Recently the Delhi University attempted to drop a philosophy course focusing on the works of Dr BR Ambedkar and this predictably caused backlash within the larger academic community.
The DU Philosophy Department’s curriculum committee itself resisted the suggestion by pointing out that Dr Ambedkar was “an indigenous thinker representative of the social aspirations of a majority of people in the country.” They also pointed out correctly that academic research on his body of work has been on the rise and a proposal to drop a course based on his ideas would thus mark a backward step.
At the time of writing, the matter currently rests with the DU Academic Council which will take a final decision. Irrespective of how that pans out, it is however important to take a step back and understand why there should be academic consensus on teaching Dr Ambedkar’s life, work and ideas to younger students.
Dr Ambedkar's Contributions To Academia
The fact that Dr Ambedkar, having studied in some of the best institutions of the world, was one of the most educated public personalities of his era is well known, but what bears repeating is his intellectual contributions as an academic.
His scholarship was truly wide ranging and rooted in interdisciplinarity, decades before the ascendance of the same as a dominant paradigm within academic circles. He was probably the first Indian to undertake a scientific approach to south Asian historiography grounding it in the cultural politics pertaining to the rise of caste as a social organising system.
His method alone should be of tremendous interest to young students of social sciences because he put Brahmanical religious texts under epistemic scrutiny, demystifying their contents from a historical lens.
Building on the framework of discursive rationality of Jyotiba Phule’s Ghulamgiri, Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ was a modern intellectual interrogation of Brahmanical lore. His historico-anthropological approach in ‘Who were the Shudras?’ and ‘The Untouchables, who were they and why they became Untouchable’ are primary and foundational reading for any person interested in understanding the genesis and social mechanisms of caste.
'Annihilation of Caste’, his undelivered speech cancelled by the Jat Pat Todak Mandal who had invited him in the first place, is a masterclass of literary merit insofar he meshes the deeply complicated and hitherto under-discussed sociology of caste with contemporary politics and makes a radical yet rational case for its annihilation.
Keeping in mind that the speech was written for a public audience of caste Hindus and its subsequent afterlife as lightening-rod of revolutionary anti-caste mobilising, it is surprising that this text is not included among the literary list of most original 20th century Indian writing in English.
This actually is the crux of the debate. Ambedkarites have long alleged that the works of Dr Ambedkar have continuously been excluded from the academic realm, not based on any intellectual reason but rather due to the inherent casteism embedded within the Indian university system.
Even the current DU decision has been styled as academic housekeeping rather than an overt exclusion of Dr Ambedkar’s works.
Absence of Ambedkar's Works from Educational Discourse
When I was pursuing my B.A.(hons) in Political Science from Jadavpur University in the early 2000s, we did not have a single reading by Dr Ambedkar. We had entire courses on Indian political theory and the Indian constitution, but no insight into perhaps the tallest intellectual talent who directly crafted the latter.
Almost 20 years later, I was recently invited by the Anthropology department of Calcutta University to talk about Dr Ambedkar’s contribution to the discipline in India. I was obviously not surprised to learn that while a marquee event was being held in his name, Dr Ambedkar was absent from the readings of the department’s curriculum.
Such omissions are very unfortunate because his academic oeuvre speaks to a whole host of contemporary debates. Students of political science would be very interested in his commentaries on Indian federalism and North-South debates which are becoming louder and will gain more traction post-2026 once the expected delimitation of electoral constituencies adds more Lok Sabha seats to north Indian states.
His radical solution for bridging this divide via a system of two national capitals, with a second one being located in Hyderabad bears contemporary reflection. Especially at a time when there are debates about opening branches of the Supreme Court and other national services in different parts of the country to logistically provide better access to populations who live in regions far from Delhi.
His views on linguistic division of states also predates national reorganisation of states which the Congress was loathe to do and provided the first major domestic policy issue under the Nehru regime. Dr Ambedkar’s wariness of Nehruvian closeness to China has also been validated by historical events. His attempt to link India to Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia also predates the ‘Look East’ policy adopted by successive regimes since the 1990s.
As an economist, his views on the gold standard and valuation of the Indian rupee as well as his ideas on taxation and agrarian economy are finding resonance and relevance nearly a hundred years later. His legal interventions in labour and civil rights gave some of the earliest progressive arguments for feminist and queer rights in India.
As a theorist, he also anticipated the limitations of Marxist structuralism especially in non-European societies where sectarian identities are deeply embedded in socio-spiritual frameworks. Subsequent events in Africa, especially Angola and Ethiopia, and Asia seem to have substantiated his reservations.
His epistemic engagement with Buddhist rationality and Dhamma provide a socio-theological regional basis for cultural organizing rooted in historical antecedents. The fact that none of these threads have been explored in any substantive manner by Indian academia suggests a deeply structural bias.
Recently, former CJI SA Bobde quoted Dr Ambedkar selectively to justify his query on why Sanskrit cannot be made India’s national language. Frequently on WhatsApp forwards and Twitter threads, Dr Ambedkar’s words are used out of context to justify Islamophobia, and anti-tribal sentiment.
As these debates in the public discourse grow, for critical minded students it becomes imperative to be trained in the original works of the man whose icon is being appropriated for differing political agendas.
From the early days of Kanshiram and Mayawati’s attempts to bring the image of Dr Ambedkar to the masses as part of Bahujan mobilising, today his visage stands tall in every corner of India.
Today the icon of Dr Ambedkar is increasingly becoming mainstreamed in national politics — the AAP has made it state policy to install his portraits in government offices and MCD schools, the BRS has unveiled a 125 feet tall statue in Hyderabad, and every political party from BJP to Congress is invoking his name to be synonymous with constitutionality and national civic consciousness; just from the perspective of contemporary relevance, there is a strong case to include Dr Ambedkar’s life and works in the syllabus for the next generation.
Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He is available on Twitter/Instagram as 'Buffalo Intellectual'.
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