Review of 'Ambedkar: A Life by Shashi Tharoor'
We have in this book an ideal introduction to Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s life and politics. It is a lucid and brief account of a politician and an intellectual, and he stands his ground on both grounds. Shashi Tharoor has used his facility for good writing to bring to a younger generation of readers about a man who needs to be known, and to know him in realistic hues. Tharoor treads the ground with a sense of fairness. He shows the humiliation that Ambedkar had to go through at all stages of his life, from school to his first job in Baroda after he returned from the United States with a highly-rated doctorate in economics from the Columbia University and again as lecturer of economics in then Bombay’s Sydenham College. There were faint silver-linings in this story of struggle and deprivation through the benign role of played by Sir Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, the Maharaja of Baroda, who supported Ambedkar’s college education through a stipend of Rs. 25 on the recommendation of Marathi scholar K.A. Keluskar, and then again gave a scholarship amount of 11.50 pounds a month to pursue his post-graduation and doctorate in New York.
And unlike many other contemporary leaders in the country whose interest in political, economic, philosophical ideas was dilettantish, and I think Jawaharlal Nehru should be included in these ranks, Ambedkar was serious in grappling with ideas. And his engagement with the arguments of American philosopher John Dewey, or Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci or British political theorist Harold Laski was serious, and he brought the finely hewed intellectual approach to the debates about the Constitution of India in the Constituent Assembly. His intellectual rigour marked him out from other politicians. It seems to be the case that his intellectual stature remains an elusive factor for his admirers and detractors. Tharoor gives an admirable outline of the intellectual influences on Ambedkar, which would help the reader to appreciate much better the arguments of the man who is rightly respected but rarely understood.
Ambedkar could have remained an ideal intellectual, teaching in a college or university and could have written incisive tomes on the history and economy of India. But given his situation he could not have remained the proverbial ivory-tower intellectual. It can be said that he was pulled into the political whirlpool, and he had to make difficult choices. It is because of his intellectual outlook, that he could see through the problems of Gandhian politics though he was not the only one to do so. Ambedkar placed himself apart from Congress politics. He could have joined the Congress party but by then Gandhi’s dominance of the Congress had begun. So, he attended the first All-India Conference of the Untouchables in Nagpur in May 1920.
After a two-year break when he pursued his second doctorate in economics from London Univresity while earning a barrister degree as well, he returned to Bombay and set himself up as a lawyer. And he continued with his political programme of reaching out to fellow-Untouchables. In 1924, he set up the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha and involved prominent Hindu (Brahmin) leaders in top positions of the organisation. But he soon found that apart from reformist gestures, nothing more was happening. In 1927, the governor of Bombay nominated him to the provisional legislative council. His politics then takes a different turn. Ambedkar continues to argue for the cause of the Untouchable from within the administrative framework. This was inevitable because had he been a member of the Congress, it would have been difficult for him to fight for the Untouchable in an uncompromising way. What he wanted to ensure was constitutional rights of the Untouchables in their own right, and not as part of a patronising reformist agenda of the Congress under Gandhi.
Tharoor notes Ambedkar’s hostility towards Gandhi, which became personal, and he feels that Ambedkar should have overcome his personal hostility. It is a fair observation but not a judgment given the fact that Ambedkar was pushed to a corner at many points by his fellow-politicians because of his Untouchable status.
The importance and greatness of Ambedkar cannot be settled by comparing him with Gandhi, either favourably or unfavourably. Ambedkar remains a great leader in his own right because of his undiluted belief in constitutional principles as the guiding force of Independent India’s polity. It is of course a purely intellectual belief and he stands out as a man whose political acts were derived from ideas. It is a rare model of an intellectual-politician. And that is why he remains an Olympian figure, distant from his followers and critics.
Ambedkar: A Life
By Shashi Tharoor
pp. 226, Rs 599