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Shashi Tharoor's Biography of Ambedkar Reveals Upper Caste Concerns & Anxieties

Outside the lofty enterprises of elite publishing, Ambedkar's legacy is alive and sustained by Dalit communities.

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Shashi Tharoor's Biography of Ambedkar Reveals Upper Caste Concerns & Anxieties
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Shashi Tharoor opens his biography of Dr BR Ambedkar by qualifying that the man under study is primarily noted for his ideas rather than his actions. Even if you accept the false distinction of ideas and actions or theory and praxis set up by Tharoor, he only offers his readers a chronologically organised positivist history of Ambedkar, who in his life of 65 years explored the avenues afforded by law, economics, sociology, religion, and even electoral politics to understand the deeply imbricated structure of caste within the South Asian society. 

Ambedkar’s expansive oeuvre obviously activates a biographical strain, as one needs to parse through the complexities and detours of his intellectual career, while reading carefully into his anxieties as a husband and a father. Ambedkar consciously steered away from centring himself in his political writings, even in his short unfinished autobiography. Unlike his contemporaries Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who made themselves the subject of their politics in lengthy autobiographies, Ambedkar – in a truly pragmatist fashion – was more interested in understanding caste as a social structure that cohesively tied together different cultural aspects of Indian society.

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Thus, the task before Ambedkar’s biographer is not simply to sketch a personality from his writings, but to limn together the traces of his thinking by animating the psychic and social negotiations undertaken by him during his lifetime.

Yet, Tharoor is captivated by Ambedkar as a politician, and sets out to explore this facet of his identity without espousing an anti-caste consciousness, which does not only leave this text bereft of an imaginative, progressive politics, but unfortunately recuperates the complexities of Ambedkar’s life within the narrow rubrics of a mainstream, dominant caste, liberal politics. 

Tharoor’s biography of Ambedkar comes four years after the publication of Why I Am a Hindu (2018), a deliberate effort on his behalf to rescue Hindu mythology and culture from its vile assimilation into an explicitly militant Hindutva ideology. The title of the book directly responds to the political theorist’s Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s seminal book, Why I Am Not a Hindu (1996), which insists on classifying “Dalitbahujan” cultures and religious practices as separate and oppositional to Hinduism.

Tharoor’s penchant for the form of biography is a part of a longer preoccupation with illustrating the lives of Indian political leaders, as evidenced in Nehru: The Invention of India.

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Toothless Retelling

The Congress wordsmith cautions his readers of his positionality as a non-Dalit narrating Ambedkar’s life while maintaining an ambiguous stance on caste. Tharoor’s suspicion of explicitly espousing an anti-caste position becomes apparent in his need to revive Ambedkar’s image through a toothless retelling of his radical politics. At a time when an identarian politics of marginalised communities is equally susceptible to the electoral tactics of the far right, Tharoor enters into this conversation by warning against the dangers of Ambedkar’s appropriation by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while simultaneously portraying  his “adulation” amongst Dalit communities as uncritically hagiographic. 

The first chapter of the book draws extensively on Waiting for a Visa to show Ambedkar’s rise from his humble beginnings in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. Tharoor, here, is interested in narrating a progressive arc of success buoyed by Ambedkar’s “precocious talent” for education. From his various adventures in Mumbai, London, and New York, to his most intimate correspondences with Ramabai, Tharoor covers expansive ground in humanising his subject for the readers. Instead of illustrating these moments as sites of inquiry and negotiation that eventually contribute to Ambedkar’s theorisations on caste, Tharoor’s sentimentalises Ambedkar’s “iron will” in navigating the hardships of a “frugal life” abroad.

Exceptionalising Ambedkar’s educational achievements while underplaying the development and intricacies of his intellectual life are precisely the means through which Tharoor prioritises the makings of a young leader over the twisted and arduous journey of a thinker; these two facets are, of course, not incompatible, but Tharoor inadequately attends to Ambedkar’s most significant writings of this period, namely his two theses, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development, and The Problem of the Rupee: Its Origin and Discontents. 

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Reading Ambedkar vis-à-vis Gandhi

Shashi Tharoor at the launch of his book Ambedkar: A Life, on 13 October, in New Delhi

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@singhaliyan)

Much like in Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and the Saint, Tharoor follows the footsteps of other upper-caste historiographies by comparing Ambedkar’s achievements to his contemporary and political opponent, Gandhi. As a result, he makes grave interpretive mistakes in understanding Ambedkar’s political manoeuvres through the non-violent satyagraha at the Chavdar Tank in Mahad or their disagreements regarding granting Dalits a separate electorate during the second Round Table Conference in 1931.

Without directly confronting Gandhi’s complicity in maintaining the caste order by incorporating untouchables as Harijans, Tharoor sets Ambedkar’s opposition to Gandhi in relation to the national question.

While dealing with the affective implications of Gandhi’s fast unto death which resulted in signing of the Poona Pact, Tharoor’s tone shifts from his typical reverence for Ambedkar to one of patronising satire, which is symptomatic of the general caste blindness seething through the text. He goes as far as calling Ambedkar “ungracious” for his inability to overcome his “bitterness” to “show any generosity to the Mahatma.” Similarly,  he classifies Ambedkar's response in the Minority Commission as “asperity” and “furious.”

On the personal front, he repeatedly criticises Ambedkar for being a “neglectful parent,” who had failed his Ramabai and their children. In comparison, his reverence of Gandhi fails to account for his anti-Blackness or his condescending stance towards treating caste as a solely religious phenomenon.

In short, Ambedkar’s differences with Gandhi were not merely on the basis of their political strategies, but fundamentally rooted in their drastically different orientations towards caste. In fact, one must read Ambedkar’s involvement with the freedom movement as not antithetical to his project of annihilating caste, instead, the project of envisioning a casteless future was integral to shaping Ambedkar’s constitutionalist practice that was firmly rooted in a radical equality that legislated towards the end of caste.

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Mischaracterisation of Ambedkar's Conversion to Buddhism

While most scholars and writers on Ambedkar’s life respect him for his scholarly contributions, they equally forgo interrogating the interior or his psychic experience of navigating caste. In this vein, his conversion to Buddhism at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur is most often reduced to a strategic political stunt, without taking into account the symbolical and political value of abandoning Hinduism on a public scale in favour of reinventing the core tenets of Buddhism through democratic and anti-caste principles of equality, fraternity, and liberty.

Tharoor commits a grave mistake by comparing Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism as a reinterpretation of Hindu tenets. He writes, “Ambedkar himself saw Hinduism and Buddhism as branches of the same tree, rather like the Catholic and Protestant churches in Christianity; Buddhism was, he suggested, a kind of Hindu Protestantism.”

Besides ascribing the logics of a false analogy, Tharoor’s insistence on reading Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism as a further amalgamation of Hindu philosophies downplays Ambedkar’s conscious academic and social efforts at transgressing caste as a religious order.

In his most famous address, the Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar outlines the hold of texts such as the Manusmriti in dictating religious and cultural casteist values; hence, the 19th vow of Navayana Buddhism is a complete renunciation of Hinduism. Therefore, he inaccurately characterises Ambedkar’s vision for the future Prabuddha Bharat (Enlightened India) as a combination of Hindu, Buddhist, and Enlightenment philosophies, whereas the late Gail Omvedt, the foremost scholar of caste in Maharashtra, has detailed that Ambedkar’s interpreted vision for an enlightened India was inflected with social and economic commitments gleaned from Marxism and Buddhism that combined his passion for justice with a ecstasy for reason.

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Ambedkar’s visions for an enlightened, casteless future stretched at the limits of political reason and challenged social formations like the modern nation state in being truly representative of its people. And outside the lofty enterprises of elite publishing, his legacy is alive and sustained by the Dalit communities, who preserved his memory and physical records, when he was actively effaced from public memory.

The challenge of delving into Ambedkar’s archive is not the abundance of material, but confronting the prescient questions that destabilise our relationship and reliance  of understanding ourselves through the categories of nation, religion, culture, and gender.  Tharoor’s Ambedkar: A Life actively averts these questions, and opts for a linear history that sutures Ambedkar from the urgency and rigour of his political project.

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Topics:  Shashi Tharoor   biography   BR Ambedkar 

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