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“Ambedkar: A Life” – A Book Review

By Anwesh Satpathy


Though much has been written about Ambedkar over the past few decades, Dr Shashi Tharoor’s new book “Ambedkar: A life” promises to provide a thought-provoking take on the relevance of Ambedkar’s ideas in today’s context while critiquing him where necessary. While the book manages to provide a good introduction to the unaccustomed reader, its critique remains non-exhaustive if appropriate at times. 

B.R. Ambedkar, as a figure, has loomed large over post-independent India as one of its founders. It is remarkable that he continues to be among the few historical figures who receive adulation from all sides of the political spectrum despite his blunt opinions. While many will question the need for yet another biography on Ambedkar, Dr Shashi Tharoor’s new fast-paced and concise biography manages to convince readers of the contemporary relevance of Ambedkar’s ideas.

Dividing the book into two parts, Dr Tharoor spends equal amounts of pages discussing his life, tragedies, tribulations, humiliations, intellectual influences and legacy in the form of his ideas. Dr Tharoor does not provide any new information as far as Ambedkar’s life is concerned but his accessible and engrossing writing does ensure that a reader unfamiliar with Ambedkar stays hooked throughout.

Readers familiar with Ambedkar’s life, however, will be more interested in the second part of the book. Here, Dr Tharoor promises to give us legitimate criticisms of Ambedkar as the book is not a hagiography. The most substantial critique of Ambedkar over the last few decades has come from Arun Shourie’s 680-page book “Worshipping False Gods”. For Shourie, who has been associated with the BJP until recently, Ambedkar is merely a self-centred British collaborator. He dismisses Ambedkar’s tribulations throughout his life as a “commonplace” Indian experience. Yet, as Tharoor rightly points out, Ambedkar’s experiences were in no way comparable to that of higher-caste Hindus. It was only the Dalits who were treated as “subhuman”. Negotiating with the British to ensure the improvement of this historically-marginalized community cannot be dismissed as British collaboration. Should we dismiss reformers like Ram Mohan Roy and Behramji Malabari simply because they worked within the colonial legislative framework to eradicate social evils?

Dismissing ideologically motivated critiques such as that of Shourie’s, Tharoor points out “Ambedkar’s four flaws”. The first flaw, according to Tharoor, is Ambedkar’s views on “adivasis”. Ambedkar considers the tribes to be lacking “any developed political sense” which leads him to oppose the inclusion of tribes through proportionate representation. In his disposition before the Simon Commission, Ambedkar explicitly opposed the extension of adult suffrage to the tribal population. Ambedkar’s uncritical acceptance of the colonial notion of tribes being “primitive” is deeply worrying, problematic and in direct contradiction with his usual rationalism. While this criticism is valid, Dr Tharoor does not elaborate upon how or whether it affected the drafting of the constitution with regard to tribal rights. As it turns out, Ambedkar did not oppose the fifth schedule which explicitly speaks about tribal rights. In fact, he was congratulated by the likes of Thakkar Bapa and Munisami Pillai for moving the fifth schedule as it’d “improve the conditions of the tribal people”.

Ambedkar’s second flaw, according to Tharoor, is his criticism of Hinduism. That Dr Tharoor is an avowed Hindu is no secret. There is no doubt that Ambedkar makes some sweeping statements on Hinduism and Hindu society as a whole which are perhaps not defendable. However, these statements are never made in isolation. In fact, Ambedkar’s criticism of Hinduism was exhaustively and excruciatingly detailed in many books, including “Annihilation of caste” and “Riddles in Hinduism”. Tharoor cites the prevalent intellectual and cultural diversity within Hinduism to be evidence for Ambedkar’s sweeping dismissal being inaccurate. Yet, Ambedkar was aware of intellectual diversity and contradiction. It is because of this diversity that he critiques the reason for an individual being Hindu in “Riddles in Hinduism”. Ambedkar’s book provides a critique of ancient texts like the Vedas, questioning their value while critiquing sacred Gods and Goddesses including Krishna and Rama. Tharoor does not defend or mention the specifics of Ambedkar’s critique at all in the book. This gives the reader a false impression that Ambedkar’s critique of Hinduism was solely due to the excesses of the caste system.

Ambedkar’s critique of Gandhi is also dismissed by Tharoor for the same reasons as his critique of Hinduism. Here, too, Tharoor is right in claiming that Gandhi did work substantially for improving the social conditions of those considered to be untouchables. However, Ambedkar was right in critiquing Gandhi for his support of the caste system and opposition to intermarriage early in his career. While Gandhi changed his views towards the end, his orthodoxy had a detrimental effect on the state of social reform.

Ambedkar’s fourth flaw is his belief in the state as an instrument of change. This is a “flaw” that one can accuse most of India’s founding fathers of. As Sudipta Kaviraj points out, our founding fathers were enchanted with the idea of a strong centre.  As nation-builders, this was justified in wielding together disparate states and creating a whole. It is this belief that led to the explicit prohibition of untouchability in the constitution and the provision for reservation. There is no doubt that the state has played a crucial role in transforming the structure of Indian society, for better or worse. Yet, this belief also led to policies that kept the country economically stagnant for years. Ambedkar cannot be blamed for that. He saw and utilized the power of the state to enact radical social changes.

Notwithstanding that Dr Tharoor’s book may have all the flaws that one might expect from a “short” biography, it still serves as a welcome addition to our discourse on Ambedkar. It offers a highly readable introduction to Ambedkar as a man and the relevance of his ideas in contemporary times.  

About the Author

Anwesh Satpathy is a student of political science at O P Jindal Global University. He writes on history, cinema, literature, politics and philosophy.

Image Source: (Photo: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

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