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Setting the record straight on Ambedkar

Ashok Gopal, author of A Part Apart: The Life And Thought Of B.R. Ambedkar, talks about the leader's pragmatism, reading habits, and his loneliness

A detail from 'Field Notes from Begampura #1, 2022'. Full view in print.
A detail from 'Field Notes from Begampura #1, 2022'. Full view in print. (Artwork by Rahee Punyashloka/artdekar on Instagram. )

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For a figure larger than life and still very much in the public eye more than 66 years after his death, very little is known about the inner life, influences and inspirations of B.R. Ambedkar. In his biography, A Part Apart: The Life And Thought Of B.R. Ambedkar, Ashok Gopal aims to shed light on these facets of the man who drafted the Constitution and insisted that the dignity of, and opportunity for, every human be its guiding principles.

Ambedkar is remembered for the mass conversion to Buddhism he led in 1956 and his more combative statements on Hinduism are often quoted but lesser known is the fact that he had a deeply religious upbringing and until 1930, was committed to reforming Hinduism and keeping Dalits within its fold. In 1940, he developed a modern view of religion as an ethical framework for democracy. He understood the role of religion and focused on its scope, purpose and the kind of religion appropriate for Indian society, which helped him frame his ideas about human dignity and justice. In an interview, Gopal discusses Ambedkar’s pragmatism, the way he thought about issues, his reading habits, and his sense of loneliness at being misunderstood for the most part. Edited excerpts:

With so much written about Ambedkar, what unique perspective did you aim to reveal?

When I started reading and studying the work and thought of Ambedkar, I had no intention of writing a book. After some years, I realised that quite a lot of what has been written about him, particularly in English, is either inadequate or misleading. There are a few narratives that have been well-established and repeated but they don’t match what he said. Second, there is a language barrier. People who write in English hardly refer to the Marathi texts. People who write in Marathi gloss over texts in English. I was in a position where I could read both.

Is his tone and style of writing in Marathi vastly different from his style in English?

His style in English was consistent from the beginning. It is a clear and sharp style of writing. However, in Marathi, there were two phases in his early journalism and the pieces he wrote after 1940. The late pieces are very much like his English, short and clear. The early Marathi pieces are quite different. They are characterised by very long sentences with very long paragraphs. There was rhetorical flourish. Sometimes he would use Sanskrit phrases. He would quote Tukaram. He also used the language of the street. It is very powerful. His English style had a certain brevity and conciseness.

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This may be due to the influence of the American way of writing, generally more no-nonsense compared to the Indian style, which tends to be more elaborate and flowery.

I don’t think that was the case. It is likely due to Ambedkar’s personality, as one’s language often reflects one’s personality. He had to convey his points strongly and concisely, given the many responsibilities he had. He could not afford to waste time beating around the bush. There was a sense of urgency in his nature and, before that, a sense of disbelief that people could sit quietly over such important matters for so long.

Religion was one major idea he transformed his stance on in later years. Were there others?

There are two things to consider: first, certain core concepts and principles, and second, how these concepts are operationalised. As far as the core principles and concepts go, there is no change (in his stance). For him, democracy is not just a political structure but a way of life. The idea of social democracy is consistent, as well as the notion that every human being has absolute value and dignity that cannot be diluted. However, there was an evolution in his ideas on the scope of religion and caste. Caste is an important determinant of opportunities, status, self-esteem. Initially, the key factor in caste was considered endogamy; later, he recognised that caste derives its power through religious sanction.

Also Read: Shashi Tharoor on BR Ambedkar’s modernism

The change occurs in the operationalisation of certain principles. For instance, one of the strands he pursued for a long time was that the Depressed Classes (as Dalits were described in the 1930s-40s and in Ambedkar’s writings) required assured political representation. Initially, he talked about separate electorates, then joint electorates, and then separate electorates again. Ultimately, he had to accept the scheme of joint electorates that were decided through the Poona Pact. However, his stand did not change as the principle of separate assured representation for Scheduled Castes remained. The changes were in how it should be operationalised, depending on the circumstances and opportunities available. Incremental progress may be beneficial and the philosophy of pragmatism, which is reflected in his overall approach, is a sort of experimental approach where one reflects on the experience and decides on the course of action. This pragmatic method is very much there in his political thought, and it has been called opportunism, but it is not opportunism.

The front cover of the book.
The front cover of the book.

Ambedkar, unlike M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, did not write an autobiography, leaving little insight into his state of mind. In letters, he says he did not possess the “art of making friends” and was “terribly misjudged”. What is your opinion of him as a human being?

Well, I think it is too preposterous to make an assessment. After reading an author for a long time, you can sometimes feel as if you have met them, despite never having done so, and so I feel he suffered a great deal of disappointment and sorrow in the end. He expected much more to happen. There was a sense of sorrow and anger. He was grossly misunderstood and living with that misunderstanding for part of his public life was hurtful...

Misunderstood by the public?

Yes, the general public would accuse you of many things if you were opposed to the Congress.... During that time, it was not a prevalent idea that there could be another perspective on nationalism. Ambedkar was misunderstood and had to live with it. He held high standards, making him a difficult person to associate with. He openly expressed disappointment with his political colleagues. In addition to politics, he had other interests such as cooking, gardening and learning to play the piano. It is challenging to get a full picture of his character as he did not speak much about his personal life…

Also Read: The Ambedkar cartoons: Not all laughter is created equal

You write of his library of 40,000 books on the first floor of his home in Mumbai. How did he cultivate his reading habit?

When Ambedkar was in school in Bombay (Mumbai), his father would buy books for him, taking a loan from his aunt. He got lost in books. His love for reading continued when he went to Columbia University, where he spent most of his time in the library.

I visited the library last year, it’s a beautiful place with a statue of Ambedkar. I also went to a café nearby, a popular spot where famous people would write. I was curious about where Ambedkar used to hang out in New York but that is not known.

It’s possible that he didn’t do any hanging out and just studied in the library. From the references he gave later in his life and the books available in the library, we can see that he had a very extensive range of reading, from economics to politics, philosophy, religion, and even some fiction and poetry.

Ambedkar was a different kind of reader. He didn’t just read for pleasure, and reading influenced him in fundamental ways. From the references he gave and the way he quoted authors, it’s clear that he reflected on what he was reading and interpreted it according to his experiences. Ambedkar’s reading was an active process of forming an understanding. He once explained that whenever he picked up a book, he would look at the table of contents to see what was new and what he didn’t know. He would then read those portions, and once he was finished, he considered the book read. So his reading was a mixture of fast and speed reading and deciding beforehand what might be new and useful to him.

It is possible to follow a certain base of reading in the areas of one’s interest, even though the number of books available for reading today is much higher. With expert reading, one can continuously read many new works without necessarily having to read all of them. Scholars already do this but any layperson with a deep interest in any subject can also do it.

Also Read: The caste aways

How do you think Ambedkar would perceive the current state of political democracy?

This kind of exercise is always dicey, particularly for Ambedkar, because he always reflected on his past experiences and the conditions he faced. That is why his thoughts are very dynamic. We cannot say in which direction his thought would have gone but he was committed to constitutionalism and what he called constitutional morality.

The big question is whether he would have stuck to his stand that when you adopt the constitutional path, there is no scope for protests (similar to) the independence movement. He said that in a particular context.... Instead of trying to imagine what he would have said, we must remember that he made it clear to his followers to reflect on what he had to say, take what they thought was valid and reject (the rest). Critical thinking was not something you could leave to others. That’s the kind of effort he would have expected from the current generation.

Also Read: Ambedkar and the right to vote

You mentioned that reading Ambedkar years ago aided your understanding of the all-encompassing nature of caste. This leads me to that peculiar state of “castelessness” professed by some individuals from privileged castes who say they are unaware of their caste. What does it mean to be “casteless” in a caste society?

Initially, my interest in Dalit literature was purely academic. As I delved deeper, I realised that the stories were overwhelming and could resonate with anyone, regardless of their background. Although Ambedkar doesn’t feature as a character in the literature, you can feel his presence behind all of it. This led me to explore more about Ambedkar. When I started reading his works, his analysis was unique. His analysis of untouchability was sharp and precise and it resonated with me deeply. What is untouchability? It is that certain people are considered “unfit for human association”. That is the crux. His fearless approach towards social reality and his views on democracy and the Constitution drew me in...

There is no such thing as castelessness. It is a goal that we strive towards but the influence of upbringing and our caste reveals itself in different ways and at different times. We must be aware of it and work against it. My personal view about people claiming to be “casteless” is that I will be very suspicious of any such individuals.... it is foolish to think of oneself as “casteless” in a society where caste manifests in each and every sphere.

Anurag Minus Verma is a multimedia artist and host of the Anurag Minus Verma Podcast.

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