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Engaging with ‘a Quintessential University Person’

Moggallan Bharti ( teaches at the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi.

Conversations with Ambedkar: 10 Ambedkar Memorial Lectures edited by Valerian Rodrigues, Tulika Books and Ambedkar University Delhi, July 2019; pp 282, ₹ 750.


Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) and Tulika Books’ Conversations with Ambedkar: 10 Ambedkar Memorial Lectures comprising the first 10 Ambedkar Memorial Lectures (AML), edited by Valerian Rodrigues besides being a university’s commitment to the ideas of B R Ambedkar, is a befitting repository of critical thinking and Ambedkar’s philosophy. The latter is discussed and followed in the domain of the Dalit–Bahujan sociopolitical world. These scholarly lectures compiled in the volume constitute a firm step on the part of the university in not just bringing Ambedkar’s ideas to a more contemporaneous engagement, but also in laying the edifice for an astute friendship with a man who Rodrigues perceptively describes as “a quintessential university person.” In its entirety, the lectures delve deeper into concepts like citizenship, justice, oppression, jurisprudence, democracy, and particularly Ambedkar’s idea of India and its interaction with the more pressing questions of our times. Though not all 10 lectures included in the volume deal with Ambedkar in a direct manner, they are all part of an ongoing expression of scholarly work that could qualify as the critical Ambedkar studies movement—an important objective of the AUD’s AML series as suggested by Upendra Baxi.

Central to Nationalism

The book begins with the very first memorial lecture, in which Bhikhu Parekh points out that any engagement with Ambedkar’s philosophy and work should be free of both deification and vilification. It is only after a careful and dispassionate discerning of Ambedkar’s thought in his time that one should commence a sense of an uncritical engagement with his philosophy. Parekh underlines an important question that Ambedkar raised—a germane question even today especially to those who want to engage with the political in Ambedkar—as to why caste Hindus do not feel ashamed or embarrassed by the presence of untouchability which forms the very basis of Hindu caste society. For Parekh, it is important to understand Ambedkar’s perspective on the absence of “public conscience” among the caste Hindus which is very central to the development of shared fraternal feeling—a fundamental value otherwise very central to the coherency of nationalism in India. The contested national question in the light of the missing “shared sympathies” in Hindu society—that Parekh considers an oxymoron, and rightly so, as it is deeply divisive and hierarchical—flags an important question for the wider public to chew on, that of how to imagine a constitutional republic whose very foundation rests on the corrosive ideology of Brahminism.

It is this question of refiguring the claims of modern citizens in a constitutional republic that Veena Das attempts to probe in her lecture. Through an ethnographic account of events, Das analyses the everyday impact of law in the people’s lives and the far-reaching consequences of the same in their citizenship claims. Deepak Nayyar too in the same spirit addresses the question of discrimination and justice in the constitutional republic. Nayyar aims at the possibility of imagining justice in newer ways by extending his reach to the constitutional apparatus in the United States (US) and South Africa. However, it is left to the ever incisive and provocative Ashis Nandy to dig up the roots of the theories of oppression or as he puts it, “universal theories of oppression” produced at the zenith of colonial history.

Unlike the previous two scholars, Nandy examines the fundamentals of oppression and delineates its scholarship as the result of overwhelming cultural and intellectual hegemony of the West with its roots in European enlightenment and with “reason” at its centre—as opposed to “transcendental or divine injunctions, compassion, empathy”—being the defining characteristic of formulating ideas of social and political significance. This propositioning by Nandy, however, requires further elaboration, as any problematisation of reason as a value and source of critique of the social must invite. Though Nandy does admit that ascribing reason as the “primary source of value can have some virtues,” it is this aspect of “can have” and not the do have that needs our attention. Nandy somehow overlooks the significance of “reason” in recovering and bringing the knowledge to the Untouchables in both colonial and postcolonial period of India. It must be emphasised that the post-independence idea of nationalism—a European derivative—mirrored Brahminism and continues to absorb the other voices in its imagery of “Mother India.” In his quest for tying the available theories of oppression to that of the imperial and cultural aspects of European hegemony, not only does Nandi not tell us more on why they are “dominant”—other than their birthplace being in Europe—he also does not outline the available subjugated theories—the ones which are apparently being dominated. Moreover, Nandy’s argument about an “internal dialogue” between different communities and cultures despite its sincerity ignores the thriving inequality in India—an order of inequality that makes any dialogue on an equal footing a non-starter.

Insurgent Reason

The memorial address by Baxi takes up “reason” exactly from where Nandy has left, and grants it the efficacy as visualised by Ambedkar in his lifetime. Baxi treats both M K Gandhi and Ambedkar’s method as “insurgent reason,” while focusing on their writings and carefully avoiding the hagiographic discourse around them. He compares Ambedkar’s philosophy with that of Giorgio Agamben’s and Hannah Arendt’s work, thereby steering to the core of Ambedkar’s thesis on “violent social exclusion” and in the process, does not necessarily restrict him to the liberation discourse of decolonisation alone. For Baxi, Ambedkar’s counter to Gandhian view of caste as an “anachronism but not evil,” brings forth the urgent necessity of restructuring the “Hindu civilisation” that breeds and feeds on perpetual evil with its genesis in the Hindu caste system. Baxi outlines the quotidian evil of caste which causes a life of “living death” to untouchables, that reminds one of Gopal Guru’s (2006) conceptualisation of Dalits’ lives being a “walking carcass” in an essay that he wrote for Frontline. For Baxi the way forward is as what Ambedkar foresees in his time, the need for “demosprudence,” a republic premised on jurisprudence guided by the force of constitutional law which is undoubtedly a system of governance, wherein lies the hope for India as a republic.

This republic of an aware and conscious citizenry committed to constitutional morals and ethics gets highlighted in the address delivered by Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Aruna Roy. Both disquisitions underline the rich democratic heritage of the young republic and also the ongoing constitutional crisis. Roy’s peroration particularly mentions the contradictions of our times whereby one gets to see the defence and enactment of the laws like the right to information along with the muzzling of dissenting voices, where the former represents the hope in the democracy—the very immediate political development notwithstanding.

Romila Thapar’s lecture probes the “idea of civilisation” as a social construct that emerges with colonial period. Thapar contends that conceptualising the civilisation in India has been the one that manifests the interest and the articulation of “elites and upper castes” at the cost of wider “social ethic.” The thesis stands in total unison with Ambedkar’s description of India’s history as the struggle between the forces of “revolution and counter-revolution,” where the counter to the revolution denotes Brahminism. Like Nandy, though with a very different objective, Thapar too emphasises the neglect of the internal sociocultural differences that could not find a place in the hegemonic Brahminical idea of Indian history, and in order to overcome this hegemonic design the newer writings on civilisation have to “incorporate the dialogue between varying social groups.” This obviously mirrors the long-drawn Dalit–Bahujan struggles against Brahminism and reiterates the primary contradiction of India as foreseen by Ambedkar.

The final two lectures of Guru and Homi Bhabha respectively touch upon two varying though contributory concepts that place Ambedkar right in the middle of an ongoing political churn. While Guru’s lecture inquires into the question of a possible exemplar in Ambedkar, Bhabha juxtaposes Ambedkar’s estrangement with his country to Arendt’s understanding on “otherness”—where one is recognised differently within her homeland. Bhabha’s analysis would invariably remind its reader of an old television interview of Arendt to Gunter Gaus later translated into English and published—where she movingly described her crisis of being a Jew and a German both. She says she never considered herself German in the sense of belonging to the people, but firmly believed in the idea of being a German citizen. Contrast this with Ambedkar’s quest of finding a homeland within the homeland, and Dalit investment in the idea of citizenship, the singularity of global oppression could not be more lucid.

Coming back to Guru, one finds a rather forthright disposition to the treatment accorded to Ambedkar in academia as well as in the larger social interaction on him in general. He makes it abundantly clear that the very idea of seeing Ambedkar as an exemplar does not do justice to the latter’s politics, for his recommended path is more autonomous and eventually settles for “atta dippo bhava” (Be a light unto yourself). Guru, however, underlines the significance of the exemplar in Ambedkar for foregrounding the Dalit political imagination and it is here that he delves into the necessity of exemplarity in Ambedkar for the larger Dalit movement and the covert and overt negation of the same among scholars of varying ideological persuasion. Guru’s intervention attributes a certain conviction to the non-negotiability of the great philosopher.

Much More to Ambedkar

While summing up, there is no denying in saying that the volume earnestly deals with the intellectual and moral world of Ambedkar—a world that was always overshadowed by his standalone image of being merely the maker of the Constitution. That there is more to Ambedkar which is beyond the Constituent Assembly has been addressed duly and judiciously, regardless of the jacket image that adorns the book. The textual lectures edited by the guiding pen of Rodrigues unreservedly underscore the question that still remains at the heart of Indian politics—howsoever one denies it—the unattended and unresolved question of nationalism. Irrespective of whether one would want to transcend the metanarrative of nation, there is no escape unless one confronts it squarely and indomitably. Perhaps resolving the national question could then be the most genuine contribution to the critical world of Ambedkar—to which this edited set of lectures from AUD is certainly a promising start.


Guru, Gopal (2006): “Power of Touch,” Frontline, 16–29 December, Vol 23.

Updated On : 30th Aug, 2019


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