- Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System
Outside of India, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar remains virtually unknown. Everyone knows that Mahatma Gandhi led the fight for Indian independence and that his nonviolent marches inspired Dr. King and the American civil rights movement. Most educated men and women have heard of Nehru and some of the political and literary figures that India has produced in modern times. But few know of the first Untouchable to attend college, who went on to earn advanced degrees in the social sciences and law at Columbia University, the London School of Economics, and Grays Inn, who returned to India in the 1920s to launch a civil rights movement for Untouchables, [End Page 168] who drafted the constitution for the Republic of India as its first law minister, and who led a mass conversion to Buddhism weeks before this death.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) is venerated by millions of Buddhist and low-caste followers in India today, and at the same time feared by politicians determined to preserve the Hindu caste system he vowed to destroy. Admirers call him Babasaheb Ambedkar or simply Baba, using a traditional term of respect for a guiding elder, and many use the greeting Jai Bhim (“Victory to Bhimrao”) within the Untouchable communities. Ambedkar is portrayed on ubiquitous wall calendars, public statues, and home altars alongside that of the Buddha, wearing a Western suit and tie, with the horn-rimmed glasses and pocket pens of a scholar and diplomat. Although widely regarded as a bodhisattva or Buddhist saint, he is never pictured in the robes of a holy man or entreated in prayer by his devotees. And while most of his campaigns for Untouchable human rights were driven back by the Hindu nationalists, many of the provisions of his path-breaking legislation were eventually adopted after his death. In the intervening decades, amid deepening polarization over his legacy, the state government of Maharashtra has published eighteen volumes of Ambedkar’s collected works and the government of India has bestowed on him its highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna.
Given the dearth of Western scholarship on Ambedkar’s place in the history of modern India and the emergence of socially engaged Buddhism, I welcome Chris-tophe Jaffrelot’s Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System. As a social scientist and director of the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internatio-nales (CERI) who has published more than a dozen books on South Asian politics, Jaffrelot is well qualified to assess Ambedkar’s life and thought. Drawing on a wide range of materials on the social reform movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and Ambedkar’s contributions to sociology and politics, the author aims to redress Ambedkar’s neglect by Indian scholars before the 1990s, when the low-caste movement began finally to gain traction. However, he does not address the anomaly of Ambedkar’s neglect by all but a small circle of Western authors.1
The strength of Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability is its concise analysis of the geographical, political, and social context of Ambedkar’s career. Jaffrelot shows how British recruitment of the Mahars, members of Ambedkar’s lowly but numerous caste, for service in the colonial army resulted in disproportionate levels of literacy. Ambedkar was the fourteenth child in such a military family, whose father held the rank of major and served as a school master for the barracks. Both parents and all of Bhimrao’s uncles could read and write, compared to less than one percent of Mahars in village life. Moreover, in spite of his brilliance and determination, Ambedkar could not have continued his education without the financial support of Maratha maharajahs who opposed the Brahmins’ monopoly in education. “Ambedkar was the heir to a regional tradition; his struggle harked back to the anti-Brahmin movements which emerged in western Maharashtra from the mid-nineteenth century onward, a precocity that only the Dravidian South—the other key area of anti-Brahmin mobilization—could match.”