Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

The misappropriated legacy of B.R. Ambedkar

No one wants to remember Ambedkar as a scholar and a pragmatic leader

These are days of appropriating B.R. Ambedkar. On the 124th anniversary of his birth, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) want to claim the man and his legacy. They have very little to do with him: The Congress consistently belittled him and the BJP did not exist during Ambedkar’s lifetime. There are other parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who too claim him for good sentimental reasons but defy his life and work in the worst possible way.

If one were to sketch a typology of leaders from the time India was being imagined as a modern nation-state to the first few years of its existence, Ambedkar stands apart for combining three attributes: modernity of outlook; bringing scholarship and learning to political life; and pragmatism in public life. On the first attribute, he’s in the same class as Jawaharlal Nehru, M.N. Roy, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and a host of other leaders. On the second, he stands almost alone: one cannot recall another leader of that age (1885-1950) who comes anywhere near him. As to pragmatism, there are probably only two names worth mentioning, in very different ways: Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Vallabhbhai Patel. For consistent championing of ideals and realism in political life, he stands alone. The two other founders of our nation-state, Nehru and M.K. Gandhi, were idealists to the point of discarding realism. The country’s history from 1950 amply illustrates that. On each count, what Ambedkar advocated and what was ultimately adopted is a story of missed chances and paths not taken.

Consider modernity first. Ambedkar has been a luminous guide for the Dalit community, but to remember him only for his caste is to belittle him. He sought nothing less than the annihilation of caste, as one of his seminal speeches was titled; what modern India did was to reinforce caste with a vengeance. The parties that revere him don’t believe in ending caste; they want to use caste for gaining political power. The idea of a casteless society where a different, more individualistic principle would govern social mobility has been quietly buried. Ambedkar was a lifelong champion of Dalits moving away from villages to cities, to overcome oppression. Modern India has instead followed the path of Gandhi to keep villages intact as a social and political unit.

In terms of scholarly output among political leaders, he stands alone. Seldom has an Indian written on as diverse a range of subjects as Ambedkar. Everything he wrote or said was deeply referenced in the style of the scholar that he was. His was not the politics of inner voice. The Problem of the Rupee: Its Origin and its Solution (1923) looked at India’s currency problem in the colonial age. Pakistan or the Partition of India (1946) was a clear-sighted and realistic appraisal of India’s partition. Thoughts on Linguistic States (1955) tackled a subject on which India still continues to tie itself into knots. Since then, India has not seen another leader who brings such learning to practical problems.

But ultimately what marks Ambedkar from virtually the entire class of nationalist leaders of his age is his pragmatism. Intellectually, in his constitutionalism, his approach to education and much else in public life, Ambedkar’s American education and the influence of the philosopher John Dewey on him are very evident. Practically and politically, this is difficult terrain. How does one distinguish pragmatism from a sordid compromise? Ambedkar has been accused of cutting deals with the colonial regime. But the same charge can be levelled at Gandhi and probably on a far greater scale. Depending on one’s vantage, the ending of the non-cooperation movement (1922), the civil disobedience movement (1932) and the Quit India movement (1942) can be seen as a series of attacks and counter-attacks to dislodge the British; they can also be seen as compromises with a colonial regime. What Ambedkar sought was simpler: he wanted a better deal for India’s downtrodden. In his understanding, getting that was not dependent on recognizing the colonial/national divide. These questions court controversy even today and Indian historians are yet to give a coherent and persuasive answer to them.

How should Ambedkar be remembered: as a political leader or as an intellectual? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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