needs to be careful of is the haphazard handling and malicious distortion of Ambedkar’s words. The ones that are already published need closer scrutiny, while in case of the unpublished ones, only devoted Ambedkarites must handle the manuscripts and papers. Otherwise one can expect further tarnishing and meddling of Ambedkar’s oeuvre.

But the government time and again shows its infidelity towards Ambedkar’s scholarship. If it cannot carry out its responsibilities, then it should hand it over to the community who is more than capable of publishing and buying the books. Like Gandhi received State sponsorship, Ambedkar needs similar attention.

The Ministry of External Affairs along with the Ministry of Culture should get Ambedkar’s entire writings translated in different languages, including foreign, and ask missions and embassies to donate the same to local schools, colleges, universities and research institutes. This will be a legacy that Ambedkar would have liked.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 18, 2021 under the title ‘Reviving Ambedkar through his writings’. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

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