An Untouchable's Life in Politics

A rare dalit memoir centred around Ambedkar

01 January 2010
In Pursuit of Ambedkar
In Pursuit of Ambedkar

SOMETIME IN THE MID-1990S, I picked up a volume of Ambedkar’s speeches from a pavement bookshop in Hyderabad. It was compiled and edited by Bhagwan Das and published by Bheem Patrika, Jalandhar. That was the first time I encountered the work of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. From then on, I wondered about Bhagwan Das and Bheem Patrika. After a major struggle, in 1999, I managed to order all the available volumes of Ambedkar’s writings as published by the Maharashtra state government’s education department in the Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches series from Blumoon Books, a dalit bookstore in New Delhi. For good measure, Blumoon added a few selections of essays by Bhagwan Das to make up for the missing government volumes.

After Navayana was founded in 2003, I dug up a little more about Bhagwan Das and his work, and spoke to him on the phone. But it was only after I moved to New Delhi in 2007 that I met him for the first time. He was 80. Through the interactions that followed with him, I realised that well before the Maharashtra government began, in 1979, to publish Ambedkar’s writings and speeches, Das had edited, compiled and produced a four-volume Thus Spoke Ambedkar series between 1963 and 1980. It was perhaps the first, professional effort to publish Ambedkar’s writings in one place. Crucially, I found out that Das had had direct access to Ambedkar.

Having first met him in Shimla in 1943 at the age of sixteen as a member of the Scheduled Castes Federation, Das worked as a research assistant with Ambedkar in 1955–56 at the latter’s residence at Alipur Road, Delhi. Yet the editorial committee that the Maharashtra government put together to oversee its Ambedkar volumes excluded Das and Lahori Ram Balley of Bheem Patrika—men who pioneered the publication of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches. As Das, with typical understatement, recalls in his memoir, “Fifteen years after Babasaheb’s death, the Maharashtra government decided to edit and publish his writings and speeches and formed a committee for the same under the chairmanship of Vasant Moon. Membership to the committee was limited to Maharashtra’s politicians and intellectuals.”

An unassuming, self-effacing man, Das does not make much of his association with Ambedkar. Yet, we see that he takes pride in recounting occasional disagreements with the stalwart. Das recalls both in his memoir and in the film that now accompanies this book, that his formal education amounted to nothing more than matriculation when he worked for Ambedkar, who had a clutch of degrees and two doctorates from Columbia University. (It was only in the mid-1970s that Das acquired degrees in Political Science and Law.) Yet, what draws Ambedkar to Das is his command over the English language, and his hunger for books and research.

I met Das several times in 2007 and 2008 with the intention of reissuing a value-added, annotated edition of the four volumes of Thus Spoke Ambedkar (the first of which is being published at the same time as this memoir). He was, however, in no position to write fresh introductions to the volumes. His memory was failing him, and he could recall only about seven or eight defining moments in his life. At the behest of a friend, I decided it was as important to bring out Bhagwan Das’  story as it was to reissue his wide-ranging selection of Ambedkar’s speeches. On reading his slim memoir, Baba ke Charanon Mein, published in Hindi in 2004, I decided to shoot a series of piece-to-camera interviews—merely as an exercise in keeping a record. Das, however, had just recovered from a serious illness and was suffering bouts of dementia. Yet, for me, it was important that his story—whatever he remembered of it—be rendered to the larger public. A mere reading of his memoir would not suffice; people would have to see and hear Bhagwan Das speak his impeccable English in his clipped accent. They had to fall in love with him and be charmed by him like I was, like the friends I took to meet him were. Hence the DVD that accompanies this book.

Bhagwan Das worked with BR Ambedkar as a research assistant in the last years before Ambedkar passed away in 1956. Six years later, Das began to compile and edit Ambedkar’s speeches in the four-volume Thus Spoke Ambedkar.