Suchitra Vijayan

Dr B.R. Ambedkar was an Indian revolutionary, a statesman, a scholar, a visionary, a civil rights activist, a political leader and a jurist. He was a student of history and economics at Columbia University, New York, where he received his PhD in 1917. He later read law at the London School of Economics and Grays Inn, London, where he qualified as a Bar-at-Law.

As Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, his great gift to the Indian Republic was the constitution he bequeathed to her people. Granville Austin, historian of the Indian Constitution, described it as first and foremost a social document...India's constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement.”

Dr. Ambedkar was a prolific scholar who weighed in on issues not just of caste and religion, but also on law, history, economics and public policy. For instance, his work, The Problem of the Rupee: Its Origin and Its Solution, is an overlooked and underrated study in economic history. Regretfully, since his death, Ambedkar has become appropriated, misquoted and mis-used to defend the most parochial of decisions, political positions that would have appalled him. He has also become the target of historical revisionism, which seeks to both appropriate him and place him exclusively in the site of Dalit struggle, ignoring his larger contribution to the Indian polity.

Ambedkar has recently been the center of a new controversy involving writer and activist Arundhati Roy. Roy’s introduction to a new edition of Ambedkar's seminar essay, "Annihilation of Caste," titled "The Doctor and the Saint," appears in an annotated version published by Navayana. The story of how Ambedkar's essay came to be written, how it was initially censored, and then later self-published by Ambedkar, is in itself an illuminating anecdote. In 1936, Jat Pat Todak Mandal, a social reformist organisation in Lahore, had invited Ambedkar to address its annual conference on the topic of the caste system in India. Ambedkar drafted his speech and then sent the manuscript along. The organization found his views, and particularly his critique of the Vedas and his inclination to leave Hinduism behind, unacceptable.

In "Annihilation of Caste," Ambedkar argues that to believe in the Hindu 'shastras' and to simultaneously think of oneself as liberal or moderate is a contradiction in terms. The argument's radical intervention and reasoning was, and remains,  provocative in India. Roy’s introduction to the essay looks at the debate Ambedkar had with Gandhi on the subject. She is by no means the first writer or public intellectual to investigate this conversation.

Gandhi viewed untouchability as a political and not as a social problem, claiming in August 1934 that "untouchability was on its last legs." Gandhi, though opposed to untouchability, defended the caste system until 1945, suggesting a modified form of the caste system without any radical reform of Hinduism. In opposition, Ambedkar forcefully argued that both untouchability and the caste system had their roots in Hindu philosophy, which was itself based on the doctrine of inequality. He argued that injustice and oppression was rooted, perpetuated, and grounded in the philosophy and practice of Hinduism. The acrimony between Gandhi and Ambedkar over the question of untouchables dates back to the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, where Gandhi vehemently opposed Ambedkar's demand for separate electorates for the Dalits. In response, the Dalits retaliated against Gandhi by organising the black flag demonstrations against him in Bombay.

Sadly, the Dalit movement has never benefited from mere electoral participation. Ambedkar realised soon after the general elections of 1952 that the problems of Dalits could not be solved by a caste-based party politics. As a law student, I was deeply critical of Dr. Ambedkar’s initial demand for separate electorates. I remember one discussion with members of Dalit diaspora in London in which I raised genuine concerns regarding the constitutional problems with this sort of arangement. Without engaging in any serious discussion, I was very quickly and not so politely told to shut up. I understood that my status as a “non dalit” immediately disqualified not just my argument but my right to make one against the veritable Ambedkar. This would be one of the many instances where the mindless deification of Ambedkar would lead to aborted dialogues, incomplete arguments and unproductive discussions.

Ambedkar once remarked "The worship of Gandhi and service to India are two very different things and may even be contradictory of each other." In another instance, he unequivocally continued:"I hate all the mahatmas and firmly believe that they should be done away with. I am of the opinion that their existence is a curse to the nation in which they are born. They try to perpetuate blind faith in place of intelligence and reason." I wonder what Ambedkar would think of his apotheosis, one that today perpetuates limited thinking, argument and reason, while simultaneously exposing the bankruptcy of the mainstream intelligentsia, as well as that of the Dalits?

The current uproar, whether or not Arundhati Roy can write about Ambedkar is simply a manifestation of this pathology, one that appropriates intellectuals and thinkers solely to their castes and ethnic affiliations. Here the critique of an idea espoused by that intellectual is fashioned as an immediate afront to the caste to which he may belong. Just as we write in outrage, we have to recognise that the real tribute to Dr. Ambedkar is not the intellectual larceny or isolation of his ideas, but a genuine engagement and critique with his body of work. Because after all, our words and actions determine the people we become, and nothing endangers our intellectual weaknesses more than the ideas that challenge us.


Ambedkar, B R (1946): Pakistan or the Partition of India, Thackers, Bombay.
- (1945): What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchable, Thackers, Bombay.
- (1970): Gandhi and Gandhism (compiled by Bhagwan Das), Bheem Patrika Publications, Jalandhar.

Suchitra Vijayan is a writer and a political analyst. A barrister and a human rights advocate, she previously worked for the UN war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She co-founded and was the Legal Director of Resettlement Legal Aid Project, Cairo. Suchitra spent the last two years researching and documenting stories along the contentious Durand Line. She is currently working on her project titled Borderlands along India’s borders. The project is conceived as a travelogue chronicling stories along India’s borderlands, covering six of India’s border with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Burma. A part visual anthropology and part an attempt at understanding the Indian state, its pathologies and the fringes it governs.