BR Ambedkar is among the most complex figures of modern India. His stance on various issues, which questions many existing social norms, makes it difficult for anyone to have an easy embrace of him. Setting aside the political expediency, he comes across as an ideological challenge to the entire spectrum—the Congress, the Communists and the BJP. Worst, he has left even the SCs divided, not to speak of the alleged Ambedkarites.
Perhaps nothing epitomised it more than a big Dalit basti in New Delhi on April 14, 2016. As Dalits from across India assembled in the capital to celebrate Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, an event that was lapped up both by the Union government and the opposition parties, a cluster of Valmiki bastis in central Delhi remained absolutely indifferent to it. Ambedkar, they were convinced, belonged only to Jatavs among the SCs.
So whom did Ambedkar belong to? Whom was his message addressed to?
Edited by academicians Suraj Yengde and Anand Teltumbde, The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections, is a dense book of scholarly essays that assesses the role of Ambedkar in advocating equality and fraternity in modern India. It focuses on the aspects of his scholarship and writings that have not received much attention. The book is aware that his elevation as the “godhead for the Dalits” eventually defined both his acceptability among the masses, as well as the political and academic interest in his works. Confining Ambedkar to a community is a historical error that has cost India dearly, both its politics and academics.
Given his multifaceted contribution to public life, there were, as jurist Upendra Baxi observes, as many as seven Amebdkars.
The editors rightly note that his multiple roles evoke awe, but they “do not necessarily cohere with each other”. The book is an attempt to locate and establish a thread among the various aspects of Ambedkar, his life and writings. It has 21 scholarly essays divided into six sections, including Ambedkar’s Struggle in the Global Perspective, The Radical Humanism of Ambedkar and Ambedkar’s Scholarship.
In his essay Ambedkar’s Foreign Policy, Yengde, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kenedy School, so accurately notes that whereas the views of several freedom fighters on global issues have been well-documented, “there is not a single study that analyzed the international outlook of Ambedkar”. Yengde attributes it to the “ignorance about Ambedkar and the prejudice of the dominant privileged-caste academia”. “What it means to look at the world through the lens of the marginalized?” he asks.
Another interesting chapter makes a Derridean reading of Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma. These essays read Ambedkar’s writings and propositions through the lens of Marxism, feminism, subaltern studies, and even take him beyond Indology.
Yet, one wishes that this work grappled with one more issue that has not caught scholarly attention. On the day Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s chief delivers his Vijayadashmi address in Nagpur, lakhs of Dalits from across the country assemble in the city to celebrate the anniversary of the day Ambedkar had embraced Buddhism. It’s a delicious irony of the Republic that Ambedkar chose the same city to leave Hinduism the day the RSS sarsanghachalak gives a speech that, among other things, underlines the greatness of Hinduism. While the RSS event receives massive media attention, Diksha Bhoomi, the place Amebdkar had embraced Buddhism on Vijayadashmi in 1956, remains beyond the national radar.
Of late, the RSS has been warming up to Ambedkar. Some Ambedkarite parties are part of the ruling NDA government, though a section of Dalits continues to distrust the Sangh. What was the nature of the bond Ambedkar shared with the RSS? How could the Sangh embrace a man who asserted that “Hindu society is a myth… I have no hesitation in saying that if the Mohammedan has been cruel, the Hindu has been mean and meanness is worse than cruelty?” How do the Sangh Parivar and Ambedkar speak to each other?
The editors couldn’t be unaware of this. Teltumbde, the grandson-in-law of Ambedkar, was recently arrested before he was released in a sedition case following an FIR in the Bhima-Koregaon case.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla