The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Edition, edited and introduced by Anand Teltumbde and Suraj Yengde, establishes B.R. Ambedkar as the most powerful advocate of equality and fraternity in modern India.
In this piece, the editors, Anand Teltumbde and Suraj Yengde talk about how they sought a new Ambedkar by compiling this volume.
Indeed, why after nearly half a century do we have to search the ‘radical’ in Babasaheb Ambedkar? Was all that is said about Ambedkar not already radical enough?
When there was euphoria about celebrating 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar in 2016, paradoxically whipped up by forces of the Hindu Right, there was a cause for suspicion. This was just the immediate context but by no means the first overture. All political forces have been doing it in their own way to get the votes of Dalits and in turn projecting their own version of Ambedkar. Knowing that Ambedkar has come to symbolize Dalit aspirations and prestige, the easiest way to please Dalits is to display devotion to their revered leader.
This competitive showering of superlatives by political parties was compounded in other spheres like academia. As a result, Ambedkar began to get increasingly distant from his real radical self. He became a demigod, just to be worshipped, not a treasure trove to learn from. One could incur the sin of blasphemy if one dared to view him as a mortal. Ambedkar who was against this creed of hero worship was packaged into a godhead.
Ambedkar in his reformist zeal expressed many radical views. There is no doubt that he was a socialist, but the establishment came to paint him as pro-free market thinker, to be bettered by certain Ambedkarites as a monetarist, a neoliberal economist. If one discerns an underscoring thread in his life, one would see the burning concern for the disadvantaged; anger against injustice and discrimination. His difficult relationship with Communists was certainly due to the conduct of the Communists but it is difficult to conclude that he was against Communism or Marxism (despite his reservations about it).
These are just a few mechanical readings of Ambedkar that throw up a radical content in him. But in order to comprehend Ambedkar as an ideology, one has to go beyond this. Ambedkar, as a pragmatist, evolved throughout his life and hence all that he did or said does not cohere. He presents a multi-stranded persona, at times contradictory. But the holistic view might present him as a rationalist who acted in the interest of the people without making a fetish of ideology. Deification of Ambedkar certainly blocked this project.
It may be interesting to see when and how this deification of Ambedkar began. Ambedkar suffered neglect all his life. He was the best educated person in the country but remained unacknowledged by the casteist society. All his degrees and academic accomplishments could not get him off the caste orbit of the society. This neglect accompanied him throughout life although a superficial glance may show him taking great strides. All that he achieved, one has to acknowledge, was under the colonial regime. Once the native ruling classes assumed power, the saga of neglect became more persistent. Dalits uphold him as the Constitution maker but barely realize how the ruling forces of the time exactly imagined it. As Ambedkar himself admitted, he was used as a hack, made to write what they wanted. Dalits never consider even simple things such as why the Constitution does not reflect any of the socialist measures that he outlined in States and Minorities, just before entering the Constituent Assembly (CA). Or why the philosophy that unless the economic structure of the society is hard-coded into the Constitution, political equality would remain a hollow promise.
After Ambedkar resigned from the cabinet in September 1951, he suffered a long spell of neglect until his death five years later and afterwards as well. There was not even a small memorial at the site where he was cremated for a decade and there was no such congregation of millions to pay homage on his death anniversary until the 1970s. Roads were yet to be named after him, no statues yet dotted the roads. But by the late 1960s, there was a spurt in recognition.
What caused it were the changes in the configuration of villages due to the economic policies of the ruling government post-Independence. And the consequent countrywide land satyagraha of Dalits 1964-65 that had sent a scare through the leading national party. The most populous Shudra band of caste groups (today known as the Backward Castes and Other Backward Castes) had hugely benefited from the Green Revolution. However, after a short period of aligning with the leading national party, with increasing enrichment this class began to assert its political aspirations in the form of regional parties, making the electoral politics increasingly competitive. Caste and community vote banks began to gain in importance. Dalits, the relatively more populous but maneuverable vote bank, were nostalgically anchored to Ambedkar because of their increasing helplessness, and the leading national party resorted to a cooptation policy. It is therefrom that iconization of Ambedkar began. These ruling class overtures were reinforced by opportunist elements, resulting in the increasing distortion of Ambedkar through a crop of hagiographic literature.
It is in this context that we believed an attempt should be made to resurrect the radical Ambedkar.
Dr. Ambedkar lived many lives in one lifetime. His tryst with inequality and religious conservatism took him to various sites and avenues. To win the rights for his people—the most oppressed—Ambedkar had to take the status quo head-on and go against popular public belief. He was an unusually courageous man who stood tall against all odds in the times of dual tyranny—of colonial power and of his society. In the quest for truth and justice, Ambedkar had to brave extreme hostility. And he could do it because of his unbonded resolution to love.
Ambedkar’s was a radical love that echoed every oppressed person’s wounded heart and communicated lived emotional pain. Philosopher Cornel West strikes the chord of radical love as being a ‘moral and practical method—a way of life and away of struggle in which oppressed people could fight for freedom without inflicting violence on the oppressor, humiliating the opponent, and hence, possibly transforming the moral disposition of one’s adversary’. The anti-caste movement is essentially a struggle of morality, love and truth over deceit, hatred and ethical harm. Ambedkar chose a radical turn to love instead of employing force, when violence could be seen as the most justifiable answer to thousands of years of hardened slavery.
As Ambedkar had multiple degrees in diverse fields and produced immaculate scholarship in the fields of economics, political science, philosophy, Indology, anthropology, psychology and theology, it is simply difficult to pin down this rainbow personality. Due to his contribution to these fields, Ambedkar can be easily credited with bringing western-dominated disciplines of the social sciences and humanities into Indian academic and social life. However, even after the publication of his writings and speeches (barring many speeches and candid journalistic writings in Marathi that remain unpublished) by the government of Maharashtra, his oeuvre remained confined to the Dalit and Shudra caste sphere. Many in the janeu-fold did not take notice despite his publications being bestsellers. It proved difficult for the dominant castes to cope with the idea of an untouchable being an established scholar, and they chose to ignore him and cast him aside as ‘irrelevant’. Due to this blatant exclusion, an entire generation of highly educated and well-meaning Left and liberal intellectuals produced a hollow hubbub—tasteless to consume and directionless to follow.
Ambedkar was a lone-standing juggernaut with heavy degrees in his knapsack granted by prestigious institutions. In spite of this, there was little of critical worth written on him. In most of the scholarship produced on him, two things are prominently done: to badly glorify or nicely vilify Ambedkar. There is nothing in between or beyond this binary. To appreciate the scholarship of an intellectual whose writings and speeches cover over 15,000 pages on diverse topics is to hold him accountable to the modern logos of thought. If not, then we risk the death of his scholarly acumen and the enormous knowledge he produced.
In the 1990s Ambedkar was brought back into the limelight to check the influence of rising Dalit political and social forces, such as, BSP and BAMCEF. Continuing this trend, the current dispensation threw a grand party to mark Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary in 2016. By doing this they wished to achieve two things: reduce the Dalit struggle to one-person centrism and to idolize Ambedkar. Other leading national parties followed suit by organizing seminars and smuggling his literature among their cadres. Amidst this scramble to meet the challenge of the increasingly important Dalit vote, it became urgent to recover the critical Ambedkar relevant to our times.
Even though thousands of writings are penned on Ambedkar each year, newer ways of looking at him are absent. Because of this, we undertook a project that could put Ambedkar to the critical test. Unless critical editions of Ambedkar’s work emerge, Ambedkar will, much to his disadvantage, remain confined to the historical juxtapositions of caste–class dialectics. We aim to find the light of significance in The Radical in Ambedkar Critical Reflections.
This is how we got diverse minds together to reflect on Ambedkar. We asked scholars to treat Ambedkar and his scholarship critically. Legal scholars, political theorists, anthropologists, economists, philosopher, sociologist, mathematician, religion practitioner, historians and scholars of racism were invited to contribute. The contributors, giants in their own right, began to explore themes that suited their enterprise as well as of Ambedkar’s.
The legacy of Ambedkar is thriving, thanks to the marginalized working-class Dalit movement. It has kept his memory and his struggle alive by reproducing it in folklore, music and poetry. His stardom is wide-reaching; however, his scholarly undertaking needs more attention. Ours is a modest attempt, a beginning.