Dr [BR] Ambedkar’s life offered unique vantage points for sustained reflection on the concerns of justice and its connection to other human values. His story perfectly depicted an irrepressible spirit on a lifelong, contagiously inspiring quest. Ironically, Dr Ambedkar’s comprehensive life story actually remains untold in the English language.
While Marathi biographies are more complete, textured and nuanced, for Anglophone readers there are just two main approaches to telling Dr Ambedkar’s story. The first approach has been reverential, if not hagiographic, (eg, Gail Omvedt’s Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India). For readers who are already sympathetic to Dr Ambedkar and what he stood for, accounts such as these are wonderful and worthwhile. However, for those who are resistant to aspects of the Ambedkarite movement, hagiographic biographies fail to provide a neutral and objective foundation for them to comfortably stand on, and are indeed no hook at all for bringing them into the fold of sympathisers.
The second approach is the polar opposite of the first: callous character assassination (eg, Arun Shourie’s Worshipping False Gods). The appeal of the second approach is utterly baffling to anyone informed about the life of Dr Ambedkar. This approach actually feeds upon, and is fuelled by, the absence of widespread information about him.
What we require is a vivid life portrait of this foremost persona of the twentieth century, a personality-driven narrative covering the period from his birth to death, along with salient aspects of his contemporary legacy, in order to lay bare the bold and inspirational nature of his story, revealing the blood with which the Preamble was written. Unfortunately, no such thing can even be remotely approximated here.
Here, we can at most signal to a few select events from Dr Ambedkar’s profoundly consequential life. His life was riveting, one that often seemed to unfold as a series of trials and struggles; it was a tale of his remarkable tenacity and talent that led to, in nearly all cases, his eventual triumph. In this way, Dr Ambedkar’s story was exemplary, much like the Preamble that can be seen to distill it.
It is interesting to note at the outset that in many ways the world was both ready, and not ready, for Dr Ambedkar.
He had his predecessors in nineteenth-century social reformers such as Mahadev Govind Ranade, Pandita Ramabai and Jyotirao Phule. In this respect the world was ready for him. However, Dr Ambedkar profoundly intensified, radicalised and widened their critiques, channelling social action into other domains, disrupting them – political, juridical, economic, historiographical, sociological, religious—for this, the world was clearly not ready for him. In some certain respects, it remains unready for him even today.
Sometime around 1935, Dr Ambedkar wrote about thirty pages of an unfinished autobiography, now known as Waiting for a Visa. It consisted of a series of brief stories about the discrimination and humiliation that he suffered throughout his childhood and early years. Several of these motifs (eg, inability to find drinking water, exclusion from school) eventually transformed into major issues that the mature Dr Ambedkar addressed structurally and nationally.
There were also signs of things to come during the school years (1900-08), when Dr Ambedkar graduated from Elphinstone School to Elphinstone College. Noteworthy was young Bhim’s defiance of his casteist college teacher who told him that the Mahars (the “untouchable” caste to which Dr Ambedkar belonged) had no business seeking higher education. Within fifteen years of that early confrontation, Dr Ambedkar emerged as the most highly educated Indian in pre-Independence history, eventually earning advanced degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics.
It is worth pausing for a moment to speak about Dr Ambedkar’s years at Columbia University, because of how central they turned out to be for his intellectual trajectory. In 1930, reflecting on his time in New York City, Dr Ambedkar wrote, “The best friends I have had in my life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman and James Harvey Robinson.” Among these great professors, the most lasting influence was certainly that of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey.
Decades after he was in New York City, having attained international acclaim for his work on the Constitution of India, Dr Ambedkar was invited by Columbia University in June 1952 to receive an honorary doctorate. He was particularly looking forward to meeting John Dewey. But as luck would have it, Dewey died on 2 June 1952, while Dr Ambedkar was transiting through Rome on his way to New York City. As Ambedkar wrote in a poignant letter to his wife, “I am so sorry. I owe all my intellectual life to him. He was a wonderful man.”
After Dr Ambedkar returned to India in 1917, with his years at Columbia University and London School of Economics behind him, he began working in the service of Baroda state to repay the scholarship he had received for studying abroad.
Due to caste prejudice, he was unable to find a room to even sleep in. He finally had to pose as a Parsi to be given access to a rat-infested attic. However, he soon had to flee from there after an encounter with an armed Parsi mob that had discovered his deception. He left Baroda immediately and returned to Bombay (now called Mumbai).
Back in Bombay, Dr Ambedkar joined the faculty of Sydenham College as a professor of political economy. But despite his academic credentials far exceeding that of the other faculty members, he suffered constant humiliation and was asked not to use the same utensils as the rest of the staff. In 1919, he gave evidence before the Southborough Committee regarding franchise. In doing so, he attracted the attention of the Prince of Kolhapur, Chattrapati Shahu Maharaj, who offered him financial assistance. Dr Ambedkar was thus able to launch his fortnightly Mook Nayak, and began organising large-scale conferences, such as the All-India Depressed Classes Conference in Nagpur.
With the money saved from his salary and assistance from Shahu Maharaj, Dr Ambedkar was finally able to return to London in 1920 to earn his MSc and DSc (Economics), as well as his law degree. He also did a stint in Germany (Bonn and Berlin) to learn Sanskrit as he knew that doing so in India would have been impossible for him.
After completing his formal education, Dr Ambedkar returned to Bombay once again, where he sought to start a legal practice but did not have the money to pay the registration fee of the Bombay High Court. His friend Naval Bhatena loaned him the required 500 rupees. Dr Ambedkar then took on some noteworthy cases, often hopeless ones where he championed the underdog. This led him into early conflict with some prominent and powerful people, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
With the cooperation of Gandhian satyagrahi PN Rajbhoj and others, Dr Ambedkar launched a series of satyagrahas, including the monumental march to Mahad (in present-day Maharashtra) in 1927 to allow untouchables to drink from the public well, and several important temple-entry campaigns (eg, Kalaram Temple Satyagraha). He was shocked to realise that far from receiving the support he was promised from the INC, some party members actually sabotaged his satyagrahas. In another related landmark event in 1927, Dr Ambedkar publicly burnt the Manusmriti. He also launched the newspaper Bahishkrut Bharat, through which the word “Dalit” began to gain prominence.
In 1927, Dr Ambedkar was appointed as a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Bombay Province for five years (it was renewed in 1932 for another five years).
In this capacity, he submitted a statement before the Simon Commission on 29 May 1928. It is noteworthy because it was a radical departure from all other submissions by pontificating on the nature of constitutional democracy and within that framework highlighting the plight of untouchables. This was the launch of the era of his political prominence.
Dr Ambedkar’s strong performance while representing the “depressed classes” at the 1930 Round Table Conference in London catapulted him on to the national, and indeed the international, stage. The second Round Table Conference in 1931 saw the beginning of the lifelong feud between MK Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar. The Communal Award that Dr Ambedkar had fought so hard for at the Round Table Conference was granted in 1932, providing for a scheme of separate electorates for the untouchables. Gandhi resorted to a fast-unto-death against the award, which placed Dr Ambedkar in an impossible predicament.
Blackmailed into it, Dr Ambedkar signed a pact with Gandhi in 1932, with terms that were quite disagreeable to him. Dr Ambedkar thus characterised Gandhi not as Mahatma, but as a dangerous opponent, famously quipping about this period that Gandhi “showed me his fangs”.
Excerpted with permission from Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India, Aakash Singh Rathore, Penguin Books India.