Shashi Tharoor’s Critique of Ambedkar — A Life: Writing the Constitutionalist

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Shashi Tharoor explores different sides of Ambedkar’s life but stumbles when trying to detail his ‘flaws’

Shashi Tharoor explores different sides of Ambedkar’s life but stumbles when trying to detail his ‘flaws’

Another biography of BR Ambedkar is always welcome for the simple reason that there are many Ambedkars – the emancipator of Dalits, the constitutionalist, the economist, the historian, the labor rights activist, the expert in water management, the critic of Hinduism, to name a few. Each narrative would have a different set of accents and elisions dictated by the biographer’s inclinations. As such, they would shed light on different aspects of his legacy, which is for good.

In Ambedkar: a life, Shashi Tharoor, however, begins with a curious apprehension: “I have become acutely aware that some will oppose this book on the fundamental grounds that I am not a Dalit. Ambedkar’s view on Hinduism is well known. “I was born a Hindu but I will not die a Hindu,” he said as he converted to Buddhism. But for Tharoor, as he explains in why am i a hindu (2018), Hinduism is “a faith that I have tried to assimilate through the beliefs and practices passed on to me by my father and others, my own observations, as well as extensive reading writings”.

In other words, the biographer and his subject applied the same intellectual tools of “observations” and “extensive scripture reading” to the religion of their birth. In one, the exercise sparked a book-length confession of faith. The other was pushed out. It is this contradiction between the biographer and his subject on an issue at the heart of the latter’s life story—not that of a non-Dalit interpreting a Dalit life—that should have exercised Tharoor. If so, he does not tell us.

An artist putting the finishing touches on a portrait of Ambedkar near Vijayawada.

An artist putting the finishing touches on a portrait of Ambedkar near Vijayawada. | Photo credit: GN Rao

Turning points

In the first half of the book, Tharoor recounts the pivotal moments of Ambedkar’s difficult journey – the humiliations, poverty, tragedies of his personal life, but also the moments of courage, defiance and iron will of another world – with an admirable economy of words. In the more engaging second half, he explores Ambedkar’s legacy: the imprint of his ideas abroad, his notion of “constitutional morality” and the widespread symbolic appropriation of Ambedkar by parties he would have regarded as his political adversaries. Where he slips is in his elaboration of what he calls “the four faults of Ambedkar”.

For Tharoor, Ambedkar’s faults are: his condescending attitude towards the Adivasis; his “bashing” of Hinduism; the “bad grace” of his disagreement with Gandhi; and his absolute faith in the state as an instrument for transforming society. These are familiar tropes, often invoked alongside a ridiculous claim – that Ambedkar collaborated with the British. It is certainly the duty of the biographer to dwell also on the faults of his subject, lest his enterprise become hagiography. However, Tharoor’s assessment of Ambedkar’s “flaws” lacks context. By way of illustration, a quick glance at just two of them, his position on the Adivasis and on Hinduism.

There is no doubt that Ambedkar’s views on the Adivasis need to be problematized. A robust attempt to do so would begin by asking: what were the normative views and diction prevalent in discourse about Indigenous peoples at the time? How does Ambedkar compare to these? Do the Constituent Assembly debates indicate that Ambedkar followed his own biases when drafting the Sixth Schedule, or was he acting on the advice of representatives of Adivasi interests? Tharoor asks none of these obvious questions.

As for Ambedkar’s indictment against Hinduism, the citations are incredibly selective. For example, Ambedkar’s remark: “There can be a better or a worse Hindu. But there can be no good Hindu” – is presented in isolation. This gives the impression that Ambedkar insults Hindus randomly. What Tharoor leaves out, the words immediately following this remark, indicate the opposite: “It is not because there is something wrong with his character. In fact, what is wrong is the whole basis of his relationship with his fellow men. [caste]….For a slave, his master can be better or worse. But there can be no good master. A good man cannot be a master, and a master cannot be a good man.

American author Isabel Wilkerson in her book, Caste: the lies that divide us, argues that members of privileged groups who see themselves as allies of the oppressed must learn “radical empathy.” Empathy is putting yourself in another’s shoes – Wilkerson calls it “a little more than role-playing”. Radical empathy is about “understanding another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel…it opens your mind to another’s pain as they perceive it” . This is perhaps the missing element in what is nonetheless an engaging introduction to Ambedkar’s life and legacy.

Ambedkar: a life; Shashi Tharoor, Aleph, ₹599.

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