Imagine a young boy, the youngest of 14 children, woken at 2am each day to study for his exams. School was not a comfortable experience: he was barred from dining with his school-mates of higher castes, had to drink water from a separate source and was not permitted to study Sanskrit.
Bhim Rao Ambedkar was born in 1891 into a caste designated as ‘untouchable’ – the Mahars, carrion carriers and removers of food waste. His parents had been given an education by the British, and served the imperial army. The family were members of a relatively small group, perhaps one per cent of India’s ‘untouchables’, who could get an education – albeit one with degrading restrictions.
Today, images and statues of the man that boy grew up to become can be found all over India, in public spaces and in the homes of Dalits (as people of the lowest castes formerly labelled as ‘untouchables’ are now known). Every child is taught that Ambedkar authored the Constitution of India, which came into effect in 1950. Every political leader bends over backwards to pay respect to Ambedkar – mindful that they need the votes of more than 200 million Dalits and many more lower castes. And the nation as a whole venerates him as a symbol of progress in addressing the blight of caste.
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And yet, even as he is honoured as a demigod, canonised as the leader of India’s Dalits, Ambedkar’s stature as man and thinker has been domesticated and sanitised. In life he was a prickly character, fearlessly picking fights with nationalist greats such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. He was also a thinker of subtlety and sophistication, one who produced the most searing analysis of caste and the most perceptive understanding of India’s democratic experiment. Ambedkar brought to his study of caste great intellectual skills, honed by years of study, as well as his own raw personal experience of humiliation.
He puzzled over why the oppressiveness of the caste order did not incite people to turn against it in violent revolt. How, he wondered, was it self-enforced with minimal physical coercion? The answer lay in the profound insight he identified as the caste system’s operating principle: that it dissipated any common fellow-feeling and blocked incentives to collective action. This was not because, as is often conventionally thought, the system promises a better future life, but because it offers small advantages in the present life. Ambedkar’s ideas stand as one of the most consequential pieces of polemical scholarship of his times. Publications such as his 1936 Annihilation of Caste deserve recognition as being among the primary documents of human rights, anywhere in the world.
In his younger days, Ambedkar believed he could defeat the caste order by radical activism and street protests: he once burned a copy of the Laws of Manu, the rules that undergirded the caste system, and led marches against the exclusion of Dalits from water wells reserved for upper castes. Yet his strengths were legal and analytic, not agitational. One of his greatest legacies was his inscription in the Indian Constitution of the most wide-ranging provisions of affirmative action seen anywhere in the world. This gave rise to legislation and policies, known in India as ‘reservations’, that have been vital in removing stigma attached to Dalits and lower castes, and in bringing India’s most oppressed citizens into political and public domains.
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With a measure of political realism and judgement greater than many of his present-day acolytes, Ambedkar foresaw that transforming something as deep-rooted as caste was not going to happen overnight, nor purely through legislation.
Like the reunification achieved as a result of the American Civil War, the Constitution Ambedkar helped to write signalled not the end of a story but the inauguration of a history – a history in pursuit of a democratic equality that is still to be achieved.
In May 2015, a young lower-caste man visiting a town in Ambedkar’s home state of Maharashtra was beaten to death when people around him heard his phone ringtone: a song praising Ambedkar. Thousands of such stories blighted the decades after Ambedkar’s death in 1956. He would have been dismayed, though hardly surprised. It’s telling that, in the last year of his life, Ambedkar repudiated his Hindu origins and converted to Buddhism, finding it more egalitarian and respecting of the individual.
Restored to its human reality from its mythic transfigurations, Ambedkar’s life is a reminder of the challenges facing India’s path towards a more democratic, equal and fraternal society.
Sunil Khilnani is author of Incarnations: India in 50 Lives (Allen Lane, 2016)