Ambedkar wanted an ethical base to democracy: Ashok Gopal (An interview in The Hindu)

On the eve of Ambedkar’s birth centenary on April 14, Ashok Gopal talks about his detailed biography

Ashok Gopal, a graduate in history, has been studying the life and thought of B.R. Ambedkar since 2003. For his biography, he pored over the bulk of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in Marathi and English, and also most of what the political leader and social reformer himself would have read. As a result, there are many new learnings about Ambedkar, his life and philosophy, his views on religion and relations with Gandhi. On the eve of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary on April 14, Gopal discusses his labour of love. Edited excerpts:

This book is a labour of attention and respect. It is also the first full length biography of Ambedkar in a long time. How did you begin this venture and why?

I started reading Ambedkar intensively around 2003 — my only objective then was to understand the thought of a person about whom I knew very little. In this learning journey, I began to see that quite a lot of what is written in standard works on him does not match what he himself said. For example, his turn to Buddhism is generally explained without considering his deep thought on religion all the way from his early years, and his concern for providing an ethical base to democracy. I spoke about such gaps to a few friends, and they suggested I should write about it. Fortunately, by then I was in touch with a publisher who was keen to read what I was writing. So, a vague idea took a concrete shape.

You have drawn on a range of Marathi sources, including the journals he edited in Marathi, and on the 12-volume biography by Khairmode. What insights did these sources offer?

Many. From Khairmode we gather quickly that Ambedkar had a deep regard for religion. From his Marathi speeches and writings, he emerges as a deeply moral person, who constructs his own understanding about subjects discussed in religious texts and the epics — such as the ethics around the use of force. We also see him as a true nationalist, a person who worries about the entire nation, all its people, and as a person who struggled hard and earnestly hoped for some fundamental changes in Hindu society. We sense his immense pain and disappointment when that change does not take place.

The letters that he wrote to his constituency in the wake of the Second Round Table conference suggest he was not entirely negative about Gandhi.

The letters give us a vivid picture of the back-channel negotiations between him and Gandhi. And after the Poona Pact was signed, he writes in one letter that Gandhi had changed. But as it turned out, the change was not in the direction he expected. After the 1937 elections, Ambedkar started analysing the results and came to the conclusion that the reserved seats obtained by the Congress were not a true reflection of voter choice. One also gets the sense that he had assumed the Congress would not contest the reserved seats.

About the momentous decision to convert to Buddhism — you point to perhaps the exact moment that this might have been made.

On the decision to convert, there is a gradual build-up, all the way from 1924. Till 1930, he was himself not keen to convert. But after the prolonged Nashik satyagraha, which had a very basic demand — the right to enter a temple — he was virtually pushed towards the historic declaration at Yeola in 1935.

What were the gaps that you found in telling the story of his life and thought?

There are many. For example, we know very little about his sisters. We know what he studied in America, but we know virtually nothing about his daily routine and interactions with different people there. We do not know whether he experienced racism… We also know virtually nothing about the discussions with his colleagues that led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party.

Your writing is unhurried, clear and yet you do not take away from the complexity of Ambedkar’s thought world. What challenges did you face, while writing?

Sticking to a reasonable word limit was a big challenge. I started with around 180,000 words but eventually, I crossed 300,000 words, and even then, some texts are discussed very briefly. The other challenge was to keep the language simple. That required a lot of rewriting.

I found the sections on Ambedkar’s critique of religion, and the reference to Voltaire productive and intriguing.

The references to Voltaire are pointed. Ambedkar is telling readers of his time and of future generations, how he has to be read, what intellectuals ought to do, and what scholars of his time had failed to do. His admiration for Voltaire is about the role played by the latter, and not so much about all of Voltaire’s ideas. On religion, we see Ambedkar struggling on many fronts. He wants religion, but not metaphysics. He thinks of religion and morality in terms of universal acceptance, but recognises that he has to choose a particular religion. He wants a reasoned acceptance of Buddhism, but he also wants organised faith.

Overall, what was your experience of researching and writing on a figure who is historically significant, a veritable legend?

What I experienced is what I have heard from some other people who have read him closely. Your very way of thinking changes. Both in terms of guiding principles as well as method. That apart, his sheer energy and persistence against tremendous odds as well as crippling health problems is mind-boggling. From where did he get so much strength? Vijay Surwade, the Ambedkar archivist who helped me a lot, and I have talked about this often, and we have no answers.

A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of B.R. Ambedkar; Ashok Gopal, Navayana, ₹999.

The writer is a feminist historian and author of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Question of Socialism in India.

This interview originally appeared in The Hindu.