TURN IN ANY DIRECTION YOU LIKE, caste is the monster that crosses your path,” wrote Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, India’s foremost crusader for dignity and civil rights. That monster has always haunted Ambedkar’s legacy, polarising it along caste lines. On the one hand is his godlike presence in Dalit communities, who, out of affection and admiration, have built countless statues of him, usually dressed in a Western suit and tie, with a fat book under his arm, and in whose folk songs, poems, and calendar art he has long held pride of place. For generations, his bold, secular, and emancipatory ideas inspired many low-caste activists and writers, many of whom recall their lives in “before-and-after Ambedkar” phases. When Omprakash Valmiki, the author of the memoir Joothan: A Dalit’s Life, first read about Ambedkar’s life and work, he “spent many days and nights in great turmoil.” He grew more restless; his “stone-like silence” began to melt, and “an anti-establishment consciousness became strong” in him. Ambedkar gave voice to his muteness, Valmiki wrote, and raised his moral outrage and self-confidence.
On the other hand, there remains a longstanding apathy for Ambedkar among caste Hindus. What respect he does get from India’s elites is usually limited to his role as the architect of the constitution—important, but arguably among the least revolutionary aspects of his legacy. The social scientist and educationist Narendra Jadhav, interviewed in the Times of India earlier this year, described Ambedkar as the “social conscience of modern India”, and lamented that he has been reduced to being “just a leader of Dalits and a legal luminary.” Indeed, even thoughtful, liberal elite Indians are commonly ignorant about Ambedkar’s life and social impact, both in his lifetime and in the decades since—as the scholar Sharmila Rege noted in Against the Madness of Manu: BR Ambedkar’s writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, not only lay readers, but Indian post-graduates and academics in the social sciences, humanities, and women’s studies are also unlikely to have read him. What explains this severe disjunction in how Ambedkar is received in India?
India’s benighted historiography offers one explanation. In his provocative series of essays on modern Indian history, published last year as The Indian Ideology, the historian Perry Anderson deemed Ambedkar to be “intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders”—a view that abounds among Dalit intellectuals, but not one you will find in the works of bestselling Indian historians and public intellectuals such as Ramachandra Guha, Sunil Khilnani, or Amartya Sen, who, despite polite words of respect for Ambedkar, remain trapped in a worldview shaped by caste privilege, and in whose books silences and evasions have often masqueraded as political moderation. While these scholars acknowledge aspects of Ambedkar’s value, they resist doing so at the expense of Gandhi and Nehru—a specious position given how much the two sides differed in their stance on matters of great significance to a liberal democracy, such as advancing equal opportunity, safeguarding minorities, and fighting systemic discrimination. Indeed, while Gandhi’s social reformism and Nehru’s secular rationalism are considered by many scholars as vital to India’s self-image, it is Ambedkar who, on both counts, demonstrated a deeper and more radical understanding of both in the Indian context.