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May 25, 2011

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A friend pointed me to Ambedkar's 1955 audio interview with the BBC, where he airs his views about Gandhi: Part 1, Part 2.

Its amazing isn't it. Drafter of India's constitution and the we-are-the-largest-democracy-chest-thumping folks don't even acknowledge him. But try touching the holy cow of Gandhi.

Indeed, Jagadish. I suppose Ambedkar's combativeness against the upper castes—with finger pointing, blunt and unsympathetic analysis of their historical wrongs—and his relentless advocacy of the lower castes served to alienate him from the former. It made it easy to pigeonhole him as a partisan man of his people, rather than a figure of national stature. The tide in the academy is turning though, evident when even not-so-radical historians like Guha start to elevate him.

My impression is that Ambedkar has been treated as a figure of national stature, though perhaps most noticeably through calendar art pictures in government offices.

I don't know if Ambedkar is a particularly marginalized figure, relative to other leaders of his generation not named Gandhi or Nehru. The historical narrative of India's independence movement (and the first 15 years after independence) has two major stars: Gandhi and Nehru. Every one else is an also-ran. Partisans of Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, and, in much smaller numbers, Jai Prakash Narayan or Ram Manohar Lohia, can make the same claim of marginalization. To a large extent, I think the narrative reflects reality: leaders other than Nehru and Gandhi never achieved the same level of influence or popular appeal.

Ambedkar's vision in drafting the constitution is tremendously inspirational. I have oscillated between thinking of it as (i) a great synthesis of the best that the world's political cultures had to offer, and (ii) unrealistically ambitious grafting of modernity upon a stubborn and massively unjust society.

The minority of Indians who have found the Indian constitution's principles inspiring have always admired Ambedkar. Unfortunately, a large majority of the population either does not know of the soaring aspirations of the constitution or does not know of its principal authorship. Additinonally, among the political class, there are significant groups who disagree with its liberalism, secularism, and goals for social justice. This is perhaps the reason why he is not as major a figure in the public imagination as Gandhi or Nehru.

To a large extent, I think the narrative reflects reality: leaders other than Nehru and Gandhi never achieved the same level of influence or popular appeal.

vp, not sure I agree. In terms of sheer numbers of people (not just of the opinion making classes), hasn't Ambedkar had comparable, if not more, influence and popular appeal (Patel and certainly Bose and others do not come close)? Influence, as in making a real difference in the lives of untouchables via reserved seats in central and state legislatures as well as affirmative action (which Nehru opposed), helping generations of low caste people see themselves in a new light, inspiring them to stand up and fight for justice, etc. Popular appeal, as in invocations to him in low caste social movements, greetings like "Jai Bhim", iconography, statues, etc. He looms large in the imagination of large numbers (~80% are low caste).

I submit that his marginalization in the "public imagination" is not comparable to that of Patel or Bose. It is intimately linked to the constituency he represented, which was not in control of the national narrative—or the "public imagination".

"I submit that his marginalization in the "public imagination" is not comparable to that of Patel or Bose. It is intimately linked to the constituency he represented, which was not in control of the national narrative"

Very well put Namit. This is what I suspect too.

Vp,

"unrealistically ambitious grafting of modernity upon a stubborn and massively unjust society."

This is a point I have grappled with. On one hand you have Gandhi who very creatively and successfully harnesses the Indian ethos to rally against the British. And after the British leave Nehru/Ambedkar embrace a modern state/constitution which kind of runs against the prevailing ethos. Maybe that is why Gandhi was a bitter non participant towards his end.

I stand by my statement, particularly since the historical narrative it refers to relates to the independence movement and the first 15 years or so after independence. I was referring especially to political influence and mass popular appeal. Can you name the political parties that Ambedkar started or headed ? How successful were they ? Can you describe his political influence or popular appeal during the 1952 elections, the first elections in India with universal adult franchise ?

My reading is that the emergence of a strong Dalit consciousness from the 1980s onwards, thanks to leaders like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, has led to a surge in Ambedkar's popularity. So today, his life and work are enormously influential and inspiriational to many people.

It is all very well to suspect that upper caste prejudice was the reason for Ambedkar's relative exclusion from the Indian political pantheon, but I submit that the case has not been made. I greatly admire Ambedkar and his work. I also think I am acutely aware of upper caste prejudice. Nevertheless,I do think that a more plausible reason for Ambedkar's marginalization from the so-called national narrative is the historical fact of Ambedkar's limited influence (relative to that of Gandhi or Nehru) on the vast majority of Indians during his lifetime.

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