Biographies of notable personalities are generally penned for two reasons. First, despite having steered the course of history, the person concerned remains obscure and the legacy is not given the rightful due. The second is if some new archival material comes up that has the potential to recast the person’s assessment in historical terms. For instance, biographies of contemporary personalities like PV Narasimha Rao or Atal Bihari Vajpayee will seldom throw much light for a contemporary observer unless some new archival material is not made available. Similarly, with regard to notable personalities of the pre-independence era, much has been written about and much is known, so a new biography only becomes interesting if the person is assessed in the light of some new archival evidence through which the prevailing perception of the person could change.
Shashi Tharoor’s biography of Ambedkar does not provide anything new in terms of archival findings and is, therefore, a summation of facts which are already available and known to people who have elementary knowledge of history and politics. The work is based on secondary sources—on the writings of other authoritative authors on Ambedkar, including biographers—so, apart from factoids here and there, which one may have missed on Google searches, there’s little more the author has to offer.
Nevertheless, Tharoor is a good writer and has a knack of presenting known facts in an intelligible and highly readable format, so going through his work on Ambedkar can serve as a revised reading on the man who today by all accounts has beaten even Mahatma Gandhi in terms of popularity, obeisance, statues, and even vision. Tharoor has made his work interesting by bringing in his analysis of the legacy of Ambedkar, which is in the second part of the book, and one must say that he’s done that in quite a balanced manner.
Much is known about Ambedkar in terms of his caste, his oppression as a Dalit, his personal accomplishments, his fight to get the Dalits their rightful place in society, his differences with Gandhi and Congress, and his drafting of the Indian Constitution. If Ambedkar is to be analysed today, it should be to assess whether what he set out to do has been achieved or not, and what were his failings. Ambedkar’s first and foremost objective was the annihilation of the caste system, and his pursuit of this objective led to him to cooperate with the British—he never participated in any anti-British agitation and never went to jail—and this was also the cause of his fallout with Gandhi. Judging on this account, Ambedkar cannot be seen as being fully successful in his mission. True, Dalits cannot be treated as untouchables anymore and there are legal protections available to them through the Constitution as well as laws, but has all this led to extinction of the caste system? No. In fact, despite all the constitutional and legal protection, Dalits still face oppression and politically they assert their caste identity because that’s something every political party bows to.
Today, caste is present in all religions present in India, even those which, unlike Hinduism, are not categorised by varnas and are based on the concept of egalitarianism. This perhaps explains why Dalits could never escape their lower status by just leaving the fold of Hinduism and moving to say Islam, Christianity or Buddhism.
As eminent sociologist MN Srinivas has pointed out in his masterly works on caste in India, “Islam proclaims the idea of equality of all those who profess the faith, but in India it has been characterised by caste. Muslim caste differs in some respects from the Hindu caste system; there are no ethico-religious ideas justifying the hierarchy or regulating inter-caste relations through ideas of purity and pollution; there are no varna categories. What we have is a hierarchy formed by several jatis”.
Similarly, equality is a tenet of Sikhism, but Sikhs are broadly divided into sardars and mazhabis, the former consisting of high castes and the latter sweepers. Srinivas has pointed out that there are three divisions among Indian Jews, and caste division occurs between Indian Christians, Catholics as well as Protestants. The point of highlighting these facts is that if a Hindu Dalit converts to either Islam or Christianity, his/ her status remains the same and it is due to this that their plight continues to be what it is today, though there’s no denying that several positive changes have taken place over the years.
Interestingly, caste in India is not homogenous, and there is stratification within the Dalits too, with some sub-castes considering themselves superior to others. Sanskritisation—upward mobility by adopting names and practices of upper castes—is another phenomenon prevalent amongst Dalits. Ambedkar recognised all this and, therefore, chose to convert to Buddhism, but today Ambedkarite Buddhists have become a caste in themselves.
Every community traces its lineage to a golden past of great personalities who shaped their community and draws inspiration from them. It would not be wrong to say that religion is nothing but this very practice that grows with time to bestow god-like status on some. If a community does not inherit a lineage, it creates one through its own efforts of bestowing cult status on some and in the process builds its history. The near-god-like status conferred on Ambedkar today is a result of this, which is ironic because Ambedkar abhorred hero worship all his life and spoke vehemently against it.
It would have been appreciable if Tharoor could have analysed the issue of reservation. How does the most backward among the backwards feel when some sections within them are able to corner benefits generation after generation and some are left behind for eternity? Is reservation really inclusive or an element of exclusivity has crept into it, which acts as a hindrance in mainstreaming Dalits, which was Ambedkar’s main objective?
There are contradictions in Ambedkar’s personality, some of which Tharoor highlights and some he misses. For instance, while much has been written about how Ambedkar stood for women’s education and family planning measures, the fact is that Amedkar’s first wife gave birth to five children, and he hardly did anything for her education. She continued to be a homemaker serving Ambedkar till she breathed her last. Ambedkar himself was well accomplished with a Phd from Columbia University, but did nothing much for the education of his son and nephew as well.
That Ambedkar never got along with Gandhi is a well known fact but what’s strange is that when the Mahatma was assassinated, he did not utter a word in condemnation. His total silence on an event that shook the nation shows him in very poor light, more so as the Congress party was magnanimous enough to invite him to join the Cabinet despite he not belonging to the party and having lost the elections as well.
The biggest contradiction in Ambedkar’s personality and his fight for the uplift of Dalits was his approach to the tribals (Adivasis) who are today known as scheduled tribes and are entitled to reservation along with scheduled castes (Dalits). Tharoor has brought this out well by writing that Ambedkar tended to regard them dismissively as ‘savages’ in need of ‘civilising’.
The section of the book that highlights Ambedkar’s ‘four flaws’, which have been well summarised, is the most interesting part of Tharoor’s book, and this section distinguishes the book from hagiographical works which generally pass off as biographies. Even here, though Tharoor has not presented any new facts, the second part of the book which analyses his legacy is well argued and provides a good critique of the man and will definitely come in handy for students researching Ambedkar.