The Absence of Ambedkar

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Ambed At a recent lunch with a writer from the US, discussing our common interest in rivers, I asked him what had led to his new project. He told me that he had first visited India several years ago and had toyed with several ideas, one involved travelling through the forested areas under Maoist influence, a journey that would take him from the South of India to the foothills of Himalayas, the second involved writing about the Narmada after a visit to some tribal villages on the verge of submergence. His agent in the US, he said, had told him to get real, no one would publish such books, and so now he was planning to travel down the Ganga.

It would not be the first such book, and the logic that drives it is the same logic that has led to a surfeit of books on Gandhi, Joseph Lelyveld’s recent contribution only one more in a long list. In this the world is only responding to the hold the Ganga and Gandhi have over the Indian popular imagination. The burning ghats, the loincloth, the fasts and the satyagraha, platitudes about the soul of India. In each case there is no shortage of outsiders eager to respond to our myths about ourselves.

It will be argued that there is little harm in either obsession but to do so is to forget that non-fiction in India is a genre that is constrained by the resources local publishers can offer. The possibility of devoting a couple of years to a subject and spending what is required on travel and research remains unlikely. Publishers abroad who do have the resources have limited bandwith, both in terms of money and in terms of interest in India. Give or take a few India books, this bandwith is largely exhausted by Gandhi and the Ganga. What is true of publishers and writers is as true of academics and academicians and the result is a neglect of people and places crucial to our existence as Indians.

Recently I believe we have had much reason to rue this fact. A gaggle of civil society activists in India have turned to a man named Anna Hazare, who professes to be a Gandhian, in their battle to draft a Bill for setting up a new Constitutional authority to fight corruption. He has resorted with some success to a Gandhian tactic, the public fast, to ensure the government gives in to their demand.

Finding myself on the wrong side of this popular upsurge I was invited to TV studies to offer what amounted to the dissenting view. In the course of one such discussion I made the point that the Gandhian tactic of arm-twisting the government really had no place in a Constitutional democracy. I quoted one who I believe matters more than Gandhi in our current context, B.R. Ambedkar. In 1949, two years after India’s Independence, a year before the Indian Constitution came into force, the man who was chairman of the drafting committee, made a speech where he argued:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

Quoting from the speech I found myself contradicted by the most widely respected of the men supporting Hazare, N. Santosh Hegde, a former justice of the Indian Supreme Court. While I could not be sure, it seemed to me that a man who had spent six years of his life on a body that has the final say on interpreting the Indian Constitution, seemed unfamiliar with one of the key speeches made by Ambedkar. It was as if a judge of US Supreme Court were unfamiliar with a key essay in the Federalist Papers.

This is no surprise, while there is widespread public admiration for Ambedkar in India, there is little or no appreciation of his ideas. Even the public admiration is quite often a façade, with the caste elite in India reserving their contempt for the privacy of their homes much as they would their anti-Muslim sentiments. As a result of a few government presses and new publishers such as Navayana, Ambedkar’s own writings are now accessible to those willing to make the effort but we are still far from a good biography of the man or a critical engagement with his ideas.

The situation outside India is even worse, especially if you consider the facts of Ambedkar’s life. He was born to a family of untouchables (known as dailts in contemporary India) of the Mahar caste and was the only one of his siblings to finish high school. He went on post-graduate studies at Columbia and a PhD from the University of London. Back in India he established a successful legal practice and at the same time mobilized the untouchables, leading a very Gandhian satyagarha, not against the British but the upper castes for access to temples and water tanks. Over and over again he made the point to Indians in general and Gandhi in particular that Independence would be a failure if achieved without resolving the inequities which place the untouchables in a position far worse vis a vis the caste Hindus than the position of the latter with regards to the British in colonial India.

As the voice of India’s untouchables, as one of men key to the drafting of the Indian constitution, Ambedkar matters at least as much as Jawaharlal Nehru, and far more than Gandhi, in understanding contemporary India. As a figure of the twentieth century, he is the man, more than Gandhi, who deserves to be counted with Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela in the fight against a tyranny imposed by fellow citizens.

This constant comparison with Gandhi is not without reason, it is necessary because we construct a vision of ourselves as a Republic through the people who we exalt, and in India we have done badly by Ambedkar. Even the little we have retained is the mythic Ambedkar, the emancipator of the dalits, not Ambedkar the intellectual. I stress the latter because Ambedkar’s years at Columbia take us to one of the great encounters of the twentieth century, his interaction with John Dewey. But for two essays, one by Arun P. Mukherjee and the other by K.N. Kadam, I know of no other piece of writing that deals with the subject and if, for instance, one were to wonder about the impact of American Pragmatism on the Indian Constitution, there is nothing.

It seems to me that it is Dewey’s impact on Ambedkar that explains his faith in Constitutional democracy, which in turn is one of the main reasons for the surprising stability of the Indian political system. Without Ambedkar, it is difficult to imagine that our long history of the oppression of the untouchables could have been so easily contained in the workings of a democracy. We dwell so much on the fact that Indian could move on after Independence without a hatred for the British, it says so much more that we have been able to move forward without a lasting dalit hatred for the upper castes.

One of the arguments I have heard over and over again explaining the success of Indian democracy is the invocation of a civilizational ethos, our tolerance, the claim goes, is rooted in the traditions of Hinduism. While it is not entirely untrue, this idea is given too much credit. The dailts are a huge counterargument, tolerance for oppression is as much a part of Hinduism as a tolerance of other faiths.

If today revolutionary groups such as the Maoists seek recruits and fail to find them in large numbers among the untouchables it is largely because of Ambedkar. At the same time Ambedkar as much as Nehru is responsible for the calm rationalism of the Indian Constitution. Gandhi lends himself to every new age anti-science fad, Ambedkar is one of our key antidotes. Far more than the Ganga or Gandhi, if writers and academics needs to make sense of India they need to spend time on Ambedkar.