The Radical in Ambedkar studies Babasaheb in context of global resistance, but is limited by privileged perspectives

What is known as history in India is not history in a real sense, as for centuries, Dalit-Bahujans have been prevented from reading, writing and reclaiming it. In essence, what we know as history is the product of Brahmanical diktats.

In such a social context, interpreting the life and work of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, whose aim was the annihilation of caste, is undoubtedly difficult, because it tends to radically change the way one will go on to look at the past. It pushes one to look beyond the comfortability of the Brahmanical narrative, which one has been exposed to all this time.

In India, there is an unbridgeable gap between the writers of history, and its makers.

An analysis of the narratives produced by Dalits in academic and literary spaces tells us that their quest hasn’t been to reclaim history, but to rewrite it. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is a man who cannot fully be understood merely by reading what he wrote; to understand him widely and honestly, one has to share his vision — that of the annihilation of caste. After all, the anti-caste movement is a manifestation of his scholarship.

 The Radical in Ambedkar studies Babasaheb in context of global resistance, but is limited by privileged perspectives

Dr Ambedkar. Wikimedia Commons

The editors of The Radical in Ambedkar (Penguin Allen Lane 2018), Suraj Yengde and Anand Teltumbde, argue that this book is an attempt at exploring the radicalism in Ambedkar’s scholarship. However, in the process, they have undermined regional language writings of Dalits about Ambedkar, terming them ‘frigid hagiographies’ and thus picking academic narratives over non-academic ones by Dalits.

This collection of 21 essays discusses a variety of subjects, many of which have previously been spoken about by authors who write in regional languages, such as Raosaheb Kasbe, Sharad Patil, Baburao Bagul, Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, JV Pawar, and Arun Kamble to name a few. Still, The Radical in Ambedkar, offers something interesting to the readers. These essays place Dr Ambedkar in the global scenario of resistance, as well as attempt to explore his scholarship and contextualise his revolution and idea of freedom.

The book also argues for a possible solidarity between the Dalit and African-American struggles against racist, castiest oppression by discussing socio-economic-cultural similarities and differences between these two populations.

Though there are bold motifs in the essays, there are two factors which seem to limit the scope of the book:

1. Most of the writers who have contributed essays are upper-caste, thus also Westernised in their outlook

2. The location of the perspectives from these essays are written are strictly academic

In contrast to this, most of the aforementioned regional language writers had connections to Dr Ambedkar and the anti-caste movement outside of academics, which helped them to look at his writings through a radical lens.

While identifying issues within Ambedkarite praxis, the editors write:

The hagiographic waves unleashed by a mix of vote-bank politics and the nostalgia of Dalit masses that engulfed his memory prevented the undertaking of any serious review of his thoughts on these issues.

This statement can be challenged, if serious thought and attention is given to writing about Ambedkar in regional languages — specifically in Marathi — over the period of seven decades. This view stems from a lack of engagement on the part of English academics with these regional language scholars.

The introduction of the book also suggests that the Ambedkarite Dalits alienated themselves from communism. The writings of poet Namdeo Dhasal and the engagement of Dadasaheb Gaikwad with the communist movement act as a counter to this argument. A study of the history of communism in India and its Brahmin-centric leadership makes it evident that this ‘alienation’ is not a failure of the Dalits. This failure is of the communists: an inability to understand caste issues, as even today, they are led by Brahmins.

Dalits as a community acquired access to education as late as the post-Constitution era. Written critique and scholarship was not within their reach, and yet, they were able to establish an anti-caste consciousness among the people. This drives us to ask two questions:

1. Is regional language literature about Ambedkar really hagiographic, when it was written by those whose own personal brand of politics was radical?

2. Are these Dalit narratives correctly assumed to be hagiographic, or is the Dalit perspective still not recognised as a lens through which one can study the subject?

Nonetheless, the book successfully opens up a debate. The Radical in Ambedkar studies Babasaheb in comparison to Gramsci and Derrida. Juxtaposing his ideals with those espoused by the resistance in America and South Africa — attempts to perceive his ideas and thoughts in a Western context — the book only prompts one to seek more knowledge about its subject.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 09:58:17 IST