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The darling of the dispossessed

RAMACHANDRA GUHA



B.R. Ambedkar ... his posthumous political importance is obvious.

IN April 1996, I joined a group of Indian scholars for a meeting in the southern town of Manipal in memory of Mahatma Gandhi. The inaugural address was by Shivarama Karanth, who spoke of his debates with the Mahatma some 60 years previously, on such varied subjects as sex and spirituality. Among the other speakers were the legendary actor and publisher K.V. Subanna, and the no less legendary novelist U.R. Anantha Murthy. Representing the younger generation was the critic and cultural theorist D.R. Nagaraj. Representing the non-Kannada world were the polemicist Claude Alvares and the sociologist J.P.S. Uberoi.

All these men — there was, I seem to remember, a conspicuous absence of women — spoke against a backdrop of a lifesize portrait of Gandhi, clad in the dhoti he wore for the last 33 years of his life. More than one speaker invoked the mode of dress as symbolising the message of the Mahatma. Why did we all not follow his example, they said, and give up everything, to thus mingle more definitively with the masses?

I remember the Manipal meeting for many things. It was very likely the last public appearance of Shivarama Karanth. He died later that year as did, much before his time, D.R. Nagaraj, a man who, if he too had been granted 90 years on this earth, might very well have transformed the intellectual landscape of India. I remember the meeting also for the splendid dinner arranged one night by Anantha Murthy, at the Admar Mutt in Udipi. This was a repast of 42 courses, all vegetarian, cooked and served by pious, but obviously unascetic, Brahmins for an assorted crowd of lapsed Hindus, mlecchas, and meat-eaters.

But I remember the Manipal meeting most of all for a a talk on the last day by the Mysore-based writer Devanur Mahadeva. Mahadeva began by reading out a short poem in Kannada, written not by him but by a Dalit woman of his acquaintance. The poem spoke reverentially of the great Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar (1889-1956), and especially, of the dark blue suit that Ambedkar invariably wore in the last three decades of his life. Why did the Dalit lady focus on Ambedkar's suit, asked Mahadeva? Why, indeed, did the countless statues of Ambedkar put up in Dalit hamlets always have him clad in suit and tie, he asked? Now if Gandhi wears a loin-cloth, said Mahadeva, we all marvel at his tyaga, his sacrifice. The scantiness of dress is, in this case, a marker of what the man had left behind. A high-caste, well-born, English-educated lawyer had voluntarily chosen to give up power and position and live the life of an Indian peasant. That is why we fondly remember that dhoti.

However, if Ambedkar had worn a dhoti, went on Mahadeva, that would not occasion wonder or surprise. He is a Dalit, we would say — what else should he wear? Millions of his caste fellows wear nothing else. It is the fact that he escaped their fate that is symbolised in that suit. By the canons of tradition and history, this man was not supposed to wear a suit, blue or otherwise. That he did was a consequence of his extraordinary personal achievements: a law degree from Lincoln's Inn, a Ph.D. from America and another one from England, the drafting of the Constitution. By memorialising him in a suit, the Dalits were celebrating his successful storming of an upper caste citadel.

Today, B.R. Ambedkar is the only national, or at least pan-Indian, hero that we have. Patel is admired only in his native Gujarat, Bose hardly remembered except in his native Bengal. Azad is forgotten by Muslim and non-Muslim, Nehru vilified by left and right. While Gandhi is still admired, and to an extent followed, by some brave social activists, in the wider popular consciousness he has no serious impact any more.

Ambedkar, however, is revered by Dalits in every corner of our land. His posthumous political importance is obvious to any observer of the Indian scene. But now, at last, we have a decent reason to appreciate his intellectual importance as well. This comes in the form of a large-sized volume of his Essential Writings, edited by Valerian Rodrigues, and released before the public not long before Ambedkar's death anniversary, which fell on December 6 (a date polluted in our minds by the fact that it was also on this day, 36 years later, that occurred the most disgraceful act committed collectively by Indians in free India).

Ambedkar is now chiefly remembered as a critic and opponent of the caste system. The anthropologist Gerald Berreman once wrote that "the history of every caste system, of every racially stratified system, of every instance of birth-ascribed oppression, is a history of striving, conflict, and occasional revolt". Down the centuries, the resistance to caste has taken many forms. Within Hinduism, one must acknowledge the pioneering role of the Bhakti tradition, and of the non-Brahmin movement led by Jotirau Phule. Other religions of Indian origin which have (at least in theory) challenged caste were Buddhism and Sikhism. Islam and Christianity, when they came to India, also made important contributions to the weakening of caste. Then, moving into the 20th Century, we have the lifelong struggle against Untouchability of Mahatma Gandhi.

Without any disrespect to the trends and individuals singled out above, it is fair to say that in terms of ultimate impact, the greatest of all opponents of caste has been B.R. Ambedkar. But, as Valerian Rodrigues's volume reminds us, Ambedkar was a man of many parts: a lawyer, an economist, a constitutionalist, a religious and social theorist. The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar pays due attention to his writings on caste, but it also reserves ample space for his important work in the fields of public finance, nationalism, the Constitution, and Buddhism. The book is enriched by a deeply informative, yet studiedly non-polemical, introduction by the editor.

Rodrigues made his selection from the 16 volumes of Ambedkar's writings and speeches, published some years ago by the Government of Maharashtra. That series was edited by the Dalit scholar and civil servant Vasant Moon. Moon died earlier this year, but not before the publication in English of his remarkable Marathi autobiography, Growing Up Untouchable, this translated by Gail Omvedt, and introduced by the doyenne of Dalit studies, the American historian Eleanor Zelliott. Also published recently is India's Silent Revolution by the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, a learned and sympathetic account of the rise of low caste political movements in northern India.

These three books are very welcome in themselves, but welcome too as an indirect, and comprehensively effective, answer to Worshipping False Gods, the motivated and dishonest book on Ambedkar and the Dalit movement published in 1997 by Arun Shourie. That work was a masterpiece of suppression and distortion.

Fortunately, now no one need read it anymore. Instead read the works of Rodrigues, Moon and Jaffrelot, and you will, I am certain, come to see why Ambedkar ranks with Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore as among the greatest Indians of modern times.

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilized and Environmentalism: A Global History.

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