When I was a history professor in the United States, I would begin lectures on BR Ambedkar by telling my American students that he was the most important and consequential Indian they had never heard of. That is now perhaps half true. Black Lives Matter and similar movements have helped introduce Ambedkar’s thought and works to an increasingly international audience. In 2018, students at the University of Ghana removed a statue of Gandhi and asked for a statue of Ambedkar in its place.

A crop of new books, released earlier this year, should help widen Ambedkar’s global appeal. This includes A Part Apart by Ashok Gopal, the definitive English-language biography of the Dalit leader. Gopal’s work, a remarkably fast-paced 800 pages in length, is based on over 15 years of sustained research, probing both Marathi and English language sources. What emerges is a deeply nuanced portrait of a man who thought – and worried – deeply about democracy in India. Ambedkar was concerned about the creation of a true social democracy in the country, something that would enshrine minority rights and create bonds of fraternity between both high-born and outcaste, savarna Hindu and non-Hindu. At few moments in India’s post-1947 history have Ambedkar’s ideas and moral clarity been more urgently needed.

In this episode of Past Imperfect, Gopal discusses the astonishing range of intellectual traditions which informed Ambedkar’s social and political thought. It would be a gross understatement to say that Ambedkar was a prolific reader. He stocked 40,000 books in his house in Bombay’s Dadar Hindu Colony. He occasionally became so engrossed in reading that he would forget to eat dinner. Consequently, Ambedkar’s visions of Dalit emancipation and Indian social democracy embraced, and innovated upon, the ideas of a diverse set of characters: Karl Marx and the Buddha, Voltaire and Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and John Dewey.

Dewey, the American philosopher and Ambedkar’s professor at Columbia University, looms particularly large in Gopal’s account. It was through Dewey, to a great degree, that Ambedkar appreciated the important interconnectedness of the pillars of liberty, equality, and fraternity in a democratic society. Caste, as Ambedkar made clear in his scorching critiques of Hindu society, had razed all three pillars to their foundations. Recognising the unique social importance of religion in India, Ambedkar searched for an alternative system of belief before settling upon Buddhism, which, he held, was the most compatible faith with democracy.

One of the strengths of A Part Apart is how it details Ambedkar’s complex relationship with Gandhi, overturning the neat narrative of tentative cooperation followed by a definitive break after the Poona Pact of 1932. Ambedkar certainly innovated upon Gandhi’s thought, endorsing and leading satyagraha campaigns in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Yet, Ambedkar and Gandhi continued to cooperate after the Poona Pact: the Dalit leader was convinced that the Mahatma had a “revolutionary” change in his attitudes towards Hindu society. It was only later that Ambedkar grew increasingly frustrated by the Congress’s backpedaling on anti-untouchability.

Bhakti in politics, Ambedkar famously warned, “is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” Today, as Gopal notes in this episode, politicians of all stripes are happy to perform bhakti before Ambedkar statues and portraits, yet the central and state governments have done little to actually preserve his legacy, writings, and archival collections. Perhaps India’s political class should read more of Ambedkar’s writings. They will be shocked and disturbed by what they read. But it will be a deeply edifying shock, a necessary disturbance.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.