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India: Recasting Ambedkar - Solidarity and the ends of history

by Ananya Vajpeyi, 30 June 2013

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The Telegraph, 30 June 2013

Close to Delhi University, 26, Alipur Road in Civil Lines is an enormous property with two wings and two gardens, divided by a large driveway. The current structure stands in place of the residence where B.R. Ambedkar died in late 1956. It’s designated a national monument but hardly gets the footfalls of the memorials of Gandhi or Nehru also located in the capital. When I went in one evening, a security guard asked me to remove my shoes. He then showed me around the dusty premises, which house a few photographs, placards in Hindi and English bearing Ambedkar’s words, and books in steel cupboards that have seldom been opened. At the entrance is a plaque marking the inauguration by the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in December 2003.

As I was leaving, the guard told me that the site, open Tuesday through Sunday, closes at 5 o’clock. It was past 6 pm on a Monday. How come you allowed me inside? I asked him, surprised. Because no one ever visits, he said, except on April 14, Ambedkar’s birthday, and December 6, his death anniversary. He indicated politely that he didn’t want to turn away the only visitor in a long time.

Hardly a week earlier, I had noted a similar dereliction in a once stately bungalow called “Rajagriha” (picture) in Hindu Colony in Mumbai, a stone’s throw from the Dadar train station, a house that Ambedkar had moved to in the mid-1930s. Only two out of 12 rooms on the ground floor can be unlocked. Neither room has any furniture or books — just a few photographs shoddily displayed on the walls, and an overpowering smell that combines mildew and insecticide, making the accidental tourist run out coughing. Ambedkar had constructed this house specifically as a library for his nearly 50,000 books collected over the years from India and abroad. A wiry old guard, who hails from Bihar, told me that the premises are opened to the public only twice a year, in April and December. The books have long been dispersed to a number of educational institutions.

A short drive away, in Parel, is Damodar Hall, where Ambedkar, after finishing his studies overseas, rented a room to start the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha (Society for the Welfare of the Excluded), and publish his journal Bahishkrit Bharat (Excluded India) in the mid-1920s. This historic space is now a nursery classroom in a school, and bears no trace of the first efforts made by the young, foreign-educated Ambedkar to raise consciousness about the condition of the depressed classes in colonial Bombay.

The fate of historical sites, monuments and artefacts in India being what it is, it is not that Ambedkar’s legacy has been singled out for neglect or disrepair. But the state of these two properties, in Dadar and on Alipur Road, where Ambedkar spent the last 20 odd years of his life, bespeaks the wider ignorance, indifference and hollowness attendant on this figure, who by rights ought to be thoroughly familiar to every Indian, and a vivid presence in our public life. Among laypersons and scholars, politicians and citizens, Dalits and caste Hindus alike, Ambedkar is a screen onto which certain very narrowly-defined images may be projected, but for the most part, the surface remains blank.

In contemporary India, debates around figures from the past and their import, if any, in our lives, are driven by a crude anti-intellectual identity politics and not by the curio sity to learn about the varied, often incommensurable, historical experiences of the diverse communities that constitute the nation. The impulse on the part of certain self-appointed spokespersons for this or that caste group or religious sect is to appropriate a prominent historical person — say Chhatrapati Shivaji, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose or Swami Vivekananda, to cite some recently controversial examples.

The next step is to control the narratives around these lives, promote certain interpretations and repress, attack or dismiss others, and insist that these legacies belong exclusively to a given group, while everyone else has to keep a distance, or face consequences. Put off by the bellicose posturing of a few rabble-rousers, who make up for in vicious invective and threatening rhetoric what they lack in scholarly rigour, moral authority or rational competence, historians are reluctant to examine such characters closely. Consequently, the dominant representations of genuinely significant figures are often constituted in equal parts of hagiography and propaganda on the one hand, and ignorance and falsehoods on the other.

History is a way to make sense of our disparate pasts, in order to be able to live together, as citizens of a nation we share and partake in equally, with some common minimum understanding of one another and some consensus about where we are headed in the future. Ambedkar had multiple higher degrees, from England and America, and he almost got one from Germany as well. He had many rich, powerful and well-connected friends and well-wishers. He could have cut his ties with his own past, emigrated to the West, built a successful law practice, made an academic career for himself, written erudite works of history, economics and political philosophy as a professional scholar. Committed as he was to a collective life of reason and a pragmatic conception of truth, he could have shrugged off faith entirely in his personal affairs, exactly like his peers Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

But Babasaheb continued to live, right into his late forties, in the very same two rooms in a dingy Bombay Improvement Trust chawl in Parel, where his father had moved when Ambedkar was a boy in order to give his son a good education in the city. The rooms remain as they were, even today, except for a small shrine with images of Ambedkar and the Buddha in the corridor separating the two rooms from one another. The poverty of the tenement is unchanged by the memory of the great man who passed many years there.

Married as a teenager, and devastated by the serial loss of several of his children, he nevertheless stood by his devout, pious and self-abnegating wife, Ramabai, until her premature death in 1935. He lived among industrial workers and labour unions, even as he taught at Sydenham College and Government Law College or sat in the Bombay legislature. He wrote his learned books, but he also published a series of popular and polemical journals to reach ordinary readers. Not inclined to be religious himself, he vigorously sought a practical alternative to caste Hinduism for decades, until he finally arrived at Buddhism as a feasible option for former Untouchables.

Every historian must work out for herself what subjects she is comfortable with, why she is interested in certain issues, and what the political landscape is, in which her work is conducted, received and contested. Sometimes there may be an unbridgeable gap between what a scholar is interested in personally, and what is interesting per se, to the society in which she lives and works. One might be fascinated with some archaic ritual practice, but it might have become completely redundant to Indian culture in the present. Alternatively, one might be engaged in research of direct political consequence, but there too, one must evaluate the relationship between one’s commitments and risks, as well as the effects on others of what one studies, teaches and writes.

Responsible scholarship cannot lose sight of the distinction, howsoever fine it may be, between speaking about, speaking for, and speaking as. At the same time, in order to remain true to one’s vocation as a producer and propagator of knowledge that cleaves to verity, one has to be willing to look certain uncomfortable truths in the eye. Between one’s assumptions, the subject’s ambiguities, and the reader’s expectations, one must be guided by critical awareness and historical judgment.

Solidarity — with the weak, the marginal and the wronged — is not about appropriating the experiences of others to assuage your own conscience or aggrandize your own reputation for being conscientious. From humble beginnings, Ambedkar grew up to be educated and well-off, but he continued living in a chawl until his official duties no longer permitted it. This was something he did without any fuss or advertisement: it was consistent with who he was and what he stood for, not designed to impress anyone or seek attention for himself.

Learning about the dehumanizing humiliation of Untouchables in traditional societies makes us upset, depressed, outraged; my teacher, the late D.R. Nagaraj, who came from a low-caste background and grew up in a village, exposed the absurdity, stupidity, irrationality of untouchability as a practice and laughed out loud. He talked freely and openly about alcoholism, gambling, corruption, sexual escapades, nepotism, ideological compromise — whatever behaviours, good or bad, right or wrong, inspiring or despicable, that make up the fabric of everyday life for Dalits just as much as for other communities.

Nagaraj introduced his students to a range of literary texts, especially in Kannada and Marathi, forcing us to confront the Dalit experience of life in modern India. The tools he sharpened for the analysis of Dalit literature were attentiveness, compassion, humour and theory. But the larger cause for which one might engage with such literature was the making of an India where human dignity was respected, and where individuals and communities could co-exist and flourish, despite tremendous diversity and deep, often painful memories of misunderstanding, conflict and oppression.

A showy and self-serving solidarity without respectful empathy, impassioned hectoring without deliberative reason, and facile identity politics without moral responsibility have brought Indian scholarship, and especially the discipline of history, to a dangerous brink. It is for historians to wrest the knowledge prerogative back from the bigots and charlatans who think they can colonize public consciousness by beating again and again, their loud and hollow drums.

P.S.

The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.

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