Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dr Ambedkar




Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste
Author: Christophe Jaffrelot
Publisher: Permanent Black, Delhi, (2005)
Pages: 205
Price: Rs250 [2009 edition]

There’s an idiom in Malayalam which may be translated as: Unable to swallow because it’s bitter and unable to spit out because it’s sweet.  Dr B R Ambedkar was one such man in Indian history.  Right from Gandhi through Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Madan Mohan Malaviya down to Arun Shourie, quite many people had serious problems with Ambedkar.  Shourie even went to the extent of writing a book, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts which have been Erased (1997). 

On the other hand, even right wing organizations and political parties such as RSS and BJP have tried to co-opt Ambedkar into the Hindu pantheon of great leaders. As Christophe Jaffrelot says in his book under review, “On the one hand it [BJP] praises Ambedkar, the symbol of the Dalit movement because it cannot alienate the lower castes... On the other hand, it tries hard, as exemplified by Arun Shourie’s writings, to tarnish Ambedkar’s reputation.”

Jaffrelot’s book is a well-researched and fairly objective study of Ambedkar’s contribution to the emancipation of the Untouchables in India. 

Did Ambedkar really achieve anything significant for the Dalits?  He never found “a clear-cut and definitive answer” to the question whether the Untouchables are ‘separate’ from the rest, or whether they can be integrated into Hindu society through alliances with other, higher, castes.  He seriously considered the options of converting along with the Dalits to Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, before choosing Buddhism. 

In his 1936 speech in Bombay, Ambedkar said that his aim was freedom for the Untouchables and not reformation of Hinduism.  “If we can gain freedom by conversion, why should we shoulder the responsibility of the reform of Hindu religion?  And why should we waste our energy, time, labour and money on that?”
 
From the book - click to view large
Yet both before and after the delivery of that speech, Ambedkar tried to eradicate the caste system from Hinduism.  He did not get the required support, however.  Even Gandhi was opposed to Ambedkar’s views on caste system.  The Mahatma even went on a fast when Ambedkar insisted on separate electorates for the Untouchables.  Gandhi did not wish to upset the caste system merely because doing so would “create division among Hindus so much that it will lead to bloodshed.”  [Ambedkar was the only Indian politician whom Gandhi contested by resorting to a fast, Jaffrelot reminds us.]

Ambedkar relented not because of Gandhi’s fast but because M C Rajah, another leader of the Untouchables, told him that Gandhi’s death would turn the whole “Hindu community and the whole civilised community” against the Untouchables who would then be kicked “downstairs further still.”

Later, while drafting the Constitution, Ambedkar tried to bring a Uniform Civil Code in the country instead of many religion-based systems.  When some Muslim leaders expressed concerns about the fate of Sharia, Ambedkar asked “why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction, so as to cover the whole of life.”  He asserted the Indians’ liberty “to reform our (religion-based) social system, which is so full of inequities, discriminations and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights.”

When Ambedkar tried to reform the Hindu laws, he faced stiff opposition from Rajendra Prasad, Patel, Congress President Pattabhi Sitaramayya and other eminent Congressmen.  Only Nehru supported him.  But when the Hindu Code Bill was finally presented on Sep 25, 1951, it was buried “without Nehru uttering a word of protest.”  Ambedkar resigned from Nehru’s government two days after that.

Jaffrelot’s book is a very illuminating study of Ambedkar’s earnest attempts to emancipate the Untouchables.  In the first chapter of the book the author gives us Ambedkar’s biography in brief but with a lot of insights into the background (historical, family as well as caste) that made Ambedkar what he was.  Towards the end of the book there is also a brief critique of Shourie’s opinions.

The book is a scholarly work which is eminently readable and very enlightening. 

Acknowledgement: Thanks to one of my students who brought the book from his home after the summer vacation thinking that I would enjoy reading it.  I did enjoy reading it.

23 comments:

  1. thanks for share will read it surely now !

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  2. It is always intriguing how different parts of same person can be related to so contradictory results - strengtheing the dalit identity is an important (or the most important part?) of dalit fight for equality and yet it also builds on and strengthens caste system... The uniform civil code that Ambedkar was so keen on, is today seen like something that only BJP/RSS want because it is seen as anti-minorities ..

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    1. As time changes, perspectives change. During Ambedkar's time most Hindu leaders (who all belonged to higher castes) thought that the civil code would be against the interests of the higher castes. They refused to accept Ambedkar's arguments. You are right that today the same civil code is demanded because it is perceived to be against minority interests.

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  3. I think Ambedkar had a long standing grudge against the Hindu religion and Hindu society at large. When towards the end of his life he lashed out at the Hindu legacy and Gods he forgot that he himself advocated 'positive secularism' at the first place.

    Also he was never grateful for the position of authority he had been granted by the Nehruvian administration. All in all I think - the kind of constitution he 'helped' draft could have been drafted by a plethora of legal luminaries of the time(Nehru being one of them). He did nothing extraordinary - though his personal accomplishments and perceived public accomplishments are revered by the Dalit community.

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    1. This is one way - and a very common way - of looking at it, Sid.

      First of all, Ambedkar did have a longstanding grudge against Hinduism because of its caste system. It was oppressive. The very names he gave to his associations always had the word DEPRESSED to denote the shudras. Of course, the word meant suppressed in the parlance of the time. But it does indicate more than that.

      There's no question of gratitude in the case of Ambedkar. Nobody was doing him a favour. He deserved the positions offered to him. Nobody, no Hindu leader -that is, came forward to support his intellectual (though Western) thinking and ideas.

      He did many things extraordinary but they were destined to die because of the system.

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    2. His contributions to the polity in the form of the values embedded in the constitution are incomparable Siddharth.
      Please don't generalize without going through history in a more balance and critical way...
      You seem to be upset with him for his criticism of Hinduism. Try imagining living in a world where you are not allowed basic things just because you were born into a particular caste...
      I think you are brushing a lot of his struggles under the carpet.
      I agree he is not a perfect person possibly, but what he achieved is nothing short of miraculous and admirable...

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  4. Perhaps Eleanor Zelliot's "Ambedkar's world - The making of Babsaheb and the Dalit movement", Navayana (2013), ISBN 9788189059545 could add to your understanding of whatever he did or not do. This book, as I understand, is a thesis work published and focuses on the protagonist and his caste, the Mahars. One must understand that much of BRA's work dealt first and foremost with his caste.

    You must also remember that BRA was a much forgotten man till the depressed classes found their voice later, nearly 2 decades after his death.

    By the way, it may be technically right that MKG did not fast against any other Indian politician. But, you must recall that another rebel, S C Bose had very severe disconnect with MKG. what I am trying to say is this factoid is neither unique not all that important. It happened. That is all.

    RE

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    1. Who is important in the world, Raghuram? You, me, or even Lord Krishna?

      Forget about importance. I was reviewing a book. Take this at that level. I'm no admirer of Ambedkar. But Ambedkar was as great as MKG, SCB or any Sardar Patel or MM Malaviya. That's the point I would like to make. The system in practice suppressed Ambedkar because the system belonged to the OTHER.

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  5. I am sorry Matheikal, you lost me with the opening remark. Please understand that I do not interpret, in the sense idealists, poets, litterateurs do. Why you added, "even" while referring to Lord Krishna? Do you give him an exalted place?

    The unimportance I was giving was to the factoid. I am talking about MKG's fasting against an Indian politician. "It happened." I was not referring to MKG, to BRA, to SCB. Perhaps my language is too convoluted.

    It is OK for you to say that you were reviewing a book, but you did not say the same vis-vis the earlier comments even while you were discussing Ambedkar. I wonder why.

    RE

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    1. The answer to the why lies in you and what you write, Raghuram.

      That this particular blog was a review was obvious from the very format of the blog. Only you needed clarification.

      You and I are nowhere in comparison with Lord Krishna who was criticised by Ambedkar in one of his speeches in the Constituent Assembly where he referred to the Lord's extra-marital affairs with Radha and thus offended the whole lot of Hindu leaders. Krishna could have got away more easily with breeches than you or I could have done. So the "even"

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    2. in a layman's word sir... I see in history many people were stubborn :) and that had they been alive today .. all would have been termed fundamentalists .. and communal :)
      History even the recent past is debatable because many figures have been shown to us quite differently than what they were all about ..it is such books from eminent writers which give the in-depth knowledge about a persona .
      As you said,its a review and rather be taken only in this context ..

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    3. Jack, Rousseau said that great people have few prejudices and they cling to them tenaciously. The stubbornness you speak of is that tenacity, I think. It is difficult to find such people among today's politicians who buy party tickets paying amounts as high as Rs100 crore (as revealed by a Congress politician recently).

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    4. worth a sincere thought .. hmm.. guess.. now none is fitting in the definition of stubborn among today's leaders !! :)

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  6. Tomichan I was thinking of you last night as I heard Shobhaa De spoke about her tweet and aranb goswami and barkha dutt getting all worried .. I wondered what would have said in such situation ..

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    1. Sangeeta, I wish I could find time for such women as Shobhaa De, it would be fun, at the least. But my school keeps me so busy (most of the time doing nothing worthwhile) that I'm not even able to read the newspaper usually!

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    2. I have a feeling you would be an excellent teacher ... n I am sure you would have definitely done a better job than the goswami's or dutt's of the world

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    3. I only wish my bosses (!) shared your feeling, Sangeeta :)

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    4. Excellent teacher, yes Sangeeta.
      And sadly, since I have been his colleague, I am very sure his 'bosses' don't have the heart to accept that even if they found out...

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  7. I agree with you when you compare Ambedkar with his contemporaries. He was not recognised for his forward-looking ideas. I think he grew in spite of the system and it is a shame that this system is now laying claim to praise for having doled out to him opportunities for his achievements...
    Thanks for sharing this review. I will grab a copy soon.

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    1. Indeed, Deepesh, I learnt much about Ambedkar from this book. In fact, I knew very little about him before I read this.

      I think most of his contemporaries could not accept him because of the very threat he posed to Hinduism and its certain structures especially the caste system. Conversion to Buddhism along with a few thousand people was another thing that rattled people.

      Thank you for the wonderful words you spoke of me above.

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  8. There is a great reluctance on the part of the Hindu Society to acknowledge the contribution of Dr B R Ambedkar to Indian society because he strongly opposed castesim and still a substantial part of literates amongst the Hindu society favors existence of the caste system. Even his contribution to drafting the Constitution is questioned and often ridiculed because of the inability of a society which calls itself educated to accept the fact that a person from lower starta of the society could do what he did. The most important grouse against him being he did something revolutionary to take atleast a few of his people from the dungeon of castesim. He should have converted to a powerful religion like Christanity.

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    1. You have put it quite bluntly, IS. And it's all true too. Even the 'great' people of his time found it difficult to accept Ambedkar and his ideas. Such is the hold of religion on people.

      It's interesting to conjecture how conversion to Christianity would have altered his fate. Probably, he would be on the calendar of saints with a day dedicated to St Ambedkar!

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