(Also see my longer essay in the Caravan— Caste Iron: Upper-caste India's debt to Ambedkar)
In the story of modern India, as any schoolkid will confirm, the anti-colonial struggle looms large. Almost all national heroes are men associated with it. To what extent is this because the Congress, which led the anti-colonial movement, ruled in the decades that followed? Why do mainstream histories — by Indians and, for their own reasons, even by the British — give political emancipation most of the air time and lionize Gandhi and Nehru at the expense of others? From what perspective does it seem that no other movements of significance were afoot besides anti-colonialism, no other heroes?
Notably, Ambedkar, who didn't quite participate in the anti-colonial struggle — focusing instead on the emancipation of the "depressed classes" — was sidelined for decades. At best, he received grudging respect as the architect of the Constitution, arguably a small and surely the least subversive part of his legacy. Was this dimunition because Ambedkar was openly combative and critical of both Gandhi and Nehru, attacked Hinduism's most sacred scriptures and age-old practices, converted to Buddhism, and became a trenchant spokesman of the oppressed castes? Did that made it easy for the defensive Hindu elites to pigeonhole him as a partisan man of his people, rather than a revolutionary social thinker? Was this because the dominant castes and their intellectuals had not done even the minimal soul-searching necessary to embrace Ambedkar's most profound and radical ideas? Indeed, why is it that far more upper caste Indians have read works by Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore, but almost nothing by Ambedkar? Do non-Dalits have little to gain from reading Ambedkar? Meanwhile, his bold and subversive analyses continue to inspire countless low-caste activists and writers, who continue to goad Brahminical India towards a long overdue reckoning with its past and its heroes.
According to historian Perry Anderson, Ambedkar was "intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders". The fact is that Ambedkar, uniquely among the major national figures, not only overcame enormous personal odds, he also developed a pioneering critique of Indian society based on the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Indeed, he was far more modern than even Nehru. This aspect of Ambedkar — rooted in a scrupulously reasoned, secular and radical egalitarianism, coupled with bracing civil rights talk of social justice and human dignity — is unprecedented among Indian leaders and it still hasn't received its due in mainstream scholarship.
For a good introduction to Ambedkar's mind, few documents will surpass The Annihilation of Caste. Originally written in 1936, it was meant to be a speech that was never delivered — the reasons for which appear in the prologue. This reprint in 1944 is accompanied by a critique by Gandhi, followed by Ambedkar's brilliant rejoinder. Read it and realize why perhaps more than any other leader of modern India, Ambedkar remains relevant to every dream of a just, modern, liberal, secular, humane, and democratic society in India.