The Best Possible India

Christophe Jaffrelot's book could not have come at a better time – inasmuch as one wishes that such an account of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar's life had come much earlier. This mismatch between the reality of an arrival and the retrospective fantasy concerning its timing corresponds to the mismatch between the surrealism of contemporary India and the progressivism of Ambedkar's ideas that this book highlights. As such, Ambedkar, known as the first Dalit leader of national significance in independent India, comes off equally, and by the same token, as the one political figure whose ideas make the most sense for the best-possible India of the 21st century.

The Indian surrealism comprises the following twin realities: on one hand [is] the government's and national media's daily drumbeat of the knowledge economy, information technology and superpower dreams; on the other are incessant reports of extreme organized violence against the Dalits (or erstwhile Untouchables), increasingly belligerent bourgeois intolerance of the rural poor, glaring sexual assaults on women, and unofficial discrimination against religious minorities and the non-religious. That this Hindu-majority country has a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President, and an Italian-born lady as the head of its strongest political party only adds to the surrealism. For more than a decade, the country has also had in place, via its education and job reservation quotas, one of the strictest frameworks in the world for the uplift of the oppressed castes (of which the Dalits are a part).

On a different level of observation, the only clear ideology that Indian political elites appear to retain for India's future is that of economic liberalisation.  That choice rejects Gandhian traditionalism as much as Nehruvian socialism, and – given whatever the BJP did in its tenure under Atal Bihari Vajpayee – even some key orthodox strands within Hindu nationalism (such as advocacy of national economic autonomy and opposition of consumerism). Indian politics, in short, has consigned much to amnesia or political ritual in the past 15 years – without preserving or recouping from the history the little that it should have. Ambedkar's views belong to this latter category of the forgotten, and it is as such that they point to the modernity to which India should have aspired.

Division of labourers

Viewing Ambedkar as a man of the future is hardly customary; indeed, India has more or less avoided dealing with him even historically. Although Ambedkar's name is supposed to be known to every attentive middle-school kid in India, Indian politics and society have so far severely restricted the full significance of that name – lest it threaten some of the nation's deepest social and religious orthodoxies, on one hand, and conventional structures of political control at the very top, on the other. Indicating this unspoken conspiracy, as Jaffrelot points out, is the fact that "the publication of Ambedkar's collected works did not begin before the 1970s – in contrast to those of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Pant".  As if in accordance, while outsiders have typically heard about the prevalence of caste in India, they have not heard about any native critics of caste.

For all that, by bringing Ambedkar to light through this book, Jaffrelot has catered not only to conscientious Southasians, but also to anyone in the world who may care about equality, justice, intellectual probity, and dignity in life. Insofar as Ambedkar the rebel wrote his doctoral dissertation within the field of Economics, there is an added poignancy to learning about him within the context of contemporary India, whose smug establishment intelligentsia happens to be enamoured by a very peculiar view of that discipline.

Not a full or conventional biography, Jaffrelot's is a "strategy-oriented" account of how Ambedkar evolved, through his childhood and until his death, as someone who explored and employed a variety of strategies to scrutinize and annihilate "the mechanisms of caste". Jaffrelot's stress on evolution, no less than strategy, is justified because Ambedkar was a real pioneer – an original reformer – who only gradually came to grips with a complex reality to which he was a born (and powerless) outsider.

Aiming to "shed light on (Ambedkar's) contribution to the emancipation of the Untouchables and…the social and political transformation of India," Jaffrelot shows that Ambedkar "moved cautiously from one objective to the next". Broadly speaking, he initially "strove to reform the Untouchables, so as to enable them to advance within a wider Hindu society (particularly via education), and later turned to politics in the 1930s".  In the process, and given the inevitable overlap among his objectives (as much as because of political necessity), the "parties that he founded emerged sometimes as Untouchable organizations and sometimes as the rallying-points of all the oppressed".

Ambedkar "also collaborated with governments – whether they were British or Congress – in order to exert pressure from within on those in power". As a government insider, he advocated "the Untouchable cause" and tried "to keep some of Gandhi's ideas at bay". Frustrated with the Hindu – especially orthodox Brahminical – opposition to his attempts at reforming the Hindu society, he explored other religions that did not have the concept of caste, or which emerged categorically to reject caste (and other Hindu dogmas).  This exploration of religions convinced him to adopt Buddhism the year he died – in 1956.

Among the book's broader forays, the following are of paramount interest:  Ambedkar's differences with, and influence on, Gandhi (and vice versa); the differences between Ambedkar and Nehru qua modernists; Ambedkar's relationship with fellow-Dalit leaders – M. C. Rajah, Rao Bahadur Srinivasan, Jagjivan Ram, H J Khandekar, and P G Solanki – and Dalit masses, India's religious minorities, the British, and the Communists; and, Ambedkar's role in the making of independent India's Constitution and subsequent legal reforms.

Jaffrelot has also highlighted Ambedkar as a social philosopher who produced radical writings on caste, Hinduism and social justice.  For instance, Ambedkar stressed caste's systemic, interlocking existence in a Hinduism over-determined by Brahmin values through the "Sanskritisation process". As such, the "very specific logic of graded inequality" reflected by "the hierarchy of caste…prevents those most discriminated from forming social coalitions against elite groups".

Ambedkar thus considered "Indian workers" to be "victims of both Brahminism and of capitalism…the two systems being dominated by the same social group".  Nevertheless, he "considered Marxism to be of little utility in India" insofar as "the caste system forbade the formation of antagonistic classes".  In Ambedkar's precise words, "'Caste System is not merely division of labour.  It is also division of labourers'".

The trio

As for Ambedkar's relationship with Gandhi, it was predicated on the latter's initial blindness to caste as the key mechanism of subjugation and exploitation, fixation on putting up a unified (Hindu) opposition against the British rule, and focus on Hindu revival and reform as a liberatory tactic and objective. In the main, Gandhi disapproved of Ambedkar's attempts at extricating the Untouchables from the Hindu framework; instead, and under the growing pressure of the Dalit movement through the mid-1920s, he began focusing on reforming the Hindu society such that it would show equal respect toward all castes (or varnas) and entertain no Untouchability.

Accordingly, Gandhi's Anti-Untouchability League, launched in 1932 with the financial assistance of G D Birla, "remained dominated by upper caste Hindus, largely because Gandhi wanted to make it 'an organisation of penitent sinners'". That aside, Gandhi, agreed with Ambedkar and did not appreciate the division of Hindu society into the numerous sub-castes or jatis. He only believed that the varnas, in their ideal forms, were necessary for a dignified internal unity of Hindus.

On many occasions, however, the two leaders openly praised each other (and Ambedkar also explicitly adopted or co-opted some of Gandhi's political strategies). Notable is Gandhi's speech at the Second Round Table Conference, in which he said: "I have the highest regard for Dr. Ambedkar.  He has every right to be bitter.  That he does not break our heads is an act of self-restraint on his part". Against the "lukewarm" attitude of Nehru and Patel, Gandhi also insisted that Ambedkar be given a ministerial berth "in the first government of independent India".  It was under Gandhi's pressure that Nehru appointed Ambedkar as the Minister of Law on 3 August 1947, and as Chairman, Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, on 29 August the same year.

Nehru agreed with Ambedkar's liberal, modernistic, and secular approach; as such, the two together managed to sideline the traditionalist, rural-centric worldview of Gandhi from the Constitution, often by relegating it to the legally non-binding Directive Principles. Nehru also categorically supported Ambedkar on the need for separating the executive branch from the judiciary. However, "anxious not to alienate the more conservative elements of the Congress," he remained silent on Ambedkar's effort at reforming the Hindu Code Bill – leading Ambedkar to resign from the government in September 1951. Ambedkar was also unhappy at not having been allotted the planning portfolio by Nehru. Interestingly, Ambedkar disagreed with Nehru on Kashmir, and believed in its division – "with the Muslim part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to go, definitively, to Pakistan".

True grit

The key strength of Jaffrelot's book is that, instead of being a hagiography of its subject, it lets the gritty realism of his struggle and pursuits – and their interlocking with the struggles and prejudices of a range of fellow socio-political leaders – inspire the reader. While Ambedkar's politics originated and revolved around the uplift of his own communities, he could not have achieved his objectives without substantially reforming India as a whole. In that respect, he had to transcend parochialism. On the other hand, he typically did distinguish himself from other Dalit leaders, who allowed themselves to be co-opted all too easily by the Congress and other power groups as a matter of political opportunism. Jaffrelot avers, " He was not one to switch allies because of the posts that one or the other might offer him, but according to what would best serve the Untouchables' cause.  In this respect, Ambedkar's career differs fundamentally from that of Jagjivan Ram, the key leader of Untouchables in Congress from the 1940s till the 1970s, who did not use his position to defend Untouchables as much as he might, but instead helped Congress to project itself as a party representing all layers of society, including Dalits."

Even as Ambedkar's critique of caste continues to hold sociological significance, many readers are likely to find this book useful because of its illumination of those aspects of Ambedkar's politics that continue to be relevant to the following topics in contemporary India: religious conversion, uniform civil code, caste-based reservation quotas, and caste in politics. Many would be surprised to learn, for instance, that Ambedkar wished to have a uniform secular law – and that what he got was "nothing more than an article of the Directive Principles" (owing to stiff resistance from the religious minorities as well as orthodox Hindu members of the Congress). Likewise, Ambedkar had to let go of his preferred scheme of separate electorates for the Untouchables in favour of reserved seats.

Jaffrelot's work includes some relatively unknown facts about Ambedkar's life. Ambedkar was given his last name by his Brahmin schoolteacher with that name, who was "impressed by his intellect and personal qualities"; Ambedkar opposed the Quit India movement; married "a Brahmin nurse" in April 1948; successfully "opposed a constitutional amendment to nationalize natural resources"; had John Dewey, the philosopher, and R A Seligman, the economist, as his professors at Columbia University; and he was influenced by Thomas Paine as well as Booker T. Washington, the founder of the US-based Tuskegee Institute.

While an indispensable read for conscientious citizens of Southasia, if not the world, Jaffrelot's book is sometimes repetitious and convoluted; it certainly deserved better editing. The index at the end is also woefully impoverished. If not for these minor shortcomings, the book would rank—in terms of its research quality, analytical rigour, tone, and even discussion of certain issues involving the state of Maharashtra, caste, and contemporary Indian politics—among the finest scholarly works in Indian history and politics.

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