Eleanor Zelliot’s book Ambedkar’s World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement, is a reissue of a thought-provoking and readable work by one of the foremost scholars in dalit studies. The light it throws on the almost mythical figure of Dr.Ambedkar helps us to see where he came from and what he dreamed of. It offers a detailed account of the rise of the dalit movement in Maharashtra, tracing the social context of the most depressed castes in Maharashtra, the work of earlier reformers like Mahatma Phule, and Ambedkar’s own meteoric rise.
The first chapter provides an absorbing account of how caste hierarchy in villages in Maharashtra (as everywhere else in our country) determines living quarters and assigns jobs to the different castes. In this state, Mahars had the task of dragging dead cattle from the village square (work assigned to Chamars in Gujarat). They also had to guard the boundaries of the village. Their service was to the village, not individuals, and payment was in gifts or grain from the village as a whole. The depressed castes, now called Scheduled Castes or dalits, are outside the fourfold caste system, literally outcastes, performing menial services for the ‘upper’ castes, despised for the very services they render but forbidden to move to any other form of employment, a cast iron system with sanction from the shastras. It is interesting to read that some Mahars found an escape route. We learn that through recruitment to the army, first the East India Company’s, then the British Government’s, they bettered their economic condition, acquired a little education, and some degree of self-esteem. Ambedkar came from such a family, one that had moved slightly upward in economic terms and away from the village.
Chapter two takes us through Ambedkar’s many-sided gifts that helped him build on the work of earlier social reformers. His ability to handle new opportunities for public protest enabled by the British policy of special treatment for the depressed castes, his sophisticated and clear-eyed understanding of the structuring of Indian society, and his confidence and leadership qualities made him their undisputed leader. An education spanning the disciplines of political science, anthropology and law at excellent universities in India, the U.S. and the U.K. enabled him to hold his own with British rulers and caste-Hindus. No one could condescend to him. Preferring education and parliamentary procedure over agitation, he extended support to the satyagraha for temple entry rights, but not with the enthusiasm he showed to establishing colleges (Siddharth College) or debating issues of discrimination through addresses at meetings and through print.
The next chapter takes us to his effort for political representation of the depressed classes as they were then called. His participation in the Round Table Conferences did not secure his cherished desire for separate electorates; this was a battle he fought and lost. Ambedkar wanted separate electorates because he wished to move the Scheduled Castes outside the Hindu fold. But Gandhiji, whose prolonged fast against separate electorates put his life in danger, won in the end. The result was the Poona Pact — no separate electorates but representation of depressed classes in provincial governments. Eleanor Zelliot remarks that “the demands of the Untouchables for equal rights in religious matters, political power, and full participation in social and economic life were not met.”
View from the bottom
This was a bitter blow for Ambedkar. Later, as chair of the drafting committee of the constitution for the new Republic, he introduced the most remarkable affirmative action programme to be found anywhere in the world, the first of its kind. He envisaged quotas as being necessary for a decade only, till 1957, but it turned out differently .One wonders what he would have to say to the creamy layer and the widening of reservations to include other backward classes.
Zelliot also deals with his conversion. Conversion had been long contemplated, Sikhism an option considered, but conversion to Buddhism, the religion he ultimately chose, took place only a few months before his death in 1956. Was it because as a boy he had been awarded a book on the Buddha and the Dhamma for doing well in his examinations? Or was it the rationality of Buddhism and the fact that it arose as protest against brahminical Hinduism that drew him? Its lack of elaborate ritual and mythology must have appealed to him. Thus, though he was born a Hindu, he did not die as one.
A final chapter discusses the political parties he started. Organisation was not his forte and the parties he founded did not flourish for long. But the foundation had been laid and the results are there for all to see today. Ambedkar made the nation aware of what it is like to be at the bottom of the pyramid. The view from the bottom of the pyramid looks very different from the perspective gained from the peak, and an active imagination alone can help us understand the degradation endured by the Scheduled Castes. Not to be touched, nor approached, nor even in some instances, to be seen, and to be pinned down in those positions by authorities claiming religious sanction.
As one thinks it all over, is it surprising that the British seemed more benevolent overlords to the depressed classes than the Hindu ‘upper’ castes? Why, in his Worshipping False Gods, is Arun Shourie so indignant that Ambedkar did not participate fully in the National Independence Movement, did not agree with Gandhiji? Why would he? Gandhi wanted the varna ashrama kept intact; the hearts of the caste Hindus would, he believed, be cleansed, the village economy would flourish and all tasks deemed equally worthy and dignified. That has not happened. The notion of caste and the identity it confers still exists powerfully beneath the surface. But much progress has been made and that progress was set in motion by Babasaheb Ambedkar.
An extraordiany person and an extraordinary life indeed. Eleanor Zelliot is to be thanked for putting it all down so clearly and so well. This is a book from which one learns a great deal without being worn down; her scholarship is worn so lightly. All in all, an excellent book.
(Suguna Ramanathan retired as head of English Department from St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad)