An essential read on Ambedkar

Ambedkar: The Attendant Details ‘should be an essential read for all willing to take up the fight for equality starting from their drawing rooms to workplaces,’ says Archis Mohan in his review for Business Standard.


On May 26, 2015, to mark the first anniversary of his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a rally at the birthplace of Deen Dayal Upadhyay in Mathura, that the Jana Sangh ideologue was one of three men who shaped the Indian political discourse in the 20th century. The other two, he said, were Mahatma Gandhi and socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia.


Mr. Modi did not mention Jawaharlal Nehru or Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Few from a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) background would publicly accept Nehru’s contribution to modern India. But the omission of Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India and Dalit icon, was more intriguing. It came at a time when the Modi government and RSS were spending much energy to mark his 125th birth anniversary celebrations in 2015 (it was the 124th year, but such was the Sangh Parivar’s urgency to appropriate Ambedkar’s legacy).


The omission of Ambedkar in Mathura wasn’t a one off. In September 2016, at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national council meeting in Kozhikode, Kerala, the prime minister announced year-long celebrations to commemorate the birth centenary of Upadhyay. Here again, he repeated the names of Gandhi, Lohia and Upadhyay as India’s three leading political thinkers.


Ambedkar’s name was missing again at the prime minister’s December 31, 2016 address to the nation at the end of the controversial 50-day demonetisation exercise. This even though the list of people he named as “blessing the sacrifice of the people” had they been alIve included Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jayaprakash Narayan and K Kamaraj.


There is a reason Mr. Modi has spoken of Ambedkar often in the last three years, but never in the same breath as Gandhi, Lohia, Upadhyay and others. While the larger Sangh Parivar finds Ambedkar’s criticism of Hinduism and its pernicious caste system, and his rejection of his religion of birth unpalatable, this “untouchability” towards Ambedkar isn’t unique.


Successive Congress governments since Independence didn’t pay even lip service to Ambedkar’s legacy. It fell upon the VP Singh government of 1990 to confer the Bharat Ratna on Ambedkar, and declare his birth anniversary a national holiday.


If school and college curriculums encouraged students to read Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth, or even Nehru’s  Discovery of India, there were few references to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, a book more seminal than the other two.


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As former civil servant and activist Harsh Mander puts it, “For a leader whose influence on both the ideas and practice of equality and fraternity in India is monumental, we know surprisingly little of Ambedkar as a human being.” Ambedkar: The Attendant Details attempts to fill this gap.


It presents to us Ambedkar the voracious reader and collector of books, the violin player, the occasional cook who loved making some Punjabi dishes, a lover of dogs and of outsized pens, proponent of sex education and birth control and anti-prohibitionist teetotaller.


The most searing is the autobiographical note by Ambedkar titled “Waiting for a Visa”, the only substantial autobiographical document written by him. Here, Ambedkar has enumerated the lifelong humiliation to which he and other untouchables, even educated ones, were subjected by upper caste Hindus.


S Anand, the publisher of Navayana, puts this in starker perspective. The incident at Pietermaritzburg where he was thrown out of a first class compartment “is believed to have spurred Gandhi towards his lifelong and tenacious struggle against colonial authority and discrimination whereas Bhimrao encountered worse…”. He was reminded almost all his life that he was an untouchable, just like Dalits today often are, even in spaces designated secular.


According to Shankaranand Shastri, an Ambedkar associate, Jugal Kishore Birla, the eldest son of G D Birla, once tried to “bribe” Ambedkar to stop him from criticising the Gita in his speeches. Ambedkar replied that he was not born to sell himself to anyone and he criticised the Gita because it preached the division of society. “All the chapters were full of hatred,” Ambedkar said.


There are also instances of his gruff humour. According to M O Mathai, who was the private secretary to Nehru, Ambedkar would also say with pride: “The Hindus wanted the Vedas, and they sent for Vyasa who was not a caste Hindu. The Hindus wanted an epic, and they sent for Valmiki, who was an untouchable. The Hindus wanted a Constitution, and they have sent for me.”


Ambedkar thought the greatest tragedy of the Hindi belt was that it rejected Valmiki and installed Tulsidas, and will remain backward and obscurantist until they replace Tulsidas with Valmiki. He reminded Mathai that according to the Valmiki Ramayana, the sage Bharadvaja welcomed Rama and Lakhsmana to his ashram by slaughtering a fatted calf. Tulsidas cut out all this.


Ambedkar’s irreverence towards Gandhi troubled all admirers of the Mahatma. This volume includes reminiscences of at least two of them – UR Rao, who assisted in the compilation of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, and American journalist Vincent Sheean, a Gandhi fan – who were convinced that Ambedkar had deep personal regard and genuine attachment to the Mahatma. As for Ambedkar, he once told Rao: “I personally think that Gandhi is a humbug!”


Another raw subject in the Ambedkar-Gandhi relationship is the Poona Pact of 1932. Gandhi’s fast had forced Ambedkar to concede to the agreement but its results were evident in the 1937 elections. As the editor points out, biddable Dalit candidates had a stronger chance of winning than an outspoken figure like Ambedkar since all Hindus voted to elect their representative in seats reserved for Scheduled Castes.


There were instances of domestic helps being given tickets or subservient candidates trouncing the more outspoken ones. Its effects are being felt 85 years later. In the 2017 assembly polls, Rajveer Diler, a Dalit candidate from the BJP for the reserved Iglas seat in Hathras, would sit on the floor when he visited upper caste homes to canvas for votes. He defeated Bahujan Samaj Party’s Rajendra Kumar by 74,800 votes.


On one such occasion in 1937 and frustrated at the turn of events, Ambedkar observed how Congress was giving tickets to defectors. Patting his dog Peter, Ambedkar said, “Peter! Why don’t you join the Congress and acquire an election ticket? You will surely win.”


According to Mathai, Ambedkar “fell short of being a great man by inches because he could not wholly rise above bitterness.” Ambedkar told Mathai he was willing to accept the criticism but railways and factories had done more to combat untouchability than Gandhi’s personal campaigns. He said the real problem of the untouchables was economic and not “temple entry”, as advocated by Gandhi.


Finally, Bama, a Tamil author, laments how Ambedkar called for the annihilation of caste but it is caste that is annihilating the young Ambedkars like Rohith Vemulas.


The volume should be an essential read for all willing to take up the fight for equality starting from their drawing rooms to workplaces.


Ambedkar, to the father of one of his followers, was “Ummeedkar, the one who brings hope.”


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