A Part Apart—the epic story of B.R. Ambedkar

The wheel, reinvented, is more lasting
Than the stone it is carved into, says Bhim
Say Jai Bhim, turn the wheel and in turning
Be turned by it, be returned to the wheel

The wheel of Navayana was set rolling more than 2,500 years ago in this part of the world by a man who said dukkha (variously grief, suffering, stress) was the truth of life, and release (nibbana) from it was the void (shunya). In 2003, Navayana was launched as a new vehicle. We were returning to an old turning of the wheel. Our very first book, suggested and introduced by cofounder Ravikumar, was Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes. This was a reissue of “Waiting for a Visa”, the only autobiographical document written by B.R. Ambedkar that first appeared in English in 1990 in the BAWS series in Volume 12. In 2010, pivoted on this text, Navayana published Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, the bestselling graphic biography of Ambedkar with artwork by the Pardhan Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. In 2013, we published Eleanor Zelliot’s pioneering Ambedkar’s World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement. This classic monograph was focused on the Mahar movement in western India, chronicling it from 1890 till its crowning moment in the mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956.

Be the returning turn, the turned turning
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon becomes the falconest falconer
Things fall, all a part apart, no centre

This 14 April, the wheel returns again to Babasaheb, on the occasion of his 132nd birth anniversary, with the publication of A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of B.R. Ambedkar by Ashok Gopal. After four years of work on a project that has been over a decade in the making, we present the most complete and comprehensive account of ‘the greatest modern intellectual of India’ as the anticaste thinker Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd describes Ambedkar.

You won’t find Ashok Gopal on Google. And all that you find in this book cannot be found on Google either. Nor in any single book. Ashok’s is a mission without parallel. He reads the bulk of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in Marathi and English, most of what is written about him, and most of what Ambedkar himself would have read. The result is what experts and peer reviewers who weighed in have heaped praise on: they have called it ‘a treasure trove, a trendsetter’ (Anand Teltumbde), ‘a commanding work of scholarship’ (Sunil Khilnani), ‘an extraordinary accomplishment’ (Shailaja Paik), ‘a complete biography that covers Ambedkar’s public and private life’ (Christophe Jaffrelot) and so forth.

Editor Alex George and I have learnt and unlearnt much, and have enjoyed reading and working on this script over many drafts and revisions since 4 December 2019 when the first version of some 125,000 words came in. Ashok Gopal’s draft title sought to contain one too many words and ideas, “A Necessary Faith: Ambedkar’s quest: The first phase”. By December 2022, the manuscript had undergone a rigorous process of peer review, editing, and most importantly expansion, to result in the most compelling and comprehensive account of some three lakh words on how Ambedkar lived and came to think the way he did. Here is the story of the unrelenting toil and struggle that went into the making of the Ambedkar legend and turned him into Babasaheb.

The ceremony of nothing, these sights
Do a cartwheel and then land on your feet
Fall where you rise, rise as you fall, like breath
The gyre turning, the void you can’t avoid

Almost every second book we have published at Navayana over the last twenty years has revolved around Ambedkar, and yet A Part Apart forces us to rethink all our earlier frames of understanding the man. Like the rest of the English-centric world, we largely read Ambedkar in English, and knew little or nothing of what he wrote or said in Marathi. Although he never published a book in Marathi, he edited, published and wrote for four journals in Marathi over four decades; he wrote several letters, delivered speeches and gave interviews in this language. We have barely peeked into this world. Besides often citing and paraphrasing his favourite teacher at Columbia University, John Dewey, and his go-to person for quotes, the conservative thinker Edmund Burke, Ambedkar plucked ideas from a range of sources even in English.

In his English writings, Ambedkar cited a number of other Western writers to support his arguments. These included nineteenth-century luminaries like John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, William Robertson Smith and Ernest Renan; turn-of-the-century thinkers like James Bryce and Emile Durkheim; early and mid-twentieth century figures like Henri Bergson and Arnold Toynbee; and relatively lesser-known twentieth-century figures like Jacques Maritain.

How did Ambedkar weave his unique ideas on democracy and religion by borrowing from such a disparate set of writers? Gopal not only reads the many writers Ambedkar reads, but also tells us what Ambedkar himself has to say of this to Manohar Chitnis, one of his close Savarna aides, when he drew Ambedkar’s attention to this matter. Ambedkar retorted (in Marathi):

Arre, when you break into a jeweller’s shop, should you be picking the gems or be bothered about his chamber pot? I am ready to take statements agreeing with my thought from anywhere—if required, even from the buried Manusmriti. You can say I am an electrician. I don’t care.

Gopal also helps us come to terms with how and why the early Ambedkar had his own take on the Gita, and often cited it.

Ambedkar was using the Gita strategically is also clear from the fact that he did not regard the central issue of the text highly. Compared to the objective for which the Untouchables were doing satyagraha, Arjuna’s cause did not have the worth of ‘even a bad coin’, he said.

The Pandavas were fighting for a kingdom. The Untouchable people are fighting for their manuski (humanness). When a man loses his manuski, he loses everything. But when a man loses his kingdom, he at least retains his manuski. Due to the loss of their kingdom, the Pandavas would not have lost their lives. But due to the loss of their manuski, the Untouchables have died while they are alive.

With A Part Apart, we learn how Ambedkar came to think the way he did, and how he believed ‘there can be no finality in thinking’. Like the Marathi scholar Umesh Bagade, professor of history at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, says, A Part Apart is ‘full of unknown facts, insights, arguments’.

The book, a royal hardback clad in a dust jacket with a splash of blue on Golak Khandual’s charcoal artwork of a young Ambedkar, comes with three maps and seventy photographs, letters and documents. Many of them have never seen the light of day, and most of them are little known outside of Maharashtra’s Dalit circles. We owe these, and a lot of the information used by Gopal here, to the labours of a tireless archivist: the seventy-year old Vijay Surwade of Kalyan, near Mumbai. The last page of the book carries a note on him which we are sharing with our readers now in a separate blog, here. (In the image from L to R: Ashok Gopal, Vijay Surwade and S. Anand.)

On Mahad Day today, 19 March, we place this book in the hands of readers with hope and excitement, and anticipate hundreds of books yet to be written on a man whose impact on Indian society is no less significant than the Buddha’s.

Watch the light die like in these words for light
This the light that Bhim lit, wheeling caste out

A Part Apart will reach bookstores by Dalit History Month, but you can order copies on our website right away—avail free shipping—and be among the first to read it. The production of this book has involved high costs, and we raised a corpus from Navayana’s many well-wishers to help keep the price of this book reasonable. We now seek your help in taking this epic story to the wider world, and ask you to lend a hand in turning the wheel.

S. Anand