Review of Shashi Tharoor’s Ambedkar — A Life: Writing the constitutionalist

Shashi Tharoor explores different strands of Ambedkar’s life but stumbles when he tries to detail his ‘flaws’

September 30, 2022 09:02 am | Updated October 01, 2022 06:03 pm IST

Shashi Tharoor recounts the pivotal moments of Ambedkar’s difficult journey and his legacy.

Shashi Tharoor recounts the pivotal moments of Ambedkar’s difficult journey and his legacy.

Another biography of B.R. Ambedkar is always welcome for the simple reason that there are many Ambedkars — the emancipator of Dalits, the constitutionalist, the economist, the historian, labour rights activist, water management expert, and critic of Hinduism, to name a few. Each telling would have a different set of emphases and elisions dictated by the biographer’s proclivities. As such, they would illuminate different aspects of his legacy, which is for the good.

In Ambedkar: A Life, Shashi Tharoor, however, begins with a curious apprehension: “I have become acutely conscious of the fact that some will object to this book on the basic ground that I am not a Dalit.” Ambedkar’s take on Hinduism is well known. “I was born a Hindu but I shall not die a Hindu,” he said as he converted to Buddhism. But for Tharoor, as he explains in Why I am a Hindu (2018), Hinduism is “a faith that I have tried to absorb through beliefs and practices handed down to me by my father and others, my own observations, as well as extensive reading of the scriptures.”

In other words, the biographer and his subject applied the same intellectual tools of “observations” and “extensive reading of the scriptures” to the religion of their birth. In one, the exercise triggered a book-length avowal of his faith. The other was driven to exit it. It is this contradiction between the biographer and his subject on a matter at the heart of the latter’s life story — not the one about a non-Dalit interpreting a Dalit life — that ought to have exercised Tharoor. If it did, he doesn’t tell us.

An artist giving finishing touches to a portrait of Ambedkar near Vijayawada.

An artist giving finishing touches to a portrait of Ambedkar near Vijayawada. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

Pivotal moments

In the first half of the book, Tharoor recounts the pivotal moments of Ambedkar’s difficult journey — the humiliations, the poverty, the tragedies in his personal life, and also the moments of otherworldly courage, defiance, and iron will — with an admirable economy of words. In the more engrossing 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 considered his political opponents. Where he slips is in his elaboration of what he calls ‘Ambedkar’s Four Flaws’.

For Tharoor, Ambedkar’s flaws are: his patronising attitude toward Adivasis; his “denigration” of Hinduism; the “ungraciousness” of his disagreement with Gandhi; and his absolute faith in the state as an instrument to transform society. These are familiar tropes, often invoked alongside a ridiculous claim — that Ambedkar collaborated with the British. It is certainly the biographer’s duty to dwell on his subject’s failings as well, lest his endeavour becomes a hagiography. However, Tharoor’s reckoning of Ambedkar’s “flaws” is short on the relevant context. For illustrative purposes, a quick look at just two of them, his position on Adivasis, and on Hinduism.

No doubt Ambedkar’s views on Adivasis need to be problematised. A robust attempt to do so would begin by asking: what were the normative views and diction prevalent in the discourse on indigenous peoples at the time? How do Ambedkar’s compare with those? Do the Constituent Assembly debates indicate that Ambedkar followed his own prejudices in drafting the Sixth Schedule, or did he act on the advice of representatives of Adivasi interests? Tharoor poses none of these obvious questions.

As for Ambedkar’s indictment of Hinduism, the citations are bafflingly selective. For instance, Ambedkar’s remark, “There can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be” — is presented in isolation. This gives the impression that Ambedkar is randomly insulting Hindus. What Tharoor leaves out, the words that immediately follow this remark, indicate otherwise: “This is not so because there is anything wrong with his character. In fact, what is wrong is the entire basis of his relationship with his fellows [caste]....To a slave, his master may be better or worse. But there cannot be a 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 consider themselves allies of the oppressed must learn ‘radical empathy’. Empathy is putting oneself in another’s shoes — Wilkerson calls it “little more than role-playing”. Radical empathy is “to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel... it opens your spirit to the pain of another 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.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.