Sunday, 16 March 2008

Dr Ambedkar needs a world-class biographer

Dr Ambedkar needs a world-class biographer
K. Natwar Singh
On January 26, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in economic and social life we will have inequality... We must remove this contradiction at the earliest moment, or else those who suffer inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up. Dr B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956)
Free India's first Cabinet was sworn in on August 15, 1947. Its strength was 14, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The amazing fact is that six out of the 14 were non-Congressmen: Dr John Mathai, C.M. Bhaba, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Sir Shanmukham Chetty, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherji and Sardar Baldev Singh. This aroused no controversy. Such was the authority and sway of the Congress at that time.
The name that stands out is that of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. He had been a determined and fiery critic of the Mahatma and other senior leaders of the Congress. Yet, Gandhiji, Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel invited him to be a member of the Cabinet. This did credit both to the Congress and Babasaheb Ambedkar.
I have lately been reading The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, edited by Valerian Rodrigues. Two facts need to be taken note of. Dr Ambedkar was born in an untouchable family. Every kind of discrimination and ostracism was experienced by him and his family. One has to only read his autobiographical essay, On the Road to Goregaon to get some idea of the brutal odds he faced and overcame.
Let me quote. The incident took place around 1900:"From our dress or talk no one could make out that we were children of the untouchables. Indeed the station-master was quite sure we were Brahmin children and was extremely touched at the plight in which he found us. As is usual among the Hindus, the station-master asked who we were. Without a moment's thought I blurted out that we were Mahars. (Mahar is one of the communities which are treated as untouchables in the Bombay Presidency.) He was stunned. His face underwent a sudden change. We could see that he was over-powered by a strange feeling of repulsion."
No benign fairy ever came to Dr Ambedkar's rescue.
The second fact is his awesome intellect. There are many brilliant people, but Dr Ambedkar was exceptionally brilliant. He did his BA from Elphinstone College, Bombay in 1912, with English and Persian as subjects. He next secured one of the two scholarships which the Baroda state offered to backward caste graduates.
In 1913, Dr Ambedkar joined Columbia University in New York. From then there was no looking back academically. London School of Economics, Law at Grey's Inn.
At the London School of Economics for his DSc, he wrote on The Problem of the Rupee.
I have given these facts because they are not as well known as they should be.
Recently, much has been said and written on reservations. The debate has produced fire and flame, force and fury, but little illumination. Political public _expression is generally ill informed.
I find the eight-nine per cent growth mantra obscene. Millions of Indians live in abject poverty. Dr Ambedkar was not delicate when he wrote about our villages being cesspools of ignorance and inequality. For him, no glorification of poverty. On such subjects, his utterances take wing. His passion was to build an India fit for heroes.
I strongly recommend the book The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar. Every one of us should read his speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, introducing the draft Constitution. Read this:
"Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic."
One more quotation from the same speech:
"Another criticism against the Draft Constitution is that no part of it represents the ancient polity of India. It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a state and that instead of incorporating western theories the new Constitution should have been raised and built upon village panchayats and district panchayats. There are others who have taken a more extreme view. They do not want any Central or political governments. They just want India to contain so many village governments. The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic."
What the great Babasaheb Ambedkar needs is a world-class biographer and clay statues with blue suits and red ties. He is in many ways a titanic figure.
Several biographies exist. The better known among them is by Dhananjay Keer (1913-1984). It has been reprinted several times. Something more substantial and less hagiographic is required. No pedantry, no trivia.
No political party can ignore Dr Ambedkar. He did something out of the ordinary. Even more than Gandhiji, he gave the Dalits awakening and courage and pride.
Mr Valerian Rodrigues deserves praise for putting this book together. He is professor of political science at Mangalore University. Also a former Agatha Harrison Fellow at St. Anthony's College in Oxford and Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla.
K. Natwar Singh is a former minister for external affairs.

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