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Mooknayak: The Mute Protagonist

Ambedkar: Awakening India's Social Conscience by Narendra Jadhav, New Delhi and Seattle: Konark Publishers, 2014; pp 647, Rs 1,199 (hardcover).

Narendra Jadhav’s Ambedkar: Awakening India’s Social Conscience opens with a short prologue titled “The Meeting That Shaped Modern India.” This is an account of the first personal meeting between Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar at Mani Bhavan, in Mumbai, on 14 August 1931. The meeting went badly, and set the two men on a course of conflict which lasted the remainder of both their lives. Their foundational and permanent disagreement was to be on two questions: “What is the answer to Untouchability?” and: “Who is the rightful spokesperson of India’s Untouchables, Gandhi or Ambedkar?”

It is instructive to compare narratives of their first meeting and of their subsequent clashes by D R Nagaraj (1993, 2010), Eleanor Zelliot (2004), Gail Omvedt (2004), Christophe Jaffrelot (2005) and Joseph Lelyveld (2011). All draw on Dhananjay Keer’s seminal biography (1954), but the extent to which different authors emphasise psychological, historical, political, inter-personal, emotional, dialogic, ideological and cultural aspects of the Gandhi–Ambedkar encounter and engagement varies widely. Nagaraj’s is the most brilliant, Lelyveld’s the most incisive and Jadhav’s is probably the most neutral of all these accounts. All three are focused on the annihilation of “untouchability,” which was, in fact, one of many points of disaffection between the two men, rather than the sole bone of contention.

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