TURN IN ANY DIRECTION YOU LIKE, caste is the monster that crosses your path,” wrote Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, India’s foremost crusader for dignity and civil rights. That monster has always haunted Ambedkar’s legacy, polarising it along caste lines. On the one hand is his godlike presence in Dalit communities, who, out of affection and admiration, have built countless statues of him, usually dressed in a Western suit and tie, with a fat book under his arm, and in whose folk songs, poems, and calendar art he has long held pride of place. For generations, his bold, secular, and emancipatory ideas inspired many low-caste activists and writers, many of whom recall their lives in “before-and-after Ambedkar” phases. When Omprakash Valmiki, the author of the memoir Joothan: A Dalit’s Life, first read about Ambedkar’s life and work, he “spent many days and nights in great turmoil.” He grew more restless; his “stone-like silence” began to melt, and “an anti-establishment consciousness became strong” in him. Ambedkar gave voice to his muteness, Valmiki wrote, and raised his moral outrage and self-confidence.
On the other hand, there remains a longstanding apathy for Ambedkar among caste Hindus. What respect he does get from India’s elites is usually limited to his role as the architect of the constitution—important, but arguably among the least revolutionary aspects of his legacy. The social scientist and educationist Narendra Jadhav, interviewed in the Times of India earlier this year, described Ambedkar as the “social conscience of modern India”, and lamented that he has been reduced to being “just a leader of Dalits and a legal luminary.” Indeed, even thoughtful, liberal elite Indians are commonly ignorant about Ambedkar’s life and social impact, both in his lifetime and in the decades since—as the scholar Sharmila Rege noted in Against the Madness of Manu: BR Ambedkar’s writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, not only lay readers, but Indian post-graduates and academics in the social sciences, humanities, and women’s studies are also unlikely to have read him. What explains this severe disjunction in how Ambedkar is received in India?
India’s benighted historiography offers one explanation. In his provocative series of essays on modern Indian history, published last year as The Indian Ideology, the historian Perry Anderson deemed Ambedkar to be “intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders”—a view that abounds among Dalit intellectuals, but not one you will find in the works of bestselling Indian historians and public intellectuals such as Ramachandra Guha, Sunil Khilnani, or Amartya Sen, who, despite polite words of respect for Ambedkar, remain trapped in a worldview shaped by caste privilege, and in whose books silences and evasions have often masqueraded as political moderation. While these scholars acknowledge aspects of Ambedkar’s value, they resist doing so at the expense of Gandhi and Nehru—a specious position given how much the two sides differed in their stance on matters of great significance to a liberal democracy, such as advancing equal opportunity, safeguarding minorities, and fighting systemic discrimination. Indeed, while Gandhi’s social reformism and Nehru’s secular rationalism are considered by many scholars as vital to India’s self-image, it is Ambedkar who, on both counts, demonstrated a deeper and more radical understanding of both in the Indian context.
While Ambedkar opposed British colonialism and its economic exploitation of India, he didn’t join the anti-colonial movement spearheaded by the Congress. More than any other leader of that movement, which would come to define almost all of independent India’s heroes, Ambedkar understood that India’s deeply entrenched social inequities and caste loyalties were serious obstacles to democratic participation and a shared sense of citizenship and nationhood. “A reformer who defies society,” he wrote in The Annihilation of Caste, “is a much more courageous man than a politician who defies the government.” Focusing on political democracy while doing little to achieve social democracy, as he would later say in a related context, was “to build a palace on a dung heap.”
None of Ambedkar’s contemporary reformers, not even his great rival, Gandhi, located the fundamental challenges of nation-building in the social realm so emphatically. Ambedkar had a singular sense of the urgency of emancipating the “depressed classes” through anti-discrimination laws and enabling equal access to public goods such as wells, schools, temples, village squares, transportation, and crematoriums. He saw the necessity of advancing equality of opportunity through reservations—still a bitterly contested issue in modern India. In her classic biography, Ambedkar’s World, Eleanor Zelliot points out that Gandhi instinctively opposed the idea of reservations for the untouchables in the legislature, until he was forced to compromise out of political expedience, while continuing his stubborn opposition to separate electorates at any cost, including his own life. It led Gandhi to begin a fast-unto-death until the Poona Pact of 1932.
Ambedkar had called Gandhi’s fast “a foul and filthy act … the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards (which had been awarded to them [by the British])”. But the Poona Pact, seen by Dalits as a blow to their struggle, is still routinely defended in history books. It often goes unsaid, especially in the works of mainstream Indian historians, that Jawaharlal Nehru was no better in this respect, claiming that in reservations for untouchables lay “not only folly but disaster … How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second rate people?”
This sort of feeble liberalism and stubborn prejudice common among his contemporaries, far from being allied with Ambedkar’s worldview, actively opposed it. But popular historians in the decades since independence focused almost entirely on a certain kind of nationalist politics, lionising Gandhi and Nehru at the expense of other civil rights struggles and social reform movements (unless they were driven by upper castes—the Bengal renaissance comes to mind). This reflexive bias only deepened, given how long the Congress, largely a party of upper-caste nationalists that led the anti-colonial struggle, has ruled in the decades after 1947. Indeed, from whose social perspective, if not of the elites who replaced the British, would it seem that no significant struggles were afoot besides anti-colonialism, no other heroes?
Ambedkar has become more visible than ever in the new millennium. A growing number of scholarly and popular books, websites, magazine articles, and popular film, theatre, and artwork testify to this, such as Jabbar Patel’s film Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Arvind Gaur’s play Ambedkar Aur Gandhi, and Bhimayana, the critically acclaimed graphic novel by Subhash Vyam and Durgabai Vyam. Ambedkar even topped a poll ranking “the greatest Indians” conducted by Outlook magazine in 2012. Over the last few years, parks, freeways, townships, schools and universities across India—even a football stadium in Delhi—have come to bear his name, not to mention countless new statues.
Much of the explanation for this resurgence in parts of mainstream culture lies in the politicisation of the lower castes in recent decades, and in the success at the polls of low-caste political parties, whose leaders—most notably Mayawati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party—have used Ambedkar as a symbol for asserting their pride in public parks and plazas in various towns and cities. That he is still seen as a leader of only the lower castes is evident both in the motivations that underlie any desecration of the symbol, and in which communities do and don’t take offense to such desecration—witness recent incidents as far apart as Gyanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Mandya in Karnataka, and Keezhakappu in Tamil Nadu.
Also driving Ambedkar’s visibility is a small class of educated and self-confident Dalit scholars, activists, and artists that has infiltrated the academy, civic institutions, media, and other elite cultural spaces, such as literary festivals, art galleries, and branded publishing. Popular thinkers and writers like Narendra Jadhav, Anand Teltumbde, Sharankumar Limbale, Meena Kandasamy, and Chandra Bhan Prasad often invoke Ambedkar in their social analysis and creative work, even as they continue to goad Brahminical India towards a long overdue reckoning with its past. And finally, the diffusion of Western modernity through the many pathways of globalisation—including economic, cultural, and technological—has now produced a sliver of the caste elite whose embrace of an individualistic and egalitarian ethos causes them to sympathise more readily with Ambedkar’s struggle.
Ambedkar did not endear himself to caste Hindus in his lifetime. He berated upper-caste reformers for merely tinkering around the edges of the caste system, publicly burned a copy of Manusmriti, and led a mass conversion to Navayana Buddhism, which he claimed was better adapted than Hinduism for the modern age. He fought the defenders of Brahminical patriarchy with the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to ban polygamy and advance the rights of women, especially upper-caste women—citing as justification not so much modern Western standards as the most liberal practices from the subcontinent’s own past, as well as examples cherry-picked from the Hindu scriptures he knew thoroughly. (Upper-caste feminists have yet to acknowledge his place in the history of Indian feminism, though.)
Ambedkar’s arguments did not endear him to the Indian right or the left, either. This was thrown into sharp relief earlier this year, when the Arvind Memorial Trust’s conference on caste and Marxism in Pune occasioned fierce, news-making debates between participants on the relationship of Ambedkarite thought with communism. The human rights activist Anand Teltumbde, reflecting on the conference, pointed out in an essay that Ambedkar had once tried “joining hands with the Communists but got a taste of their ‘Brahmanism’”. The resulting rift never healed, which was unfortunate because Ambedkar sympathised with democratic socialism—evident in his role as labour minister in the Viceroy’s cabinet, where he developed policies on irrigation, power, and public works. Nor was he doctrinaire about these sympathies—in the 1950s, for instance, he criticised Nehru’s foreign policy and advocated closer ties with the United States based on whether they could help “solve the problems of our own country”. Problem-solving mattered to him more than ideological commitments—a fitting tribute to his beloved mentor at Columbia, John Dewey, a noted philosopher of Pragmatism (a philosophical school whose approach to truth and reality has strong affinities with Buddhism, especially the thought of the early Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna).
Ambedkar’s preferred mode of resistance—legal-democratic means, non-violence, and the shaming of opponents with principled argument—did not rule out collaboration with progressive caste Hindus. For instance, his Independent Labour Party, with its caste-sensitive socialist platform, included many Brahmins as well as Kayasthas, such as Anantrao Chitre and Surendranath Tipnis, who agitated alongside Dalits in their struggle for the right to public water tanks. GN Sahasrabudhe, a Brahmin, was appointed the editor of Janata, a weekly Ambedkar founded in 1930.
Ambedkar continued to refine his anti-caste struggle even as Gandhi himself held out for a sanitised version of the existing caste system. The scholar Gail Omvedt writes that Ambedkar’s public debates with Gandhi represented “not simply a confrontation of two idiosyncratic leaders but of two deeply divergent conceptions of the Indian nation itself.” Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that rather than see him as Dalit intellectuals do, defensive elites would, for generations, marginalise him as a partisan man of his people. It is hard to avoid concluding that dominant castes and their intellectuals have not yet done the kind of soul-searching necessary to embrace his ideas, which require an interrogation of ingrained habits of mind, sense of identity, and reflexive pride in Hindu civilisation—hardly an easy task.
In many ways, Ambedkar’s afterlife in India parallels that of Martin Luther King, Jr, in the United States. Like caste Hindus with Ambedkar, white Americans did not see King as their benefactor. After all, in confronting white supremacy and its physical and emotional violence, King also humanised white Americans. Even today, the tenor and quality of King’s reception and emotional resonance vary sharply across racial lines; more extremely so does Ambedkar’s across caste lines.
Uniquely among leading national figures, Ambedkar not only overcame enormous personal odds (caste humiliation, poverty, the deaths of four of his five children), he also pioneered a critique of Indian society based on Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity—values that he situated in India’s own ancient traditions, most notably in Buddhism. He was more of a secular rationalist than even Nehru, with a far more sophisticated sense of history, economics, and philosophy. This aspect of Ambedkar—rooted in a worldly, inclusive, scrupulously reasoned, secular and radical egalitarianism, coupled with bracing civil rights talk of social justice and dignity—still hasn’t received its due in mainstream scholarship and opinion. Which other leader of the 20th century is as relevant to every dream of a just, modern, liberal, secular, humane, and democratic society in India?
Namit Arora is an essayist, travel photographer, and former internet technologist who now lives in Delhi NCR.